Learning with Leif

Lately I’ve been empathizing with small Leif.

We often hear about how challenging the first few weeks of life are for the parents. We hear about sleepless nights, inexplicable bouts of crying, a learning curve requiring crampons, and tidal waves of love and longing. Meanwhile, the mother’s body is putting itself through an extreme makeover as the uterus balls back into a fist, and breasts swell beyond recognizable bounds. Challenging indeed.

Rarely, however, do we ask about how challenging those first weeks are for an infant.

What about Leif? What are the first few weeks of life like for him?

I have been watching Leif closely. Not only does the mere sight of him hug my heart and leave me drenched in milk, I also have a secret agenda. I wrote What a Body Knows since my last birth in 2005. In the book, I draw upon my experience with my children to advance theories of human development and, in particular, theories about the role of desire in guiding us towards the health and well being we seek.

I can’t help but wonder: will Leif prove me wrong?

Watching him in this past week, I have been struck by an idea both ancient and newborn: it is so difficult to be a body!!

We imagine that infants have it made. Everything they want is done for them. They are fed, dressed, rocked, and pampered, worry-free. They need not provide for themselves; caregivers are at their beck and call. A couple of cries and helpers come running. They eat and sleep, snuggle and coo, while making a transition from a watery world to this earth of air and sky.

Is it true? Look.

Leif is lying there on the bed, calm and quiet, staring at patterns of light on the ceiling. Suddenly out of nowhere a small fist smacks him in the face, opens up and scratches. His eyes scrunch shut, his head shakes left and right. He has no idea that the invader is attached to his arm, or that he moved it, or where exactly the missile hits. He has no idea he is responding. The sharp sensation surprises. It comes out of nowhere, registering in a proximate space of nowhere, with a difference that marks his distance from the womb where resistance was constant and impact dulled by fluid.

The beating stops and his face scrunches pink. His small self is overcome by pushing. Grunts he doesn’t know he is making erupt with the efforts he doesn’t know he is enacting. It sounds as if he is giving birth. The push releases in an explosive burst, filling subterranean spaces. The noise triggers his startle reflex; his eyes widen and his arms flail in open air. What was that?

A blast of cold air shocks the explosion site. Warm wetness turns cold and a colder wetness wipes. His cry plows through air, an expression of pure presence. Then the even temperature returns with a wrap, snap, and crackle. Warm again.

Moments later a pang of discomfort follows, occurring in some region between where the missile hit and the explosion erupted. Something feels trapped. Impulses to move ripple through his body, causing limbs to piston open and shut and his lips to tremble. He utters a small “whaa!” and hears the cry. Huge arcs of energy coming from nowhere scoop him up and rest him on his belly. With several whacks from a surface the size of his entire back, a large bubble emerges, releases. The discomfort, wherever it was, eases.

Suddenly a sensation of want opens up in the space that the bubble left behind. He already knows: there is a particular taste he desires, a shape, a smell, a belly-warming stream, a beating-breathing softness. Yet, he has no idea of where it comes from, why, when, or how. He has no name for the one who gives, or for his bodily self that receives; no sense of his own agency in making it happen. But it does.

The sensory shapes he is shift. A large orb mysteriously appears, and the mere flicker of knowledge he has flames into consciousness as his consciousness. Opening his mouth, latching on, sucking, he does the only thing he knows how to do: draw sweet nourishment into his bodily self.

At first the taste guides him. It touches his desire. Then consciousness expands to include other sensations. With the touch comes a voice. It comes before the taste, during the taste, after the taste, and only sometimes without the taste.

He is now realizing too that the taste and the voice go along with a face—a pattern of colors and shapes that keeps returning. The face moves; it moves him to move. He moves, and it moves back. Smiles cross through space, linking felt sensations of pleasure with the visions of another.

I am watching his consciousness take shape in the form of movements—patterns of coordinated action that change his sensations from cold to warm, stinging to smooth, empty to full, falling to snug. It is what his body knows.

Leif is the rhythms of his bodily becoming. He is born moving, and as he moves his movements register a seamless sensory flow. He is how he moves; sense and response are one. By moving, he is giving rise to a sense of body and self, of desire and will, of person, place and thing. It’s all in the book.

Talk about a learning curve! Talk about endless days and nights! Talk about unexplained sounds and smells and touches and tastes! I see the bewilderment and wonder in his riveting eyes, his vibrating hands, and his antenna toes as he creates and becomes himself.

Parents have it made during those first few weeks. They already know how to eat, poop, burp, and move their limbs. It’s easy for us! Or maybe not. For we are bodies too, also on the frontier of our own becoming, generating new patterns of sensation and response that guide us in finding the pleasure we seek in caring for bodies newly born.

Maybe the most challenging parental task, then, is one we have never stopped facing, and one we barely recognize: how to do what our infants are already doing in being the moving bodies they are.

Can I become your mom?

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