Falling in love with fictional babies

Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The baby was astonishing. He had little cloth ears, floppy as cats. The warmth of his round stomach could heat the world. His head smelled like a sacred flower. And his fists held mysterious, tiny balls of fluff from which he could not bear to be parted.

Meet baby Raqib, the adorable son of Nazneen in Brick Lane by Monica Ali. I read and loved this book when it came out in 2003 and particularly remember being enchanted by this baby. It seemed that he was the first convincing baby character I had come across in a novel.

Babies are given birth to, carried around, fed, loved and admired in books, but it’s rare for a baby’s personality to emerge on the page. And babies are brimming with personality. They’re fun to be around, for their expressions and gestures alone. Back to Raqib.

Nazneen curled around him on the bed. He raised an arm, which reached only halfway up his head. He put it back down. The futility of this exercise appeared to anger him.

In the same scene, Nazneen’s husband Chanu is droning on about setting up a business. He asks: “What can you do without capital?”

Raqib tried to lift his head from Nazneen’s shoulder as if he knew the answer to this difficult question. Overcome with his burden of knowledge, he collapsed instantly into sleep. Squinting down, Nazneen looked at his month-old nose, the sumptuous curve of his cheek, his tight-shut, age-old eyes.

There is more of Raqib and every appearance he makes is so beautifully written you want to reach out and stroke that little cheek.

Often, the fictional baby’s role is to channel the thoughts of the parent or caregiver. Baby Jonah in The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell is that kind of baby. This scene takes place with his mother Elina out in the garden.

She moves the rattle from side to side and the coloured beads ricochet around inside their clear globes. The effect on the baby is instantaneous and remarkable. His limbs stiffen, his eyes spring wide; his lips part in a perfect round O. It’s as if he’s been studying a manual on how to be a human being, with particular attention to the chapter, ‘Demonstrating Surprise’. She shakes it again and again and the baby’s limbs move like pistons, up, down, in, out. She thinks: this is what mothers do.

There’s another ‘as if’. There is a tendancy to ascribe thoughts and emotions to babies that they aren’t capable of having. Also the idea that they have some ancient knowledge – I’m sure I’ve read that more than once but can’t find any references now.

But in real life as in fiction, babies are interesting in what they reveal about the people who love them. Take baby Matt in What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, whose parents tracked his development “with the precision and attentiveness of Enlightenment scientists”:

For a baby he seemed weirdly compassionate. One evening when Matt was about nine months old, Erica was getting him ready for bed. She was carrying him around with her and opened the refrigerator to retrieve his bottle. By accident two glass containers of mustard and jam came with it and smashed on the floor. Erica had gone back to work by then, and her exhaustion got the better of her. She looked at the broken glass and burst into tears. She stopped crying when she felt Matt’s small hand gently patting her arm in sympathy. Our son also liked to feed us – half chewed bits of banana or pureed spinach or mashed carrots. He would come at me with his sticky first and push the unsavoury contents into my mouth. We read this as a sign of his generosity.

The examples I found are all boy babies. I wonder if this is a coincidence or do we consider the archetypal baby to be a boy?

We’ve had childbirth on this blog, now babies. My next blogpost will look at new mothers or motherhood in fiction – and then I’ll leave the subject alone for a while. Promise.

Has anyone else come across any good babies in fiction? I can think of one obvious bad baby, also a boy, but I’m more interested in the sweet ones. I think it’s difficult to write a convincing baby. Nicki Chen, a fellow blogger and author, does it in her novel Tiger Tail Soup. I’ll dig that excerpt out as soon as I get my copy back.

Childbirth in fiction – delivering the goods

Birth of Adonis by Marcantonio Franceschini
Birth of Adonis by Marcantonio Franceschini

Births, marriages, deaths. These are the building blocks of stories. But what does it take to write a good childbirth scene? Is it even necessary to describe how a fictional baby comes into the world? Not always, I would say. But sometimes, as shown by the examples below, the birth is much more than a biological event. It is an important driver of the story which has an impact on how the characters behave later on. We have to be there with these women in their hour of need.

There is a short story in Annie Proulx’s 2008 collection Fine Just the Way It Is called Them Old Cowboy Songs which contains one of the most tragic birth scenes imaginable. The mother is a teenage girl living alone in a cabin in a remote part of Wyoming in 1885 (were there any non-remote parts of Wyoming at that time? I’m not sure). Her young husband Archie has gone off on his last cattle drive before the birth, hoping to be back in time, having asked a neighbour to check in occasionally on Rose.

