photo:courtesy Morgan Charles
In her first month on Earth, we took 1,233 photos of my daughter. Pictures of her yawning or smiling, pictures of her propped on the couch beside the poor dog. Pictures of her staring pensively off into the middle distance, her hand on her chin. But mostly, we took pictures of her sleeping. One of these photos accidentally captured my experience of new parenthood so perfectly that I laughed when I first saw it months later. It shows her at two days old, swaddled and sleeping in her bassinet. We had finally removed the little hat they’d put on her at the hospital, but only after extensive googling. It was mid-June, and the temperature that day had hit 30 C. But aren’t babies supposed to wear one more layer than us? I must have still been worried about it because if you look closely, you can see me through the mesh side of the bassinet in the background of the photo. I’m curled on the bed, staring at the baby with a look of fierce concentration, as though she’ll disappear if I look away.
My partner, Marc, and I had prepared for months for our daughter’s arrival. We took the prenatal classes, hired a doula and bought (and read the introductions to) all the books: The Happiest Baby on the Block, What to Expect the First Year, The Baby Book, Canada's Baby Care Book, The Baby Whisperer, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, The Wonder Weeks. A month before our due date, we attended a terrifying CPR course where the instructor kept yelling, “Too late! The baby’s brain-dead!” while we worked over the tiny dummies. I had a list of emergency numbers on the fridge, and the car seat was professionally installed.
But as soon as we got home from the hospital with the baby, the house seemed like a death trap. Our room was either too hot or too drafty. I worried about chemicals in the diaper cream and the off-gassing from the bassinet mattress. Our daughter was so incredibly tiny, fragile and vulnerable. We carried her carefully, cradling her head like a precious egg. Before we gave her a bath for the first time, I watched three YouTube videos in preparation, and I still wasn’t ready for how slippery she was in the water.
I have always been the type of person who feels that the best way to avert calamity is to worry about it in advance. Despite the proven inefficiency of hand-wringing, I clung to the illusion of control it gave me. Nursing my daughter one day that first week, as I watched the soft spot on her head pulse with her heartbeat, I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of keeping her safe for the next hundred years. I told myself I just had to get through these first three months unscathed and everything would be fine.
It was July 10 and I’d just posted a photo of my daughter to Instagram: “One month!” I wrote (At this point, I still harboured fantasies of being the kind of parent who takes a monthly photo, ideally with those numbered blocks someone had given us as a baby gift.) I felt a swell of accomplishment—we’d kept this creature alive for 29 days with no mishaps. Maybe we knew what we were doing after all.
It was a beautiful Saturday, so we decided to go to the café up the street, which in this new life seemed like a major outing. We’d done it a couple of times before and always felt like recently paroled convicts, blinking in the bright sun. Every time we left the house I worried that the baby would get sunburnt. She was still too young for sunscreen but I’d read it was dangerous to drape a muslin cloth over the stroller because of the heat, so I had no idea what to do. A week earlier, after she’d slept in the shade for an hour, I had to call Telehealth because I remembered reading that babies could get sunburnt even out of direct sunlight. The nurse had been patient with me, and gently reassured me that sunburns were not typically an invisible phenomenon.
That Saturday, while Marc wound the carrier around himself the way the doula had shown us, I noticed that the baby’s diaper needed to be changed. As I rushed up the stairs with her, the toe of my flip-flop caught the lip of the carpeted stair. I fell, losing my grip on the baby as I pitched forward. We were at the bend in the stairs, and I watched, horrified, as her head made contact with the wall in front of us. It seemed like time slowed to a crawl, yet I couldn’t move fast enough to stop it. And then suddenly she was back in my arms, wailing.
Marc came running. “I dropped her, I dropped her,” I repeated, in shock. He took the baby from my arms and she quickly stopped crying. Now it was my turn. I ran to our room and threw myself on the bed, shaking. How could I have been so careless? Flip-flops! The knowledge of her utter fragility and my stupid human negligence felt like an impossible burden. What if I’d been running down the stairs instead of up? What if the stairs weren’t carpeted? What if what if what if?
“She seems fine,” Marc called from the hallway. I wiped my face and went back out to see her. He examined her head while she nursed. She seemed focused and alert, normal, except for the small bump he felt at the back of her head. We iced it while I called Telehealth again. The nurse asked me a list of questions: Had she lost consciousness? Thrown up? Refused to eat? Even though the answer was no to everything, she said I should still take the baby to the ER, given her age.
At the hospital, miraculously, there was no wait. While the ER nurse weighed my daughter, she chatted idly about the harsh realities of Toronto real estate. I couldn’t understand why everyone was being so calm. I’d dropped my baby! Surely social services would be here any minute.
“It happens more than you’d think,” the nurse said, reading my mind.
We were led to an exam room to see the doctor. He felt the baby’s scalp with his fingers and found the little bump on the back of her head, but since she was nursing and acting normally, he didn’t see the need to do any scans. He said to check on her every two hours in the night and come back if she acted strangely. I almost wished they’d keep us there under observation. I don’t know what I’m doing! I wanted to yell. How was I supposed to know if a person I had only known 29 days was acting strangely?
That night I slept even less than usual. I was used to waking at least every two hours to feed the baby, but this was different. I lay beside the bassinet, watching her stomach rise and fall in the glow of my cellphone. Occasionally she emitted a little grunt, but I was still relieved when she let out a cry. I grabbed her eagerly, relieved to have another chance to check her over as she nursed. I felt for the bump on her head. The doctor had said she’d heal quickly, but I was still surprised when I couldn’t find anything. Once the baby was back in her bassinet, I reset my alarm for two hours. This time I slept soundly.
The next day, before our second attempt on the coffee shop, I found the baby book I’d been meaning to update for the last month. In a blank section reserved for “Gifts I Received,” I taped my daughter’s tiny hospital bracelet. “I dropped you today,” I wrote, “but you were okay. I cried more than you.”
My daughter turned two last week. She scrapes her knees daily, and still has a faint mark on her forehead from when she whacked it on the coffee table the other day. I still feel my heart in my throat when she runs away from me at the park, but I have mostly relinquished my superstitious belief in the power of pre-emptive worrying. Part of this is the passing of time, but I also credit that day with helping me get there sooner.
Obviously, I never would have chosen to trip that day and drop my daughter. I can barely think of the moment even now without wincing. If I could go back, I’d choose the sensible sneakers every time. But that day did relieve me of the exhausting fantasy of my own omnipotence. It also showed me that she was much more resilient than I realized, and so was I.
Morgan Charles is a writer and editor, who lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.