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radiantfracture

September 2017

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A very quiet weekend, without much ceremony, but a small deep thing happened nonetheless: this weekend I babysat my nephew for the first time.

I have a baby nephew, aged 8-1/2 months. He was born with a heart defect, though he throve much more than expected right from the start. He had surgery at six months and he has healed amazingly. His energy has doubled. He is not quite crawling, but he wriggles very quickly.

Monday night I babysat him for the first time. I was very nervous, because I hadn't babysat in -- perhaps 20 years? -- and I showed no aptitude at the time. Rather the opposite.

The elder nephew, aged 19, was also at home; however, he had to go to bed early to get up and be a lifeguard at some ungodly hour, which is why my presence was necessary at all.

(Note: Be grateful for your lifeguards, please, and do not be rude to them about the placement of lane markers. They are young, and they had to get up early, and they are just following instructions.)

In the evening, I got to feed the baby a little, and also to see him starting to understand that if he signs for something, he will get it. He only knows the sign for milk, because that's really the only sign the rest of us are clear on.

I noticed he had started making the milk sign, a little squeeze or clap with the fingers of one hand1, and I tried to reinforce it by bringing him the milk bottle every time he did it, though he did not really want milk all that much -- he is more excited about solid food right now.

This same small nephew has come to a point where he does not want to go to bed. He loves people and attention and socializing. He loves having his picture taken and always smiles. He hates to leave all this in order to sleep.

Yet on Monday it fell to me, least experienced of sleep-guides, to put him to bed.

There is a whole routine. It involves a diaper change and a sleep sack and a last feeding and a prayer and a song and a story and some declarations of love and some firm instructions to sleep.

None of this was remotely convincing to Small Nephew. He cried and cried in that profound outrage babies can express so crushingly. His body taut as a bow, he would not be comforted.

The thing to do, of course, was to put him into the crib and leave, but I knew I could not, quite, put him down in a state of such distress without trying to remedy it at least a little.

But how, without language to explain, persuade, convince, argue, command?

He was so so so so sad and angry, and he did not want to go to bed at all, and I was not his dad or his mom, and what was I even doing there, and what was even going on?

At one point I put him down on the floor, which is not part of the routine at all. He looked very surprised and then flipped over and started worming in his sleep sack along the carpet. He crawled towards the crib and grabbed its leg, then stopped, and I thought to myself you dolt, you're just making it worse. So I put him in the crib.

This was no better. Then he signed at me for milk. "Milk?" I checked. He intensified the noise, which I took for yes.

So I gave him the milk, and he drank it, furiously.

And he did not stop crying entirely, but I think he felt a little better. So I said the words and left the room, and in ten minutes by the baby monitor's reckoning he was asleep.

Surely what he wanted with his mother or father, or to feel properly comforted, or not to have to go to bed at all, but he could not ask me for any of those things, and I could not have given them to him if he had asked me.

Yet he could ask me for milk, and I could give him that.

It just seemed like the whole human condition, right there.

I once read a lot of Lacan, and his sort of interpretation comes easily2, but this exchange also felt like something simpler -- the way we want and are not answered, and we see and recognize want and cannot answer it, and therefore we end up exchanging something else entirely, because it's the best any of us can manage.3

Once Small Nephew was asleep, I tried to be "helpful" by tidying up the kitchen. I unloaded the dishwasher into weird places, as people who don't understand your kitchen always do. It's like an Easter egg hunt, but for your dishes. Then I loaded the dishwasher all wrong, because no one can load anyone else's dishwasher properly.

And then I wrote this down, checking the monitor periodically to make sure that in recording my Meditations Upon Watching the Baby I was not forgetting to actually watch the baby.

{rf}

1. The sign derives from milking a cow, but I prefer to think of it as one hand clapping.

2. A Lacanian reading would be something like this: you cannot have your heart's desire (the return of your mother), and in fact you cannot even have that desire properly recognized and answered, because it happened before language, and neither the asking nor the answer can be properly expressed or understood -- only the absence. Once you learn language, you still can't have your heart's desire, but you can have something else. You can call something to amend the absence, and have, not the satisfaction of your desire, but the satisfaction of calling for a thing and having it come to you -- the power of language. The endless substitution of the signifier.

3. Or, you know, maybe he was hungry.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-04-19 03:26 am (UTC)
rahirah: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rahirah
I have nothing to add, this is just a cool post.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-04-19 05:19 am (UTC)
wordweaverlynn: (babygator)
From: [personal profile] wordweaverlynn
Both moving and intellectually engaging. Thanks.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-04-19 11:15 am (UTC)
nanila: me (Default)
From: [personal profile] nanila
I would be willing to bet that the pre-sleep routine doesn't work at least 50% of the time for the parents either. ;)

You sound like a wonderful babysitter. In my experience, all you can really do is try your best to interpret when very small children are trying to tell you what they want, and encourage them when you both manage to get it right, which is what you did.

Cuddling accompanied by "Breathe deep, try to be calm, try to use your words [when they're older/able]" is an oft-employed strategy - when they're not doing the stiff-as-aboard thing or actively pushing me away!
Edited (grammar fail) Date: 2017-04-19 11:15 am (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2017-04-19 03:42 pm (UTC)
larryhammer: a low-fidelity picture of a man, label: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] larryhammer
I would be willing to bet that the pre-sleep routine doesn't work at least 50% of the time for the parents either.

This.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-04-19 03:43 pm (UTC)
larryhammer: a low-fidelity picture of a man, label: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] larryhammer
If babies know only a few signs, odds are they are Milk and More.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-04-19 07:32 pm (UTC)
agoodwinsmith: (Default)
From: [personal profile] agoodwinsmith
Thank you.

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