Saturday, April 27, 2013

From the Archives: Once More, With Logistics

Seven years ago today, my daughter was born. On honor of that event, I'm reposting here a reflection from the archives on that day and the lessons learned from having TWO children instead of one.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner claims that an ideal story will have three central characters. Two is too few, because then there will be only one relationship to explore. But add a third character, and one has six relationships: the relationships of A to B, B to C, and A to C, of course; but also A’s relationship to the BC pair, B’s to the AC pair, and C’s to the AB pair. The relational dynamics made possible by a third character creates just the level of complexity needed for a good story. Add a fourth character, however, and things get TOO complex. You can do the math yourself, but in that case what you have are twenty-five relationships. Too much for any normal human being, lacking in divine powers, to handle.

This year our family welcomed its fourth character. Evan’s identical twin, Isabella, was born shortly after 6 PM on a pleasant Oklahoma spring day with nary a tornado in sight. There was, of course, the usual business of my wife enduring labor and delivery (only 22 hours of labor this time), me cutting the cord, Isabella exercising her lungs for the first time, both parents getting the chance to hold the new arrival, etc. But these events and activities, which seemed so significant when Evan was born, were put in their proper perspective this time around by the inescapable reality faced by every second-time parent: logistics.

While I did, of course, spend a certain amount of time actually in the hospital room with my wife, I have little or no memory of this special time of spousal bonding. What I remember, with great vividness, is executing the tenuously orchestrated Child Care Plan—a hastily assembled patchwork quilt of caretakers, each of whom could only watch Evan for a few hours, with each childcare transition being achieved by me dashing out of the hospital to ferry my son from one caretaker to another. This process continued until the arrival of Evan’s grandmother who had to drive in from out of town.

I must say, at this point, that I have a bit of resentment about all of this. I mean, why wasn’t my wife doing her share of ferrying? Here I am, driving all over the city like a madman, while she kicks back in bed with a bevy of nurses waiting on her hand and foot.

I know, I know…she’s supposedly the one who is enduring all these labor pangs and all of that. And that argument clearly had some heft during her last pregnancy, when she put off getting the epidural until she was wracked with Pitocin-induced unquenchable agony of the sort that conservative Christians claim will be endured for all eternity by gays, atheists, and philosophy professors. But this time she had the epidural safely embedded in her spine long before I could detect any traces of suffering.

Okay…admittedly, it would be difficult to drive a car with an epidural embedded in your spine. But at least she could have offered.

It was in the midst of my final harried sojourn to bring Evan to his waiting grandmother that I received The Phone Call on my cell:

“Hi.” Pause. “Eric?”


“Where are you?”

“In our driveway.”

“Umm. Don’t get into an accident or anything getting here but, well, I need you.”

“Need me?”

“It’s time.”


I should point out that, depending on the route one takes, there are between seven and twelve traffic lights separating our driveway from the Stillwater Medical Center. I am convinced that each of these traffic lights has attached to it a device that I will call, for convenience, a Frenzy Detector.

The Frenzy Detector operates in the following way. Much as a lie detector recognizes the physiological cues that accompany dishonesty, the Frenzy Detector identifies the telltale signs of desperate-urgency-to-get-from-point-A-to-point-B-as-quickly-as-humanly-possible. Of course, whereas the lie detector is actually physically wired to the subject, and is thus able to respond to even the most subtle cues, the Frenzy Detector must read its subjects from a distance. Thus, it is triggered only by the most extreme heights of frenzy.

And when it is triggered, it responds by immediately turning the traffic light red.

As this continues to happen to the Frenzied Subject, the degree of frenzy increases exponentially, expressing itself in colorful language that (censored for the younger reader) amounts to something like the following: “Turn green! Darn you to tarnation! Green!! GREEN!!!! *@#!&^%!!!!!!” This is accompanied by the Frenzied Subject’s face turning a deep shade of purple.

