My friends Denis and Lily are driving me and Tara back home to Limerick from Sligo.Denis has mastered the complex task of threading a seat belt through various safety hooks on the car seat, and so he buckles the baby in while I pack her play mat and nappies.
Though his own children are grown, Denis has saved a full repertoire of songs to charm babies, or at least distract them while a five-point harness clamps their freedom. This morning it’s The Wheels on the Bus. Tara learns that the wheels on the bus go round and round, the doggies on the bus go woof woof woof, and the babies on the bus go wah wah wah. She seems to want to take notes. Maybe in two columns, distinguishing actions from sounds.
“The…Dervalas on the bus…” sings Denis, and stops to consult my four-month-old daughter. “What do the Dervalas on the bus say, Tara? Oh, yes, I know.” And he’s off again: “The Dervalas on the bus go, Oh, look at my gorgeous baby. Look, look, look. Look, look, look.”
It’s true. I’m shameless. I’m known to dawdle past likely admirers—older women, say—while pushing the stroller hood back and blowing bubbles to make her laugh. I collect oohs and ahhs like a busker’s tips.
Because it’s also true that she is gorgeous, this baby. She has liquid Salma Hayek eyes, the kind that go down well in Ireland, where we prize brown eyes over our common blues. She has a healer’s charisma. People feel better when they hold Tara. She waves her fingers in delicate spells, making strangers feel seen and liked without saying a word.
Tara arrived in the air-world with all the qualities needed to succeed at babyhood: a fine, strong body, a well-finished digestive system, and a happy interest in her surroundings. Even before she arrived, I’d known that she was good at being a baby. Our shared placenta was unreliable, so I’d had scan after scan, weekly visits to get to know the beating of her heart, the grace of her swimming, and the way she found her thumb for comfort when the ultrasound technicians poked her.
By six days old, she was smiling every day. By ten weeks, she could roll right over and back again. She sucks with loud, smacking enjoyment—mwahhh!—and smiles herself awake in the mornings. Vaccinations, transatlantic vacations, strangers, teething, the puzzle of a bottle: she accepts all challenges, except the brief catastrophes of her mother’s sneezes.
You can tell, I suppose, how besotted I am, the ridiculous older mother of an only darling. I didn’t expect this child, in any sense. Though my body made her, out of blood and fat and milk and hopes, she is entirely her own self, and those oohs and ahhs are for her, not me. I like that we don’t look much alike. It reminds me that she arrived complete, and I’m just watching her unfurl, and beckoning witnesses to confirm what I can hardly believe. Look at this gorgeous, competent baby. Look, look.
At night I do what once made me good at my work: suck down information about my new research subject, and stack up all the contradicting experts. I’m not looking for advice. Though some things about being a single mother are hard, figuring out how to look after her is easy. These books and podcasts are something else: an orientation. This is what might be going on behind those brown eyes this week. This is what she might be discovering, feeling, thinking. All are clues to my biggest question: Who are you?
That, and of course the baby books give me little hits of smugness that take the edge off, say, figuring out childcare and mortgage payments. For fun, I read out lists of milestones to our neighbor, Keith, who visits her every evening. “Check,” he says. “Check. Ha. Check.” He is even more smug than me that she’s so advanced. We make fun of unknown loser babies who can’t even roll over, for god’s sake. Tara smiles on his lap, judgment-free.
This is the part I can do, these early months, which must surely be the loveliest. It’s all pared down: Breast milk to feed her. Plain water to wipe her bum. My arms to shelter her in bed. A knuckle for sore gums. A song, a walk, a storybook, a swing in the park. We need so little.
It’s the next stage that daunts me, as I leave this trance of babymotherhood to go back into the big world and look for work. I miss having colleagues and business challenges, and I have more to bring them now: my mind is sharper and my heart is bigger and more patient than before. It felt like an exciting luxury to get a few hours of babysitting while I looked for short-term projects this past week. But then the prospect of fifty-hour weeks, traveling for work, and hour-long snarls each way on the Bay Bridge makes me fear for her and for me. This year, I bet on rearing her as a single mother, on moving to California, on buying a home in our hysterical Bay Area housing market while I still could. Now I have to make those bets pay off for both of us.
“There is no such thing as a baby,” D.W. Winnicott said long ago. “If you set out to describe a baby, you will find that you are describing a baby and someone.” I don’t want Tara’s someone to have to abandon her in order to support her. May I find a way to be as good at my part as she is at hers.