The next morning was cold and sleety and her back ached; she wished for the heat of summer to return. She staggered when she walked and it didn’t seem worthwhile to make coffee. She drank water and stared at the icy spicules sliding down the window glass. Around midmorning the backache increased, working itself into a slow rhythm. It dawned on her very slowly that the baby was not waiting until September. By afternoon the backache was an encircling python and she could do nothing but pant and whimper, the steady rattle of rain dampening her moaning call for succor. She wriggled out of her heavy dress and put on her oldest nightgown. The pain increased to waves of cramping agony that left her gasping for breath, and on and on, the day fading into night, the rain torn away by wind, the dark choking hours eternal. Another dawn came sticky with the return of heat and still her raw loins could not deliver the child. On the fourth afternoon, voiceless from calling for Archie, her mother, Tom Ackler, Tom Ackler’s cat, from screaming imprecations at all of them, at god, any god, then at the river ducks and the weasel, to any entity that might hear, the python relaxed its grip and slid off the bloody bed, leaving her spiralling down in plum-colored mist.

There follows a heart-rending scene where Rose crawls out of the cabin with her stillborn baby wrapped in a dish towel and tries to dig a grave with a spoon. I won’t say any more.

At the risk of mentioning Lionel Shriver once too often in this blog, I have to include an extract from the birth chapter in We Need to Talk about Kevin because the savage eloquence of Eva, writing here to her husband Franklin, is so remarkable.

So I made an effort, at which point I had to recognize that I’d been resisting the birth. Whenever the enormous mass approached that tiny canal, I’d been sucking it back. Because it hurt. It hurt a whole lot. In the New School course, they drummed into you that the pain was good, you were supposed to go with it, push into the pain, and only on my back did I contemplate what retarded advice this was. Pain, good? I was overcome with contempt. In fact, I never told you this before, but the emotion on which I fastened in order to push beyond a critical threshold was loathing. I despised being spread out like some farm exhibit with strangers gawking between my canted knees. I detested Dr. Rhinestein’s pointed, ratlike little face and her brisk, censorious manner. I hated myself for ever having agreed to this humiliating theatre, when I was fine before and right at this moment I could have been in France.

In some countries, one in four babies is now being delivered by caesarian section and yet it’s not often you come across a description of a surgical birth. Maggie O’Farrell has one in her 2010 novel The Hand That First Held Mine. The birth is important in the book because things go drastically wrong just after this scene and the mother, Elina, spends most of the book recovering from the shock.

She could feel them, the two doctors, rummaging about inside her, like people who had lost something at the bottom of a suitcase. She knew it ought to hurt, it ought to hurt like hell, but it didn’t. The anaesthetic washed coolly down and then up her spine, breaking like a wave on the back of her head. There was a green canvas screen bisecting her body. She could hear the doctors murmuring to each other, could see the tops of their heads, could feel their hands in her innards. Ted was nearby, at her left, perched on a stool. And there was a great heave and suck and she almost cried out, what are you doing, before she realised, before she heard the sharp, angry cry, surprisingly loud in the hushed room, before she heard the anaesthetist, behind her, saying a boy. Elina repeated this word to herself as she stared ahead at the tiled ceiling. Boy. A boy. Then she spoke to Ted. Go with him, she said, go with the baby.

There are various other flashbacks of the birth as Elina tries to piece together what happened and come to terms with it. The other option is to skip the technicalities of the birth altogether, as Mary Costello does in Academy Street.

The pain struck at dawn. Willa came. In the hospital foyer her waters broke. She looked down at her drenched shoes and began to cry.

That evening when it was all over she thought she had scaled Everest, stood at its peak, exhilarated.

What, that’s it?
Actually there is a little more. Costello continues:

The next morning the enormity of it all hit her. She had brought forth life, rendered human something from almost nothing, and this power, this ability to create, overwhelmed her.

She did not take to the child. The light down on his skin resembled fur. She could not bear to touch the head, the unknitted bones of his crown. She thought of him as half-hatched, not quite finished. She was not in her right mind. Her body had been riven open, pummelled, her innards displaced. A disgust at her physical self took hold, at the engorged breasts, the bleeding. I am a cow, she thought. But cows are good mothers.

Nine and five years on I still remember the births of my own children in forensic detail and I remember feeling an urgent need in the early weeks and months to tell the story as often as I could (hopefully to a willing audience). Telling the story is a way of fully understanding and celebrating what has happened. It is too big an experience to fit into one day.

