I was emailed a couple of months ago about this story that accompanied my pictures of Isabel and Katherine. It was in Black and White Photography a few years back with a text by Katherine. Reading it again brought back memories of the mixed emotions of being a young child, of having a young child.
Few of us remember our early years. If we do, our memories have a ghostly, hallucinogenic quality. They might be primal and visceral or banal and trivial, but they are always emotional. They are memories of envy, pleasure, fear, rage, happiness, pride, malice.
To have a child is to rediscover that part of your childhood, to revisit that forgotten stage of your own journey. It is one of the reasons parenthood is such a profound experience; it allows us to fully map out, for the first time, who we are and where we came from. Through our children, we can trace the invisible roots of our own lives that lie buried in the dank soil of forgotten memories.
My first taste of this came a few hours after my daughter, Isabel, was born. She did not hesitate, but came quickly and violently, landing in the midwife’s hands, just after midnight, on a warm spring night. I had two feelings the moment she was born. First, that she was amazingly beautiful, a tiny human creature perfect in every detail. Second, that she was a stranger. She had come from my body, but I did not know her, or even recognise her. And I had expected to recognise her. It was as if someone had walked in off the street and placed this unknown infant into my arms. I knew then that she was an individual, someone totally separate from myself. I could not tell, yet, what kind of person she would turn out to be. But she had begun. She had taken the first step on the journey.
After the drama and back slapping and triumph of birth came the abandonment. I returned to the ward and the midwives said goodnight. I was left, in the half light of a maternity ward at night, with my freshly born baby. It was 3:30 am.
We sat up in bed and stared at each other. Her face was a blank, her eyes two dark saucers devoid of anything we might call human. She looked ghostly, scary almost. What was she thinking? What was she experiencing in those first hours of life? She had only just been expelled from the only world she had ever known to find herself here, in this cold, hard place. She stared at me, her eyes boring into me, as though trying to understand who I might be. Did she recognise me? Did she recognise my voice, my smell, the sound of my heartbeat? Or was she studying this strange being who was to be her carer and protector, the person she would come to know in time as her mother?
And I, like any new mother, felt totally inadequate for the job. It was huge, gargantuan, beyond daunting. I was meant to be having a baby. Instead I had given birth to a human being.
I soon discovered that I knew my baby far more intimately than I realised. Her cries pierced my soul, speaking in a language only I could understand. Where others heard the wails of an infant, I heard hunger or terror or the plaintive longing to he held and comforted.
It was easy to chart her physical evolution, the journey from helpless infant to a walking, talking child, capable of controlling its bodily functions. Books even existed where you could record these remarkable milestones: the first step, the first word, the first locket of hair.
But the emotional journey, the journey into personhood, is more illusive. What are the markers for that? Where do we locate the moment our child first experiences jealousy or self pity? How do we record the way she sees the world or her evolving sense of self? We cannot measure these things with a pencil on the kitchen wall.
It was this journey into personhood that fascinated me most. From the moment she emerged from the dark warmth of my body into the harsh light, she had begun her journey towards herself. Every cell in her body was dedicated to the task. My role was to supply a safe, bounded place where she could get on with the job. Her personality was evident almost immediately: She was laid back, playful, hot tempered, funny. Watching her grow was like watching a mystery unravel, an exotic flower come fully and spectacularly into bloom. At times she was a pendulum, screaming and kicking and red faced one minute, laughing and jumping and delirious with pleasure the next. It was at such moments that her struggle with that violent and beautiful thing called the human condition was most evident.
At first, I was always there to rescue her and protect her from danger. Eventually, she discovered that her mother cannot stop another child from being spiteful, cannot stop the scraped knee from hurting. Her mother cannot control the outside world, or the inside one for that matter. In the end she must learn to deal with these things herself.
To watch and help your child through this process, through those first few years of her life, is both glorious and heartbreaking. It is wonderful to see them embrace pleasure and beauty, to be fully engaged with life. It is a torment to watch them wrestle with the dark side, to see them experience cruelty and betrayal and pain.
Four years after that night spent staring at a baby in a hospital ward, we threw a birthday party for our daughter. The empty-eyed infant had evolved into a bubbly, happy child with a fiery temper and vivid imagination, a sensitive girl who is easily frightened, yet strangely resilient to wounds. For her it was an epic event. She was four, officially a “big girl“, well on her way to achieving her greatest ambition in life: to grow up.
For me, it was the beginning of the end. The first crucial leg of her journey towards selfhood was over. In six months she will be starting school. She will line up with all the other children, in their identical uniforms, and begin her life as a social creature, negotiating with others, functioning within an institution. There she will discover new ideas and other ways of being and begin to make up her own mind about how to live in this world.
© Katherine Tanko