And, of course, as soon as the Frenzy Detector senses the appropriate shade of purple, it responds by communicating to the traffic light the instruction to remain red for seven to twelve times the ordinary duration. Finally, the Frenzy Detector communicates to all the other traffic signals in the town, triggering a pattern of light changes designed to maximize traffic congestion along the route chosen by the Frenzied Subject.

Fortunately, epidurals make it possible for pregnant women to resist the urge to push until such a time as wayward husbands and otherwise preoccupied obstetricians can make it to the hospital room. Thus, I was present for the joyous moment when, with an ease reminiscent of one of the opening sketches of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Isabella slipped into the world.

Since that time, I have learned several new things about parenthood, including the following:

1) The strategy of parents staggering their sleep schedules in order to accommodate a new baby’s erratic sleep habits doesn’t work when there’s a three-year-old in the mix. Especially when that three-year-old wakes up every morning at 6 AM like clockwork, dances into his parent’s bedroom, pulls himself up onto the bed using fistfuls of comforter (landing in a sprawl atop Daddy), and then announces that he is hungry. The child, of course, is wonderfully well-rested and eager to start his day, having blissfully slept through the infant’s relentless screaming, which persisted through most of the night until the aforementioned infant finally fell into exhausted sleep at 5:49.

In fact, if there is anything I feel the need to express to other parents who are expecting a second child, it is this: Remember that delicious respite in the middle of the day, when the child would nap and you could finally sit down in the sofa with a cup of tea or a fifith of gin? This will become the time period during which you will be cleaning the baby’s explosive diarrhea off the changing table and nearby walls.

2) My wife put the second lesson succinctly, as follows: “I’ve spent three years diligently struggling to keep my son from killing himself. Now I have to keep him from killing himself and from killing Isabella.”

Let me be clear. Evan adores his little sister. In fact, Isabella is his very favorite toy. There is very little evidence of jealousy or sibling rivalry (although Evan has taken to walking around the house saying, “I’m a baby! I can’t walk! I’m a baby!”). Just the other day, while I was trying to put on Evan’s clothes, Evan was hanging on the edge of Isabella’s Exersaucer mashing his face up against hers (smearing her cheek with liberal amounts of snot, since he had a cold) while singing “I love you soooo much” to the tune of Für Elise. Clearly, this is love.

Unfortunately, he’s a three-year-old boy, and one of his favorite ways to show his enthusiastic affection for his stuffed animals is to pound them repeatedly on the top of the head with his fist. And then there’s the simple matter of three-year-old curiosity, which expresses itself in two ways: remorselessly asking “Why?”, and conducting scientifically imprecise experiments.

His favorite experimental subject is Isabella. You can almost see his intellectual wheels turning as he squats next to Isabella’s bouncer, studying her face while clenching and unclenching his little fists: I wonder what will happen if I put both fingers up her nose at once and then yank them sharply in opposite directions? Oh. Relentless screaming. Interesting.

3) Older siblings closely observe parental behavior towards younger siblings, and if a parent isn’t sufficiently careful, he or she can give away important parental secrets. For example, I used to remove Evan’s nose on a fairly regular basis. I would brandish it in front of him (a little pink bulb sticking out between my fingers) and ask him what I should do with it. Invariably, he would enthusiastically shout, “Eat it!” This would prompt me to pop it into my mouth, swallow it, and then pull it out of my ear and reattach it to Evan’s face.

But when I performed the same trick on Isabella, I saw Evan look back and forth between her face and the little pink blob sticking out of my fist, and I knew the game was up. Yesterday morning, when I snatched off his nose, he looked at me seriously and said, “That’s not my nose. That’s your thumb.”

“It’s your nose!” I insisted.

“My nose is battached. It doesn’t come off.”

“It doesn’t? Then what’s this in my hand?”

“Your thumb!” (He then proceeded to pry apart my fingers to show me that it was, in truth, my thumb.)

“Hmm. Well maybe I should take off Isabella’s nose instead.”

