I have a friend I’ve been corresponding with for sixteen years but have never met. She recently had her first child and asked me for advice. I wrote her this letter in reply.
Babies are pure mystics. If they meet the vice president of the United States, they are unmoved. They may prefer a cow. Babies obey no laws, because they know no laws. They are sensuous, abstract. Babies are like a giant pair of lips.
If all mystics prophesy a future utopia, infants predict a world in which everyone is liplike.
Babies are illiterate. They do not work. They are forbidden to vote (although they may perch on your shoulder in the voting booth and influence your choice). Money means nothing to them. An infant might tear a twenty-dollar bill in half or eat a penny.
All babies are beautiful, but when my father was young, in the 1920s, Jewish women would gather around a newborn and announce (in Yiddish): “She’s so ugly!” This was to prevent the baby’s soul from being stolen by malign phantoms called “dybbuks.”
Living with a baby forces you to reevaluate your every assumption about life. It’s like moving to Zambia. No, that’s not quite right. Zambia has a culture. Babies have the opposite of a culture: they are artless. Living with a baby is more like moving to a nation of intelligent birds.
Babies are gentle. They never wish to hurt (although they’ve certainly pulled my beard). Their one fault is a tendency to scream, but even this is not aggressive; rather, they seem to be experiencing a horrifying fright.
Babies are musically astute. They understand Mahler as well as a third-year composition student does. The moment you put on a CD by jazz pianist Horace Silver, a baby responds, undulating her limbs as if dancing. And yet she may hate the Rolling Stones.
Perhaps each infant’s musical taste is connected to her past lives. When my daughter was two months old, she preferred Indian classical music. We had a tape (in 1991 people still listened to music on cassettes) titled Sadarang, and whenever we played it, Sylvia would coo. After a month or two I discovered a soundtrack from the Bollywood movie Rahi Badal Gaye. Sylvia loved it, too! My wife, Violet, and I began to suspect our daughter had lived in Mumbai in a previous life.
When Sylvia was four months old, we took her to Rose of India, one of our favorite restaurants. Sylvia reached down and ladled some of the dal (a red-lentil soup) into her mouth with her hand. This was the first food she’d ever eaten. Now my wife and I were certain Sylvia had once inhabited the Indian subcontinent, perhaps as recently as 1978.
When you have a baby, the world becomes divided into two types of people: good people, who love your child as much as you do; and enemies, who seek silence in public places. Now that my daughter’s infancy is long past, I have become one of the enemies. When I eat dinner at a half-empty Thai restaurant in which a baby screams for seven minutes, I am outraged. I mask my outrage out of shame, but secretly I’m an enemy.
The Puerto Ricans in your neighborhood are good people. As you walk down the street, they look up from the stoop where they’re sitting and say, “Qué lindo!” — How lovely! (They use the masculine form because you’ve dressed your daughter in a blue sweater your sister-in-law gave you.) “Qué lindo!” is exactly the right phrase for your baby. No words in English carry the same devotional lilt.
God gave you the task of caring for this baby, but your new role of parent involves paradoxes. For one thing, you will make mistakes. How can you protect the baby from yourself? Your spouse — who is even stupider than you — will also make mistakes. Should you protect your baby from your husband or wife? No, that’s absurd. Yet it’s your first impulse.
You and your spouse will have arguments about the proper way to raise this child, who resembles both of you and who holds the only hope for our otherwise-doomed planet.
Husband: We should carry her as much as possible. She enjoys being next to us, feeling our hearts beating.
Wife: But sometimes she’s happy just lying down, looking out the window.
Husband: Yes, of course. But babies need contact with skin.
Wife: You’re just generalizing. Each baby is different. We need to discover what Ella wants.
Suddenly your every conversation has an air of aggravation. Admit it: your sex life is not so good at the moment. Neither is your married life in general. Why? Because you are both slaves to the same hairless master, who is twenty-six inches long — and slaves are rarely harmonious. Your master is unpredictable. She may sleep through the night every night for three months, then wake up every twenty minutes for the next four days.
Suddenly you have a crisis: You’re tired of parenting. You’ve had it with this kid. You would give her back, but there’s no one to give her to. It’s too humiliating to offer her up for adoption. I am a fucking awful parent, you think. And you are a fucking awful parent. Join the club. There are about 150 million of us in the U.S.A. at the moment.
Suddenly you remember your own mother, whom you’ve always mildly disliked. She was once in the same position you’re in now: enslaved by a despicable baby. But she was only twenty-two and had just moved away from her alcoholic father. And that despicable baby was you.
Now the circle is complete. You understand that life is buried rage, and the human race is trapped in a giant net of resentment. Nevertheless, you can’t quite bring yourself to murder your daughter.
You return to your drudgery. The rhythm of lifting a Pamper out of the box and adhering it to the baby’s bottom is vaguely reassuring. Now you slip a tiny-footed garment on her and snap the snaps. You hoist your daughter on your shoulder and peer out the window.
In Alcoholics Anonymous they say: “One day at a time.” Parents say: “Fifteen minutes at a time.”
Outside the window, a squirrel twitches its tail.