You must always check a silence, not because the baby might have choked, but because it is in the middle of destroying something, thoroughly and slowly, with great and secret pleasure. It is important to remember this — you run back to the room, not to see if the baby needs resuscitation, but to save your floppy disks. Once you realise where the balance actually lies you can free yourself from the prison of worry. I know this. I am an expert. Some people, as they mount the stairs, might listen for the sound of a toy still in use — to me, this was the sound of the baby randomly kicking buttons in a sudden choking or epileptic fit. I used to read the ‘Emergencies’ section in the How to Kill Your Baby books all the time. The How to Kill Your Baby books are so popular that I assume some part of us wants to do just that. If the unconscious works by opposites, then it is a murderous business too, giving birth.
How to Kill Your Baby: A List:
Too much salt, fungally infected honey, a slippy bath surface, suddenly jealous pets, permanently jealous siblings, a stupid or pathological babysitter, the stairs, a house that goes on fire while you are ‘outside moving the car’, a child-snatcher, a small plastic toy, a playful jiggle that is as bad as a shake, an open cutlery drawer, a necklace, a string, a plastic bag, a piece of burst balloon, an electric cord, a telephone cord, a lollipop, a curtain cord, an inhaled sweet, an accidentally suffocating pillow, a smoky room, the wrong kind of mattress, an open window, a milk allergy, a nut allergy, a bee sting, a virus, a bacterial infection, a badly balanced walker, a bottle of bleach, all kinds of weedkiller, both on the lawn or in the bottle, pesticides, miscellaneous fumes, all carcinogens including apples, a failure to apply sun cream, the lack of a hat, battery-produced eggs, inorganic meat, cars. You might also have Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy without knowing it, so it is a good idea to check yourself for this, from time to time.
As far as I can see from the news reports, one of the most dangerous creatures in a child’s life is a stepfather, but the books don’t seem to mention them. They warn against mothers’ endless sloppiness with dangerous domestic objects, but they never mention their taste in men.
When the baby is eight months old, she cries every time I move out of sight. This separation anxiety can get quite wearing — it is so large and so illogical. Besides, I don’t need to be reminded that I’m not going anywhere, I am with this baby all the time. But I wonder if part of the problem isn’t my own anxiety when I leave the room. Will she still be alive when I get back? I picture the court case.
‘And why, pray tell, did you leave the baby?’
‘I . . . A call of nature, your honour.’
He pauses. A ripple of sympathy runs through the courtroom.
‘Well, I suppose even the best mothers must er um,’ though you know he thinks we shouldn’t. ‘Case dismissed. I suppose.’
Mothers worry. Fathers worry too, of course. But mothers are supposed to worry, and fathers are supposed to reassure. Yes, she is all right on the swing, no, he will not fall into the stream, yes, I will park the buggy in the shade, oh, please get a grip.
Is it really a gender thing? Maybe the people who worry most are the ones who spend the most time with the baby, because babies train us into it — the desperation of holding, walking, singing, distracting. Babies demand your entire self, but it is a funny kind of self. It is a mixture of the ‘all’ a factory worker gives to the conveyor belt and the ‘all’ a lover offers to the one he adores. It involves, on both counts, a fair degree of self-abnegation.
This is why people who mind children suffer from despair; it happens all of a sudden — they realise, all of a sudden, that they still exist. It is to keep this crux at bay perhaps — that is why we worry. Because worry is a way of not thinking something through.
I think worry is a neglected emotion — it is something that small-minded people do — but it has its existential side too. Here is the fire that burns, the button that chokes, here is the kettle, the car, the bacterium, the man in a mac. On the other side is something so vulnerable and yet so huge — there is something unknowable about a baby. And between these two uncertainties is the parent; completely responsible, mostly helpless, caught in an ever-shrinking circle of guilt and protectiveness, until a kind of frozen passivity sets in. There is a kind of freedom to it too — the transference of dread from the self to the child is so total: it makes you disappear. Ping! Don’t mind me.
The martyred mother is someone uplifted, someone who has given everything. She is the reason we are all here. She is also, and even to herself, a pain in the neck.
I think mothers worry more than fathers because worry keeps them pregnant. To worry is to possess, contain, hold. It is the most tenacious of emotions. A worry — and a worrier — never lets go. ‘It never ends,’ says my mother, ‘it never ends,’ meaning the love, but also the fret.
Because worry has no narrative, it does not shift, or change. It has no resolution. That is what it is for — not ending, holding on. And sometimes it is terrible to be the one who is held, and mostly it is just irritating, because the object of anxiety is not, after all, you. We slip like phantoms from our parents’ heads, leaving them to clutch some Thing they call by our name, because a mother has no ability to let her child go. And then, much later, in need, or in tragedy, or in the wearing of age, we slip back into her possession, because sometimes you just want your mother to hold you, in her heart if not in her arms, as she is still held by her own mother, even now, from time to time.
Anne Enright, ‘Worry’ in Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, London: Vintage, 2005, 177-79.