*Images: Photographs of “Organs” installation by Jessica Nissen
The Origins of Minor Injuries
by Dinh Prince
Dozens of nights play out in this way: Benjamin twisting out of our arms again and again, arching his back, rolling his eyes, his muscles hardening as he struggles away from our grasp. A baby can be enormously strong, its power centered in the stomach under misleading layers of fat. We scoop him to our chests, and he swoops away, heedlessly throwing back his neck, his ungainly head.
We don’t know what’s required of us. If we touch him he recoils. If we leave him alone, his silhouette illuminated by the hallway light sobs and thrashes on our bed. His tiny, pitiful hands reach up, but once we grasp them, pull away.
Having just been wrenched from a nightmare, I feel deranged. I don’t remember my dreams except when I am torn from them by Benjamin’s cries. The dream is always the same: the world is in tumult, the humans are in hiding, and I am looking for a trap door to escape through—under beds, behind closet doors, inside a large air-conditioning vent. Once I find a passageway, my pursuers are behind me so there is never a moment of relief, and each stage becomes more desperate as my strength wanes, my brain flags. No wonder I’m anxious when awake.
“Maybe he needs a diaper change,” I say, my voice thick with sleep, to Jason, who is stumbling out of his own dreams.
A good portion of marriage, I’ve discovered, is a partnership between two rank-breathed adults sitting on the edge of a bed trying to solve a problem.
“Maybe he needs a diaper change,” I repeat loudly, frustrated that Jason isn’t already changing the diaper. It takes so much effort to voice my desires plainly.
“It’s dry,” Jason says.
“A bottle?” I ask.
Without turning on lights I pad to the kitchen to warm some milk, orienting myself by the dim glow that comes from a streetlight through a half-covered window, hoping my body will resume REM sleep once this debacle is over. When I return to Benjamin and offer the bottle, he shakes his head vigorously. I wag the bottle at him, dappling his face with specks of milk. He still refuses.
“It’s something invisible,” I say, “A stomachache. A sore throat. I bet it’s his first sore throat.”
Nothing prepares you. When we brought Benjamin home from the hospital, we hadn’t swaddled him properly or given him a pacifier. We felt like refugees in the Texas Children’s Hospital’s “launch” area, an enclosed space leading to the parking garage attended by a woman who had borne five children out of wedlock and had no patience for new parents.
Our attempt at swaddling had come undone, and Benjamin’s two-day-old baby legs, still wrinkled and pink from amniotic fluid, dangled in the cool air of the parking garage. It was a shock, this world. His blotched face screamed. It was amazing, the capacity of a baby to scream. Nearby, a woman sat in a wheelchair next to her husband, a baby girl bundled securely in her arms, a pacifier stuck neatly in the infant’s mouth, her little cap perfectly in place. They were so calm, that couple. We, sad fools that we were—who had insisted on a natural delivery by midwife, who had not introduced a bottle or a pacifier, so intent were we on breastfeeding—tried to accustom our ears to Benjamin’s shrieking. We sat waiting to be launched into a life where there would be no sleep, an upturned home, endless questions: Why are you letting the dishes pile up? Why did you eat the last banana? Why is God allowing us to shuttle his form and breath in our unaccomplished arms?
I love children. I have always been the favorite aunt, the favorite teacher. Having vivid recollections of my own childhood, I understand children better than I understand adults. Like children, I have an aversion to pretense.
In 2011, after a long day of babysitting my niece Natalie, preparing meals, going for walks, reading books, and teaching her what I know about the world, I retreat to my bedroom to read. But Natalie follows close behind. It’s the end of the day, and I want to let my face go slack in front of a book, to absorb rather than give.
“Why do you want to spend so much time with me?” I ask her. “I’m old and boring.” Children find this funny, these plain statements of truth. I’m a constant surprise.
“No, you’re not,” Natalie says, but she laughs. “I want to be just like you when I grow up.” She dresses like me, short sleeves over long sleeves, overalls. She gathers up her books when I gather up mine. She says she’s going to have her alone time too.
I love children, but having my own was another thing altogether. People who have had difficult childhoods know the risk. We know the unhappiness, the long days of loneliness when adults withdraw, when they are irate. When we, the helpless children, have to become the parent and offer comfort. When adults give in to inhuman screams and death threats. When my sister and I hid in clothes closets, staring at the seams of light made by the doors.
