Creature Feature

I’m not sure exactly when it was that my dad started referring to babies as “creatures”. He likes to say things that stir up trouble sometimes, so I chalked it up to that and nothing more. Then, I had a baby of my own.

Since giving birth, it’s occurred to me that while I had plenty of people tell me (often helpful) things about pregnancy and child-rearing, and while I had access to lots of informative websites, there are some things about newborns that I never heard — and boy, do I wish I had.

For one thing, I had no idea that newborn babies were so clingy. From the second day at the maternity ward, my son refused to sleep unless I held him. It seems cute, but when you’re exhausted and can’t sit still without nodding off, you worry you’re going to fall so deeply asleep that you’ll roll over and crush this tiny little being. In a panic, I asked one of the nurses what was going on, and she told me newborns need to be close to their parents — it’s not about being fussy; we’re their only point of reference in this new, big world.

It’s a new, big world they can’t even completely see. I’d heard that newborns’ vision was limited to about 12 inches in front of them, but I hadn’t really thought about the implications of that. I had no idea, for example, that smell was so important. My son doesn’t just want to sit on my lap and try to make out my distant features as I look down at him; he wants to nestle into my neck, breathing deeply and making little grunty sounds.

It’s adorable and a special thing, to be so loved and held onto. But it can be overwhelming. When someone is holding onto you, and when you have to hold them, in turn, it means you can’t easily do even basic things like wash the dishes or brush your teeth. In the mornings, my three-week old son just cannot get it together. Maybe it’s karmic payback for my own constant lateness, or maybe for being a colicky baby who drove my parents crazy, but nowadays, it’s rare that we can leave the house — or that I can even take a shower — before early afternoon, since even after he’s gone to sleep for a while, my son sometimes wakes up and has a meltdown and needs to be calmly held.

“I told you having a baby would be a revolution in your life,” my mother-in-law gloated the other day, as I wondered why she couldn’t have been a little more specific.

When newborns are awake, they bring joy to their new parents, but also a little bit of anxiety. Because what on earth can you do to keep them entertained? They’re too young for toys, and even simple human interactions like shared smiles mean nothing to them. We sing to my son a lot, and sometimes he likes it and sometimes he doesn’t, and we really don’t actually know if that’s true.

Due to visiting grandparents and my husband’s two-week paternity leave, today is only my second alone with my son. It’s weird being around someone you can’t always communicate with, and who can’t always communicate with you. You could point out that I’ve shared this apartment with our cat Ali for years without a problem. Then again, Ali doesn’t scream as if his lungs will burst when he has to poop, so that does give him the edge on being the easier one to deal with.

When I shared all these thoughts with my dad, he said, “That’s why I call newborns ‘creatures.’” I’m right there with him. My son sometimes makes me think of a friendly alien come to earth, and sometimes, as I remarked to my in-laws last week while he nuzzled my neck and grunted, “He’s like a little animal.”

Dressing the part

Which isn’t a bad thing; I love animals. But my mother-in-law didn’t see it that way. “No he’s not!” she said, scooping him up and giving him a kiss, “he’s a human being!”

My father-in-law, ever the peacemaker, calmly said, “That’s just how she puts it. He’s a work in progress.”

These days, when my husband is at work and no one’s visiting, my son is my sole focus. Or, as I like to put it, my daily creature feature. But (with the exception of a few panic-attack-related moments) he doesn’t evoke in me any of the horror that term usually does. Because the craziest thing of all is that everyone turned out to be right: no matter how little we can communicate for now, no matter that he screams like a pig being slaughtered to show his displeasure, and pees on me when I’m changing him, I truly love this weird little being. Motherhood is an odd thing.

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I originally posted this on my blog on Open Salon about a year ago. It feels like a million years have gone by since then. My son has changed so much since then. And his coat with the bear ears is almost too small for him.

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