My Babies

Babies don’t last. A blink of the eye and she’s asking for the car keys. Suddenly the little cutie with luscious long eyelashes towers over me as he opens the door with the utmost chivalry. My babies are sixteen and seventeen years old. I really have to pay attention.

Babies are the most intense mindfulness training I have ever experienced. I remember thinking I had the rhythm of the newborn down, the exact sequence of diaper, bottle, burping, humming a monotone calming tune, and Bingo-a new twist developed, another decibel of crying and bigger tears required a whole new approach. I could hardly keep up. I was forced to interpret non-verbal communication, without knowing that the vocabulary is so intricate and extensive. I learned to go with the flow, do whatever it took to attend to the needs of the Tiny One. Walk quietly around the bedroom one thousand times at three in the morning to achieve the newborn’s return to sleep. How can something so small be so exhausting?

A baby is the youngest in the family group, a baby mama the birth giver of your child but not the partner you are involved with.  Baby is a term of endearment, an involuntary exclamation during sexual acrobatics.

It all depends on the context and your inflection.

Oh, Baby!

And I determinedly wanted one.

Nine months after all the required appointments with the social worker, fingerprints for federal criminal background check, home study paperwork, and the required payments, the phone call came to announce that she had arrived. After a nerve-wracking day of canceled and rearranged flights to the Big Easy, my partner and I had just settled in and unpacked when the social worker knocked. I opened the hotel door to my adventure to motherhood.

I fell in love with her feet. They were sticking out of the hospital issue blanket in the crook of the social worker’s elbow as he stood in the doorway. He gave me his wife’s phone number in case I had any questions as he headed out the door. He was swiftly off into the rainy warm October night to deliver another infant over in Baton Rouge.

I never knew a baby could be so small. She weighed less than a five-pound bag of pure cane sugar but she was all complete.  I was unconditionally in love and instantly captive of her sleeping face. Her eyes fluttered open and our gazes met. ‘Hello, welcome to the world little one,’ I whispered. She slammed her eyes shut and continued her snooze.

Zora, after Neale Hurston of the Harlem Renaissance, was clearly strong and insightful, obviously a budding literary diva from the moment I first held her. She listened intently as I read a Cajun folktale to her on her third day out of the womb. As we strolled along Canal Street people black and white would smile and try to look into the carrying apparatus on my chest. They could see those wee feet sticking out but the rest of her was hidden, she was so deep inside the pouch. We wandered through the French Quarter, peered at a bayou, and I learned the secrets of what to expect in the first year, but this time of your African American baby, from the hotel staff. There was no such wisdom in the popular baby book. The manager said to check at the base of her fingernails to find the color her skin would become. The women who came with fresh towels warned that she would have a bad case of “arm-itis” if I didn’t put her down once in a while, but how could I? I eyed a vegetable scale in the grocery store to weigh her but decided it was too precarious. I didn’t want to risk her falling into the lettuce and peanuts below, so I’d have to wait for the pediatrician visit once we got home to see how much weight she had gained.

The funny thing about babies is that everyone who has one acts as if there had never been another one on the planet before.  Every new gurgle, every new physical accomplishment required a phone tree of announcements.   My sister was tireless, calmly listening to every amazing milestone. Other friends immediately glazed over and nodded, but I was oblivious to their ambivalence.

Babies require gob-smacking adoration and relentless patience. People think they don’t do much. Sleep, eat, coo, snooze, poop, and cry. That’s about it. In reality a lot is happening, undercover and below the surface. They gain a little weight and get a little longer when really their brain is developing at warp speeds, synapses are snapping at a rate Verizon and Google would pay billions to mimic.  Those neurotransmitters are the makers of memory and the sleeping Teeny One is preparing to receive a life of information.

Their bodies are a front for all the personality and temperamental development they are up to.  Their experiments in motion as they strive for physical agility are hardly a match for their verbal skills. Zora soon sang jazz riffs in her car seat and inadvertently played kitchen percussion as she crawled into the cupboards. The Border collie grew weary of the multigrain cereal — I called them the Multicultural Cheerios — Zora spilled on the floor until her fingers grew adept enough for her to toss them with purpose.

As inexplicable as their defining personality traits are their expressions. Where does the self come from?  The wonder of babies is also in their androgynous nature. Cooing, smiling and learning to sit up are all gender free. My baby girl was distinctive in her smile and her penetrating gaze.  She would gather every facial muscle into an expression we called her “what you talking about white woman?” look when too much was happening and everything around her was getting confusing.

In those late Nineties, our little state of Vermont was instantly diversified as many couples adopted children of color and adopted internationally. We were a spontaneous grassroots multicultural movement.  Ten years from now, the majority of children under the age of 18 will be currently so-called minorities. The USA will have a whole new way of thinking about who we are as Americans.  I wanted to adopt an African American infant because I knew there were many kids in our country in need of parents and I wanted to walk hand in hand into this diverse future with my child.

