The compression of memory means the 72 hours around the birth of my first daughter have been reduced to a dozen snapshots. The anxiety induced by hospitals, the boredom of institutionalised waiting, the sleeplessness – all that is gone and I’m left with intense, but still uncertain memories. Was I wearing a red or a green shirt? I don’t know, but I remember my raw eyes, my sickly gut, and my damp hands as I held her that first morning. Was my wife to my left or right? Wherever her bed lay, she was asleep.
I had notions before that day of cultural narratives I was meant to play out. A new baby, like a wedding, meant the loss of freedom. Bachelor parties had always confused and repelled me slightly. Was there a bachelor party equivalent for new babies that I could also skip without regret? The moment we checked in to the maternity ward, we stopped choosing. We stepped onto a conveyor belt that would decide our destination. It wasn’t a violent theft, we relaxed into it, responsibility was now with the nurses and midwives. I never felt the loss deeply, never saw the need to cast myself in the role of a victim, a prisoner, a slave. Anyway, after the nurse kicked me out of the hospital room, the extent of my rebellion was to pick up fast food on the way home. The grease and sugar didn’t help with the queasiness, but at least I was still a free man right?
When she and her mother came home, what I remember is a sense of hyper-vigilance. Like Berkeley’s god, I had to maintain constant awareness of my daughter for her continued existence. The puckering of her tiny mouth, the mews, the rustles of the maternity blanket. It was all so potent with meaning, what exactly I didn’t know, but I had to hold it all in my consciousness. What if some sign she gave escaped me, what if I turned away and missed some crucial message she was sending? Eventually, I fell asleep.
She was still there in the morning. My mind would flit from her to what to put on my toast, to an image of Maggie Simpson – my daughter continued to exist. She would be there tomorrow.
A new sense of expansiveness filled me. I hadn’t lost freedom, my scope for action in the universe had increased. I was now a father. The number of possible futures multiplied in my imagination, there were now infinite universes in which my love for my family took on effervescent shades I had never seen before. There were also universes where new varieties of suffering appeared, albeit with millions of poignant moments that brought sharp tears to my eyes as I pondered them. I left behind the small freedom of the contracted life I had led before and stepped into a new realm of freedom, the breadth of which I trembled to behold.