There's a migratory songbird that, every year when migration time comes around, has to forget how to sing in order to remember how to get where it’s going. Talk about traveling light: its tiny birdbrain can only handle one task at a time. Happily, once it gets where it’s going, it forgets all about windspeeds and aerial maps, and learns how to sing again. A quick chorus of “I do like to be beside the seaside," perhaps, while it unpacks the suitcases.
(On a tangential ornithological note: the godwit – avian metaphor of choice for travelling New Zealanders -- is a whole different bundle of feathers. Everyone knows that, like its human counterparts, the godwit crosses the globe to work in a pub and find a mate it probably went to primary school with, after which they fly home together to have babies. But you might not know that this industrious little flapper spends the months before the big OE completely gorging itself, laying down reserves for the trip to Siberia, and shrinking its organs to make more space for all that carbo-loading. When it finally waddles down the runway for take-off, it is -- for one brief shining moment -- proportionately the fattest little birdie in the whole world.)
Anyway, what I was working my way up to saying is that the parental brain is a bit like that of the amnesiac little songbird. It fills up with tricks for negotiating a toddler into and out of clothes, bed, bath, potty, and trouble, at the expense of all the clever things you used to know about what makes six-month-olds tick, or how to soothe a newborn.
I never thought this would happen to me. I remember being horrified by the vagueness of more experienced friends, the ones I thought of as parenting experts. They’d peel their five year old off the top of the piano, deftly funnel food down the throat of a Tasmanian devil of a two year old, then furrow their brows at precious little brand new Busybaby and say “I forget, do they smile at six weeks or was it three months? Can he hold his head up? What does he eat these days?”
I thought this spectacular ignorance was some kind of ironic, detached pose. Or that they were feigning idiocy, to make the new mother feel more in charge. Could they really not tell the utter and distinct difference between a six week old and an eight week old? “Oh, it’s all a blur from this distance,” they’d laugh, flapping their hands, while I sat there, alert as never before, my whole world in sharp and steady focus as if someone had finally fixed the horizontal hold or I’d taken a truckload of Ritalin. My brain was a whizzing computer full of data on the minute variations of the infant, and every day was a vividly etched day in the lab that I’d never forget, so I didn’t need to write it down in the lab-book.
Er, yes. So here I am, two years down the track, gearing myself up for impending aunty-hood by trying to reactivate the baby-savvy part of my brain. By way of practice, I’m struggling to advise local friends with a brand new baby. I foist helpful books on them; the funny and user-friendly Kidwrangling, the genial and calming Touchpoints, the comprehensive and reassuring Baby Love. (And I warn them off the ones that gave me the willies, like the deceptively soft-spoken Baby Book, which I eventually had to hide in the wardrobe because it gave me guilt-ridden nightmares about being stalked by a baby the size of Godzilla, and I swear if you read it backwards you can hear Mrs Sears saying "Help me!". Then there's the whole What to Expectorate bunch of ptooey, the very covers of which make me want to barf).
But they want it from the horse’s mouth, from an old hand, someone who’s seen action. To my alarm, that’s me. “The baby does this, she does that,” they say, “what should we do?” And all I can think is “Oh, does she? That’s nice. Aren’t babies the darlingest little things.” Given a moment to register the strain on the mother’s face, I can dredge up something slightly more helpful, like “Poor old you, that sounds like a hard day. Well, here’s some things I seem to remember that we might have tried.” If I can get my actual hands on the baby, I can demonstrate a few useful holds, maybe pass on some nursing tricks.
With further thought I even manage helpful, grandmotherly wisdom like “You know, sometimes there are days when nothing works. But every day is a new day and tomorrow will be a bit better.” And “At this stage, it’s not necessarily what you do, it’s that you’re doing anything at all. That baby’s job is to teach you to listen to her, which she will do by cunningly changing her response every day until she’s got your full attention, if necessary.” And, finally, “If nothing works, try doing nothing. Feed her, change her, and make sure she’s not suffering, and then just let the poor wee sausage have a good cry. Have one yourself, while you’re at it. It’s remarkably satisfying.”
Those early weeks are hard. Not so much a learning curve as a vertical climbing wall, and you with your fingers and toes wedged into whatever crevice you can find, every muscle taut, every nerve vibrating at a frequency only dogs can hear. Amidst the tension and sheer hard work, there are daily moments of unexpected serenity and beauty, when you weep with delirious love for this grimacing, squirming, jaundiced, bleary bundle of chaos and think, what astonishing thing have I created? (The thing in your arms, I mean -- not the one in the mirror, which takes a little longer to come to terms with).
Under it all is a constant feeling of just managing to keep your balance. You get it together, then it falls apart. You get into a groove, then something bumps and you veer off the road with a screech. Something that worked yesterday doesn’t even raise a whisper of response today. The whole set-up is both crudely simplistic -- feed, change, sleep, repeat -- and wildly anarchic. The growth spurts (i.e. shark-like feeding frenzies) were what took me by surprise. Feed, feed, what? still hungry? feed, feed, feed, frigging feed that voracious black hole till your nipples threaten to fall off and your bottom is welded to the couch.
These days when you spend all day in the milking shed never announce themselves in advance, but are always followed by a belated morning-after “aha!” when the baby in your arms suddenly pops all the buttons off its suit and has a whole new chuckling grown-up face on. Or sometimes the epiphany occurs when you take the hundredth photo of the day of the adorable little mite – and suddenly notice that your tiny infant who used to more or less disappear inside those sweet little cotton nighties now looks like a truck-driver in a frock, beefy arms bulging out of the tight wee sleeves. Time to move up a size, and while you’re at it, check the calendar to find out what month it is.
Speak, memory. I’m loving the current stage, the way Busytot dashes into the room and demands “What what what what what what’s going on?” or pronounces himself a tow-truck “picking up a broken-down Mummy,” or, when asked how old he is, proclaims “I’m two boys!” But I miss those psychedelic baby days, when day blurred into night, and I felt simultaneously stunned into moon-walk slow motion and vibrating with preternatural alertness.
Never have I been filled with such manic energy. For the one-week post-birth check-up, I baked a double-layer coconut passionfruit thank you cake for the midwives and nurses, who politely picked off the black seeds while they ate, and suggested I take it easy. I was unstoppable. I felt like I had eyes all over my body and that I was seeing things that no-one had ever seen before. I hovered about a foot off the ground, for weeks.
Crazy days. I knew everything, and I knew nothing. I’d flown a long way, and my tiny little brain was overflowing with new songs I barely understood but had to sing. I’ve forgotten most of them, but if you hum it, I might just be able to sing it.