"Have mercy, little hallspwawn; please, please -- just tell me: what do you want?"
That is the sound of me shamelessly begging my infant daughter to give up what ails her, to empower me to do something useful to interfere with her solo performance of banshee opera. She pauses, looks at me searchingly with tear-filled eyes, and fills her lungs afresh: a new tragic aria begins, her round little face beet red, her tight little fists flailing with fury. She desperately wants relief, and is enraged that I seem unwilling to provide it.
A headache begins to brew behind my eyes, and I am forced to wonder whether or not the reckoning of the doomsayers has finally come to pass -- whether this endless caterwauling might herald the beginning of a new age, in which my quiet, smiling, cherubic daughter is displaced for good by a wrathful, tortured sprite whose screeching pleas can never be answered.
At long last she is beginning to nod off, snarling and whining in a light sleep as she pushes her head against my shoulder. After many patient hours of pacing and cooing, I am bleeding exhaustion through my eyes. I am left raw, and surly. I have been victimised by an infant, reduced to a doubt-filled shell of a man, holding my aching lower back like a dotard.
Feebly, I summon the last of my gumption and drag my fingers to the keys: it is time for me to issue this Fifth Trimester Report.
The story so far. En precis: after inflating like a carnival balloon for nine months my wife squatted down in a wading pool and squirted out a small blue thing whom we named Ingrid. Young Ingrid turned pink, got a grip on pulmonary respiration, learned to breastfeed and then set right to the task of growing. By the age of three months she had evolved from a limp, passive meat-log into a small person, beginning to tentatively exert her will and interact with the world at large.
That's when her first tooth pushed up through her lower gum. We were delighted. We took pictures. We kept shoving our fingers into her mouth and feeling the new little serrated edge there. Despite manifesting the typical symptoms like excessive drooling, rashes and erratic appetite, everyone agreed that Ingrid was tolerating teething like a champion.
Within a week two more teeth sprouted, one on either side of the original. Like a tiny savage animal, Ingrid quickly learned that the pains of teething could be soothed by ferociously biting anything unfortunate enough to end up in her mouth. People kept sticking their fingers in despite our warnings.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," I'd say. "She bites pretty hard."
"Oh, she's just a baby," they would reply with a smile, oohing and aahing as they gently molested the new teeth. "She's not going to hurt m -- Jesus Murphy Brown!" This was always followed by a rapid digital retreat, and a subsequent inspection and exclamation of surprise at the deep, red clefts left throbbing from the bite. "By God she's strong!"
Of course, fingers weren't her only plaything: she also discovered the joy of chewing on my wife's nipples. Needless to say, this didn't much impress my wife. Now more often than not the contented, rhythmic humming that was the sound of Ingrid feeding was punctuated with sharp gasps from my wife. "You can't do that!" she would cry, pulling her nipple out of the baby's mouth. Ingrid would pause, smile, and then savagely bite the breast again.
Shortly after we moved house (again) -- as we were basking in the relief that came from watching Ingrid adjust smoothly to so much change so quickly -- our little imp decided that she should be able to chew on my wife's nipples as much as she pleased. She declared, through her actions, that biting was the sole method of nipple stimulation she was willing to make use of. This meant, of course, that her feedings were peppered with interruptions as my wife tried to keep the tips of her tits from behind gnawed off...
As I have mentioned previously, the breast and the baby are meant to engage in a sort of dialogue -- the breast knows what the baby needs based on the type, timing and duration of stimulation given the nipple during the feed. The critical factor in our situation was likely duration; unbeknownst to us, Ingrid's stuttered feedings were communicating a garbled message to my wife's mammaries. Nothing seemed amiss -- I mean, the kid was getting lots of milk. Little did we know that it was, for the most part, nothing more than watery foremilk...
It was just then that two of the most painful teeth, the so-called eye teeth, began their descent from Ingrid's upper jaw. Her cheeks, thighs, buttocks and vagina were suddenly engulfed in a blazing rash. Tiny pimples broke out on her face. She became dyspeptic, impatient and irritable. She even cried. I mean -- like a baby. "Holy crap, she's discovered crying," I said to my wife. "We're screwed."
