How to conduct a psychological experiment on your family

Children are not good for many things. You don’t, for example, want to take a child on a long plane trip. Or have them with you when something disastrous happens. My oldest son has a habit of blocking his ears and closing his eyes at the approach of a bad thing. At least it’s more sophisticated than my mother, who actually has been known to duck when something untoward occurs.

‘Mum,’ I say to her, ‘I heard a strange noise outside.’ – She ducks, her hands over her ears.

‘The kettle’s broken.’ – Duck. It’s not helpful.

But children are wonderful candidates for psychological experiments. I’m not suggesting you get them, Milgram-style, to administer shocks to unsuspecting people – god, can you imagine! Nobody would emerge unharmed – but you can set up subtle changes that reveal a lot about the psyche.

Like this experiment that I devised for the five-year-old last night. I’d been given a box of Elephant chocolates as a gift and, partly as bribe (‘first eat the avocado’), partly as kind-hearted motherly deed, I sometimes give them one after supper.

The youngest one came toddling along to ask for his chocolate.

‘Okay,’ I told him. ‘You ate your avocado?’

‘It was disgusting.’

‘Very good. But listen,’ I said to him in flash of brilliance, to be modest for a moment, ‘I’ve had an idea. Tell me what you think? You can get an Elephant chocolate – ’ joshie with chocolate

‘Yay!’

‘But your brother gets two.’

‘No!!’

‘Alright, then you both get none. Either you get one and your brother gets two, or you both get none.’

‘Okay. Fine. We both get none.’

And that’s it in a nutshell, the problem with human beings, or at least one essential problem.

Let me lastly add that if you are planning a psychological experiment with family members – and I do believe this is an area worth developing (you might wish to choose from this list of 10 famous experiments that you could never do today*)  – you have to plan for a lengthy post-experiment time. I had to endure a very voluble five-year-old for a lengthy period of time**. In fact, my only response was to put my hands over my ears and duck.

 

*I’m rather taken with making half the family prisoners, the other half prison guards.

** Despite rescinding my earlier offer, and giving them each one chocolate.

 

 

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Breaking Bread

Because so much of this blog is written by me, I thought I’d put up something written by Greg. Faith, mysticism, religion, whatever you want to call it, is also emerging as a theme in our new book. croissant

***

‘When I was a bachelor,’ my father says from his armchair, ‘you know what I used to do in hot weather?’

We are in my parents’ flat. My father is sipping a glass of whisky while I lie on the sofa leafing through a copy of the Jewish Times I have found in the entrance hall. Lisa and my mother are in the bedroom, playing with Jacob on the bed.

‘I drove along Chapman’s Peak,’ my father goes on, gently swilling his glass. ‘Then I made a braai by the side of the road and sat on my deckchair.’ From the open window comes the tumult of Friday-night traffic. People are making tracks all over the city.

‘The best part was being alone,’ my father adds. ‘I laid out my chops and sausages on the braai, and drank some wine, and at the end of the day I packed it all into my boot and went home. Hell, those were the days.’ He finishes his drink.

I have inherited my father’s temperament. My social skills are inauthentic and short-winded: sometimes I burst into parties chattering, joking, laughing, but soon I am sitting alone, drained and morose, eating the mini quiches from an abandoned platter.

My mother, a more social soul than her husband and youngest son, shouts to us from the bedroom, ‘Come and listen to Jacob!’ We go. My son is lying on the bed, producing his rainforest call, a high, sharp sound that brings to mind a forest canopy and parrots.

Overcome with love, my mother presses Jacob’s stomach, and he unfurls a long peal of goblin laughter. She looks at my father and me, her face lit with pleasure. ‘Come on, Darl,’ she says to my father. ‘Tell him a poem.’

‘Okay,’ my dad says.

Once upon a time

When the birds ate lime

And the monkeys chewed tobacco,

The devil ran past

With a chisel up his arse …

‘Not that one,’ says my mother.

‘But he likes it. Look, he’s laughing.’

My mother turns back to Jacob to savour his glee. My father and I edge out of the bedroom. Jacob is enchanting, but we want some peace.

‘I’ve always been a loner,’ says my dad as we return to our places.

