The proverbial
five-letter word

by Meg McNaught


Sleep is a five letter word. The proverbial five letter word, for those sharing a house with an infant. 

First time parents in particular can often be heard saying, “Will we ever sleep again?” 

My husband and I were no exception, in fact, we found out the hard way. It was to be our first holiday as a new family – we were flying to America to show off our son. The evening before, amidst my frantic packing, Caleb was doing precisely what six-week-old infants do best: fretting and crying, kicking and bucking. 

Certainly not sleeping. I paced. I fed. My husband rocked and sang. Night stretched into morning. I glanced at the clock: 4:30am. I should be getting up, not going to bed. There was a nappy bag to organise, Caleb needed to be bathed and dressed in his most adorable outfit. I was to look like a well-rested mother, gracing the airways with confidence.

Instead, we overslept. There was no time to shower. No time to change out of the clothes I had been wearing when I fell into an exhausted sleep. David threw half-packed cases in the car. A now deeply sleeping Caleb was snatched out of his bassinet and strapped into his baby seat. Down the Bruce Highway to Brisbane we flew. 

“This is the domestic airport.” A refreshed-looking teenager instructed from behind the counter. “You need to be at the international airport.” I calculated she had spent more time on her most recent manicure than I had slept in the past month. International Airport? I didn’t even know it had opened. A short man in a bright red coat approached. He sniffed, probably catching a whiff of the spew caked on Caleb’s sleep suit. He took in the bags, the ones cluttered at my feet, not those cloistered under my eyes. He glanced at my husband’s wheelchair – David’s lap can double as a pram – one of the benefits of travelling with a paraplegic.   

“We’re bringing a family over,” Our red-coated friend spoke into his walkie-talkie, “Can you hold the plane?” Transportation between airports was arranged – not an easy feat, considering all of our baggage, multiple wheels and sleep deprived time management skills.  Shiny floors and a lone security guard greeted us there. Newly upholstered chairs lining the windows were empty. The silence was unsettling. 

“Was there a bomb threat we didn’t hear about?”  I whispered to David while protectively pulling Caleb closer to my chest.   
“It’s new,” he reminded me. “Don’t panic.” 

We made our way to the only counter with an attendant. When she looked up from her computer, a phone nestling between her shoulder and ear slipped to the counter, landing with a crack. 

“You’re the family?” She gave us a stare similar to the one the red-coated man had given us. Yes, we are a family, I wanted to shout back. Even though curls were slipping from my pony tail and David’s jeans were stained and Caleb never did get his bath, we were a family.  The newness of the word fizzed through my stomach. 

Unfortunately, Caleb was looking for something warm for his own stomach. I shifted him away from breasts ready to explode. David handled passports and tickets. The harassed attendant shouted into her phone, “This family has an infant AND a wheelchair!”    

I added, “We’re Martians too,” under my breath.  David grinned. He’s very good at seeing the funny side while my stress-o-meter approaches the red zone. The only place they had for us – horror of horrors – was in business class. My ears perked. Children in business class are a no-no. But an infant in business class is almost a crime. Caleb was jiggled, a dummy was found, anything so my cherub wouldn’t be deemed unsuitable to sit with suits and Prada bags. He could sense my chest expanding another litre with each passing minute. He was hungry. And fidgety. Leg room and real food, however, were only a computer click away. 

I shoved my knuckle in Caleb’s mouth and smiled at the scowling woman who held the comfort of my next twelve hours in her clenched, bony hands.  Whether it was David’s charm or Caleb’s cuteness I’ll never know, but eventually she allocated our seats.  Fortunately, the staff on the plane were not overly concerned with our lateness or with our status as a new family. During takeoff, I was finally able to feed Caleb – filling his belly, keeping his ears open, and relieving my aching chest. A simple, yet necessary affirmation of my ability to multi-task.

Burping him was not quite so easy – he was partial to the over-the-shoulder position, difficult even in business class seats. A hostess approached us. “You both look exhausted.  Why don’t you let me take her while you catch some sleep.” 

Her?  I told the hostess his name was Caleb. She thought I said Karen. Did she think I would dress a Karen in blue? I was too tired to correct her. You may be wondering how I could trust a total stranger with my first born, especially when he’d barely been disconnected from my placenta. It’s that proverbial word:  sleep. 

The last thing I saw before I dozed off was Caleb’s small face perched over the flight attendant’s shoulder, a line of spew trailing down her back.


© Meg McNaught

“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.

Share your thoughts

* Gloria Steinem