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Tapestries-13 \\ Newborn presence
Thinking about presence and distraction as an expecting father.
Tali is about 35 weeks pregnant now. I thought my experience of the pregnancy would have lots of feeling, but instead it’s felt like a lot of doing.
I learned relatively quickly that pregnancy is largely Tali or the mother’s experience. We’ve definitely shared it, but our experiences have been fundamentally different. The act of preparing to carry, and then actually carrying, a growing human, dominates a mother’s existence in a way it just doesn’t or at least hasn’t for me as an expecting father. My role so far has been, almost exclusively, to ensure Tali feels loved and supported, and rightly so. The awesome physical task of growing a human is genuinely mind-boggling, and my job should be to do whatever I can to support the person tasked with this responsibility. I don’t think any of this is novel or groundbreaking, and when I describe this observation to other fathers, there’s a nod and a laugh to confirm that that is indeed the experience, and a raised eyebrow to suggest there’s a lot more of that to come after the baby’s arrival.
With all this in mind, the dominant question I’ve been living with as an expecting father and (hopefully) supportive husband, is how can I help? There is no shortage of stuff to help with: healthcare, insurance, appointments, baby stuff, updates for family in Australia, a large pile of baby books I’m not reading (or going to read). There’s an endless list of preparatory work one can do before baby’s arrival, and to be that helpful husband, I think we (or at least I) dive head-first into the doing part of the pregnancy. It plays to our male bias to be doers or fixers. But it also plays into our male inclination to prioritize the practical over the emotional, and my concern is that my emphasis on the doing and the practical can lead to experiencing pregnancy — a singularly incredible and breathtaking process — as the experience of passing time. In pregnancy, like many other things in life, we are capable of undermining the value of the present with the distraction of doing.
There is something cathartic about being productive, about ticking tasks off a list. I know that in times of stress I can revert to this productivity mindset, and use the sensation of getting things done to give me a sense of achievement that distracts from the stress. I’m also conscious that when the baby arrives, I’m likely to be even more focused on completing tasks, as a newborn’s three-hour cycle of feed, burp, clean, sleep provides fertile conditions for those inclined to seek process and output as types of soothing balms. So just as I can now reflect on how the pregnancy has deviated from expectations and elevated the doer in me, I am conscious that unless I’m deliberate and intentional about how I want to be post-childbirth, I’m likely to revert to the same behaviors I’m observing now. I have no doubt I’ll be present in a fundamentally new and unpredictable way once the baby arrives, but the pregnancy has revealed some of my natural tendencies.
Starting a family, amongst many other things, represents an opportunity to be maximally present. Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks is a book about time, and in it he discusses spending time with his newborn son, describing him as “sheer presence, participating unconditionally in the moment in which he found himself, and I wanted to join him in it.” Selfishly, this is one of the things that excites me most about starting a family. Creating a soul from scratch gives me the chance to channel my attention, emotion and time into something other than myself. It’s not why we’re having a child, but it is one of the things I’m most looking forward to: being consumed by a tiny, sleepy little human who forces me to just be there in its sheer presence.
A friend recently asked me, how do you want to remember this period when you look back in a few months’ time with a hopefully healthy wife and baby? I said I want to remember being a great partner and teammate to Tali. But I found the question more valuable for what it said about the sanctity of the present moment, and how I’ve been allowing it to slip through my fingers as I fret about logistics, bills, and a general preoccupation with getting stuff done. My friend’s question was a reminder to be here now, to quote Ram Dass, and brought me back to the continuation of Burkeman’s comment about his son and presence:
And yet I hope it's clear by now that none of this applies only to people who happen to be the parents of small children. Certainly, it's true that a fast-developing newborn baby makes it especially hard to ignore the fact that life is a succession of transient experiences, valuable in themselves, which you'll miss if you're completely focused on the destination to which you hope they might be leading. But the author and podcast host Sam Harris makes the disturbing observation that the same applies to everything: our lives, thanks to their finitude, are inevitably full of activities that we're doing for the very last time.
In a perverse way, my search for presence focused my attention on something in the future, which is stupid when you think about it. It’s the embodiment of something Burkeman calls the “when-I-finally-mind.” I don’t really know how I want to remember this period when I look back at it, but I know I don’t want to remember it as just another period of mindless busyness and preoccupation, which is what all of our lives tend towards absent moments of real presence. Our lives are generally collections of mundane moments, and few and far between are the truly special periods and event. This is one of them, and amongst many other things, the pregnancy has again opened my eyes to how difficult it is to resist the temptation for distraction, and to truly sit in the present.
They say that you may ultimately learn more from your children than you can hope to teach them. Our unborn child hasn’t even opened its eyes before or breathed real air in its lungs, but it’s already found the dexterity to hold up a mirror. It’s reminded me how easy it is to “ignore the fact that life is a succession of transient experiences, valuable in themselves, which you'll miss if you're completely focused on the destination to which you hope they might be leading.” That’s me, and it’s a reminder to treat the coming weeks as a time to be experienced and enjoyed, not just time to be passed.
It’s been a long time since I last published, almost three months. My aim is to get back to the monthly rhythm, and I’ll hopefully include the usual sections (what I’m consuming and writing) in the next piece. Until then.