‘Me too. Remember when I was a child, and I wanted to live in a mountain hut in Switzerland?’

‘I just wanted to stay in a single room with a nice paraffin heater,’ says my father, looking wistful.

Back in the bedroom Jacob is wowing his fans: there are claps and laughter from Lisa and my mother. ‘He loves his jokes,’ I hear my mother say. Jacob is her comedian, her rock star, her Dalai Lama in diapers. She holds him with the tenderness of a pilgrim fondling a sacred relic. Sometimes, unwilling to dissect his radiance, she says simply that he is perfect.

‘Come on, everyone,’ says my mother, striding from the bedroom towards the dinner table with Jacob cradled on her shoulder. Lisa trails behind them. The three of them look like a parent, a baby and a slovenly adolescent. My mother is a born leader, and Lisa and I find ourselves fitting naturally into her scheme. ‘Isn’t it great to have the kids here?’ she asks my father. All of us – Lisa, Jacob and I – fall into this umbrella category. It is soothing to be counted as one of the children.

‘Jacob and I will do the candles,’ my mother says. She and the pygmy marmoset turn their backs to the company, and she makes a blessing over the lit candles to welcome the Sabbath. Jacob tries to get at the flame, but his hands are held tight. For once he is not angry to be thwarted, but instead stares at the light.

My son is entranced, held by the candles in this moment. Friday night at my parents’ is his favourite event, and it’s good to see him happy. But I can’t help feeling that I’m being rebuked: this ritual is meant as a remedy to the godless household in which Jacob is being raised.

I sit Jacob on my lap and Lisa breaks off a piece of challah for him to play with. He grips the bread tightly in both hands. When he is old enough to eat it, Lisa and I will flake off morsels of bread to make a pile of scraps in front of him. (As he eats, Jacob’s face will become solemn; only his hands, cycling rapidly between heap and mouth, will reveal his opinion of this soft sweet thing, too delicious to regard lightly.) But for now, this chunk of challah is a plaything. It falls onto the carpet, grey and doughy with the impressions of his fingers.

‘Jacob just loves Friday nights here,’ my mother says. Suspiciously I watch her, but she seems not to be speaking to anyone in particular. Her smile is directed towards everyone, to a whole table of people she loves.

How, then, did I become this wary figure with arms folded and senses alert, vigilant for implied criticism, all the while passing salt and platters of food with cruel efficiency? Why am I the ice cube of the Sabbath table?

It was not always so. Friday evenings were glorious for me too as a child. The experience is so deeply lodged in my mind that its components are fused together. (Even now I confuse the smell of fire with that of challah, and when someone lights a match, I think of bread.) As the youngest chorister in the synagogue, I soared with an unbroken voice above the adolescent mooing of my mottled peers. Though I didn’t understand the words, I sang with a conviction that stirred the congregation, and that I felt too.

Yet my commitment was wearing away. After the first year of twice-weekly attendance at Hebrew school, where everything was new – the festivals, the biblical stories – I began the second year and found, to my puzzlement, that it was the same. All the festivals were identical, and I’d heard the stories. There was more detail, but it felt like we were going over familiar ground. As the years went by, attending Hebrew school felt like working in a fish factory. The head, the tail, where to cut, how to pack – it was always alike, and even if now and then a strange fish came down the conveyor belt, my curiosity had long since departed.

The principal of the Hebrew school, a refugee from General Franco’s Spain whose accent was a challenging synthesis of Spanish and Yiddish, and whose name (confusingly) was Mr Franco, said one day to my mother, ‘Tell me, Mrs Fried – Gregory doesn’t like Hebrew school?’

‘No, Mr Franco,’ said my mother, whom he had caught in the synagogue parking lot. ‘Gregory loves Hebrew school.’

‘Then why he doesn’t come?’

My mother was stumped and speechless. Of course, since one should tell a teacher the truth, especially a religious teacher, the appropriate reply would have been: ‘He doesn’t come, Mr Franco, because he can’t find it in his heart to listen one more time to the festive story of Purim, or to learn the Hebrew word for “goat”. His eldest brother is an atheist and you can’t compete with his brother, Mr Franco, for cool. And finally, whenever Gregory loses his place in the synagogue service, the beadle grabs my son’s prayer book, loudly licks his thumb, and flips through the pages with a wet digit.’

