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Baby Boy Blues
by Forrest Seymour
I gave our new son his second bath today. No, that's not quite right. This morning he had his first shower; five days ago when he was born, he had his first bath in our small town hospital. Then, as his mother rested from her titanic struggle, he was sponged gently by the hands of the nurse, my four year old daughter, and myself, when they would condescend to let me squeeze up to the heat lamp warmed table his wrinkled new body lay on, crying intermittently.
My brief relation to this baby has so far involved a good deal of squeezing in. Not only does our daughter feel entitled to hold her new brother upon demand, but my mother is staying with us for a month, and she needs some grandson time. In addition, there is a steady stream of friends who coo quietly over this newborn as they wait patiently to be asked to hold him, at which their eyes light and hands jump out. This boy has a multitude of hands to welcome him to our village, so mine sometimes seem to recede into the crowd.
In addition, Nancy is more involved in this infant's first few days than she was with our first. Though she was more than exhausted by the thirty-three hours of labor it took to bring this boy to the air, she has been more alert than after the Cesarean birth of Emily four years earlier. After that first birth, I felt compelled to be involved in every aspect of that baby's nurturing, from bathing to diapers to nursing, studying attentively as the nurse gave the groggy new mother instructions on how to assess and promote good nipple latch. This time I find I defer much more often to Nancy, in part because she is less exhausted than last time, but also because I think she feels she missed out a little following that first Cesarean birth.
People say the second child inevitably gets less attention than the first, less photos, less hovering. But I think there may be something more to this apparent hands-off policy of mine regarding my son than simply the demands of my daughter and attending to Nancy's needs, things more murky and personal. For reasons that remain unclear to me, I am finding it hard to be as completely nurturing as I know I can be with this boy baby. And I suspect that this has more than a little to do with his simply being a boy.
I had given Emily her first shower-bath too, four years ago. Then it was more out of necessity than conviction; the apartment we then rented didn't include the luxury of a tub, nor counter space sufficient for a basin near the kitchen sink. Now, though our house is equipped with both tub and kitchen counters, I find I want to bring the new baby with me into the shower anyway. This is my time to have skin-to-skin contact, to hold the wet baby in my arms, sheltered and safe, to be reminded of how it felt to help draw him from Nancy's body, to wash away the ills of the world. And he, like Emily before, seems to like it. He is quiet as the warm water washes over him, arms and legs in motion, but not so jerky as when he's startled. As the gentle spray approaches his eyes, they close as if he's programmed to be out in the rain, which he probably is.
Yet this is also a different experience for me than with Emily. The warm water inevitably leads the baby to pee. With Emily this was a discreet trickle down my arm. With our baby boy, it is a geyser; not so graceful. And similarly, I learned with Emily that the most secure hold in the shower was the football hold, my forearm horizontal against my belly, baby resting its belly against my inner arm, face down, head to my inner-elbow, and my hand securely grasping the baby's crotch. With Emily this seemed like no big deal. With this baby boy, it means his little pliable penis is cupped in my palm. Not an experience I am familiar with, and one I am a bit embarrassed to say feels uncomfortable.
There are certainly plausible personal explanations for this discomfort, including my personal sexual history and generic homophobia. But I am aware of a more murky component to this fatherly faux pas, something to do with our cultural moratorium on intimacy between men, and, in particular, on intimacy between men and boys. Men learn early to keep their distance from one another it seems. This is sad, but endemic. And I shudder at how powerful this moré is even between me and my son of only five days.
The day after our son was born, Nancy was ready to go home. I packed all our debris, the colorful pillows and warm socks recommended by the book we'd read, the soiled clothes we'd worn during our son's emergence. I brought the car under the hospital's entry canopy, parking in the no parking zone, in front of a phone kiosk. I worried briefly about the large, casually dressed man leaning there in the snow, smoking, as I left my car running against the New England January cold, but decided it didn't pay to be so suspicious of strangers, and hurried back to the floor to gather up the rest of our stuff before escorting my new family home.
When I returned with a cart full of our stuff, my imminently stealable car was still there, as was the smoking man, who I now saw had not shaved in several days. As I loaded bags, boxes, and infant seat into our station wagon he quietly spoke to me.
"That's a good way to do it," he said, gesturing at the cart. I smiled in reply, hurrying in my task.
"My son was born here just three weeks ago," he went on unbidden. With a pause he added, "ten pounds, seven ounces."
I stood, straightened by back, and breathed in the snow filled air. "That's good-sized," I said.
"He's back in the hospital now," looking at me. "Got bronchitis. It's just a cold for you or me, but for him . . ," his explanation trailed off as he drew on his smoke.
"He's thirteen pounds now," the man went on again, exhaled into the frosty air. "Put him to work in the sawmill," he smiled, then paused, and looked at the snow at our feet.
"Well, that's good enough for me," again he looked me in the eye. "But I want him to go to school. Make something of himself."
His long look held so many dreams for his ill son it made my throat tighten. Around us the white lights of mid-winter twinkled in the trees below the accumulating snow. Under the canopy we stood in an island of light surrounded by falling snow.
As the silence of the snowy night grew long I spoke out of my own need. "We always want so much for our kids."
Then I pulled my eyes from his and returned to my chore of loading the car. When I next raised my head, he was gone. I felt a hollowness inside at this, another missed connection, then spied him almost at the door of the hospital, returning to his night-time vigil. Why had I not taken more time to talk with him, to ask of his son, of the dreams he had impulsively shared with me?
"Good luck," I called out loudly, and waved.
"Thanks," his reply came through the cold, then the big man slipped between the sliding doors.
I see this big lumber man like I see many men, like I often see myself, most comfortable with the briefest of confidences, over a cigarette or a beer, then back into the cold fray. Some explain this apparent gender difference as arising out of the demand that men be always able to morph into warriors should the culture require, to kill other men without remorse or much notice. I have to agree that much of what men go through in life, from sports to work to drinking rituals, seem often like training for combat. In such a traumatic context, brief anonymous intimacies begin to make some sense, while life-long intimacies between men, between fathers and sons, begin to appear as the frightening threats many of us perceive them to be, threats to our emotional stability in an environment that asks us to be emotionless. Men are rarely shown how to build and maintain the deep intimacies we all seem to ultimately crave.
Somehow I must harness the same indignation that fuels my drive to defend my daughter's right to do whatever she wants in this sexist world, to fuel my nascent desire to know and love my son, to hold him to my body without shame, to create and maintain intimacy, without invoking my internal censors, the prudish Judiciary Committee of my personal Congress, if you will. I do want so much for my kids, for my son, so much love and peace, to wash him of the world's ills. And for me, too.
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