April 16th, 2011
Two weeks and two days ago my daughter was born.
Well I think it’s fine, building jumbo planes.
Or taking a ride on a cosmic train.
Switch on summer from a slot machine.
Yes, get what you want if you want, ’cause you can get anything.
One thing I think nobody bothers to tell you is just how icky the birth process is. Blood and other fluids and mess and pain and terrified, powerless husband sitting there watching doing what little he can to help. And then this head pops out looking for all the world like something out of one of those alien horror movies and you’re thinking “How the hell does something so collossal get squeezed through such a tiny hole?” And the eyes and mouth are screwed shut in the most extreme discomfort. And then there’s that first tentative, plaintive cry and you realise you’ve been holding your breath and your heart starts beating again and your brain melts under a tsunami of relief and love and happy neurotransmitters. Then she finds the full force of her lungs and expresses her displeasure with the ordeal she’s just been squished through and the doctor says, “It’s a girl” and when they’re done cleaning her up they hold her up bottom first so we can see it’s a girl and tell us again just to make sure we believe both what they’re telling us and what we’re seeing. And having watched her produce your first child your respect and love for your wife is instantly magnified so many gazillions of times even a mathematician couldn’t count.
And two nights and a day of contractions and pain and cold, impersonal staff and running from counter to booth to plastic bench in the corridor to eventually a bed and up to the birthing suite for 17 hours forced separation with no information and messages not delivered and brutally dismissive staff and pacing the corridor, occasionally steeping outside for fresh air and to cool off because you’ve caught yourself making careful note of the positions of the security cameras for when you decide to explain just how angry you are with the lack of information and bad attitudes, catching what snatches of sleep can be caught on the plastic seats around the walls of the lobby and final reunification in the delivery room with me calling out for a doctor or somebody, anybody professional to come and help and more coolly impersonal but at least professional staff to finally deliver the baby, all of that is forgiven, forgotten. Temporarily.
3618 grams. I run to the door to tell my mother in law, who asks how much is that? Fortunately the brother in law has arrived, saving my addled brain from having to multiply by two. Seven jin two liang. My mother, on the phone later that day, asks the same question. Oops, I’d forgotten to do the calculation, so I do it later and email the result to her. Seven pounds fifteen ounces. 52 cm long. Nobody needs that converted into older measurements.
And then it’s quiet and we’re left alone with our daughter lying in her cradle, eyes wide open sucking all she can see, a sceptical look on her little face as if she’s carefully noting everything and filing it away for later analysis, and she looks so perfect and fragile and vulnerable and complete even the least religiously minded could understand the full meanings of the words ‘blessing’ and ‘miracle’.
And you roll on roads over fresh green grass.
For your lorry loads pumping petrol gas.
And you make them long, and you make them tough.
And they just go on and on, and it seems that you can’t get off.
And after four days in a small, overcrowded room in the ward and still more bureaucracy I pile them into a car made very warm by the sun, and believe me, I’ve never driven more slowly and carefully since I was a learner driver, except this time, of course, it wasn’t a nervous lack of confidence in my ability to handle the vehicle. I was acutely aware at every second of that little life in her carseat so completely dependent on my actions for every aspect of her health and well-being.
But we’re finally free of that horrible hospital. The one friendly nurse, who is warm and friendly to the point of getting just a bit too intrusive for my tastes, only serves to magnify the generally cold, impersonal, bureaucratic production line nature of the hospital and I hate it. I hate it so much driving out the gate that last time felt almost as good as the last step I took out of the gate of my high school. I’ll have to go back to get my daughter’s birth certificate, but I’ll cope. And it’s one of Beijing’s better hospitals. We know that because of the crowds. And no staff trying to hawk milk powder. And their insistence on natural, vaginal birth unless the medical circumstances actually render a c-section the safer option.
But they’re home now, my wife and daughter. Home and enrolled in the local hospital where she’ll get her vaccinations. Home where they belong, where they have space and privacy, where we can settle in to being a family.
Why do they call newborn babies a “bundle of joy”? That’s far too simplistic. Joy, yes. And confusion and frustration as we try to decipher her cries and find where the instruction book was hidden. And disturbed sleep. And terror. This life is so fragile, so vulnerable, and so totally dependent on us. My wife has enough trouble taking care of me and now I’m a father. I’m terrified I’ll do something wrong and break her. And then her big, dark eyes look up at me and around the room and suck in all the information they can get. Or she smiles. And ‘joy’ just doesn’t cut it. ‘Joy’ just doesn’t even come close to describing that feeling.
Well you’ve cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air.
But will you keep on building higher ’til there’s no more room up there.
Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry?
Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?
And I don’t think Cat Stevens and I are the only two to have ever mourned the loss of a simpler innocence in which children could simply be children. I don’t think we’re the only ones to have ever felt lost and overwhelmed and drowning under the weight of concrete and steel and copper and plastic and technology. My mind somehow desperately retains a memory, battered, withered and fading, of grass and bushes and trees, riverbanks and seashore, sunlight, rain, a gentle breeze and wide, open space in which every step is adventure. Well, Tolkien seems to have felt a similar way. And this idea has become so utterly cliche’d it is now all but impossible to express, since expression requires a recipient on the other end to not nod off in boredom.
I know we’ve come a long way,
We’re changing day to day,
But tell me, where do the children play?
And that’s what I’ve been asking for months as my wife’s belly has swollen. And it’s what I ask every time I look at my daughter and at the world we’ve brought her into. Because to be honest, I don’t think I’ve even started to begin understanding what’s going on out here.
And then I find myself wondering if that innocent time ever even existed. Was it just a dream? Have we been lied to? Does it perhaps exist in some alternate dimension to which a few of us have somehow managed to maintain just barely enough of a last vestigial spiritual link to keep the dream alive, even if in a drastically weakened state, a dimension to which artists and poets and prophets occasionally open a tiny, smudged, blurry window? Or is it just the wishful thinking of those too weak to cope with the hardness of the modern world? Or the wishful thinking of those too
strong stubborn to give in?
I don’t know, but I look around and it bugs me. Is there anywhere left for my daughter to play?
[Quotations, but I suspect you all know this, from Where do the Children Play? by Cat Stevens.]