What's with all the gauzy, amber-tinted newborn photos?
** These are missives from my past. Many of these posts were written about 2 years ago, when the realities and circumstances of my life were quite different. I am now a single parent to a toddler. The past is an uncomfortable and rich terrain. By occasionally delving in, without lingering too long, the past provides the needed perspective to step rightly into the future. **
A few hours after our daughter was born, a hospital photographer offered to come to our room to take photos of our newborn and us. My wife had just pushed a human through her vagina. She had sustained a few injuries from giving birth which we didn’t fully realize or understand the extent of damage. We hadn’t slept in 32 hours, and wouldn’t sleep for another 10. We were surrounded by hospital equipment, a sitz bath, half-eaten snack foods, and a catheter bag. My wife and baby were learning to breastfeed. My newborn daughter was offended by the presence of light and squished her face and wailed whenever light fell on her face. So, sure, why not come to our darkened room where my wife is grabbing her boob and shoving it in my daughter’s mouth as my wife’s catheter bag mysteriously fills with yellow liquid and take pictures.
And, the pictures are lovely. Our daughter is just perfect. Every molecule of her being is total perfection. They are those gauzy, light-filled photos that are reserved for newborns and pregnant women. Perhaps you are the proud owner of some these photographs too? In the 90’s this style of photo was also popular for weddings, but we seem to have come to our senses when it comes to weddings. Now we like them real and in focus. However, we are still dreamy idiots when it comes to newborns.
I was filled with wonder and awe at the birth of my daughter. I didn’t fall in love right away the way some people talk about it. I was in awe. Shock, even. I had witnessed this wild, bloody, life-altering miracle. I was wowed and humbled. I don’t witness real-life miracles of this magnitude every day. It wasn’t until about a day later that the feelings of amazement subsided so other feelings could surface. I recall this moment where I held my daughter against my chest, wrapping her into my button down shirt. I felt this gentle pool of happy love rise inside of me. It was subtle and rose slowly like a tide through my being. I didn’t feel connection yet. That would come later.
As the photographer snapped pictures, I was in a daze. Is this really what the gauzy photo moment is like? Behind the scenes there are pale, pained, exhausted parents wondering how to make a newborn not hate sunlight and stop crying to get a picture. I felt wowed, shocked, exhausted, uncertain, worried, happy. I wondered, when we look at these pictures what exactly will we remember? It was a happy, loving moment. But also painful. And edged with so much uncertainty. About my wife’s injuries. About what sort of baby our daughter would be. About what sort of parents we would be. About when we would ever get substantial sleep again. So much unanswered. Possibility and doubt are two edges to the same moment of not knowing.
When we brought our daughter home, the first days were a haze of not sleeping while sitting in a room with drawn shades and a sound machine playing a really loud heart beat. We sat up in bed and held our daughter. My wife fed our daughter. That is all we did for days on end. Everything blurred. It was lovely. It was weird. It was exhausting. I was full of love and my body felt hollow with exhaustion. I was excited about our new and strange adventure. I was scared. Many feelings in the passage of a few days, each blurring into the next. I remember the first time she slept in a rock and play. It was the first time we didn’t have to hold her so she’d sleep. She was 11 days old. It was the first time her body wasn’t directly on one of her parents while she slept. I was filled was anxiety. Would she keep breathing? Is she breathing now? What about now? Ok, how about now? It would take months before I trusted that she would keep breathing even while I wasn’t holding her.
In those early days, I was filled with so many feelings. Love. Eventually connection. Worry. So many different kinds of worry in fact. The worry that comes with the vigilance of caring for a small being that can barely move their own head. The worry that comes with hoping my wife’s body recovers and that she will get good, attentive medical care from professionals who listen to her. The worry of not knowing what sort of parent I will actually be or what sort of child my daughter will be. Nothing from my life before resembled caring for a newborn. Nothing prepared me for it. I had done so much reading about becoming a new parent, and I still felt so surprised by the reality. It was so much weirder and lovelier. I held my daughter for days on end. And that was all I did. I didn’t sleep, so I could hold my daughter. I didn’t eat, so I could hold my daughter. I didn’t clean, so I could hold my daughter. I knew about the sleeplessness, the difficulty cooking, the difficulty in doing tasks. But, I didn’t fully realize how much inactivity went into not doing those things. It was just because my daughter needed to be held. It was such a lovely reason to not do all those things. It was such a weird reality that my days slid by, day blurring into night, one month disappearing into the next all because I was just holding my daughter.
I can easily see why we perceive this a gauzy, amber-tinted time. Spending your days holding a very tiny someone is lovely. Putting in the time to build connection is beautiful. And this time passes so quickly. In a dozen months, the baby time is gone. The way I remember that time is completely different from the way I experienced it. I so fully treasure that time I had with my daughter, holding her close every hour of the day. However, in the moment it was difficult. I could barely sleep or eat. The daily tasks of living were difficult. I felt drained, uncertain, and haunted by the pressure to enjoy every moment. I also loved my daughter with an intensity I didn’t know was possible and wanted to spend every minute of the day with her. When she started sleeping in a crib and not in my arms, I missed her. Those first twelve months were full to bursting with new feelings and experiences comparable to nothing else.
And isn’t it amazing that in these challenging conditions of newborn life that such deep love and connection grows. This reality is so heart-wrenchingly beautiful that it deserves a crystal clear picture. A gauzy filter or soft focus can never capture the real, hard love offered from an exhausted, anxious parent. Pastel hues don’t do justice to all those hours awkwardly holding your child while sipping lukewarm coffee and eating meals one handed. My connection to my daughter started in all those endless hours of holding her. I didn’t notice every moment. I held her and I tried to go about my life as one needs to. And during these moments of distraction and moments of noticing and attentiveness, this deep and loving bond grew. It wasn’t edged with amber light. It wasn’t artfully out of focus. The love wasn’t filtered or fantasy-like. It was real and hard. The love was deeply etched into my body and soul much like a tattoo - painful, lasting, and beautiful.