“So, how’s your baby doing?”
It was a couple months after my daughter, Eilidh, had been born, and I was having lunch with a friend. Inevitably, this question came up, and I found myself as unable to answer it as always.
“Well, you know, she’s fine. She does the usual baby things. She sleeps pretty well. It’s all pretty good….” I trailed off at my friend’s look.
“You’re not a very gushy person, are you?”
No, I guess I’m not.
Even in writing this article, I find myself caught between two tones: effusiveness and justifying any lack thereof. I find neither of those true to my experience. I have, of course, read and heard people who really can wildly express enthusiasm about their child. I have also seen articles about parents saying that the magical moment of bonding and love-they-have-never-experienced never really happened at the birth of their child, and that it was OK. Love and bonding built over time.
I couldn’t write either of those articles.
Instead, what I really find myself feeling about Eilidh is curiosity. Who is this rapidly growing person who entered our home in the most unusual way? Who demands to be fed at five or six every morning? Who lights up when she catches sight of either me or her mother? Who is this person who compels us to constantly make her laugh, because that makes us laugh too?
I catch her staring at my rows and rows of books (I am a graduate student, after all), and I hope deep down she knows what these are and is already planning to read all of them one day. But will she be a reader? Will she get caught up in the latest fad with novels, or love old books? Will she even have time for poetry? How do I get her interested in these things?
She loves to interact with strangers in a small group, but zones out and gets fussy in large crowds. She doesn’t seem shy. Will she love being the centre of attention, or prefer quiet, one-on-one conversations? How can I teach her to make friends easily?
The other day, though, there was a small moment that helped put these questions in some perspective.
I found Eilidh playing by herself. It was the first time I’d really noticed this. She was passing one of her blankets from one hand to another. Then she’d shake it around. Then drop it. Then pick it up again. She had a look of intense concentration, like her entire being was set on figuring blankets out. I called her name and she barely glanced up at me before going back to her work. The look she gave was, “Not now Dad. I’m working.”
It struck me then that she had an inner-life now. She had picked her own interest and was exploring it. Sure, that interest was “blanket” and her exploration consisted of clumsy hand movements and waving the object in front of her face. But it wasn’t something her mother or I had tried to get her interested in. She had asserted herself as a person very much in relation with us, but also very distinct from us. She was going to figure this one out on her own.
I find so much of the advice you get about raising a child is about control. You make choices to control the future of her health, her intellectual ability, her interests, her relational abilities.
That day with the blanket, though, I realized much of this was out of my hands. I could do my best to nudge things in the best possible direction, to be sure, but Eilidh was going to surprise me as well. If I’m genuinely asking, “Who is this?” I can’t be providing my own answers to that question.
But I can discover who this new person is, while raising her to be the best she can be. Well, that’s the ideal. I’ll also probably help her assert just as much of her identity by doing things she reacts against. That’s part of the job too.
Even so, the most remarkable thing about watching a baby grow up is seeing her discover and grow into who she is. It’s the greatest privilege for me as a father to be able to discover this alongside her.
So who is she? She is completely and utterly herself. I have no idea what this means, but I’m pretty excited to find out.
Flickr photo by Sarah M Stewart