My wife became suspicious. Why was this most recent bout of teething causing such unholy rage? Worse, Ingrid's teething symptoms seemed to be waning, yet her mood had not improved. Could she be suffering some adverse effect stemming from her first round of inoculations? No, the shot had been given weeks ago -- far too long for Ingrid to continue to manifest the fever, rashes and/or upset stomach we were told may appear for a day or two as her immune system adjusted to being walloped with select samples of undead virus. Our library of baby books had nothing informative to add, since they all regarded crankiness and crying as par for the course.
"Could she be hungry?" my wife wondered.
I didn't think so. "If she were hungry, would she be sleeping through the night?"
My wife examined the bottle of grape-flavoured Children's Tylenol (acetaminophen) we had been sparingly administering to take the edge off of the teething fever. "Maybe this stuff is sedating her enough to get to sleep okay."
"It's possible," I admitted.
"Let's offer her some formula," my wife said.
Baby formula comes in a tin of concentrated flakes, a bit like instant mashed potatoes. Water is added at two parts to one, and the resulting admixture is stirred with an attempt not to overly aerate. Next, it is heated slightly in a microwave-safe container.
Many people will rush to tell you that, 1) everything included in the formula preparation process must be boiled to a level of sterility that challenges the surface of Mars, including the water; and 2) microwave ovens should never be used for heating formula. The former concern stems from previous generations' obsessions with providing babies with an antiseptic environment, a point of view which, while laudibly anti-mediaeval, some believe may actually do more harm than good. We wash Ingrid's things the same way we wash our own cups and plates, and we use our city's very potable tapwater, run once through a charcoal filter. As for microwave ovens: it is my opinion that most advice about microwave ovens stems from a foolish paranoia generated by a profound ignorance of the basic mechanics of microwave heating (a void usually filled with superstitious mumbo-jumbo about leaking radioactivity and soul-warping electromagnetic fields). To be sure, microwave-safe cookware is recommended (some non-microwave-safe plastics may exude questionable materials when heated) but that begins and ends the list of reasonable precautions. Anything beyond that is pure technophobia.
At any rate, many sources recommend tasting the formula to test the temperature. Myself, I recommend sprinkling a little on the sensitive skin on the inside of your wrist instead, because -- make no mistake -- baby formula tastes fucking awful.
Ingrid, however, did not agree. Upon getting over the rubbery feel of the artificial nipple, she gorged herself stupid on that vile stuff. She hummed and coughed to herself as she fought to ingest the entire quantity in a single swallow. In moments, she was done. She even sucked out the foamy bits at the bottom. Ten seconds later she was asleep, a grin of beatific satisfaction spreading on her milky lips.
My wife and I heaved a huge sigh of relief. Our baby was back.
For the better part of the next day Ingrid did nothing but eat. For the better part of the day after that she did nothing but sleep. And when she awoke from this marathon of catharsis on the third day, she was a new baby.
She was a baby who knew about having hands.
Her world changed instantly and profoundly. Those useless little patties on the ends of her arms had been transmogrified overnight into claws, grappling hooks, and load-bearing loci. Not only had her ability to thrash herself around increased tenfold, but she could also use her hands to express her nascent will: reaching for an empty bottle to express hunger, for example, or reaching to choose one toy over another.
Of course, she didn't wake up with expertise -- just gumption. Basic concepts like distance continued to elude her, as she would reach out enthusiastically in an attempt to grab objects on the other side of the room, her face the picture of bewilderment as her fingers flexed uselessly in the air. (For the record, all of our baby's stabs at telekinesis have failed. Trained as a Jedi she will not be.)
Our baby having auto-weaned at four months, my wife's breasts gave up the milk. They did so without fanfare, and without causing her any discomfort. Ever courteous is my wife's bosom.
