“Do you have the giraffe yet?” she asks me sotto voce. As if it were a secret. I had been asked variations of this question a few times. “Do you know about the giraffe?” At first I was expecting some allegory about parenting that would somehow make the all-nighters more manageable.
But no. Not a metaphor. This well-coiffed and perky woman in the check-out line was bestowing upon me the secret of a squeaky toy. One step away from a dog toy, but four times the cost. “Do you know about the giraffe?” As if this ubiquitous toy isn’t hanging from the grip and gob of every infant and toddler out there. Sophie. “Oh yeah,” I respond flippantly. Pre-baby, I vowed that I wouldn’t cave to parental peer pressure and invite the smug creature into my home. I can do it on my own. What did I know? Everything? Nothing? The woman smiles a knowing and vaguely condescending smile. “Oh you need it. Babies just love Sophie the Giraffe.”
Later that day. Or maybe the next day. Or week. Or every day and every week since she was born. I am on speaker phone. Gillian is crying. I’m crying. The cat. Is crying. My breasts are leaking. The acidic and acrid stench of spit-up wafts from somewhere – my bra? My hair? The answer is both. No rubbery BPA-free, phthlate-free, save-the-environment-save-your-child squeaky toy is going to save us from this place. My husband’s voice on the other end of the line does what he can. In the end, we hang up and I’m alone with her tears again. Our deluge of tears.
I hear phantom baby cries. In the shower. In bed. Many things disguise itself as Gillian’s cry. The cat. The air filter. The lawnmower next door. My own mind.
My baby doesn’t wake from sleep chattering to herself or her animals. My baby wakes up wailing. I am immediately pulled from a soapy sink of water, a half eaten peach, futile attempts at reading a book – the same page again and again, or washing my hair. I try to walk slowly. Surely my child will become spoiled if I respond too quickly. The book said so. One of the books anyway. Or maybe the internet. Her piercing cry escalates. What she is saying is that she wants me. “Help me mommy,” her shrieks call out, for she has no other way to tell me that. Right now, it’s saying “Only you. Only you can help make it right.” I know when she is fourteen, I’ll desperately want this back, but right now? Right now I am still hungry and half a peach does not a lunch make. But the baby, Gillian, is hungry. And so I nurse her until she is sated. Lunch having been served, she looks at me. “What next?” Her bright face asks. Indeed. What next? Four more hours until my husband gets home. I have to make the time go by. So. Many. Hours.
Our first trip to a public space. It took a lot of gumption. It took deep breaths and when I walked out the door I knew we had reached a milestone. Not one that people talk much about. But it was momentous. The zoo. I want to tell everyone what a feat it is that I’m even there. Hey chimps. Hey cheetah. Hey nice old lady volunteer zoo docent. It’s a big deal. This is me. And my baby. Six months. Can you see she isn’t crying? Can you see that I’m not?
I meet a friend and her three children at the indoor zoo play area. This takes a surprising amount of coordination. By the flamingos. Past the food court. Near the log. By the other newish parents. See this mother is being pulled by one child to the bathroom. Another to the coloring station. Her arms and her smile being stretched like Gumby. See this father with a laughing toddler on his shoulders playing the bongos, off key. I see them. And I am one of them.
The baby, my baby, is still not crying.
It takes a lot of self-control not to approach every parent to a young child that I see. To not say: Hey. Hello. Me too. Oh my god, me too. I feel you. You’re doing a good job. It gets better. It gets worse. This club; it’s huge. There are quite a few parents out there and they’re all just wandering the streets. Loitering. Hoping to catch the eye of one another. Hoping for vitamin D. Hoping that the sunshine will somehow make it all okay. The salvation in some rubbery swings and a playground lined with wood chips and perhaps another stroller with a crying child in it. The park. The playground. A church of the highest order. When it’s empty, you swear you can see God. When it’s full, you swear you can see yourself.
This parenthood thing. It’s often called a roller coaster. I don’t know about that. Maybe one where you walk up and down the tracks yourself. Powered by your own will and sheer strength built of exhaustion and necessity. So I’m on this roller coaster. And I guess you could say I’m coasting right now. But ask me again in a month. A week. An hour. A minute. It’s in flux. That’s the thing though. Stagnation is boring. We become complacent. You can’t race down hills if you don’t trudge up them. A piece of cake isn’t as sweet unless you’ve eaten broccoli right before. Those brilliant moments of childhood aren’t as bright unless we have seen how dark it can get too. Our kids are little flashlights. Those ones you have to hand crank. Lots of work. Bright lights whenever you need them.
I don’t need Sophie the giraffe. I just need a light for the darkness to help guide the way.
That day at the zoo, Gillian is strapped to me. She is, once again, an extension of my own worn and tired body. I point out the giraffe in the distance, the one that doesn’t squeak and she couldn’t fit in her mouth, though I don’t doubt that she’d try. The giraffe in front of us doesn’t carry a $20 price tag and hang out in strollers, cribs, and playrooms around the country. This one is unique. This lovely sweet beast is walking toward me. Towards us. I don’t think Gillian knows what exactly I’m pointing at, her depth perception not what it will be some day. Some day. Later.
But I do. And that makes all the difference.
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based new mother, writer, reader, runner, and has been known to do the flying trapeze. She has written for book blogs, including The Well Read Fish and BookerMarks and other publications.