My son was born at 30 weeks. I felt nothing when the nurse brought this little lizard-like character wrapped in a towel to me. When I feel guilty about this, I tell myself it was just because I was unprepared. Instead of being overwhelmed by love, I distinctly remember thinking, "Oh my god! He is such a scrawny ugly little thing. What a waste of six months of throwing up good food!" For days when he was in the NICU and I was in my bed two wards down, I went to see him only because the nurses asked me to. And even then, I would just watch him inside his incubator -- he was very small, weighing ridiculously little -- tubes tied to his fingers, going down his nose. I felt a sense of detachment, as though it was a movie I was watching, or someone else's child.
It was September, and quite chilly in Cambridge, but I opened the windows and cried and cried. I wondered why we ever thought of having a child...
For sure, I felt enormous amounts of guilt. For not feeling anything. When they discharged him at 2kg, three weeks later, and we got him out in the natural air, he screamed and screamed. I laid him down gingerly on the bed and he still screamed the house down. It was September, and quite chilly in the early evening in Cambridge, UK, but I opened the windows and cried and cried. I wondered why the hell we ever thought of having a child... what was the point? For this? Now we would never be able to go to all the places we wanted to go to. Now wherever we went we would need to take this crying, screaming baby with us. We were going to be so handicapped by him. I could not muster much love, but the growing sense of responsibility weighed me down. This turned to fear at the thought of a life totally dependent on me. I was still feeding him through a tube down his nose. But he would scream and wriggle and take out the NG tube every other day, and in the middle of the day, I would need to call the health visitor to come and put it back on. Eventually, I became an expert at even that.
My life became mechanical, tedious – an endless cycle of retrieving milk from the fridge, warming it up, feeding him... Sometimes I hated him...
For weeks, I was an emotional and physical wreck, my life consisting of nothing but expressing milk and feeding him. He'd get hungry every 30 minutes, have 5ml, shut up and then scream some more half an hour later. Relentlessly. My life became mechanical, tedious – an endless cycle of retrieving milk from the fridge, warming it up, feeding him. I barely had time to draw a breath before I was doing the same thing again. Sometimes I hated him, hated myself for thinking I could manage this. My mother had been ill so could not join me immediately and my husband had a heart-lung transplant unit rotation with a bizarre on-call rota. My friends in Cambridge, the ones who came every day, were two completely well meaning ladies, but useless with such a small kid. All they could do was buy him things -- teethers when teeth were a pipe dream, some new kind of bottle which meant he had less trouble burping, new cot-mobile, you know, idiotic things like that.
And then my baby started responding to me. He started getting quiet and settling down as soon as I picked him up. And more importantly, in fact most importantly, he did not do that when my husband picked him up. Victory number one. And then he began to feed less frequently, but he still screamed and I was up all hours of the night. Then my parents came over. It was heaven. Mum took charge immediately and my life became normal again. So normal that I thought I might as well go back to work while my parents were there, and so I did. I felt guilty about having my parents take care of him all day, and so at night, even if I was tired, we kept him in our room, but in his cot. He hated the cot, but we were fed on books which spoke of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome etc, and anyway we thought we were making a cultural compromise by not keeping him in a different room, so a cot it was.
He started settling down as soon as I picked him up. And...most importantly, he did not do that when my husband picked him up.
At work, I was looking like something the cat brought home. A colleague of mine asked me why. I told him about my son keeping me up all night. Ken, a man of about 60 then, looked at me and said (he was a Scotsman), "Give him a shot of whisky with his milk at night, he will be fine."
I remarked, "Well, Ken, but doesn't it do stuff to your brains?"
"Well, Lolita, my son is a maths professor in Oxford, so if anything, it might have done him some good."
I went home and told my husband about it, remembering to keep this "solution" away from my parents' ears. And then, after two-three days of deliberating on it, fighting our guilt, conscience etc, but also fighting our extreme exhaustion and losing this last battle, one night, when the kid was particularly obnoxious, like two burglars we crept down and put a spoon of sherry in his milk (we decided not to risk the taste of whisky -- where was the point in feeding him that and then him throwing it up?). The bloke slept like a dog, log, whatever. He slept for five hours without a whimper.
Then began our most difficult task. To not do it every other night, when the temptation to do it was huge. One day as I decided not to give him sherry even though I really wanted to, I realized for the first time that I was thinking of the welfare of the baby over my immediate needs.
Slowly, I began loving my son. He was a human being who reacted and when he smiled, it was a real smile and not just wind.
Slowly, I began loving my son. He was a human being who reacted and when he smiled, it was a real smile and not just wind. And as he grew up to be an adorable toddler, never doing anything but smiling and cackling with laughter, loving to dance to any music, he was everything one could have ever wanted in a child. It helped that he looked very cute too. I particularly loved the high it gave me when, even if I scolded him, he would still come crying only to me -- I was his compass, his true north. As he was, is, mine.
Today, he is a 16 year old, sensitive, quiet, self-assured, introspective, caring but very opinionated boy; he will not do anything just because -- he will not touch anyone's feet just because it is our custom, but will have no problem doing it if he respects them or knows we do. If he knows we are asking him to do it simply because it's customary, he will quietly shrug and disappear from the scene. He thinks a lot, is very self-aware, won't hurt anyone but won't let anyone hurt him either. He still needs me, I think, and at over 1/3 my size, still comes at times and sits on my lap or lies down next to me to hug me. When he sees me hurting, he instinctively understands and comes and ruffles my hair. Right now, my father is like a child and if I feel frustrated about him, my son will quietly come and hug me and go away. He is comfortable and confident enough to hug and kiss me in front of his friends, and as he sometimes tells me, that is indeed a very big deal. He has grown, as any child does, I suppose.
He is the reason I get up and open my windows, the reason I face the sun full blast on my face. He is my reason to live.
But my journey as a mother has gone from those initial days of frustration, anger, self-loathing, guilt, feeling suicidal, to feeling a sense of responsibility, to loving him, to then coming to the point where I hurt when he does, feel exhilarated when he succeeds or is happy. I feel at least twice more dejected when he fails, and want to give him the best I can offer while also teaching him the values to thrive even when we are not around. I will happily die for him. (Yesterday, I heard my mother coaxing my dad to eat, saying, "Do it for Lali and Rana. If necessary, I could eat stones for them. You could too, so now what's happened?" -- so you see, it's not just me, most mothers think this way). He is the reason I get up and open my windows, the reason I face the sun full blast on my face. He is my reason to live.