Once I had my first couple of gout attacks, I read somewhere that people who'd experienced both said it was more unpleasant than childbirth, that supposedly indescribable suffering by which women martyr themselves for the continuation of the human race. Gout sure is painful, but not indescribably or infinitely so. It just hurts a lot in one spot, and more if there's even slight pressure on it - enough pain that at times I experienced it as patterns of light rather than an embodied sensation. There is no virtue in suffering, but if I could thereby make a new person, composed of a mixture of the core instructions for building my own body and those for somebody else I loved who would help me care for and cultivate that new person, then I would go off allopurinol for long enough to endure a few days of pain. My reproductive partner can speak for herself if she wishes, but my impression of labor was that it bore little resemblance to the acute panicked episodes depicted on television and in popular movies. Several months of deep massage by Valentin Rozlomii doubtless helped, as did some movement exercises she found on YouTube (some curb walking earlier in the day, and the Miles Circuit later at night), and half a tab of acid shortly before labor. By the time we arrived at the hospital, she was fully dilated and ready to give birth.
Labor, it turns out, is aptly named. It is not inherently torturous; it is a great deal of work, which calls for strength, flexibility, and stamina, for which one can be more or less ready for. Like many sorts of labor, birth labor is more of a distressing ordeal if one is simultaneously attempting to maintain a class persona with its attending stereotyped patterns of stiffness and selective dissociation. And like many other sorts of labor, it can be made onerous by various efforts at coercive extraction.
On the "due" date, my partner's ob/gyn did not consult with her about her preferences, her situation, or likely risks and benefits, but simply informed us that she was scheduling an induction in a week's time. The expedients mentioned above were a successful attempt to autoinduce just before the deadline, after which we had been advised that induction might not be available if we didn't accommodate the schedule. We remain skeptical that they would have refused in a true medical emergency; it was most likely a compliance scare tactic. Even so, it worked at least a little.
Once we were set up in a hospital room, the nurses issued strident instructions to my partner about how to pose, and how to push. Afterwards, my partner told me that she wished I'd advocated harder to give her space, as the instructions had served only to confuse her, contradicting her own experience of her body - especially, instructing her to experience pushing out a baby as though it felt like defecation, even though she could tell perfectly well that a different pattern of muscular activity was needed. Such instructions might perhaps be helpful for women who do not understand their own bodies well enough to distinguish between their reproductive and digestive musculature - though I suspect there is no clear, intersubjectively verifiable evidence for this like a randomized controlled trial - but were actively harmful in this case. Eventually, the nurses relented and gave her some time to rest, and my partner was able to tune in to her own body and make measurable progress on freeing our baby from her body, but she was so exhausted from following bad instructions that she agreed to a vacuum-assisted extraction, which, fortunately, not only succeeded at bringing the baby out into the world, but does not seem to have inflicted any lasting harm.
I had likewise heard and read many times that caring for a newborn is a torturous ordeal, like a forced march or sleep deprivation torture. What I have found is that caring for my baby in his first year of life was not torture or an unnatural-feeling ordeal. What it is, is a lot of work, which limits how much other work one can do at the same time without compromising one's health.
What is an unnatural ordeal is the social default of working an inflexible 9-to-5, and especially, a bullshit 9-to-5 where the hours demanded bear no intelligible relation to the work and timing needed to produce something helpful to others. I never accommodated the tempo of my consciousness to that way of life. I don't know to what extent I did not know how, or to what extent I refused for implicitly ethical reasons, but I always experienced scheduled white-collar time-wasting as an unnatural ordeal, and perhaps partly for this reason, when caring for a newborn who really does need lots of attention, I experienced something like the entrepreneur's or small business owner's or alchemist's sense of time freedom - the freedom to work when and only when needed to achieve what I cared about, even if quantitatively the hours are longer than they might otherwise be.
Not having help nearby in the form of friends and family who can hold the baby for a time is another collectively self-inflicted modern ordeal. My newborn didn't always require intense, complicated, unusually skilled efforts to care for, but he frequently needed to be held and soothed, changed, and fed. The work of breast-feeding a newborn is relatively hard to distribute (though not impossible), but holding is easy. It is, however, not entirely unskilled labor (there's no such thing).
I had heard many times about how a newborn cannot support their own head. This is only sort of true. When holding them belly-up, one has to for the most part support their head so they can relax. But you wouldn't lie on a bed with your own head cantilevered off the edge of the mattress yourself either, except perhaps briefly as part of a neck strength training regimen. Their body also needs intelligent support, partly because they are so soft and weak, but partly because they do not yet know how to organize their own body. The day after I played the game of go for the first time, I found myself daydreaming about it, mapping lines of thought in conversation onto simple, common sequences of go moves, as my brain worked to integrate this new mode of activity into higher-level functional abstractions. Likewise, one night I found myself dreaming the sensorimotor sequences of holding my newborn, to transform it from a conscious task into second nature.