On our first Vermont outing we encountered a grocery store employee collecting carts in the parking lot. He stared at my swaddled infant and asked, “Is that a Negro?” I was startled,  yet as my heart beat loudly, instantly replied, “Yes, and isn’t she amazing?” as I put my bags in the car and popped her in her car seat.  Later that week a lady at the town hall exclaimed, “Oh, she’s colored!” and I quietly replied that ‘colored’ was an archaic term, that people usually used ‘African American’ now. I was learning swiftly that walking into the world as a transracial family required constant and very calm responses.

Babies inspire smiles and lots of ooohing and aahing. Zora got them all from the people at work who would hold her during meetings. She started going to classes with me, listening to the sound of students talking about civil rights, and women’s and gay people’s history.  She babbled along or slept contentedly in the fray of conversation. Pretty soon she could tell a whole story. Anne Lamott calls this early verbosity Latvian in her memoir about her son’s first year. As we were getting seated on a plane to visit my mother someone commented on her baby talk. I said, ‘Oh she speaks fluent Latvian,’ and heads popped up over the seats two rows ahead, ‘My mother is Latvian!’ I was busted. I confessed the whole story of Lamott’s Operating Instructions and my baby’s love of the rhythm of language she couldn’t yet speak. It was funny after the embarrassment wore off.

The answering machine was blinking when we came in after an autumn romp in the leaves. Zora had just had her first birthday. I was thinking she was such a big kid, so capable and toddling with a vengeance. I missed the essence of babyhood in the drooling head clunking onto my shoulder as she suddenly fell asleep, the baby powder smell after the bath, the inability of movement beyond the corner of the blanket, the safety of small beings. I reached for the ‘play’ button on the machine. The message demanded a quick response to the question, would I take the brother?

So I found myself on another plane to pick up another itty-bitty baby. He was just a little heavier than that bag of sugar, but not by much. He slept with his fingers touching over his head. When my sister saw the photograph she dubbed him the Buddha Baby.

Dashiell and I arrived at the airport where Zora just smiled and patted his head. All week she had refused to talk to me on the phone but she had gone on and on in her Latvian, speaking directly into the remote control for the television. She must have worked out the idea of a brother coming because she greeted him with that pat on his head as if she had been expecting him all along.

Adoption is a funny thing. There is not a drop of blood between mother and child. It is extra uncanny how many things we share: language acuity, insight into how things work, impatience with small talk, being especially outraged by unfairness, a sense of humor, fury at being misinterpreted, supreme gentleness with little kids, puppies or kittens, and intense intuition.

Then of course each child has skills and innate sensibilities so different: she singing, he soccer. She loved being with her plush lion in her crib, a tiny sachet of lavender for her to grasp and sooth her to sleep. I would rock him to sleep on my shoulder, ease him in to the crib as smoothly and meticulously as a bomb disposal technician defuses an explosive, and he would jolt awake and holler. He was my boomerang. As soon as he scooted (he never crawled) out of sight, he’d peek around the corner to be sure I was right there, along with the Border collie or his sister.  She loved being alone to read books, tell stories with her stuffed animals and his Tonka trucks. He, not so much. He’d find his way under my desk while I was working or into the story his sister was telling. He started making engine sounds to go along with her story lines as soon as he could follow along.

Babies make big people laugh. Puppies or two dogs playing in the yard can have the same affect. There is something about them (babies and puppies) that allow us to pause, gather hope, and revisit joy. A baby has the power to return big people to that deep peace place that they rarely remember to visit.  Breathing so sweet in sleep, so dazzled blinking in a beam of sunlight or happily staring at the ceiling fan, tiny fingers holding the breeze. Forget finding the moon, the fan is just astounding.

Blinking myself, I utter out loud, Baby, my dear one, the keys are right there in your hands.





Posted on March 16, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Individual Poet

    What a wonderful essay! I love your writing (and you and your family).

  2. Individual Poet

    Oh, and this is Caryn (by the way).

  3. I was all set not to like this, but I read it anyway and I loved it. Thanks. Good way to start my morning.

  4. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I began the essay and read that Zora was asking for the car keys and Dashiell now towers over you! The fact that he opens doors gallantly, didn’t surprise me at all. He behaved with the same way sensitivity to others as a little tot.

    This is a beautiful reflection on two very special people, who have been and continue to be deeply loved and nurtured. As I pause to reflect on my shared times with them, as well as with you and Lucinda, I am awed at the passing of time. Now that I am permanently in Vermont, I look forward to seeing them both as young adults.

  5. Michael Geisser

    Shelley, your essay brought me back to when my two daughters were little fidgeters and tiny disrupters of my life. Well written. Thanks, Mike

  6. this is sooo good! Makes me miss MY babies like crazy…Let’s have lunch together in the sun in the next couple months, ok?

  7. Beautiful, Shelley. Thanks!

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