Kathryn and I had finally made our family of four work at an almost leisurely pace, with a practically self-sustaining 11-year-old and an ever more manageable 7-year-old, and this new boy was going to be the nail in the coffin of our serenity. We were doomed. We were both over 40 and far removed from the up-every-two-hours routine. We were not only feeling old, but by all indices we were too old to be doing this again.
The first night after his arrival, when the nurses took him for hours at a time, I gulped sleep like I never expected to get a drink of it again. Then I gave in to curiosity and held him. Okay, he had a tiny nose and cheeks that looked like they were stuffed with lollipops, and he fit perfectly into the hollow of my neck, and he didn't back talk at all, but I was too old and he was too young, and I had no expectation of us ever getting along. We drove him home, and I braced for the apocalypse.
There were midnight séances of feeding and burping and puking and diapering, a quadratic equation of such predictability I'd hoped I had forgotten it. But no, it was old news, and the new news of "installed" car seats and "urban mountain" strollers seemed even worse. The older kids laughed at us as Kathryn and I bumbled around the kitchen, stubbing our toes and swatting flies, breaking dishes and burning waffles.
Somehow, before Benjamin's arrival, we'd winnowed the numerous everyday tasks to a tolerable few for each of us, even employing the children, but the new tasks were like an anchor dropped into our boat, and we were not only sinking but keeling over. This wasn't what I expected. It was worse. The exterminator stood us up, the estimate for the hoped-for addition took months to wrangle from contractors and was triple what we'd been told to expect, and throughout our tidy little town I imagined I could hear our neighbors clucking at our failed experiment in the messy three-kid family.
Fred Leebron is the author of three novels, most recently In the Middle of All This. His fiction has won an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize.
Walking through the doorLate, late at night, in the 20 minutes of calm the baby would allow us, Kathryn and I would cling to each other, and I'd swallow the one thing I really wanted to tell her, the line that so many of us must transmit between ourselves as eternal servants to our children, our jobs, each other: I don't know how much longer I can do this. There was one whole week when I didn't shower, another week when I couldn't brush my teeth, and a third when...oh, you don't want to know.
Throughout the winter the baby squawked and clawed and howled and coughed and drooled, and a continuous line of mucus flowed from his nose to his mouth. The pediatrician nodded and said not to worry that we couldn't console or cure him. He'd grow out of it, and babies were always more resilient than parents really knew. When we learned the good doctor had no children, I wanted to strangle him.
In the spring Kathryn returned to work, and we began again our routine of alternating days at home, with the extra chore of the new baby alongside the housekeeping and food shopping and cooking and bill paying. And I thought, I am going to die, and if I don't, I hope somebody kills me. But one afternoon when the baby was mine, I was crossing the street to pick up Jacob at school and it was as if there were a door in the middle of the road that I was walking through. And when I came out the other side and turned and saw myself carrying this 9-month-old boy on my shoulder, I thought, Wait, I've done this before, exactly seven years ago. And suddenly I wasn't mad and I wasn't frustrated. I felt, instead, inexplicably younger, as if being in the exact situation seven years later had returned seven years to my life. This is kind of interesting, I thought. I've reversed time. I'm young!
Maybe I was just sleep-deprived.
The next day I took 45 minutes out of my lunch and ran on the treadmill. The day after that I did the same thing. And you know what came after each treadmill drill? The shower! I began to shower every day, run every day; people began asking me to squeeze in tennis here and there, and I did that, and I showered, and I was clean. This is bizarre, I thought. I was running nearly as fast and certainly longer than I had run seven years before. And my tennis...well, if I'd been playing tennis like this in high school, I might have actually earned a varsity letter.
Every day I was doing something more, and on days when I had Benjamin I would load him into our silly, overpriced urban-mountain contraption and we'd walk the mile into town and browse the shops and smile at the judgmental neighbors and treat ourselves to a wedge of cheese at the newly opened gourmet-food store or to a cold can of diet cola from a glistening vending machine.
"What are you doing to me?" I asked Benjamin.
"Gah?" he said. It was his one word, and it meant "dog."
"Well, anyway, I just want you to know I like it," I said.
He looked at me and smiled one of those innocent baby smiles, and I smiled back in one of those goofy moments when you're certain neither of you has any idea of what you're smiling about; you're just swimming around in each other's smile. That's as goopy as I care to get. But I had one thing I had to tell my little monster.
"Thank you," I said.