If one does not already have a great tender regard for the bodies of others, one can become a better lover of adults by attending to the details of how a newborn wants and needs to be held.
But a newborn's head is not so heavy, nor their neck so weak, that it will break off from the slightest moment's strain. Frequently my baby would fuss until I rested him face-down, head drooped over my shoulder or poking up to look around, and walked him around the downstairs rooms and hallways of my mother's house. We did have that much help - she lived near the hospital we used and offered us a place to stay for the month before and after the birth - for which I am grateful. Though I was surprised that for my mother, caring for a newborn was not like what they say about riding a bicycle, a knack that sticks with you for life, but rather, had to be relearned.
One thing that prevented us from receiving more casual help is that so many people are so anxious about holding a baby, in a way that seems related to their confusion about their own bodies. My baby did not need to constantly be held as carefully as one might hold a precarious stack of cut-glass doves, but could without difficulty be transferred from one person or place to another by grabbing him under the armpits like the small monkey he is. But frequently he couldn't get comfortable in the arms of people who held him stiffly, at a distance, an inch or two too far or too tense to let him feel the rhythm of their breathing or perhaps even their heartbeat.
I made sure, against official medical recommendations, to get our October baby as much direct sunlight as he would tolerate, lying on my chest in the otherwise cool October air, and it seems to have been good for his sleep and eyesight. I wish I had similarly taken the time in the first couple of weeks to learn how to wear him in a wrap; once I learned how to wear him about town on errands, his sleep noticeably improved as he got more time in close contact with an adult human, able to feel my better-organized heartbeat and breath as I walked to the grocery store and back.
As far as I can tell, the warnings against exposing babies to sunlight have three major causes. The first is, in common with medical recommendations to adults, a side effect of the extreme specialization of contemporary American medicine: a dermatological obsession with skin cancer (which condition dermatologists have to deal with themselves), without accounting for all the other effects, many beneficial, of sunlight. The second is a neurotic imperative to contain and cloister, which leads to exaggerating any risk that can be mitigated through containment and assuming that moderation weighing costs against benefits is impossible for ordinary humans. So goes the logic of this perspective, because it might be a bad idea to badly sunburn your baby by leaving them for hours unshielded from the full glare of the summer sun, you must instead guard your baby lest they feel the touch of the slightest sunbeam, like a newborn vampire or undeveloped photograph. This treatment tends to create the very dissociation from the details of one's material circumstances that are invoked to justify it. The same cultural complex seems implicated in the behavior of multiple strangers on the street who scolded me and my partner, on a 70°F November day, for not putting a winter coat on our perfectly comfortable infant when bringing him outside. Third, it appears that when hospitals first began treating newborns for jaundice with specially built ultraviolet radiation lamps, which were not bright like the sun on the visual spectrum, babies would sometimes injure their eyes gazing at these lamps, until hospitals started complementing the lamps with protective eye coverings for the patients. Rather than admit that in some respects the work of their own hands might be less perfect than the sun, and specifically less safe, so that it required these specific countermeasures, the expert response seems to have been to assume without evidence that babies are so stupid that if not actively prevented by outside interference, they will tend to stare at the sun until their eyes burn out. Newborns are indeed stupid, but they are not that stupid in my experience. Mine liked to turn his head to gaze at lamps or ceiling lights, especially when he was too young to clearly perceive subtler visual features than a light source, but the sun is uncomfortably bright to look at, so when it shined in his eyes he'd shut them tight and turn his head away.
Aside from faces, the interpretation of which seems innately privileged, the next thing he liked to look at were shelves of books, I think because of the parallel visual features, which he enjoyed in other contexts (e.g. striped wall paper) as well.
My sister has unfortunately decided to comply with a US government loyalty test by cutting off contact with her nephew and his family - another example of how the lack of help is the result of some active measures, not merely social negligence - but she was present during a key transition: when he developed the capacity to smile. She got one of his first big, gummy, full-face smiles. Before he learned to smile, I could infer his mood mostly from negative cues - fussy or not fussy - though there were also some subtle indications of relaxed, attentive interest in things, which I took to be an early sort of liking. But caring for him became much more joyful when he began to display the capacity to express his enjoyment. He laughs when I turn him upside down - if he's in the mood for it. He laughs when I do Valentin-recommended assisted stretches or massages - when it's a beneficial stressor; when his laughs take on an element of strain, this gives me a second or two of warning to stop lest I provoke sobs instead. When I first unwrapped a new-to-me Dover edition of the Elwes translation of Spinoza's works, he squealed with delight. Books for children - on tough paper with few pages, or board books, to stand up to likely abuse - are alright, but what he really likes are ordinary adult books, with a great many pages that can easily be flipped through. I think he can tell and is pleased by their nature as functional objects, that exist for more purposes than his sensory pleasure; that makes them more interesting to investigate, more plausibly something it will be useful to understand later on.
Singing "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" pleased him greatly early in his smiling period, I think in part because it let him simultaneously see and hear a loved one make simple phonemes. Slowly sticking out my tongue was also an early favorite. To entertain a baby - and thus to educate one, since they are and like to be, among a few other things, learning machines, machines for learning to be a person - often requires relaxed, alert creativity. When people try to show off as though for an adult, it frequently falls flat or even provokes tears; one needs instead to empathize with a person whose perceptions are not yet well organized, so that simply picking something up and putting it back down might be an interesting game of skill - and watching someone else do so many times over might be interesting as well. Almost one year in, we co-created two games of note. In the first, I put an object on my head, then lean forward so he can carefully pick it up off my head and take it. In the second, which he invented, he claps his hands, and I or my partner or both clap along. Then he dives in for cuddles, and when he's done and sitting upright again, the whole process repeats. I found Moshe Feldenkrais's work, especially Body and Mature Behavior, helpful for building intuitions about early childhood development. One more little thing my partner figured out he enjoys - often when he's otherwise in a bad mood - is taking a small translucent blanket and draping it over oneself and him together, so that you're briefly in blanket world. (Originally we used a blanket with a zebra print to enter "zebra world," but other translucent blankets seem to work just as well.) Eventually he added the refinement of removing the blanket - from himself and separately from the other player (in either order) - and I added the refinement of saying, "There you are!" once visual face-to-face contact was reestablished.
Another popular image I correctly felt I ought to be able to avoid is the scene where anxious caregivers try to trick their baby into ingesting enough tiny spoonfuls of unappealing mush, while the baby does anything but; spits it out, shuts his mouth against the unwanted incursion, etc. We adopted the alternative of offering him solid food as a toy before we were counting on him eating any, to familiarize him with its feel and taste before he was ready to consume it. But one day, we gave him an Archer grass-fed beef stick as a toy to chew on (we had them on hand as snacks for us and our housemates), and he bit off a piece with his gums and swallowed it. This motivated us to start thinking more seriously not merely about what foods he could safely play with, but what foods he could and would successfully eat and might benefit the most from. Eggs were an early priority - he likes scrambled eggs or omelettes more than hard boiled. Brisket and corned beef were surprisingly early favorites, well before any teeth emerged, and one day he grabbed for a piece of bacon, so we let him have it - and he's loved it ever since. Broccoli, strawberries, and banana are other regular elements of his diet. Sometimes he wants chopped liver or seared beef liver, and sometimes I finish it all myself. Hollandaise sauce he'll happily eat off a dull knife or my finger (diner spoons are a big bit for him). And single-serving Babybel cheeses have been a staple, because they're an easy shape and size for him to hold, and both firm enough to hold and soft enough to eat easily even before any teeth came in. Overall we eat foods that we like and think are nutritious, and share. He likes sharing; he's sometimes more inclined to eat food someone else was eating and shared with him, than food that's just his, and in the past couple of months he's begun holding his food out towards whoever's with him at mealtime until they take a bite. By the time he was sufficiently automobile that the mess from eating couldn't for the most part easily be contained by putting him on a bath towel on the floor for mealtime, he had learned enough about manipulating objects such as food (and using his own hands) that the volume of mess created in a meal had decreased to a much more manageable level. If we had been attached to eating rigidly scheduled meals at an elevated table while sitting on individual chairs, the whole process would have been strained.
Speaking of the floor, I have acquired further reason to be glad I spent most of a year intensively studying Iyengar yoga, opening my hips to the point where I can comfortably sleep on the floor (which had already improved my morning stuffiness and creakiness). My partner prefers a thin futon, but that still allowed us to sleep low enough to the ground - and offers little enough affordance for enveloping and suffocating a sleeping newborn - that we have been able to safely and comfortably co-sleep, once he outgrew his bassinet and the cat sleeping mat I bought for him at Aldi. Though once he learned to roll around, some nights before I'd gone to sleep I was summoned to the bedroom with great haste by a pitiful wail, only to find that he'd rolled mostly but not entirely off the futon, his head uncomfortably propped up on it like a hilariously oversized head pillow. Later, when he was not only rolling but sitting up, he would sometimes wake himself inadvertently by rolling himself into sitting upright, and then wail, sleepily confused why he wasn't lying down anymore like he wanted to.
Many of the things that distress a newborn are also quite funny. The first time he farted, in the hospital, he cried from fright. When he first started dancing to music - rhythmically bucking his hips and grinning - he'd dance to almost anything, even the beeping of the microwave at a hotel's continental breakfast. If I'd play a simple chord pattern on our ukulele, he'd dance - then if I kept going too long, he'd start crying because he was tired but compelled to keep dancing.
Leaving the ukulele out where he could play with it was a good idea - though I think he gave me a clue when he'd interrupt my playing to investigate and grab the strings - very akin pedagogically to handing him a whole banana, and I wish I could get people to make more developmentally realistic suggestions like that. His strumming has become more organized over time.
His behavior in both distressing and pleasing circumstances is also teaching me some things about what agency and preferences are made of.
Early on, he cried intensely during diaper changes, and while I tried to investigate why, ultimately I had to settle for determining that this expression of distress did not constitute an expression of preference over possible scenarios; he seemed happier after than before changes, and eventually seems to have learned this himself, though I still suspect I should buy a heat lamp to make these changes less chilling. Philosophical perspectives like Taking Children Seriously offer a legitimate critique of the dominant ideology of control and domination, but have little to offer for the early stages where a child's agency does not already exist to be respected, but is in the process of being co-created through things as subtle as noticing whether he's interested in the food I'm moving towards him in time not to repeatedly move unwanted food so close that he feels the need to turn his head and push it away; learning to move offerings into the liminal zone where he can decide whether to respond rather than being compelled to decide how to respond. If I mess this up a few times in a row, he lets me know by crying, and we both need to take a break and calm down before I can successfully feed him again. It helps if I'm not distracted, anxious, in a hurry.
Action and evaluation are not yet fully distinct even for decisions as simple as which item on a plate he wants to eat. Frequently - though less often than a few months ago - he has to actually reach out - sometimes slowly while making a cute "grabby hands" movement - to touch and hold a piece of food before deciding whether to bring it to his mouth. If not, he'll generally move it away and drop it. Sometimes he has to grab from the plate or bowl, evaluate, and discard to the side (usually on the floor or ground) many items before he finds the one he wants. And if I offer him a new piece of food while one is already in his mouth, he'll spit out the old food even if on reflection he'd prefer it, as part of the process of evaluating the new item. Oops! (Cf Do We Believe Everything We're Told?)
Sometime after he'd learned the reaching gesture, and separately learned to vocalize, he began to instrumentalize these actions. For a time he played with his mouth by giving the world the raspberry whenever we'd go out. Eventually he learned to make sweet little coos and calls and cries of happiness - and experimented with some simple syllables. For a time he played around with making the "reach" gesture without intending to grab anything, and learned to wave his hand - which led to the "bye-bye - hello" game, as I'd disappear around a corner sadly waving "bye-bye," then happily reappear raising my arms in greeting and saying "Hello!" like Uncle Leo from Seinfeld. This frequently gets a great big smile from him.
One day, he was practicing his little lucky-cat wave while vocalizing, and happened to move his hand close enough to his mouth to disrupt the sound - and then that became a new game, making himself say "bibble-bibble-bibble" by moving his hand across his mouth. Sometimes when he's crying but mainly from boredom, I can cheer him up by bibbling him with a finger - or bibbling myself by doing it to my own mouth.
Such games seem to be important for learning what one is. At his nine month checkup, the pediatrician's office had us fill out a checklist for motor development, and it seemed that his gross motor skills - especially bringing himself to a standing position - were lagging far behind his fine motor skills. I was naturally a little anxious about this, but successfully restrained myself from intervening counterproductively, like the farmer in the parable by Mencius who pulls on the new shoots in the field to try to accelerate their growth. And now he's crawling and leaning and standing and climbing stairs just fine - he didn't feel any urgency to locomote, so he developed his fine motor skills very well, and built a firm foundation of sitting, leaning, and turning, like a disciplined young judoka who learns to fall and roll very, very well before he begins to crawl.
People I know are not only afraid of hurting babies, but afraid of babies. There is a tendency among neurotics to interpret a baby's cries as personal condemnations or commands. (Sometimes even a calm, interested, evaluative open-mouthed extension of the freeze-orient response as the baby takes a good look at them before deciding how to interact is construed as a personal rejection.) I am not a total exception. One night, my baby was fussing and crying more persistently than usual, and carrying him around or the other modes of comfort I could think of didn't seem to be helping, and my partner was elsewhere, and I was tired, and wished that my tiny demanding overlord would give me a break. So I plopped him down on our living room fuf (a giant firm pillow roughly the size and shape of a large flat bean bag) slightly more abruptly than I otherwise might have done. He was briefly nonplussed, then started crying even harder. I remember telling myself the story that I had been hoping the plop might help him reset his mood, like a toss in the air or turning him upside down sometimes does. The story was not implausible. But I was actually motivated by an impulse to retaliate and punish. And this scared me - for my baby. He depended on me. He wasn't a mean, harsh overseer - he was a tiny confused new person, so helpless that all he could do when unhappy was complain aloud and hope someone who loved him would figure it out. He wasn't trying to manipulate me; he was still in that precious early phase where the slightest impulse or passing mood shows on one's face, so that he'd quickly pass through moments of resembling first some uncle, then some famous person, as his dynamic, responsive posture briefly visited the stations various adults ended up stuck in. He had no recourse if I hurt or neglected him. So what was I doing? What was I trying to do?
Justly self-rebuked, and feeling a new rush of tenderness towards my newborn, I picked him back up more tenderly and less trudgingly than before, and comforted my sad little boy.
Despite the prospect of considerable embarrassment over my behavior, I talked over this episode with my partner the following night, to make sure it didn't become encysted in shame. I decided to adjust my attitude, and explicitly entitle myself in the future to on occasion decide that while my baby was upset and letting me know that, he wasn't in danger, so if needed I could take a break regardless of his protests.
I try not to do that very often, since there are enough things that are hard about being a baby even with as much help as your caretakers know how to give. The one thing he persistently didn't accommodate himself to until maybe ten months in was the legally required carseat; strapped into a fixed position, bored, with no one to cuddle him and no breast to suckle at, frequently when we had to drive somewhere he'd scream for ten to fifteen minutes until he fell asleep. More recently, as we've moved to a smaller city, he got the experience a few times in a row of a short drive to a soothingly decorated diner where the hostess and some of the waiters love to play with him and hold him, and started learning that a car drive can sometimes lead to something good - but it's still not the best, mainly because it interferes with our ability to respond to him, and his ability to move his own body in ways that make sense to him.
I have heard and read the term "neurosis" used in many contexts, but never clearly defined; the usage always seems to have a suspicious combination of vagueness and judgmental moralism. But I think that I have settled on a good functional definition that explains the central usage of the term. A neurosis is a pattern of self-regulation through focusing on specific behaviors or outcomes to avoid, like a personal taboo. To help a child grow strong and free and healthy takes more than abstaining from a known set of abuses. I felt I was ready not when I was free of all the known deep problems with parenting and parents that I'm aware of and have thought about how to avoid, nor when I was rich enough to buy my way out of many known failure modes like Cephalus in Plato's Republic - I'd still be waiting. I was ready when I and my support network had just enough slack, and just enough of a clear idea what we were trying to do together, that I expected us to be sufficiently able to overcome perversity in ourselves and our environment to reproduce significantly more agency than we spend cultivating him.
One thing about having a boy in particular is that I have learned how I am sexist. Contrary to everything I had heard about parents treating their boys and girls the same and finding sex differences emerge spontaneously, when I reflect on how I treat him, it seems as though I am tolerant of small risks like tossing him in the air to delight him or, now that he's crawling, letting him attempt to climb stairs and risk a tumble, that I would likely have unconsciously evaluated differently had my first been a girl. (It does not seem to me like almost anyone is sufficiently discerning about this sort of thing to track it at this level of subtlety, so I am quite sure the usual testimony about sex differences in behavior emerging under equal treatment is unreliable.) And this gives me a standard by which to evaluate and correct my treatment of the next one, should she be a girl. Of course, if she is, I'll likely learn some reciprocal things I'll wish I'd done differently with my boy.
On the topic of sex, his first syllables seem informative about the origins of language, saying "Da!" or "Aye-Da!" when excited and curious, whining "Nya-Nya-Nya" when hungry or thirsty, and complaining "Ma-Ma-Ma" when tired, in pain, or otherwise seeking comfort. It's easy to imagine how the birthing and breastfeeding parent comes to be associated with the calls for comfort and food and gets called "mama", and the less encumbered and more risk-tolerant parent "dada." I also imagine parliamentary voice votes now as a poll of overgrown babies excitedly shouting "Aye!" (or perhaps "Da!" in some countries) if they approve of a proposal, and sadly whining "Nay-Nay-Nay" if they disapprove and want a comforting suckle. I have been given other names already, though, and look forward to the time when he knows how to call me by my names.