“You can’t. It’s battached too.”

“It is? How do you know?”

“Because God made her that way.”

And, of course, it’s impossible to argue with God.

4) No two children are alike. They may look alike (baby pictures of Isabella and Evan are virtually indistinguishable), but in the ways that count they are different from the very start. And this means that the swaggering confidence with which experienced parents approach the raising of their second child is, well, misplaced. For example, Evan was a screamer, and so Ty and I became used to conducting our adult dinner conversations to a soundtrack of relentless infant outrage. We learned to tune it out.

Isabella, however, is a comparatively happy child—which means that she only screams when she is hungry, or tired, or wants to be held (most of the time), or needs a diaper change, or has an odd rumble in her tummy, or has just had her left pinky bitten off by her big brother during one of his many experiments. She has this irresistible gummy smile and a halo of wispy baby hair, and mostly what we hear from her are vocalizations such as “Dagadaaweiwaa-wuwaaraooooooragadaga.”

Now, one would think that this would make life easier for us. If we’ve mastered a colicky baby, then surely we can handle a happy one. But here you would be…well, okay, admittedly this hasn’t proved to be such a problem.

But consider the following related issue. Evan did not nap until he was well past a year old. From before dawn until well after normal human beings have fallen into exhausted sleep, he would be busy (trying to overturn his bouncer or disassemble his Exersaucer or, when he was a little older but still too young to crawl, rolling across the floor in a committed attempt to reach and seize the dog). Isabella, by contrast, spent a good deal of time during her first months of life actually sleeping. This was, for us, a source of endless worry. “She’s so…listless,” my wife would say. “Do you think she’s sick?”

“Call the doctor.”

My wife dialed the doctor’s number and began talking to the nurse. “Yes. She’s sleeping all the time…Yeah… Oh, maybe twelve hours a day. Sometimes even more…She wakes up, eats, looks around, and goes to sleep again…Uhuh…No, no. No fever… mhmm… okay. Okay, thanks. Bye.”

She turned to me. “Apparently she’s a normal baby.”

5) One thing that I have learned from Evan’s meteoric development is to savor each stage in a child’s life, and not be in too much of a hurry to move on to the next stage.

For example, one of the things I remember with great fondness from Evan’s babyhood is that brief period of time, after Evan learned to sit up but before he learned to crawl, when you could plunk him down on the rug with a toy and then go mix martinis. When you came back into the living room, breathing in the sweet scent of Bombay Sapphire gin, he would still be sitting where you left him, his face purple from screaming but otherwise in good shape (unless he decided to start rolling in your absence, in which case he would be wedged into the narrow gap between the bottom of our futon and the floor).

I say that I remember this brief period with fondness, but at the time I didn’t properly appreciate tit. I saw in his eyes his eagerness to move, to really move, and his eagerness and concomitant frustration were infectious. I cheered him on as he tried to push himself onto all fours, even helping him along as he made his first efforts at crawling. I would, for example, stretch out my leg behind him so that he could use it to push off (since in the absence of such help his initial efforts at crawling led to his moving backwards). I thought (rightly) that the experience of success would encourage his efforts, leading him to master the skill more quickly.

I was, of course, a fool. As any parent will tell you, actual mobility on the part of your child is the first step towards the end of life as you know it. Now I am wiser. Isabella started sitting up a few weeks back. Often, she will be sitting there with a toy and it will roll just out of reach. This will inspire her to lean forward towards it, a determined expression on her little face. She will make a little noise of effort in the back of her throat, something like “Ooooorrraaaaaaghawawawawaga.” And as she leans towards the toy, she will end up propped up on her hands, her legs almost in the proper position for crawling. And then she will inch herself forward with her hands until she plops down on her tummy, just in reach of the elusive toy.

