On Darkness, or The Good Parts

I focus on the darkness.

In life, yes, but, more particularly, on this blog. Part of that is an attempt to balance the scales of parenthood media. Don’t get me wrong, if you dig, there is no shortage of brutally honest portrayals of the difficulty of early parenting. But still, the overwhelming sense you get from books/movies/people is one of innocence, of joyfulness. In commercials or in films, when the sleep-deprived father closes the door to his child’s bedroom, finally thinking he has gotten her to sleep, and she wakes upon hearing his first creaky step on the floor boards, the father gives an “aw shucks” sigh or hangs his head instead of collapsing against the wall in tears or cursing violently under his breath or punching some unbending surface until his knuckles are raw and his fingers are broken.

On a good day, I am trying to get through to the truth, to the meaning of my life (I don’t think I can speak for anyone else’s). By writing, by reading, by talking to people I love, or people I barely know, by collaborating on artistic projects, I am trying to push through to the truth of my existence. And maybe I’m near-sighted, mopey, narcissistic, naive, but I think the path to the truth lies through darkness. Through facing the things in my life that are difficult (of which there have been mercifully – or woefully – few) and being honest about them. I don’t mean to block out the light – I want the light to be the light – but I am letting darkness take the stage for a bit, so I can see what it says. I feel that not to give it its due would be truly foolish. Truly naive.

Alexis went up to Boston to visit her sister and try on wedding dresses a week ago and brought the Pope-a-dope with her (baby’s first trip). I got home from work at 7:30 pm the night they got back and upon entering the apartment was greeted with the sound of a complaining Poe. “Here we go,” I thought.

Alexis brought out our very crabby, tired-looking daughter. Her eyes were red and staring. Clearly it was bed time. She gets into these moods when we don’t catch her sleepiness quickly enough and won’t be consoled until she’s been fed and put down to sleep. But the second she looked at me, she calmed. She didn’t smile or light up, just looked at me.

I’m constantly imbuing Poe with thoughts and feelings and narratives that are probably just products of my imagination, but this is what the look said to me:

I see you.

It felt like a simple acknowledgement that we are tied to each other, have been tied to each other since her birth (or maybe before), and will be tied to each other until the day I die and until the day she later (much later, please) dies — that when my eyes close for the last time, I will be thinking of her. And when her eyes close for the last time, she will be thinking of me.

That’s my narrative at least.

I was anxious for the rest of the night in a generalized way. Preoccupied. I hadn’t seen Alexis in three days but found myself unable to focus on her. “Is Poe about to wake up?” I thought to myself. “Do I have clinical depression or anxiety? Am I going to need to go on medication?”

Alexis gave Poe a dream feeding around 10:30 pm and then we went to bed. I awoke to Poe’s voice over the monitor at 11:30 pm. Usually Alexis wakes up first, but she’s so sleep-deprived at this point that I’ve been waking up first on occasion. Alexis has been in charge of all night duties for a couple weeks now, but Poe didn’t sound too upset and, based on the clock, definitely didn’t need to be fed. So, I quietly got up and walked into Poe’s room, hoping to let Alexis sleep a little longer.

The moon was full that night and our blackout curtains are shit, so the room was filled with a crystalline blue light. Poe had flipped over onto her stomach (a common nightly occurrence) and had also rotated 90 degrees and gotten both her legs wedged between the slats in the crib. So, there she was — face down, torso in the crib, legs dangling out — making goofy gliding sounds with her voice. She didn’t sound happy necessarily, but definitely didn’t sound upset. Just reveling in the new sounds she has been learning each day.

I freed Poe from her wooden prison, rotated her, and eased her onto her side (her preferred sleeping position). She continued to babble, eyes closed. I put a pacifier in her mouth, patted her back, and shushed a bit. She immediately calmed. I continued the shush-patting for a few moments just to seal the deal. I allowed myself to bask in the moment for a bit.

Here she and I were, in the most basic of parent/child interactions, performed in some version or other billions of times across the globe since the dawn of humanity. She had a need, I provided it. Simply. I didn’t think about my ego or whether this meant she would continue to have sleep disruptions for the next 17 years or whether it maybe would have been easier to avoid having a child in the first place. Just me in a room with my daughter. No far-reaching ramifications. It felt simple and deep and good.

She woke up 10 minutes later, but I didn’t care. My mind didn’t flood me with a million negative thoughts or outcomes. We were engaged in a dance, she and I, and I had stumbled quite a bit in the beginning and would step on her feet many more times before this was all through, but for now I was moving, I was calm, I was fluid, I was smiling.

 

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New Dad Diet! (FOR DADS!!!)