It’s frightening to think of what I might have inherited. When I was a child, my father spoke affectionately about me (never to me, always about me, in the third person, even when I was in the room). He would veer away when I tried to kiss or embrace him. When I was eighteen, I tried to hug him because I was leaving home for good. He turned sharply, jabbing his hard shoulder into my collarbone to avoid my embrace. He spent most of our lives in a lawn chair in the middle of our dining room, sunglasses and headphones on (the headphones weren’t plugged into anything), with a book an inch from his nose. Nothing could permeate his private, silent world.
My mother was the opposite: a natural, animated performer, either laughing or crying, always aware of how we perceived her, adjusting her gestures, posture, and tone accordingly. My mother wielded butcher’s cleavers when we were small, threatening to kill herself because she was sick of being married to an automaton who walked with mincing steps, sick of working in merciless Chinese restaurants, sick of being unfamiliar with the language and culture. Sick of trying to rein in American children who were not afraid of her.
In 1979, my parents joined the thousands of ethnic Chinese who left Communist Vietnam on seabound jalopies in order to escape the persecution of having sided with the West against Ho Chi Minh. In the new regime, the Chinese who had owned businesses would be viewed as Capitalist oppressors, Chinese imperialists, and inevitably punished. So my parents took their chances, their four small children and me yet unborn, and fled with twenty dollars and the clothes on their backs. Perhaps the shock of leaving their homeland as Vietnamese boat people forced awry the wiring of DNA.
Or maybe it wasn’t genetic at all, but insurmountable cultural differences. In my eyes, my mother exists on old wives’ tales and superstition. In her eyes, I’m blind and foolhardy. When it comes to raising children, I want evidence and empirical studies. She wants symbols and folklore. I took frequent walks while I was pregnant, painted, and re-floored the baby’s bedroom. She instructed me to lie prone and motionless, not even to think of preparing in any way for the baby’s arrival. In her world, that arrival must be negotiated by numerous sleights of hand.
Everyone in my family is a little off, though we are all highly functioning. My brother in his late teens believed he was John F. Kennedy reincarnated and stalked a girl named Jackie. On a recent visit, my sister claimed I’d contaminated the dish sponge I’d used to wash a tray. I microwaved the sponge to put her at ease. She said the microwave was contaminated. There were times for me when sleep was an exhausting void, when I wrenched myself out of the night terrors that pursued me and woke up paranoid and fearful rather than refreshed. There have been times when I’ve sat in my parent’s backyard staring at the fishes in their pond and felt an enormous burden to rein in my mind and guts because it felt like both would spill out of me, and it took all of my effort to be still and not harm myself.
Belief in God has given me courage, the sense I was created with thought and purpose rather than a haphazard accident of an unhappy marriage, wandering into others and blindly glancing off. That there is a rhyme and a reason rather than an unhappy cluster of cells. Still, even with faith, the fear emanating from my difficult childhood comes crouching back in a wash of nausea.
I love children, but I have always been afraid that my own would be too much like me, would tend toward butterflies in the stomach. I’ve been told everything stresses me out, and it’s true. So deciding to become a parent was not easy for me. Everyone warned Jason and me that marriage would be hard work, but seven childless years passed effortlessly.
Then, at ten years old, Natalie died of acute myeloid leukemia. After her diagnosis at age seven, her existence had been fraught with risk, where the slightest contamination could send her to the ER and ultimately kill her. She was one of a handful of people I could truly say I loved.
After she died, there was a gaping hole, a lack larger than my fear. I asked myself: Is death the worst thing that can happen to a child? Yes. But are you glad she lived though her life was brief? Yes.
This realization was what convinced me to become a mother, to create a life that I knew would be tenuous, imperfect, an entire soul who would have to learn how to navigate this difficult world. I gave birth to negate death, to thumb my nose at death, to let it know I wasn’t afraid. I finally understood the words of Galway Kinnell: “the wages of dying is love.”
While I was pregnant, I mourned Natalie, who had died only six months prior. People told me that prolonged negative emotions would affect the baby, that somehow the sustained emotions of anger, fear, and sadness would wash over his developing cells and forever mark his features, the manner in which he’d carry himself. I thought of my own mother, who never reined in her emotions, whose unhappiness I inherited. So I prayed. On the long commute home I talked to clouds that resembled elephants, just in case Natalie had painted these visions in the golden hour of dusk. I talked to God, who allowed the loss, half-choked with tears every time I attempted to thank him for this grief and acknowledge my smallness, my blurred perspective.
I accepted the unseen and unvoiced reasons for why innocent children die, imagining them with new bodies, breathing freely and deeply, gathering on the playgrounds of heaven, feeling pity for the adults on earth who’d had no power to heal them. I laughed. I sang through my tears. I wanted the baby to experience the wide array of emotions that connected him to the unseen world, so he would know life wasn’t one experience. That there were numerous contradictions, humor, artfulness, as well as shapeless uncertainty.