All of this, I know now, is a very bad sign. When this sort of thing was going on with Evan, I would actually sit back and watch, thinking that his efforts to reclaim the toy for himself would inspire him to master the use of his own body. Now, of course, I jump up out of the sofa and skootch the toy back into her reach. “NO crawling!” I will say, waggling my finger at her. “Sitting is gooooooood.” She will respond by smiling up at me happily, and then shoving the toy into her mouth.

Despite these efforts, all the signs indicate that she will be crawling sooner than her brother. I blame the infant/toddler room at her preschool, where she has far too many crawling role models. And so I must savor the moment as best I can. Sadly, since I am on antibiotics, I can’t savor it by mixing martinis.

6) Twice the number of children means twice the worry. This fall, we took Evan to the allergy specialist in Tulsa, who took his history and then order several tests. One of these was a sweat test (for cystic fibrosis). When we got home that evening, Ty began researching cystic fibrosis on the internet. That night, I watched her slip into Evan’s room and lean over his sleeping form in a tender maternal gesture that could only make me smile—until she came in to inform my that she had just licked our son. “It says that children with cystic fibrosis taste salty.”

“Did he taste salty?”

“Not really.”

“Okay, then.”

She proceeded to lick Isabella. “She tastes salty.” All the color left my wife’s face. “Omigod, Eric. What if both of our children have it?”

“They don’t. Evan’s an active…very active…little boy. He just coughs a lot because he’s inherited my asthma.”

“And he gets colds all the time.”

“So do I.”

The next day, her research uncovered a common symptom of cystic fibrosis: pale poop. “Eric, Evan has pale poop. He always has.” (At this point I should jump ahead to the conclusion, just to reassure my readers: Evan’s sweat test was decisively negative). Further research uncovered cases of adults who had mild cases of cystic fibrosis all their lives and never knew it. “Eric. You were tested for it, weren’t you?”


“But some tests are borderline. Was you test borderline?”

“I have no idea.”

During all of this, Isabella contracted a cold, and began coughing and snorting remorselessly. By this time, Ty was confronting the grim certainty that both of our children had this dread disease and were destined to struggle all their lives only to die young.

“It says that one of the signs of cystic fibrosis is wrinkling up quickly in the bath. Oh, Eric, I always thought it was so cute when Evan’s fingers would get all wrinkly in the bath and he’d hold up his fingers and tell me his finger were winkawy. I had no idea.”

“Tanya, my fingers wrinkle quickly in the bath.”

And so we conducted an experiment, actually a kind of race. The next time Evan was in the bath, I stuck my hand in the tub and held it underwater. Every few minutes we would check his fingertips and mine to see who would wrinkle up first. I won.

This was reassuring, but not decisive. “Maybe you have a mild case, and they just never figured it out. It would explain all your sinus problems.”

“Well, I’m still alive and kicking at forty, so if he’s inherited a mild case maybe that’s not such a tragic thing after all.”

And all this time, Isabella was still fighting a persistent cold, hacking her way through the night. I could see the way that Ty would study her beautiful little face, the way every cough would send through my wife a wave of dread and anticipated grief.

And the worry, the anxiety, was infectious.

All is well, of course. My kids have inherited their daddy’s respiratory tract, but no dread disease. Isabella is growing well, with just the right amount of baby plumpness. Evan is a dervish of activity. Life in our home is never dull, and sleep has become a precious resource. Our worries, our fears, and our hopes for our children all spring from a love that's hard to describe, which has little to do with the ways that they make us feel (which is mostly harried and exhausted) and everything to do with who and what they are: precious others, little human beings who are vitally engaged with their world, who are learning and growing and becoming.

They are a testament to possibility, to humanity; and the role that has been entrusted to us—the role of being their parents, the caretakers of the promise that they represent—is a sacred duty and a privilege. I can think of no other task that can do as much to teach the heart what it means to be human. My children are my teachers, even as I strive as best I can to teach them what I know about living well and being good.

Perhaps, in the end, this is what parenthood is about: learning from the loving struggle with our children what it means to live a good human life, and then finding ways to communicate that back to them in words and deeds.

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