For Dads of ~4-month-olds:

6 am

Wake up. Brew a pot of coffee. Pour the first scalding hot cup out on your arm to remind yourself how to feel. Drink the remaining three cups.

6:30 am

Pick up an orange and look at it. Mutter, “Haha, fuck that,” under your breath and throw the orange against the wall with all your (pitiful, emasculated) strength. Quickly clean up the mess so that you don’t have to explain your (impotent) rage issues to your partner later.

7:30 am

Decide to “treat yourself” by going out and buying a croissant or bagel for the 98th morning in a row. Eat the pastry quickly, desperately, on the street or over the sink. Look down at your incipient man breasts and think to yourself re: your partner, “She knew what she was getting into. Frankly, she only has herself to blame.”

9 am

Brew another pot of coffee. Don’t pour any of this one out on yourself. Just drink the four cups. If the area behind your eyes begins to burn with a searing, white heat and you can see your own death occurring in front of you like a hologram, then you’ve hit the correct caffeine threshold.

11:20 am

Pour a handful of raw, unsalted almonds directly into the trash.

12:30 pm

Get lunch at a diner. If a vegetable touches your plate, make damn sure it’s pickled or decorative or send it right back.

2:45 pm

Eat white cheddar popcorn by the sloppy handful. 30%-70% of it will end up on your shirt. Look around to make sure no one is watching. If your baby is watching, throw a blanket over its head. Then, pull your shirt out and up and create a sort of funnel leading to your mouth. Shake the shirt so the rest of the popcorn falls into your expectant maw.

4:17 pm

Repeat the phrase “Diabetes only happens to old, fat people,” until you can feel tears running down your cheeks. Gather the tears in a small bowl and sprinkle them over some stale salt and vinegar potato chips. Whisper the words, “Life hack,” and smile bitterly.

8 pm

After putting your baby down for bed, decide to “treat yourself” by ordering delivery for the 98th night in a row. Your baby will wake multiple times during the ordering process but stay the course: you’ll need fuel to help you tackle the ~18 times your baby wakes during the night. In the “Special Instructions” box on GrubHub, write a desperate, rambling message about how you’re trapped in a prison of you’re own making/used to be an interesting person/could have been someone important, etc.

8:45 pm

Eat dinner over the sink in between wakings. Think of it as a six-course tasting menu consisting of increasingly cold bites of the same dish. Repeat the tears/chips/life-hack sequence for dessert.

10 pm

Drink a steaming mug of calming chamomile tea while discussing with your partner the developmental leaps you witnessed during the day. Sit next to her. Feel the weight of her body against yours. Comfort her; support her. Bury your face in her hair and express gratitude for the fact that you have a partner and child who love you more than anyone in the world. JUST KIDDING, DO THE TEARS/CHIPS/LIFE-HACK SEQUENCE AGAIN!

10:30 pm

Collapse into bed and fall immediately asleep. Inadvertently ingest two spiders in your sleep. Whisper the words, “life-hack”.

12:3o am

Wake to the sound of crying (baby’s).

2 am

Wake to the sound of crying (baby’s).

3 am

Wake to the sound of crying (baby’s and yours).

3:30 am

Wake to the sound of crying (baby’s, yours, partner’s).

3:45 am

”      ”

4 am

”      ”

5 am

”      ”

6 am

The cycle begins anew.

I’M OK (cry for help)

I want to go around punching all the childless people I see.

Poe’s sleep devolved about a week ago, and now we’re in the shit. Everything was looking rosy for a little while, culminating in one night where Poe slept for 6 hours in a row and then 3 straight hours after that. Glorious. But then something changed. It resulted from one of two things. Or both.

One, babies have sleep regressions. Something about their brains develop and they need to adjust to the world again, which causes disrupted sleep. The first big one is supposed to come at 4 months. Poe is only 3 months old, but she’s been advanced in other ways, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if she’s early. I’m not bragging, but, I mean, yeah, suck it, I guess.

The other possible cause is the one I’m kicking myself about. Three days before the breakdown, we started trying to get Poe to nap in the crib. Up until that point, she’d only ever really napped on someone or in the stroller. In an effort to not overwhelm Poe or ourselves, we started by trying to get only the first nap of the day in the crib.

The first time we put her down, she cried. Not surprising, but the crying was more fervent than the type of crying she does at night, which is more like complaining. I put my hand on her and tried the pacifier several times. On the fifth or sixth try (after about 15 minutes), she fell begrudgingly asleep. She only slept for about 25 minutes, but, all in all, it felt like a victory. Stupid Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it took us 7-10 nights of solid work to get Poe to sleep on her back in the bassinet at night, so I was prepared for a period of adjustment.