Of course, it would be the night where a blood moon eclipse was happening. Instead of leaning against each other with a blanket around us, squinting at the reddish dot through the crevices of clouds as we had done with others whom we’d loved much less, we are arguing over who gets to give up on life and who has to continue with all the responsibility.
Benjamin digs into my shoulders and neck in an attempt to push away. A week later, I will absentmindedly peel off the scabs he left behind as I sit in front of the television, relieved the day is over. I will turn my head from side to side realizing I can hear my spinal cord turn on its hinges, and how strange it is that I’m made up of disparate joints, bones, and muscle, when in my consciousness it seems I am permanent, possessing a largesse of soul. It is quite miraculous.
I turn my head again and listened to my jaws creak, suddenly aware of the shocking fragility of life. It seems there are many moments like this. In between the madcap rush of milk, food, play, board books, dinner, when picking someone else’s nose becomes its own reward, there are these empty spaces where I can fathom the tiniest configurations of how the world is put together.
Then it’s back to the fray with Benjamin thrashing against me, kicking my breasts, pinching my arms, stomping on my husband’s genitals. My body desperately longing to turn off the lights, make a snow angel in the sheets. Would it be so awful to let him cry? You had a difficult childhood. Lord knows how you made it to this point. Now here’s someone else who will wonder why he’s here, and you’ll have to provide answers.
“I give up on life,” I say with finality.
“Me too,” Jason says too quickly.
“No! I called it. Only I get to give up!” I gnash, as if it were that easy. As if we have the authority to do so. “You keep the house, the cat, the dog, the car, the boy.”
“I might agree to the cat. The dog? Nohohoho!”
“You keep everything. I take nothing!”
Again I attempt to gather Benjamin in my arms. He arches his torso, throws his head back, as if to say, I don’t care if I hurt myself or you. This newly minted life that I’m already so tired of.
I never developed regular contractions at home. Three days past my due date, after Dr. Huang, my acupuncturist, waved a hand over my abdomen, diagnosed I had low energy and didn’t possess the strength to push a baby out, and insisted that he’d have to use electric needles on my ankles that would cost an additional fifty dollars, I went to my weekly prenatal appointment only to be told that I was five centimeters dilated. I wasn’t going home.
“You’re just one of those women,” Dawn, the midwife, said. “Nothing happens, and then boom! Ten centimeters dilated and you’re giving birth in the car.” I sat on the edge of the hospital bed, hugging my belly and swinging my legs. I knew my experience was nothing like that of the woman I’d seen on my way in. She’d clutched the counter with whitened knuckles as if hanging on a precipice while the triage nurse cruelly asked how she would rate her pain on a scale of one to ten.
An hour after they swept my membranes, I was still piddling around the nurses’ station, snacking on Saltines. The baby was content holed up in my womb. I had made no progress. I asked if we could go down to the cafeteria to grab a snack.
“Let’s break your water, have a baby, and then you can eat.”
Letting Dawn break my water, I discovered, was a huge mistake, catapulting me from no contractions and zero pain to immediate, crushing waves of labor. I rode on the surf, being pounded into a smooth pebble. Benjamin, drained of his warm cocoon of amniotic fluid, was sending mayday signals to every nerve in my body. Two hours later I would have a baby in my arms.
Natural birth. How can it be described? A full-bodied muscle convulsion radiating from my uterus that pulled every ligament taut: yanking up my calves so that I had to stand on my tippy toes, clamping the corners of my jaws tight over my ears.
“People think the quick births are easy,” Dawn said, “but really they’re the worst. There is no down time between contractions.”
Every comforting technique we learned in Lamaze class was lost. Dawn and Jason dragged me into the shower and ran warm water over my naked body. I clawed at the tiles and wept. They dragged me out, flung me on the bed, rolled me on an exercise ball, waltzed with me.
“Dance!” Dawn commanded. “Dance with your lovely wife! Just as you did on your wedding day.” I clutched Jason’s neck, buried my face in his shoulder, absolutely terrified of opening my eyes as he marched me around in a death fugue.
Even on our wedding day, he’d stepped on my feet.
“Don’t touch me,” I said, or didn’t. I said many things, seemingly hilarious, as the people in the room laughed at every word.
“I need to poop!”
Jason and Dawn dragged me to the toilet. Nothing came out.
“That’s the baby. Your body is telling you to push.”
And then I wanted to poop out of spite, to prove them wrong.
“I can’t do this.”
“Yes, you can!”
