Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
“Are you OK, dear?” the nurse asks. Whether I am OK is hardly the issue, when we are surrounded by people screaming. They are trapped in cages behind closed doors; the sounds they make are those of terror or mortal fear. And although they are very small people, perhaps a tenth the normal size, their distress will not submit to a similar division.
Scattered down the corridor are women like me: teary, misshapen, wearing pyjamas. I find it hard to tell them apart. But each of their babies has a distinctive ringtone. Next door, a baby girl bleats furiously; down the corridor, a little boy performs a percussive haka. I wish they would cry more loudly, so that I could not hear the cry of my own child. It is a husky lament, based on the interval of a minor second. A pause, and then ascent to scream. After two minutes, I will be allowed to go in and comfort him.
“Are you OK, dear?” the nurse repeats.
I realise I despise her.
It is one of the peculiar contrivances of our culture that babies are expected to sleep alone, away from the warmth of their mothers. “We’re training them in individualism,” I explained to my book club. “How sad,” said Dave, who lives by himself. “We’re training them in loneliness.”
Last night, in the group session, we told our stories. The man next to us said his babies will only sleep in the car. Each evening, he drives for two hours until they fall asleep. If he opens the car door, they wake up, so he also sleeps in the car. At 3 am, they start crying again, so he drives for another two hours. He has been driving four hours per night since his toddler was a baby, three years ago. The nurse clucks sympathetically, but I wonder if this might be the solution we are looking for. Our baby wakes every hour and only returns to sleep under very precise conditions. He must be lying on his right side in total darkness, feeding from my breast, with my hair coiled around his forefinger.
“You can go in and comfort him now, dear,” the nurse says to me. No I can’t. He refuses to be comforted except according to the conditions already mentioned. In his bedroom, he is jumping up and down in his cot; his mouth is turned down at the sides, like a ferocious carp. I lie him down and pat his stomach as she suggests; he arches his back and swats my hand away. “I don’t think he wants you to comfort him, dear,” she says, so I turn my back on my crying baby and follow her back into the corridor.
A new way of measuring time: four minutes equals 13 screams, eight hiccups, three aggrieved shouts. Now a torrent of invective, directed against neglectful parents: wub wub wub wub wub wub wub! “Oh, isn’t he angry!” the nurse marvels. “He’s furious with you!” I hold on to this thought. Outrage I can cope with: outrage surely is empowering. But after four minutes, when I am allowed back in, I press my heart against his chest and feel his tiny heart palpitating. She lied. He is scared.
“Give him his comforter,” she whispers.
I pass him the cloth rabbit I have selected to be his ‘comforter’, his mother substitute. He snatches it from my hand and flings it out of the cot, insulted.
Earlier this afternoon, the nurse said he had to have a catnap. I knew this would never happen, so when she checked on the baby girl down the corridor, I seized him from his cot and ran into the other bedroom, where we hid on the far side of the bed. He was bewildered into silence. I phoned my sister in Adelaide to rehearse my excuses: “He’d had two official sleeps already today, and I knew that he wouldn’t go down tonight if I insisted on a catnap.”
There was a stern silence. “You’re the problem here, you know that? You’re his enabler.”
The nurse’s sensible footsteps paused outside the door. “There’s no point being there if you’re going to be disobedient. Now go and find the nurse and confess.”
My baby gave me a complicit smile, and then – fatally – began his happy song: “A-dya, a-dya.”
Since then, the nurse has not left my side. Now, as we sit in the corridor, his scream becomes unbearable. It is the scream of the child abandoned on Mount Taygetos, of the orphan of war, of the newborn left in a dumpster. It is the scream of a child who knows that aloneness is dangerous, that away from his mother, death is closer. Last night, we duelled for several hours. Other babies surrendered to sleep, but mine persisted. The witching hour came and went; his screams grew louder. The second hand continued its dumb slow progress, round and round and round. Two minutes. Four minutes. Six minutes. I was reminded of those first screams nine months ago, the violence of that first cleaving. And I started thinking of a later violence, too. His cot is lonely as the grave. The second hand grew fat behind my tears. I am forcing my infant son to confront his own mortality. At 5 am, in desperation, I took him into the bedroom to give to my partner. There seemed to be someone in bed with him, but that was beside the point.
“He’s all yours.”
He sat up with uncharacteristic alacrity. Then he turned into a woman. “You’re in the wrong room, sweetie.”
Her baby started screaming, and I slunk apologetically out of the room.
Now, as we approach six minutes, his cry seems to lose some intensity. Or am I imagining it? There is an experimental cough, a hiccup that sounds recreational. We return to the room.
“Lie down, darling,” I whisper, and pat the mattress. “Lie down.”
He plonks down on his nappy and looks startled. Then he lowers himself onto his side. The nurse finally leaves and I wait with him. I rest a hand on his tummy. From the way it feels under my palm, I can tell that his eyes are open, and that now they are closed.
Back at home, he starts sleeping through the night. At 11 pm he will stir, and shout once, and then return to sleep. All three of us are better rested, and I remember what it is to be an adult, to have a short-term memory, a measure of tolerance. And yet I feel bereft. I miss him for the 11 hours we are apart at night. I want him back in bed with me, with my palm over the drum of his tummy and my fingertips against his chest, feeling his small, busy heart tapping out its dum-dum-dum, the only message I need to hear.