The first night we brought our baby home from the hospital, my husband and I slept with a light on all night. Sky, our brand new newborn, small and wrinkly, was swaddled in a hospital blanket but constantly wriggling out of it because, no matter how many times we tried, we just couldn’t swaddle her the way they had taught us in the hospital or the prenatal classes we had optimistically taken three months ago, when I was pregnant and glowing and feeling smug that I was organized enough to sign us up for prenatal classes and my hands and feet weren’t as swollen as the pregnant woman next to me and surely if pregnancy was proving so easy for me, what lay ahead couldn’t possibly be challenging.
And then I was handed a tiny baby and told to go home and protect her and raise her and go on with life as if any semblance of the life I once knew still existed. I was told to live as if a certain fear that goes hand in hand with a certain love hadn’t been planted deep inside me. And so we came home, and we slowly took the baby out of the car, my husband and I already snapping at each other in terror—watch her head, hold her carefully, support her neck, her toe is catching on the blanket, watch out for the water dripping off the awning.
It was nearly 7 p.m. by the time we got home that night. We had hoped to get home earlier but it turns out that being discharged from a hospital is rarely in the patient’s hands—there was paperwork to fill out, a lactation class to attend, a terrifying video on the dangers of shaking a baby to watch, a wheelchair to wait for—new mothers, no matter how they’re feeling, are not allowed to pick up their baby and simply walk out of the labor and delivery floor—they must wait for a wheelchair and an orderly to wheel them, like a sick person, out of the hospital grounds. But the minute you’re out of the hospital, no more wheelchairs, no more nurses, no more doctors, no more medical support or advice—you’re on your own. Get off the wheelchair and figure this out. The hospital no longer cares.
We couldn’t bring ourselves to place her in her independent crib that night—even though that swivels over our bed, it felt too far away from us so we put the travel crib we’d bought on our bed and gently placed her on it. “Keep a hand on her, keep a hand on her. They startle easily if they don’t feel held. I read that somewhere. Just keep a hand on her while I quickly go pee and then I’ll keep a hand on her while you get ready for bed,” I whispered to my husband. He nodded and sat down next to her and kept a hand on her and continued staring down at her face in disbelief.
Our bed isn’t big enough for her crib and two adults so my husband and I slept on our sides, not moving, and with no sheets or pillows to cover us because we were too afraid of errant adult bedsheets falling on her face and obstructing her nose. We didn’t need bedsheets or pillows anyway because there was no chance of either of us falling asleep. The fear and shock that gripped us would make sleep difficult—something that proved convenient given our daughter’s lack of sleep schedule.
That same fear also made us, two fully-functioning adults, scared of the dark in those early days and so we left the bathroom light on with the door open so that light would trickle into our room and let us see the outlines of furniture and the tiny face of our new baby. The last time I remembered sleeping with the light on in the room was when my grandfather died and a similar fear and love enveloped my family. I remember spending the night in the same room as my parents and brother on the night that we got the news, the bathroom light on, light coming in to make it easier for us to wander to the bathroom or to the kitchen in search of a glass of water.
I lived in New Delhi then and my grandparents lived in the building next door to us in the same housing complex. My parents worked full time and my grandparents helped raise us and the day my grandfather died, our home filled with neighbors and friends who brought food and love and support and held us while we cried and then at night our home emptied but we couldn’t bring ourselves to go back to our own rooms. All four of us huddled on my parents’ bed and I have blurry memories of seeing my mother, sleepless, walking around, in and out of the bedroom. I slipped in and out of sleep while my father followed my mother out of the bedroom so they could mourn the way adults mourn without disturbing me and my brother. And I remember very little else of that day and night.
With our new baby lying in between us on that first night, those same thoughts of life and death and the terrifying and exhilarating space in between, made us leave the bathroom light on. We had to see this little fully-formed human, eyelashes and all, in order to believe it had really happened. I didn’t understand how, in less than 48 hours, I had fallen so madly in love with someone that I was terrified of. I couldn’t see how life could possibly continue under this new and crushing love. How would I ever again face darkness, how would I ever again sleep comfortably? The thoughts, though outlined with happiness this time, were eerily similar to the thoughts I had on the night my grandfather died. The start of life and the end of life felt parallel in that way—how could I go on when human life begins and ends? How could I go on with such a clear idea of the finiteness of existence? How could I do something as simple as brushing my teeth and climbing into bed in a cool, dark room knowing that babies are born and people die? What else could possibly be relevant?
But the difference this time was that in 45 minutes, our daughter started screaming and we had to get up to feed her and change her diaper and soothe her back to sleep before we returned to our positions on two sides of her, one hand gently on her for comfort (more my comfort than hers, I realize in retrospect), bathroom light still on. And then we did that over and over again before natural morning light started to come in from the edges of the curtains and we realized we had made it through night one and we felt a surge of joy. As the skies outside got brighter, the fear lifted. I got up and put coffee on and thought to myself, maybe I don’t need sleep after all. But when my grandfather died, I vaguely recall, as the morning light appeared, the fear and the sadness intensified. I must have drifted off to sleep eventually that night because it took a moment in the morning to remember that my grandfather was no longer alive but life still had to go on. Being awake was not fun.
This time being awake was great fun. And life was in front of me asking to have her diaper changed. Because, it turns out, life does go on even though babies are born and people die. Those of us in the middle still have to brush our teeth and have something to eat and carry on conversations and watch the days turn into nights that eventually again become days. There’s no escaping that but for now I’m too tired to give it much thought. And our daughter now sleeps in her own independent crib, without the annoyance of having my hand on her all night.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.