“No, I can’t.” I can’t get over this mountain. You see, my mother birthed me by epidural; she fed me formula. All of this Earth Mother hoo-ha is foreign to my artificially adapted being. I don’t know what I was thinking. A friend made me watch The Business of Being Born because her traditional hospital birth had gone awry, but I see now that it was all propaganda. I am civilized, weak, the polar opposite of a mother bear.
“It’s too late! You’re already ten centimeters dilated. This baby’s coming. Your body was made to give birth.”
“I can’t do this.”
“Yes, you can!” Dawn and Jason chanted in unison.
It was at that point that I gave up. I knew these cheerleaders from hell were past listening. This was how I was going to die, somehow ending up in a John Waters’ film surrounded by the crass, the ugly, the camp, the kitsch. The colors were glaring; the actors bawdy. Their tacky enthusiasm was not befitting my soul’s somber sloughing of the mortal coil. These fools had no idea what they were saying; they could not see impending Death hovering just beneath my knees.
I had wanted to give birth by midwife in part because it would allow me to give birth in my own clothes, in whatever bodily position I desired. I had imagined that would be by candlelight, squatting in a darkened corner, or better yet, birthing alone in an empty field at dusk like a wild mare. Instead, they dragged me to the bed, pushed my feet in stirrups, shined fluorescent stage lights between my legs. They were doing what was easy for them, not for me. They were stripping me of dignity and gravity.
“He’s almost here. Do you want to touch the baby’s head?”
“Why not?” Dawn asked in disbelief.
Because he’s covered in my blood and causing me to die.
Dawn must have been used to all the mothers before who had eagerly stroked their babies as they emerged into the world. I must have been the first woman afraid of her own baby.
“Of course she doesn’t want to touch him!” Jason piped up. I was thankful at that moment to have a man who understood me, who had lived with me for seven years, and who was dead certain that I would never have the desire to touch a blood-slickened baby’s head.
“He has gorgeous black hair,” Dawn said.
“He’s almost here!” Jason said, with thrill in his voice. I couldn’t believe he was clamping my thigh back firmly with his hands, witnessing the action down there, sounding eager rather than terrified.
“If you can see him, pull him out why don’t you?”
“We can’t pull him out. The only way he’s coming out is if you push him out.”
I know that’s a lie. My sister was pulled out by forceps. She resembled a cone head for days. “You told me if I needed an epidural you would give it to me.”
“That’s only if I think you can’t do it, but I know you can. Trust me, when I set up all these tools, that means the baby’s almost here.”
Clattering knives and scissors, a spool of what must be thread, the pull and snap of latex gloves. This is supposed to bring comfort?
“One more push!” they said seven more times. In a natural birth, the body knows exactly what to do. In the last moments I became a spectator. My uterus was a 300-pound sumo wrestler, consumed with the desire to push. What else explained the grunts, impossibly low and guttural, emanating from my core? The beast was taking over, the one who knew how to do this.
Then Benjamin was on my stomach. They allowed him to wriggle on me and attempt to nuzzle his way up to my breast to feed. I was in disbelief. I had done it: delivered a baby naturally, by choice. There had been no complications. Benjamin was enormous. Almost nine pounds. I was astonished by how beautiful and fully formed he was, how complete. I’d expected him to emerge crying and wounded, but he only blinked. I couldn’t bring him to my chest; the umbilical cord was too short.
“Where did this baby come from?” Dawn said. “You looked so tiny!” I couldn’t answer. I had no idea.
What happened to all our minor flirtations? When we sat around with friends and showed off our knowledge? What happened to driving around as teenagers with nowhere to go on a Friday night, feeling frenzied with boredom, howling, “It’s not my place in the 9 to 5 world!” We had somehow become sandwiched in between generations of young and old. We had somehow become owners of cars and shepherds of living beings. Mais, c’est impossible! We were supposed to be the generation pursuing false dreams, living with our parents, not having babies.
My parents didn’t go on vacations or date nights. It was unheard of in their generation and culture. But if they wanted time to themselves they took it without guilt, without the nagging voices of expert studies. They allowed us a freedom that led to numerous and terrific dangers. We, the children, almost burned the house down, we were almost kidnapped, I nearly snapped my spinal cord by letting go of the chains of a swing, landing on my face in hot sand. We never even bothered to tell them the origins of our minor injuries. My father sat in his lawn chair blocking out the world, and my mother slept on the couch, her Chinese soap operas droning. They did not hover over us. They did not make sure we were safe.
Somehow Benjamin survived the traumatic car ride home, and the weeks afterward when we stood above his cradle and asked each other if we should give him up for adoption because we were surely the worst parents who had ever lived.
