Hearing Langston’s Smile
By Kristen Witucki
I stood in front of the changing table wearing just my underpants and nursing bra. My husband James stood next to me so that he could learn how to change Langston’s diapers by touch. James was fully clothed in corduroy pants, a polo shirt, and a fleece pullover. Despite my lack of clothing, I was sweating in our overheated apartment — just knowing what James wore made me sweat even more. My stomach felt like a leaky balloon that wouldn’t fully deflate, my groin was still caked with blood from the recent birth, and my swollen feet felt like they couldn’t hold my weight another second. My fingers smelled, not unpleasantly, of the diaper rash ointment I applied religiously to Langston’s perfectly smooth bottom. His newness and fragility still made me tremble.
“When you put the diaper on,” I was explaining to James, “the two pieces of tape always need to be under the baby so that you can close the diaper from the back.”
Mom, who was watching in the doorway, said, “I have to take a picture of this demo, but don’t worry, I won’t post it on Facebook. I’m going to head home now. You two seem like you’ll be okay on your own.” I wanted to argue, to beg her to stay through the weekend, at least, but I didn’t. After all, I was supposed to be the mother now.
Because we are both blind, most of the doctors and nurses James and I encountered when Langston was born were skeptical of our parenting ability. Too tired to advocate, we kept ourselves surrounded by a pod of rotating friends and family members, until we convinced the medical personnel that a protective membrane always encompassed our family’s nucleus. They cleared us to go home on the Monday after Langston’s birth. Mom stayed with us for four more days. She woke up with me around the clock and helped Langston keep his hands away from my nipples so I could feed him. She changed some of his diapers and cooked simple meals from my childhood: grilled cheese and canned tomato soup, homemade meat loaf and baked potatoes. When mom came, towers of still unopened baby gifts filled the apartment, which, combined with her mothering presence, temporarily added to the chaos. Her laptop and work things took up part of the kitchen table, and an air mattress engulfed most of the living room floor at night. When she left, the homey clutter was gone. The gifts were organized, the air mattress was put away, her work things were in the car, and we were alone with Langston.
I didn’t realize that my mother’s baptismal gift of privacy was the beginning of the reverberating isolation of early motherhood, the kind when shouting into the cave only intensifies your own echo, and your only hope of escape is the bond you forge with your child. Surprisingly few people interrupted our privacy, given the number of visits friends and coworkers promised before Langston’s birth. Later people blamed their distance on the holiday rush and then on winter — Langston was born on the last day of November. And by springtime, he wasn’t new anymore. But I sometimes wondered whether the advent of social media made many of my sighted acquaintances feel as though they had experienced this new person in all his glory right from the convenience of their own screens. From the moment he was born, my relatives and the friends who visited took photos of Langston for me to post on my Facebook profile. I welcomed the pictures, because Langston, as a sighted child, might someday appreciate those glimpses into his early life. But displaying those for all of my friends, may have accentuated my loneliness during early motherhood.
I inwardly panicked on the day James returned to work when Langston was seven weeks old. It wasn’t just, “Who will change diapers and get the baby to sleep so I can have a break between feedings?” In a few short weeks, I had seesawed from longing for privacy to longing for adult conversation — any conversation beyond soothing a baby’s cries.
My days were all nursing and diaper changes, but during the snatches of time when Langston catnapped, I turned to the internet for companionship and support. To make room for baby things in the apartment, I had sold my desk, and now, after Langston was born, I sat cross-legged on my bed, the laptop propped on my knees. The bed was a cozy nook around which my activities could center. I could let Langston sleep next to me while I typed, or I could set up his activity mat beside me so he could stare at toys and kick his feet. I sometimes nursed him on the bed, too, propped up against pillows and the sometimes creaky headboard. But since James had gone to work, the bed was unmade most of the time, and the old quilt, comfortable but flattened by use, was crumpled back, exposing sheets that had enough holes in them to feel unattractive but not enough holes in them to throw them away. I was never interested in making the bed, but when James failed to get around to it, it reminded me of our newly disheveled routine.