The next day, we tried again. This time, she cried a little harder and required a pick-up followed by some rocking. But then she fell asleep and napped on her back for a half hour. A tiny step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the next day was worse. Then things snowballed. Within three days, all of Poe’s naps, as well as her night-time sleep, were disrupted, culminating in a truly hellish Friday night.

I began to read voraciously. What was going on? Was it time for sleep training? Had we screwed things up somehow? The pediatrician said that the devolution of the naps was clearly affecting the night-time sleep and that it may be time for some version of sleep training. I asked the pediatrician which type she recommended, but she said that she couldn’t single out one method as better than the rest. They all seemed to work equally well, she said, as long as we committed to one and were consistent. I asked the doctor about concerns about a baby’s distress and cortisol levels in response to sleep training (I made the mistake of reading a study) and she assuaged those concerns relatively well. Poe was going to have to go through an adjustment period if we were going to try to get her on her back, and that would involve some crying, one way or another. I hung up the phone emboldened and encouraged.

And then we completely balked.

I made the mistake of reading up more on sleep training (why do I keep fucking reading?!) and read The Baby Whisperer, which makes some good points, but is stunningly negative and condescending and, at times, terrifying. It made me feel like I’d already ruined Poe’s life by letting her cry a minute here and a minute there.

So, we balked. We weren’t ready for sleep training. Most experts don’t recommend babies start sleep training until they are at least 4 months old. Poe is, as I said, 3 months old. We don’t want to scar her, and we don’t want to have to start sleep training right back up after the 4 month sleep regression wraps up (if this is indeed it).

So, we’re back to square…I don’t know. Negative one? First, we’ve gone back to Poe napping in the wrap, hoping this will calm her down and stabilize her a bit. We’re trying to get her on a more reliable schedule during the day (something we hadn’t really done at all until now) and are going to try to stop nursing her to sleep, which has become a big prop for her. So, we’ll see. The first night trying to get things back on track, it took 50 minutes to get her to sleep, but then she had a so-so night. The couple nights after that, not so great. I don’t know. Help?

But, so, anyway, the last week has been hell, and I’ve been looking around at childless people and wanting to tackle them and scream my pain into their eyes and down their throats. Just now, upon leaving my building, I saw a young man walking without a care in the world, two books under his arm.

“What do you think you’re gonna do, fancy boy?!” I thought-screamed, “Read both of them?! Well, aren’t you awash in a sea of free time?!”

Walking through the park with Alexis and Poe this weekend, I saw couple upon couple lounging on the grass or spread out on benches. One sat beside each other, separated by a backpack, he staring at his phone, she reading a book. Next to them, another couple, the man looking as if he had been posed by a photographer to embody disaffected, carefree boredom. I wanted to puke fire onto all of them.

Happy parents rankle me as well, but rather than wanting to rage-jaculate all over them, I want to grab them by the shoulders and scream, “How do you do it?!” If I had one less ounce of self-control, I would accost every last parent I saw on the street and demand they tell me how they got their kid to sleep, or at least how they survived the first year. Sleep training? Co-sleeping? Just riding it out? Anti-depressants? Partial self-lobomy? I don’t give a shit, I’ll do it! I’ll do it.

Or not. I mean, if its the least bit challenging or stressful, we probably won’t do it. So…yeah.

Scattered Thoughts About Bodies

Bodies

We were skinny when we were younger, lithe and barely there.

◎◎◎

By the time I re-met Alexis, I had softened up a bit, but I remember in college being ashamed of how flat my torso was, how visible my bones were. Then, slowly over time, whiskey, beer and bread bulged over my waistband and pulled my chest out and down.

Alexis has always been impossibly thin, dangerously so at times. I remember her hip bones jutting against mine in a dorm room at Dartmouth at an alumni theater festival, the first time we took our clothes off together. There used to be a running joke among my friends about how I purported to like full, curvy women but always ended up with waifish intellectuals. You can’t escape what you are, I guess. And deep in my heart, I’ll always be a waifish intellectual.

◎◎◎

Two summers ago, I had a bad reaction to Cipro¹ and was hobbled for months, my achilles tendons aching and weak. I fell genuinely out of shape. I’ve always been lazy, too free with my fried potato consumption, but this was different. I wasn’t able to exercise aerobically for four months. Unsurprisingly, this showed up in my body. My thighs rubbed together; I went up a couple pants sizes. This was, I think, barely noticeable to anyone but the body-obsessed (and Alexis, of course) but I noticed it, staring at myself in the unforgiving light of the bathroom mirror at the beginning or ending of the day.

I am constantly pulled between two poles, as, I believe, is the whole country: the desire to be healthy (and thus conventionally beautiful) and the desire to love my body no matter what it looks like. The former is a real concern. Even if I got to the point where I loved my sagging, softer body unconditionally, that love would be short-lived if I were felled by a massive heart attack at age 45. I eat too much saturated fat, too few vegetables; I drink too much alcohol too often: these are things that are true. But, secretly², I want to do these things and reap the consequences. I want to die fat and rosy and tipsy and extremely fucking happy, knowing that I had sucked deep from life and hadn’t counted calories.

But at the same time I don’t ever want to die³. I want to feel good when I get up in the morning. I want to take my shirt off and not look like the human equivalent of a tuna salad sandwich on white bread.

◎◎◎

Alexis, much to my chagrin, asked for a fancy video monitoring system on our baby registry. We set it up a little while back (it’s terrible) and found that it plays a hilariously cruel joke: it records moments of activity and plays them back to you WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT⁴. Want to forget the time you walked around in circles at 4 am, bouncing your daughter and singing her an unhinged, improvised lullaby? Too bad, here it is on repeat! I caught a glimpse of myself shirtless, bending over to put Poe down in her bassinet, and it was FUCKING CHASTENING. I immediately turned to Alexis and thanked her for continuing to be attracted to me⁵.

◎◎◎

I did something that hurt Alexis, back when she was still living in Switzerland and I was struggling with the idea of commitment, and she lost a not-insubstantial amount of weight. It was scary. She was already desperately thin and I watched her begin to disappear before my eyes. Then, when we moved in together, she gained some weight. I knew Alexis had dabbled in eating disorders before, and I would get in her face if she skipped a meal (something I suspect she got away with on a regular basis when she lived alone). She would make assessments of her body that were categorically insane for someone of her size and frame, and it would make me angry.

But I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in this country, and I never will. The entertainment industry does its best to body-shame men equally as hard as women these days⁶, but it will always be worse for women. Agents and casting directors say things like, “well, you’ll need to lose 15 pounds,” and we can’t even call it an insult. It’s just the truth. Low on talent? Who gives a shit?! If we can see your jawline and collar bone⁷, then you’ve got a passing shot. Even our overweight celebrities are gorgeous. Melissa McCarthy is genuinely good-looking, as is Aidy Bryant. Adele is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.

I know that tv, film, theater — and even music these days — are visual media. Executives are going to employ people who they think will attract the most viewers and thus make the most money. I’m not an idiot; I’m not being disingenuous. I’m aware of how capitalism works. But why are we so afraid of people who don’t look a certain way?

◎◎◎

Alexis, of course, gained some more weight when she got pregnant and then has kept on some of it post-partum⁸. She laments it, thinks about it often. But I didn’t fall in love with her because she was skinny. I fell in love with her because her brain was made of holy fire. I fell in love with her because her whole being was alight with life, with simultaneous brightness and darkness. An optimist with a deep well of melancholy.

And look, I hope this doesn’t sound like some sort of sanctimonious pat on the back⁹ or that it sounds blithe or naive. I know how insidious, how deeply ingrained body image issues can be. So I don’t mean to imply that this is some sort of simple or easy fix. But, seriously, how do we free ourselves? How do we help our friends, our lovers, our children free themselves to be able to look down at the curves, the lumps, the angles, the evidence that life, that experience, can put a mark on our bodies and think that that is not sad, not disappointing, but beautiful. That is time; that is life.

And how do I direct that love back toward myself? How do I look in the mirror at the folds and the handles and the softness, and smile and think, “that’s life”?

◎◎◎

We were skinny when we were younger, lithe and barely there. But now life has filled us up a bit. And in the dark, in the night, our daughter (hopefully) asleep in the next room, our hands search for each other, trace the curves and the bones, trying to grasp the life, pull it out of each other, trying to fill our noses and our mouths with it. In stolen moments and quiet hours, we bury our faces in each other’s hair and attempt to inhale the particles of eternity that have begun to settle there.

___________________________________________________

¹ In not especially rare cases, Cipro (and a handful of other antibiotics) attacks all the tendons in a person’s body. DO NOT TAKE CIPRO. Seriously.
² And plenty of the time not so secretly.
³ Have I told you about my fear of death? It is POTENT.
⁴ I’m not kidding. I can’t figure out how to turn this feature off.
⁵ Or at least feigning it well.
⁶ When was the last time you saw an Everyman hero with an actual everyman physique? 1980?
⁷ And hell, throw in a couple ribs, why the fuck not?
⁸ Difficult to jog with an infant attached to one’s nipple, I presume.
⁹ I still love my partner even though she gained 15 pounds?! What am I, A SAINT?!?!