Sam’s murmuring wakes me from a soon forgotten dream. Intelligible words are a few months away but his vocalisations have recently grown in variety and regularity. And insistence. Not surprising. From birth he has forcefully communicated the essence of “FEED ME!” without resorting to trivialities like words.
My foggy consciousness shrugs off these thoughts, wondering instead why Helen hasn’t responded to Sam’s mewling. Early on I’d argued that since I lacked the necessary attributes for breastfeeding I might as well sleep through the night. To my amazement Helen agreed. Her promptness has limited my night-time disturbances to a handful in the six months since Sam’s arrival. I take the early morning shifts, hoping that Helen’s sleep-ins are partial compensation.
A milk-curdling scream jerks me to full wakefulness. Leaping from the bed, determined to rescue my son from his perceived starvation, I dimly recall that Helen’s tardiness is due to her absence. I don’t resent her hospital bed as I stagger through the darkened house, but wonder if she secretly thinks this temporary break from night feeds makes her kidney infection more bearable.
Sam has convinced himself that the hole in his midsection is going to invert, consuming him in its nothingness. The terror of this near-death experience pumps his lungs with air and the night cringes at his wailing.
“Why am I going towards the screaming?” I say aloud. I rue not defrosting a bag of Helen’s breast milk before collapsing into bed and decide that making a bottle of formula will be quicker.
Sam’s thrashing becomes audible under the screams as I approach the cot. Doesn’t he remember that I fed him only a few hours ago? Why the panic when for the past six months we’ve consistently come within minutes of his first cry? Well, Helen has anyway. Perhaps he’s upset at my sluggishness.
Placing earplugs on my mental checklist of essentials at feeding time, I brave the writhing and pick up my baby boy. I’m hopeful this will act as a signal that culinary assistance is imminent and that he should wait calmly for the next couple of minutes while I prepare his bottle. Wrapped as it is in hungry desperation, his young brain fails to register my mere presence as sufficiently comforting. My ears assure me that his lung development is proceeding admirably.
The following minutes confirm my long-held suspicion that inanimate objects possess the ability to move when no one is watching. Sippy cups have boycotted the baby drawer and plastic scoops have escaped the secure confines of the formula container. I can only blame the insufficient pre-boiled water on my late night caffeine infusion. Speaking of which, another short black will make this more endurable.
No, the screams emanating from my milk-deprived infant demand attention. He stares at me from his high chair, tear-flooded eyes accusing me of heinous neglect. Feigning ignorance, I hastily screw the top onto his bottle and start shaking. My hand, arm and chest suddenly experience a wet sensation. The detachable teat sneers its defiance at me, milk spraying from its incomplete seal. I consider contributing my own sobs to the general fracas.
These setbacks are easily laughed off in the well-rested light of day. At two in the morning, my bleary eyes and brain assess them as catastrophes dwarfed only by the telltale grunts that have begun to interrupt Sam’s crying. The poo factory has commenced work on its nightly quota. I take a deep breath and decide to deal with that later.
Eventually I present Sam with a full bottle of formula. Rather than abating, his screams intensify. Spying an opportunity, I shove the teat into his open mouth – gently and with great patience, of course. After gulping hungrily for a few seconds his mouth starts leaking. Soon his jumpsuit is soaked in saliva and second hand milk. At least the cries have slowed, allowing me time to think. Helen did mention something about spillage.
A bib! Too late now. I press on but less than a minute later the leaking escalates to spitting. Sam twists in the chair, straining at the restraints and turning his head away from the milk he so recently craved.
“What now?” I ask him but he refuses to look at me. “Okay, it’s not breast milk but Mummy’s not here and Daddy’s not equipped in that department. Can’t we at least talk about it?”
Searching for alternatives I remember feeding Sam semi-solids a few days earlier - Helen had frozen a couple of mushed vegetables into cubes. Before Sam’s wriggling belligerence morphs back into screaming, I race to the freezer and rip out a couple of orange cubes, presumably carrot or pumpkin. They defrost quickly and in less than two minutes I’m re-seated in front of Sam, offering self-congratulations on my speedy recovery. Adrenalin has finally slapped my brain into cognisance.
Sam turns to me and opens his mouth. He blinks at first taste but thankfully decrees his acceptance with his second gumming of the spoon. Within minutes his face and jumpsuit are an orange mess but he appears placated.
“I know your mother has two natural advantages but how does she do this night after night?” Sam smiles and in that moment I have my answer. Disaster averted, I smile back and we attempt to perfect the special noises we share, enjoying a late night father-son giggle.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem