RED BEACH, 1965. The Marines go ashore in Vietman and establish a defensive perimeter around Danang. The American ground was in Indochina has begun in earnest; in time it will engage half a million American soldiers.
Where was I when the Marines landed at Red Beach? I know I must have heard about it. I was, after all, working for a newspaper at the time and professionally proud of the fact that every day I read everything in the newspaper. Yet I missed this momemtous event; Red Beach is a blank in my memory.
For the longest time, felt vaguely guilty about Red Beach, the hungover guilt of a drunk trying to reconstruct where he was the night before. Then I remembered.
Red Beach, 1965, was the time when our first baby was born, a blue-eyed boy, a shocking presence in our lives who overwhelmed all else and blanked out the new war in Indochina.
The was was nothing to me.I am able to confess that now. I had opinions, of course, dozens of opinions on every aspect, points of argument, terrible examples, splendid moments of outrage. Still, with apologies to the people of Indochina and to the over 2 million Americans who served there, I confess that the war was nothing more to me than a subject for conversation, a television drama.
What truly scared me then was the blue-eyed baby in my hands. Yes, I was scared of this baby. Holding it aloft like a fragile package, I thought how small and vulnerable he is, one firm squeeze of the father's hands and the newborn would be dead. At the same time, I felt an awesome, confusing power over me, emanating from this helpless infant in my hands.
"Having babies." That is how we put it in our culture, accurate in a way but also self-deceiving. In the deeper sense, which every parent knows in his or her secret heart, whether acknowledged or not, the babies have us. the babies bring us, with a brutal suddenness, face to face with the ultimate mystery.
Arrogant parents will struggle against the mystery of the baby, pretend that they have solved it or attempt to cloak it with pretensions of control. Wise parents will yield to the mystery and rejoice that they have indeed made contact with the unknowalbe.
Am I making any sense? I am reaching for something which parents rarely talk about directly, especially in public print, a collection of contradictory emotions in which one feels, simultaneously, powerful and humiliated. All things considered, it was as powerful, perhaps more powerful than any other experience in my life, a personal fact which has social and political significance beyond myself. Generally, as you must have noticed, when people write about their babies, they make awkward jokes or tell winsome anecdotes or pretend to be exasperated and amused. The cuteness of these expressions, I'm convinced, is intended to mask the scary center of true parental feeling.
When I first saw him, he was still wet and bloody, a blurred, yawning mouth in the nurse's arms. In the hospital nursery, where he slept, immobilized by the tightly tucked hospital blanket in the standard hospital crib among rows of standard cribs with standard sleeping babies, he seemed not quite real, certainly not quite ours.
Coming home from the hospital, my wife and I at last felt the shock of what had occurred. We left the baby to grandparents and fell into a deep, traumatic sleep. Hours later, when we awoke, he was still there, still ours, hungry, crying in a reedy voice. Oh, my God. What shall we do? This baby is ours.
In some ways, as infants must spend a childhood adjusting to the glare and confusion and complicated drama beyond the womb, parents must devote an equal lifetime coming to terms with that first moment of shock. Like children whose early development is sometimes twisted or thwarted by cruel experience, some parents never quite get over it. When they speak about their children, even full-grown children, one can still hear traces of the original shock. Having babies, portrayed so innocently in the folklore, turns out to be terribly compromising, full of unexpected shock and resentment.
Yes, parents do resent babies. For the babies have brought them crashing down to earth. Like Peter Pan when he was told he must grow up. Suddenly one is left alone to rediscover the same primitive truths that every mother and father had to learn alone before them, since the beginning of time. As babies must leave their Eden, so do parents, tasting the knowledge which makes them mortal.
I remember relearning fear and confusion. I was holding the baby in my lap, a small package artfully balanced with one hand against the small of his back, his soft skull resting lightly on my arm. He lurched forward violently, almost leapt out of my lap, and puked across the room. My memory exaggerates perhaps, but it seemed like the force of a small hydrant spurting mother's milk a great distance across the rug.
We went to the baby books. Projectile vomiting? It seemed possible, this violent reaction to food. Is your digestive tract malformed, little baby? Are you dying in my hands? What must I do to save you? The blue-eyed baby smacked his lips and relaxed again, as though he were pleased with his bizarre behavior.
It seems silly now to recall how frightened we were but, of course, that is the essence of the experience. To feel terribly frightened for a moment and then wonderfully relieved, even grateful to the angel of projectile vomiting for skipping over our house. And finally to feel self-consciously silly, recognizing that our panic was undoubtedly routine for all new parents.