Most of the time, I stared at him. I could be completely exhausted and longing for him to nap, but when he drifted off to sleep, I would stare transfixed for hours. How tiny the features. How perfectly formed. It was good that he slept. Respites from the stressful times, as when he would pee in his own eye, and I would try to move him away from the arc of his urine to no avail since his penis was stuck to him and doggedly followed every which way I turned.
Jason and I argued more in the first few months of Benjamin’s life than we had in the decade before. We no longer had just ourselves and our whimsical fancies to answer to. We had an entire human who couldn’t even hold his own head up without our help. Benjamin has been sleep-trained for a few months now. Sleep training meant letting him cry until all hope that we would return was completely extinguished. We had grown used to months of reading, praying, singing, then tucking him in, and turning out the light as he babbled to himself and quickly drifted off to sleep. Our capacity for sleep deprivation was doughy at best. We kept returning to the same refrain.
“I don’t know what to do anymore.”
At the moment, which was characteristic of many moments in our new parenthood, my helplessness wasn’t centered on the immediate situation, it was about everything. I don’t know what to do anymore about absolutely everything. Motherhood was losing control, first of my body during pregnancy and breastfeeding, the anxiety that accompanied my milk letdown, and then the loss of my capacity to sleep.
Astonishing how little sleep we can survive on. The slightest rustle from Benjamin made me bolt straight up in bed and squint to see if wolves had accosted him. Then the loss of my mind, so muddled from all the new responsibilities and depleted of nutritional resources given to the new life. I had become a food source. Producing milk, pumping milk, washing breast pump parts.
If I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I was taken aback. How ugly I had become. Jason would tell me I was wrong, stoop a little to plant his lips in my hair, which had grown wiry from hormonal changes and begun to fall out in sheaves. The sclera of my eyes were perpetually red and dry. Creating life was not easy.
At a women’s group I was invited to, I listened to a twenty-year-old grad student discussing her affair with a married man. He and his wife had just had a baby. The woman was smiling and unashamed, wearing delicate leather sandals that roped about her ankles, this wrecker of homes, and I possessed the ineffable desire to slash her ribs through, shouting: thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s husband who must help raise an entire human. Dost thou fathom the cost, the very weight and gravity, thou frivolous wench? I might have once been a young woman in fashionable clothes thinking lightly of the hazards of love, but now I understood the poignancy of two hapless and flawed people coming together to do the most difficult job imaginable: raise a decent human being who would never doubt our love for him or for each other.
Somehow Benjamin survived his first year with parents who didn’t know what they were doing. It’s a revelation: all of humanity, civilization, and culture is accomplished by people who don’t know what they’re doing, who are improvising. Some say people who aren’t prepared shouldn’t have children, but no one is ever prepared. There is nothing that can prepare you for the utter and complete tumult of your life. It was a monotonous maternal slogging for the first year. Every month, slowly gathering our bearings, getting more used to this new way of life that meant giving up the books, the movies, the slow spaces of thought. Formerly, on days when I could read for just an hour, I felt deprived. Now I was lucky to read a few lines of poetry in the course of a week.
Eventually, Benjamin could walk, could feed himself. If we didn’t immediately attend to him, he was at our legs, his little grasping arms demanding we take notice. Yet there were still some nights when he alternately clung and heaved away, awakened screaming, as if still half-naked in the parking garage, and nothing we did comforted him.
The day after the blood moon eclipse, Benjamin poops. A two pounder. That was the source of his woe. That was what caused him to alternately cling and heave against us with existential grief.
It is wonderful. It really is. We don’t even mind the poop. The poop is the least of our worries. A minor inconvenience compared to this boy, who waddles through a field next to Kroger and discovers his first crunchy leaf, who will not let go of it, who needs to clutch the pliable twigs, the blades of grass, who grasps at the tiniest details we had long since stopped noticing.
Benjamin, relieved to be over his spell of constipation, leans towards me slowly, mouth agape, his sharp rows of new teeth gleaming. I shiver and say, “No,” start moving away, but he keeps pushing forward. I close my eyes, bracing myself for the onslaught of pain this little Hannibal Lecter, given to primal, irrational urges, is about to inflict on me. Instead, I feel his baby lips purse at the moment of contact.
He has learned this from us. In those moments when we have lifted him to our height because he requested it and automatically kissed him. In those spaces when we, who have evolved so that it is easy to scoop up a 25-pound baby as if he were an extension of ourselves, continued to cook or put away laundry or push a shopping cart with one free hand. Now he has learned these affections, this insane love that allows you to sacrifice every bit of freedom—learned how the mouth deliberately forms a kiss and plants it on another’s face.