In Nature, transformation is a given. Picture the caterpillar or the tadpole, and the butterfly and frog come quickly to mind. People too, need to transform to grow, but some do this less elegantly than other. Take me, for example:
Months before we could feel our daughter doing parkour inside Sian’s belly, we had talks about what hip, badass parents we’d be. We swore we’d stay fun. We’d be the sort of parents who strapped on the kid and went to dj parties at Barnsdall, played music and danced into the wee hours while the baby slept swaddled in a sea of friends’ coats piled on the bed. Then Aniko was born, and she, as it turned out, had come with her own trajectory.
To be clear, everything up to the birth was perfect, idyllic, even. Sian was happy, the baby was healthy and short of skydiving on mushrooms, we did pretty much whatever we wanted. The birth itself was intense, in that it resembled a Manson crime scene, but it was also awesomely, awfully, beautiful. My wife entered some primal, shamanic state, and wooed our daughter into the world through a vast, dark and unknowable sea. Watching it (and let’s face it, for all the training, that’s what the man does) was like witnessing a new continent take form. A violent, volcanic and tectonic process in which the earth yielded mightily to render a new world. And even this was still largely on our terms. It was more or less the birth “plan” we’d scripted. It was when Aniko made her appearance that we realized all control had been lost.
The joking comparison everyone makes is that childbirth is “like” the scene from ALIEN, wherein John Hurt made movie history by birthing a screaming, indestructible monster via his sternum. In the case of sweet Aniko, aka “Niko”, this description was astonishingly accurate. I had seen enough birth videos to expect that the arrival would be silent until someone cleared the child’s esophagus, but Aniko took care of that all on her own. No sooner did her head appear than the shoutin’ started. And she kept shouting for the next three months. Niko was born severely colic. Her digestive tract was a gaseous, swollen insult and her entire body hurt. At 8.2 pounds, she farted like a large man, constantly. That first night, sprawled out on separate cots in our tiny little hospital room, Sian and I lay staring at one another through baked, bloodshot eyes, and spoke hopefully of this passing phase, desperately trying to convince each other that this couldn’t go on for long.
Thank God for the nurses who helped us navigate that first, hallucinogenic 24 hours. Niko would try to sleep, fail, then surrender to bitter tears over her grandly failing stomach. We would haul ourselves up from the miserable cots and blearily bear witness, useless, while the nursing staff at Cedars handled our angel like a large boiled potato, changing her diaper and swaddling her with blunt, practiced hands. They’d bind her spidery arms in cotton, whisper in her hot tiny ear and bounce her until, slowly, her dark, celestial eyes would close, and sleep would descend….for about 30 minutes, and the whole routine would begin again. The next day, as we were heading home with Niko, the head nurse on the floor, a no-nonsense Russian woman (cliche, I know, but true), handed her to us like a loaf of pumpernickle, and said, “You have difficult child. Good luck”. There was no irony or fun in her tone. We were raw, outraged, indignant. “What the hell, she’s a baby”, we said to each other, “what a bitch”.
Niko and her colic-y self didn’t so much as put a dent in our identities as she re-arranged them on a molecular level. And, yes, this is the point of parenthood. The colic just made the transformation so much more extreme, like the way a freight train renders a dim-witted cow into ground chuck. So much for the all night dance parties while the baby slept on a pile of coats, or strapping our adorable lump into the Baby Bjorn so we could go to the wine tasting with the dj. Niko was in a lot of pain, we couldn’t even get 1/2 way up the block in a stroller. For the first 3 months, she never slept more than 90 minutes; her distended, expanded, useless belly kept her in constant agony. We dove into the wormhole of blogs about colic, implored the universe for help and then endured a thousand largely useless “remedy” suggestions from good people with the best intentions. We tried gripe water, reflux drugs, chamomile waters and special teas for Sian. Our house cleaner became our shaman, and cooked Guatemalan meals to cure the child. In the end, the best advice we got was also the hardest to hear, “Ride it out, it will be over in 3 months, maybe 4, possibly 8…never ever more than 1 year.” That was our pediatrician, and we thought he was joking. Surviving another month, much less 3 or 4 seemed utterly impossible.
But he was right. Until her digestive system sorted itself out, the only thing that made any sense was being there for her. As the cruelties of colic worked their way through our daughter, Sian and I went slowly over the edge. We became disciples of “THE FOUR S’s”, spent long, haggard days and nights bouncing her on the yoga ball, humming songs, swaddling, shushing, shaking (gently, I swear), and praying that sleep would come. White noise worked for a little while. More than once I came home from work to find Sian holding Niko over the sink, the hair-dryer blasting. There was some fun. I did enjoy pedaling her legs to help her, “fart it out”. We even had a song we’d sing. But the joy was fleeting. During the worst of it, I looked across the bedroom at Sian, so wrecked from sleep deprivation that my bones hurt, tears burning my eyes, and said, “Why did we do this? Why did we ruin our lives?”
Sian, of course, was taking the worst of it, physically. The “normal” round-the-clock feedings, the pressure to produce milk, to keep her child alive, compounded the stress that sleeplessness imparts to the body. “I feel like a tired cow”, she said repeatedly. And yet, she was much more patient than I was. She was not given to rage and angry frustration, and more than once demanded I just walk away. I’m not proud of it. Not one bit proud of how this sweet, tiny, suffering kid brought out the worst in me. Truth is, I was loathe to give into her needs. I hated surrendering who I had been and the freedoms I enjoyed. I was the guy who surfed, backpacked, traveled and took pictures. I worked in cool places, partook in exotic rituals- Oh Burning Man, will I ever dig your dust out of my nose again? – and now I was being asked to surrender all that. Well…duh. It’s no mistake that it took me 52 years to have a kid. I was- and am- loathe to give up my “freedom”. And what becomes clearer and clearer as Niko and our family evolve, is that holding onto freedom is pointless. Surrender, is where it’s at. That’s where the growth happens, that’s when transformation is allowed to occur. This is all around us in nature, the instinctual practice of surrendering to become. Me I needed a colicky kid to truly get it.
Aniko is 9 months now. And the colic is gone. From that red-faced, howling bundle of need is emerging a mischievous, happy kid. A magical, kid, actually. Not “…trailing clouds of glory..” as Wordsworth lamented but actually in the moment, alive in all her glory. Fussy, at times, and not the best sleeper, but pound for pound the most fun person I’ve ever met. She is, in short, transforming with grace. I, on the other hand, am neither butterfly nor tadpole. I go kicking and screaming into my mature state, but I’m going.