Of course, this meant that any given feeding was entirely up for grabs -- every sex on equal footing. No longer was it necessary for Ingrid to come grocery shopping with a busy mommy when she could fart around the house with a bottle-armed daddy. And fart around we did. We learned several new games involving making surprised faces, raspberries, kisses, blinks and hiding, and figured out that grabbing my beard painfully close to the skin is high comedy. We learned that Ingrid prefers toys that are round, but will gladly toss even the roundest toy aside in order to roll up into a ball and bite her own toes.
My wife had introduced a small lunchtime feeding of solid foods (actually fine pastes of solid foods), and I dutifully carried this out as best as I could. While ice-cube tray sized portions of squashed up squash, yams, and carrots presented no real obstacle (Ingrid is a happy and obliging eater, with a good concept of spoon mechanics) beyond the general messiness of all parties, the special flakes of transitional infant formula mixed with oatmeal which required nothing but added water presented a serious preparation challenge that shall not be detailed here for the sake of my dignity, save to warn the unwary that endless iterations of "more cereal! -- no no wait, more water!" never end in anything but buying more cereal. I think I made a whole bloody box each time, just to feed her a dibble of the right consistency. (Be warned: you cannot refrigerate an infinite amount of baby gruel. As a cruel joke, it turns out the stuff goes watery when cold, thus spawning a new, horrible loop.)
With regular solid food came regular solid poo, christened stinky with formula funk. At first it came twice in the evening, now it comes twice in the morning. (I am the co-captain of somebody else's poo, and I feel fine.) We still sing to her about being a naked bum girl. And, at risk of her taking Wanda June-style legal action against me sometime in the 2020s, here is a sample of the base lyric around which we improvise:
Naked bum girl, naked bum girl,As you will have no doubt by now surmised, my wife and I have gone quite insane.
Naked bum girl in the naked bum world;
Who's got a naked bum? Ingrid does, Ingrid does.
Who's got a naked bum? Ingrid does, Ingrid does.
She's a naked bum, naked bum...naked bum girl!
...And then, for the better part of one day our baby ate. And for the better part of the next day our baby slept. On third day she woke briefly to eat as if starved, and then slept again. And when she awoke on the fourth day from this newest chrysalis, she was again a new girl.
She could squeal in delight. She could sit. She could slap her hands against her knees, and copy an adult in timing and rhythm. She could push herself up to rock on her hips, to flail her chubby legs within spitting distance of co-ordinated crawling. She could shout for attention, or turn her head at hearing her name. Most of all, when you look in her eyes there was somebody home in a new and startling way.
The connection is complete. The love is profound. If you tried to take her away from me now, I'd gladly murder you. I'm not being glib. It's an unsettling phase transition of the inner moral compass, unlike anything I experienced while falling in love with my wife (not to disparage that love, of course, because that's some fine, fine lovin' right there). It's different.
I consider Ingrid's happiness to be my personal responsibility. At this point, my job is easy: all I have to be is an animated clown. Later on we can talk pony.
And now she is a half year old...
Her mouth is brimming with tiny little vicious teeth. She still has no real hair -- she continues to sport nothing up top but a soft, auburn mohawk -- but she shouts and sings and plays. She tries to distribute loose, wet babykisses to the people she recognises. She wants to grab everything, and then eat it. (She experiments. The other night she grabbed a blade of grass, shoved it into her throat, and then threw up like the girl in The Exorcist. Lesson learned: grass is interesting.) She likes to grab handfuls of cat fur, dog jowl, or doll hair. She tugs on her ear when she's feeling taxed, as I do. She sucks on the back of her forearm, as I did as a child. She gains strange enjoyment from rotating her wrists back and forth, which is all her own. She thinks sneezes are hilarious, and clothes are extraneous. She has wrinkles at her joints that make it look like she's wearing a fat-suit. When she's dreaming she looks like she's flying. She has the prettiest blue eyes I've ever seen.
My wife and I are a tightly integrated welcome committee, full of enthusiastic newbie information about the mammal way of life. We are greeters at the entrance to Planet Earth. "We'll show you the ropes, kid," we say in babytalk; "let's start with the basics. This, we call green."