At a loss for words

Week 9 of Baby: 12/17/2007


I sat down to write this yesterday with Lena in the Ergo front-carrier. She was mostly quiet, sort of half-awake, half-nuzzling herself to sleep. There was nothing to stop me from writing--at least, nothing visible. My fingers poised above the keyboard, a vague idea of what I wanted to write about, and then... nothing. I could only stare.

The presence of a baby in my life renders me stupid. Words fail me. No, that's not fair. I fail words. The words aren't at fault; they're right there, waiting for me to access them. I grope around, blind, stumbling into misplaced predicates and a preponderance of the words "stuff" and "thingie," as in, "Can you hand me the thingie? It's behind--under--to the left of--the stuff. Over there."

As a writer and a talker and a hypochondriac, this sort of thing (thingie?) could panic me. I have no other skills, aside from folding laundry. Instead of not-quite-supporting my family through my writing, maybe I should not-quite-support them by taking in our neighbors' laundry? (That used to be a job, right? Let's bring it back.)

But I'm not panicking. Last time--when this happened after Sylvia's birth--I panicked a little. I asked my friend the award-winning neuropsychiatrist (no joke) if it was possible that I was losing my language skills. He said, "You've been losing them since you were 25. We all have." Pointing out my normal, gradual loss of brain cells was strangely comforting--"I'm going down, but at least I'm following the curve!" He guessed that in my case, what I was noticing was a combination of my greater attention to language than most people, sleep-deprivation, and hormones. He also guessed that I'd get better. I hadn't noticed that I had improved, but I'm going to assume that I did, the evidence being that I'm now worse again. Like not noticing that no one in the house has been sick for the past couple of weeks... until one of us gets sick. (That would be Lena: Two colds in two months of life. And counting!)

My case of language-loss is not impervious to remedies: Caffeine helps. Sleep helps. Reading helps. Not wearing or hearing or looking at Lena helps.* Because when I look at Lena, I feel that surge of hormones, that tell-tale tingle of the ta-tas, and it's all downhill from there.

I've heard an evolutionary explanation for "mommy brain"--that you'd have to be kind of sleepy and dopey to agree to stick around to care for your baby. Your screaming, rutting, stinky, petulant baby. If you had all of your faculties, would you really keep your end of this lopsided bargain? I get this line of thinking, but I don't think it covers it. It doesn't account for love, for instance. Or for feeling responsible. It assumes that a quick-witted person wouldn't also have a sense of loyalty or responsibility or love for her baby, feelings which would prevent a mad dash for the border.

It also suffers from the misconception that--were it not for a hormone-induced stupor--we would see our kids as "other," as individuals separate from ourselves, with their competing needs and desires. People often say that good mothers are selfless, and there is a bit of truth in that--in order to properly care for our kids, we sometimes have to put aside our most selfish desires. But--and maybe this is just me--providing for my children's happiness doesn't feel selfless to me. It actually feels selfish. After all, these are my kids we're talking about, right? Not yours? If they were your kids, and I cheerily said "Naaah, I'm fine here!" as I wrestled them into their snowpants, found their missing mittens, tucked their hair into their hats, and then held them over the potty one last time? Then yes, I'd agree. I'd be the Mother Teresa of Vicarious Motherhood.

But since we are talking about my own brood, I don't think I get any accolades. I generally care more about their immediate happiness than I care about my own. That may sound selfless, but honestly, it doesn't feel that way. Making them happy makes me happy. The two are intertwined. When I give Sylvia a too-generous Hanukkah present? It makes me happy in a greedy sort of way, as if I were the one receiving the gift. When I'm able to comfort Lena with only my own body? That makes me happy, too, in a very visceral sense--a relief that I imagine approximates her own. That's not to say that when Sylvia's angry eyes are flashing at me, or when Lena cries for 30 minutes straight, that I don't understand that these kids are "other," that they're not-me, and that we don't always have the same interests. I'm not totally loony. But I think a lot of thinking about parenthood ignores the blurred line that exists between us and our kids, as if we're all equal "actors" in the free market, or something.

So. The words. They go away. And then, in bursts, they come back... only to disappear again. But the best thing? The kids don't. The kids--they stay. And since there are no words that do the job of explaining how that makes me feel... well, you know. That thingie makes my stuff... you know. Nice.

*And yes: I wrote this under exactly these conditions.

Join writer Emily Bloch each week as she chronicles her pregnancy--and now, life with a new baby.