Even the nights

28 10 2014

This is a post about tenderness. It’s helped to actualisation by technology; I’m typing with one thumb on a smartphone while dancing to a CD of lullabies in the living room, in the middle of the afternoon, with the soft, warm, heavier-every-day deadweight of a peacefully relaxed but wide-eyed baby on my shoulder. Without the gadgetry, it might have been written only in my head, but it’s written either way; I find myself adding moments, vignettes, and adjectives up daily, trying to etch these moments into my mind forevermore. I did this living room dance a lot with Evanny, and sometimes found it comfortable and sweet, but often found it frustrating as hell, probably because I was starving, had to pee, and hadn’t showered in days. There are still elements of vague frustration: I feel the flutter of guilt that should be way guiltier about the unanswered student emails on my desktop, Matt’s shirts that should be hung outside sitting in a wet crumple in the dryer, and the squash on the counter I can’t cleave one-handed. But then she yawns, and if you’ve ever had a baby yawn in your ear, the squishy mouth-sound of her jaw opening, the accidental, adorable vocalisations at the high-point of sucking in air, the sweet coo of the exhaled sigh, well, you’ll know why I don’t care enough about those obligations. It’s helped, this calm, I’m sure, by the fact that I’ve had lunch, been allowed to pee, AND had a shower today, because this is a baby who can be put down, at least sometimes. Enough times that it’s just fine by me that this is not one of those times.

I’m lucky, I know this, to have the chance to be at home with this tiny girl, these tiny girls, this little pair of daughters, as much as I am. Their father and I talk about job possibilities and it’s hard for me to focus on any of the gains that might come of switching circumstance, because however much I might bemoan our dance with poverty, the intellectual dulling of the diaper years, and the quiet insanity of watching winter after winter ice us into these same small rooms, I can’t bear the thought of giving a hair more of them away than I have to. How could I go off to some job somewhere when Evanny is learning new words every day, singing songs with tunes and lyrics, practicing the recounting of narrative, experimenting with art, putting dolls to bed, creating rooms out of the infant play-mat, building houses out of handfuls of candy, obsessing over unicorns, and trying out her balance-bike in the living room? How could I drive away in a car and miss even an entire day of Tatha’s sweet milk-breath and sour neck-wrinkles, her limp sleeping weight, her bright curious eyes, her down-turned mouth as she watches the world’s antics with a jowly gaze of seriousness mixed with mild disregard? Bossing their little butts downstairs into the sitter’s hands while I work in the afternoons is bruising enough to the tender heart they’ve given me, and they’re only a floor away and prone to visiting for diaper-changes, feeding, and Evanny’s wily successes at sneaking away.

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Sleeping angel, the baby version

Wednesday evening at just-about-5 they both started to wail downstairs, a little cacophony of sympathy, because Tatha was hungry and Evanny tired and when one starts, the other cries too–Ev might be a bit of a bruiser when tackling her tiny sister with hugs and kisses, but when there is sadness, they share it. Tenderness. I finished a last student email and went down, met by a weeping toddler’s collapse into my arms. “My poor, sweet thing,” I consoled, meeting Izzy’s eyes over her soft little head so our lovely sitter would know I didn’t actually think there was anything poor about the child’s situation or treatment, “whatever do you need?” “Need MILK,” she wept, which was surely exactly what her sister’s increasingly frantic cries meant as well. Sometimes there’s a good reason for the wailing, and sometimes none at all, but the tears say both types feel the same when you’re inside the baby’s-or-toddler’s experience, so I try to be sweet as much as possible, and it works best on the worst days of delays and frustrations and inconveniences: if I can muster sweetness even in the face of contrived dramatic baloney on a day like that, the tenderness creeps back in like a slow tide and the frustrations ease. Sometimes I’m a fool and try to fight with Evvy, and we both invariably lose. It’s easier, so far, with her sister; babies don’t have will yet, to drive their egos, just a sea of wanting, each new little need or impulse like a wave, and when you can, you float, and it’s blue and easy, and when you have to do other things too/instead, and you HAVE to put your feet down, you’re going to get cried at and splashed, cold brine up your nose and milk-cheese on your work-clothes and that’s just the way it is, like the moon rises.

Here are things that Tatha does that fill me with the sweet, sweet, bittersweet tenderness of holding my last tiny baby in my aching arms, day in and day out, as she gets bigger, and stronger, and heavier, and harder to hold every day. When she’s angry, in need of soothing, she’ll buck and writhe against my shoulder, gripping a thin lock of my hair in her tight, tiny fist, locked on in monkey hold, the different parts of her body saying, simultaneously, “I hate you” and “don’t let me go.” When she’s happy, of course, she’ll smile, the miraculous joyful firefly of a baby-smile that bursts out of the dark with no warning and no clear precedent–you keep watching, you have to, blinking into the maybe with no real sense of direction, trying to anticipate another, and sometimes it comes, and sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does, it’s full-on crinkle, camera-shy and impossible to capture in a jar. When she’s tired, she’ll head-butt me to get off the shoulder and into a cradle, but when she’s only a little tired, it’s less of a butt and more of a snuggle. When she’s awake and alert on that shoulder, she’s constantly flexing her hands against my skin (and thank heavens for the summer baby, so that I had skin bare on which to feel those little hands–short-sleeve weather is over outside, and almost over inside, and it’s not the same through fabric, those cool, precise little fingers opening and closing, drawing little flowers of sensation on my shoulder with their petal-nails). When she’s overstimulated and wants to sleep, she’ll curl into that cradle sideways, rather like I’m cradling a cat, only really content if I curve my arm around her in such a way that there’s a hand right where her hands are, and a finger for her to hold onto.