One such day on the unmade bed, I received one of my perky weekly emails from BabyCenter, supposedly tracking my baby’s progress. This email cheerfully told me that my first reward for all the sleep deprivation was coming soon in the form of my baby’s first smiles.
Just then, Langston wailed again, even though he had barely slept for twenty minutes. I picked him up and wanted to cry along with him. Suddenly my longing for adult conversation and my pride in having learned to care for my son were eclipsed by my having missed something so small but apparently so monumental. I began to obsess over all of the things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t see which toys he preferred as he stared at the silken bars over him on the activity gym. I couldn’t follow his photographed progress on Facebook. And worst of all, without being able to see and respond to those smiles, I was not a real mother. I was just a milk dispenser and diaper changer. I would meet needs, thereby satisfying the skeptical medical personnel, but I would not be able to create a foundation for love. I imagined all those other mothers, smiling back and forth conversationally with their babies while my mouth felt cracked with the tension I felt inside. Not only was I not connecting to the outside world except through a computer, I was not connecting to the inside world of Langston’s life as a developing sighted baby.
On Valentine’s Day, another work day for James, neither of us bothered to give each other valentines. I wanted to ignore the holiday in support of those it left out. However, I was feeling left out myself, wishing James had chosen to stay home with me, choosing love over work, even though his work directly enabled our love for our new baby. Langston and I were on the unmade bed again. I had already nursed him three or four times that day, had changed countless diapers, and gulped down food and water during his brief naps.
I was bored with the repetitive music of the activity gym, one of the few electronic toys I allowed Langston. Even though he was still so little, I could feel my boredom seeping into him, making him fretful. So I picked up my Victor Reader Stream, an accessible digital audio player and recorder, and pressed the record button. I could feel the baby watching me.
“Daisy, daisy,” I sang, “give me your answer. Do.” The song was one my mom had taught us when we were little. Suddenly, Langston sang an encouraging note. It was little more than “aaaaa,” but I knew he was listening.
“I’m half-crazy,” I continued, my voice wobbling off key as I suppressed my emotion beneath the song, “all for the love of you.”
Again Langston sang, “ooooo, aaaaa.” As I finished the song, he responded to each line, and for the first time, I experienced the validation of call-and-response through the sounds of my son. “Are you singing?” I asked him. “You can sing it. That’s some good singing.” He answered each sentence with a musical variation on “aaa,” not imitating my music so much as he was imitating the act of singing, maybe inventing his own song. It wasn’t the first time I had sung to Langston, but suddenly we were conversing. I knew I was smiling at him and that he was smiling back.
After James returned from work and took Langston to give me a break, I uploaded the recording and posted the link to Facebook. I was overwhelmed by people’s responses, because unlike the photos in which I was a mere bystander, I had nurtured forth those early syllables. I was behind the camera. I was a mother.
The recording did not shatter our solitude. After all, people could now hear as well as see the baby right from the convenience of their own screens, and although it may take a village to raise a child, I’ve accepted that motherhood is, for better or worse, about the mother and the child, as it should be. But that recording was Langston’s first smile, and my first social and emotional connection with him.
Author’s Note: Two years have passed since Langston’s first smile. I showed him the recording of himself approximating song notes as a baby, but he’s more interested in hearing the more recent recording of himself saying “Hi.” Someday, though, Langston might ask about his infant self, and I’ll be able to give him a layered account of the experience. Langston knew I was blind from his earliest days, even though he couldn’t articulate it — just as I learned to mother him, he learned how to thrive as my baby, and I’m profoundly grateful.
About the Author: Kristen Witucki earned her MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first book, The Transcriber, became part of Gemmamedia’s Open Door series. Her non-fiction has appeared in Huffington Post, Literary Mama and the Momoir Project. She teaches English, creative writing, and Braille. She lives in West Virginia with her husband, her son, and her Seeing Eye dog. Visit her at www.kristenwitucki.com.
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