The usual exasperations and exhaustions followed.I remember being obsessed with boring details. Once an old friend, a wise country boy from downhome Kentucky, spent an evening at our dinner table, listening to my wife and me yak on and on about our travail as new parents. He looked at my wife and explained with the wisdom of the ages: "You're earning back your raisings." Whatever we were given, whatever blind-luck blessings we enjoyed as children, it was now our turn to pay them back with our own.
I remember learning -- or relearning -- about primitive reflexes. There is a brief period of infancy when they are plainly visible in this new baby, undilated by learned habits. The tiny hand clenches an adult finger with extraordinary strength, almost extrahuman it seems, that this baby who cannot yet keep his head up has a grip stronger than his own weight.
The startle reflex. Nothing in my expensive education touched upon the startle reflex or attempted to explain it. When I lifted off the blanket and tickled the soles of my sleeping baby's feet, he flexed like a small dynamo, arms and feet. Still sleeping, he instantly held up clenched fists and shook them at me. I laughed and tickled him again. He shook his fists and kicked again. I never saw a human message as pure as that. I remember watching the startle reflex and acknowledging to myself: Certain things I will never understand.
Be still. Drink your milk. Pet the doggy. Look at the picture.Kiss your Daddy. Go to your room.
Parents do feel powerful too. We could hardly escape the illusion of power for we are constantly giving commands and, sooner or later, imeptly or skillfully, the baby responds, begins to do the things which human infants are supposed to do, more or less on schedule and roughly in reaction to the parents' direction. This is gratifying, a joyful entertainment for parents of healthy children, yet it is also dangerously deceiving.
The power is real enough. Every time a father or mother raises voice or hand against the child, the effect is visible. Over time, everything a parent does or fails to do has consequences.
And yet it is so easy to delude oneself. Child-rearing is a human system which is somehow beyond human ordering. Very soon, this amazing baby began to learn things which his parents did not teach him or at least did not know we were teaching. Joined soon by another amazing baby, he and his sister developed their own distinctive sighs and whispers and personalities, utterly beyond planning or pedagogical control.
Most children do turn out all right, regardless of their parents or the books their parents read. And prudent parents will not claim too much credit for good results.
"Having babies" has become a political issue in our time, also a social question for people who can afford to ask it. The political issue, to put it swiftly and crudely, is that poor people have too many babies, especially those poor young black women, without husbands, who have babies and go on welfare. The social question comes up mainly at the other end of the class spectrum, among the well-educated and ambitious young white couples who are sufficiently "liberated" from cultural tradition to ask themselves: Shall we have babies at all?
This is a strange inversion of our times. The poor black girls are pitied or despised for having babies. The modern young white women, working at careers and postponing the competing demands of motherhood, are admired. I understand, of course, the social explanations but still there is something strange about it.
Having a baby is a means of escape from a wretched childhood, a way of establishing power and identity, an effort to be taken seriously as an adult in a world which does not take poor black children seriously. For the young black women, a baby puts them in touch with something powerful in human experience, something which is beyond class and education, beyond money.
Meanwhile, the modern children of affluence who seem to have everything spend years of their lives discussing and debating whether they shall participate in this experience. Perhaps for them, not having babies is a way to hang onto childhood, like latter-day Peter Pans, choosing to dwell in the never-never land of families without babies. Is it possible, I wonder, that the young welfare mothers know something of life that Peter Pan didn't learn?
Most babies, unfortunately, are born to people who have never raised children before. That's the way the human system is designed; every generation of parents must learn it all again. But I have another theory: perhaps we learned it all as babies ourselves, secret lessons from our own parents.
My daughter told us a revealing story recently about when she was a baby. My wife and I were reminiscing about how cute she was, going to bed at night in her crib, surrounded by various stuffed animals. She had a habit of carefully lining up the stuffed bunnies and dolls, tucking them in, all in a row, before she herself would go to sleep.
This pleasing scene charmed us as parents, but our daughter remembers it with dread. She remembers her stuffed animals with anxiety. We thought they were merely cute, but she thought of them as her children. She felt responsible for them. She had to take care of them. She worried about them.
Perhaps, as we leaned over her crib in the nightly bedtime ritual, beaming with approval as she arranged her animals in their places, we were unconsciously teaching her that someday she too would be an adult, like us, "earning her raisings."