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Little fist, full of closeness

And it’s all true–again, aided, I’m sure, by the fact that we get far more sleep this time around than we got from about week 2 until month fourteen with Evanny–even in the middle of the night, under the cool blue sea of the light from the spinning projector in our room, lulled by the shushing of the tinned rain-sounds, wave-sounds, or Pandora station of acoustic guitar instrumentals, even after a whole day of screaming–because sometimes that’s what we get. Even when I think I’m sick to death of the demands of little voices, and my neck is killing me, and my milk is leaking my shirts cold and wet against my skin, and my back no longer remembers not aching, and I’m starving and grumpy and it’s (only?) (already?) 3 in the morning and I’ve just gotten back into bed after an hour of trying to argue a too-awake toddler back to bed, and then there’s Tabitha, fussing over a bubble or hungry again, even then. I look at her, I wrap my hands around her tiny rib cage to slide her dense, heavy little body up into a workable grasp, I bring her warm, often open little mouth up to my mouth and kiss her tiny, sharply shaped little lips, and it’s all tenderness. We lie down to nurse, and even nine-tenths asleep, she wants to hold onto a finger curled into my chest (if one isn’t there, because I’m using both hands to help her latch, she’ll find a hank of hair or a handful of damp t-shirt instead). She falls asleep there, and I shift to curl around her for a few minutes, knowing we’ll both get more sleep if I put her back in her bassinet, but reluctant to give up the tiny pulsing of her breath against my cheek. I finally sit up, gently pry her off the mattress, and then hold her for longer than I have to, under the pretense of being sure she doesn’t have trapped air to disturb her sleep; when I get her settled, and I back away into the bed, I’m both relieved-and- delighted to be successfully empty-handed and sorry that it’s already over.

I remember the sense of desperate frustration I used to feel with Evanny, night after night, wake-up after wake-up, for so much of her babyhood. “When am I ever going to sleep,” I wondered, weepy. “How am I supposed to survive a cranky baby all day long if I’m not allowed to sleep at night?” I despaired of her, her little face, her needy demands, her wakefulness, her insistent sweet bright-eyed presence monopolizing darkness, her voice making quiet an idea out of fantasy. And there have been nights with Tatha when I’ve found myself wondering the same things, for moments here or there–since the daytime is so much more full now that there are three of us to try to nurture, two who need keeping busy and one who’s too busy by far. But it doesn’t last; that tide always rolls over the worry, soothing it with whispers about all I’ve learned in the intervening two years about time: it’s fast. This doesn’t last. The troubles fade rapidly, replaced by other troubles, and the sweetnesses, as each is outgrown, are as gone as last year’s dreams (and sometimes just as impossible, with any specificity at all, to remember). Toddler-drama is sometimes a little harder to remind oneself to view in such a light–that damnable will again, even at o-dark-thirty when she isn’t making any sense at all: the monkey made her eyes pink, Minnie Mouse fell in the rain and got all wet, she doesn’t WANT to go back to bed, she wants a bath, she wants to go poop on the potty, she wants the unicorn song, she wants to sleep with us, she wants to go to the farm and get her face painted and ride the pony! But soon enough, it will be “Nevermind, Mom,” or at best a glass of warm milk in the kitchen, big kid stuff, and the little mangled syllables of “I wan tsnuhna you” (I want to snuggle you) will be gone forever. So I take the snuggle, gladly, for the seventh time, staying often until her sister wakes up hungry, patting the little mound of her diaper through the blanket in the tiny glow of projected stars (now that she’s developed language, and preferences, the colours vary), to the rhythmic shushing of her wave-sound maker and the songs on infinite repeat, their lyrics long since made meaningless by repetition and by how I hardly hear them anyway. In the near dark, I’m like a bat living by sonar, listening to how the sound waves outline the shape of her open-mouthed moue, the lengthening plane of her cheek, the sweet curve of her nose, a little different every day than their shapes and sounds the day before. So it’s worth sitting patiently for, giving my attention to, carefully quelling frustrations and embracing while it’s here, because I’m so, so aware of how fleeting this all is, babyhood, little-girl-hood; these days are exhausting and they’re hard and they’re all kinds of irritated adjectives an awful lot of the time, but they’re also beautiful. Even the nights.

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Sleeping angel, the big-girl version

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