What about you? Do you think it’s desirable for authors to write detailed fictional accounts of labour? Have you ever written a childbirth scene or read one that stayed with you?

Twin babies, the mobile drop-in centre

© baby-trend-expedition-jogging-twin-stroller
© baby-trend-expedition-jogging-twin-stroller

The day you push your twins outside for the first test drive in their new buggy, you embark on a new role in society – mobile drop-in centre. You may think you are the same person as before, just going about your business in town but your double bundles of joy have changed the stakes completely. Barriers come down, people open up. Whether you are ready for it or not you are wheeling around the conversation starter of the century.

Memory lane: Other twin parents have an inbuilt twin radar that never goes away. Seven years on I still stop in my tracks every time I see twin babies. Where once I was on the receiving end, now I’m the one who has to grin foolishly and stare, carried back in an instant to those golden days of babyhood, times two.

If there’s an opportunity I strike up conversation. ‘Congratulations, how old are they? I have twins myself.’ Some of these conversations are short. Others get long and involved. The oldest twin mother I ever chatted to had sons in their fifties. Another time I remember talking to a security guard in an art gallery about his twin girls, as if we’d known each other for years. The best stories older twin parents will tell is the surprise they had at the birth when a second head appeared.

Hands full: A standard comment you will hear as a twin parent is some version of “you’ve got your hands full there”. There’s some truth in that but it’s tempting to point out that, more importantly, your heart is full. If your babies are premature, you might want to lie about their age to keep the reactions down. If you happen to have different sized twins, this will also be a talking point.

There will be shop assistants who confess they always wanted twins and you are bound to come across the occasional person curious about the conception details. This conversation begins with the question – “are they natural?”

Sad stories: Twin pregnancy is by definition high risk and was more often seen as a burden than a blessing in the past. One thing I didn’t expect was the number of sad stories people told me about twins. A woman we once rented a holiday home from told the story of her twins’ birth 40 years before. They were too small to live and were left in a room in the hospital to die.

Another woman who stopped me in the street one day in Fribourg started out by saying she too was a twin but then revealed she didn’t grow up with her siblings. She was given away to a children’s home because her mother couldn’t manage. She never understood why they chose her, and the rejection hurt her still. Another lady at a garage told me her mother had given birth to three sets of twins but only one child had survived.

Kindness of strangers: One of the lovelier sides of having twins is the kindness it brings out in people – from the people who reach out to take a baby onto their laps in the bus, to the other Mums at the playground who will run to pick up your fallen toddler, when you are struck trying to get the other one down from the climbing frame.

One incident stands out for me. There was an old lady I used to see around town, always dressed in the same shabby coat and old shoes. One day, waiting at the lights to cross the road, she pressed a ten-franc note into my hand and urged me to buy something for the twins. Before I could protest she was gone.

If your twins are brand new and you’re getting up the courage to take them out into the world for the first time, don’t be afraid. There is a big welcome waiting for you.

The wrong response to a distressing week

It’s been a distressing week for Irish parents, shocked by television footage of neglect and mistreatment of small children at three crèches, exposed in an undercover RTE investigation. The private childcare sector has mushroomed in Ireland over the past two decades and the inspection system is inadequate to say the least. So not only are Irish parents paying the highest fees for day care in Europe, they are now faced with the horrible fear that their children may not be safe.

The truth is that the vast majority of children cared for outside the home are well-treated and thriving in a familiar environment, just as most children cared for one-to-one in a home setting are loved and cherished. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that good childcare is good for the child, regardless of the category, but unfortunately bad situations exist across the board.

The model of the mother at home all day to care for her children should not for a moment be idealised. Mothers lose their temper and their patience, many still hit their children. Some are isolated, depressed, or bored at home. There is no footage of their interaction with their children behind closed doors.

Parents automatically question the important decisions they make for their children and need no encouragement to feel guilty. We want desperately to get it right. There is nothing more important than the well-being of our children, which is why the last thing working parents need is a blanket condemnation of day care.

This morning we heard from an übermother on Irish radio sneering at “shiny corporate crèches” and telling us that children under the age of three should not be cared for in a group setting – full stop. If this is where the debate is heading then let’s call off the hounds. Such a simplistic and unfair pronouncement does nothing to help parents trying to make choices from realistic options, the thousands of families who put their trust in good people and come back to happy children at the end of the day.

No one way of looking after children trumps all others. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, neighbours, crèche workers and childminders are all fallible and can give children the very best and worst of themselves. It’s a cheap shot to question the whole validity of day care on the basis of some bad cases. That is a test no category of childcare will pass.