I associate religious education with outrageous stories and flabbergasting boredom. Yet my son too is now being led along the first steps of the path. ‘It’s the social contract,’ says Lisa. ‘Mutual obligations. Your parents do so much for Jacob; they love him so. And he’s their grandson.’

My wife’s parents are at it too. The next week, as we play a CD of children’s songs, Lisa’s mother pleads with us to buy Jacob a collection of klezmer music from Eastern Europe. ‘Just look at him,’ she says. (People often urge us to look at Jacob, as if a good stare at his chubby cheeks will provide the answers.) Lisa’s mother is standing over Jacob, clapping rhythmically. He sits, propped up against a pillow in his inflatable plastic boat as he watches her, an unblinking audience.

‘Heritage, Lisa,’ says her mother.

‘Why don’t you get him some klezmer music then, Mum?

‘I’m so busy.’ Lisa’s mother is suddenly all efficiency; her back straightens and she must go.

‘And if you’re interested in Jacob’s Jewish education,’ Lisa goes on, ‘then why didn’t you arrange any for me?’

‘You were a girl,’ says her mother, walking to the entrance hall to pick up her bag. ‘You played at my feet for all the years I taught at Hebrew school. And anyway, you didn’t need something like that, growing up in our house. My mother tongue is Hebrew.’ Her hand, as she walks, gestures outwards to indicate the pulses of language and culture that she transmits.

I have scooped up Jacob to say goodbye to Bathsheba, and from my shoulder he is absorbing this new scene, trying to extract its significance. He sees that the occasion is balanced between humour and tension, and doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

‘We’re not religious at all,’ I say to Lisa’s mother as she turns to leave.

‘Don’t goad her,’ Lisa tells me.

‘Why should Jacob be educated in superstition?’ A centimetre from my ear, my son begins to cry. The situation has become clear to him.

‘You have a bad attitude towards Judaism,’ says Lisa’s mother.

Lisa, attuned to the limitless potential for escalation in this clash between two proud and stubborn loved ones, ushers her mother out of the door. I stand in the entrance hall, fuming and ashamed. Jacob is crying all the while, and when I try to put him on the couch to get away from his screeching in my ear, he clings to me as if I am dropping him from a great height. My attempt to put him down has failed, and now I must make up for it by holding him tighter. I must hug him very close while he yells as loudly as he can.

My wife returns from the garden, where she has been patching things up with her mother before waving her off. ‘Honestly,’ she says. ‘Don’t you know when to be quiet? You’re not going to change her mind. Anyway, she came here to take care of Jacob. She adores him.’

‘She never gave you a Jewish education. You said it yourself.’

Lisa sighs. ‘I did tell her that, but I was sort of joking, and she knew it. Then you got involved, and you were so aggressive. Can’t you stand back and just accept things?’

‘I hate unreasonable behaviour.’

‘Oh, come on.’ Lisa goes off to the kitchen, where she opens a cupboard and removes, with much banging, a muffin tray.

‘What kind of muffins are you going to make?’ I ask. She does not reply. Her baking has nothing to do with me. Jacob’s cries have now subsided into helpless sobs, his ribcage juddering. My son still won’t allow me to put him down. I must keep carrying him around, holding him as I listen to the sobs I have caused him. It is like some biblical atonement.

‘Let’s see what Baba is up to,’ I say. The sight of Jacob’s Chinese plastic doll – naked, pink, as stern as a Beijing factory manager – has often calmed him before. When he sees Baba, though, he pauses for a moment and then wails. If even Baba can’t help, he seems to be thinking, what is to become of me?

I go over to Jacob’s shelf of second-tier stuffed toys – Doggy, Teddy, Chicken – and sit down with them all in my lap. Jacob is now seated in a congregation of fluffy animals. With his stout tummy and round face he looks somewhat like them, except that he is weeping. Yet he soon calms down enough to give Doggy a tentative hug. I’m not sure what has pacified him. Has he been surprised into silence by the crowd, or is he comforted by it?

For six months I have done a lot of fruitless puzzling. Why did he start screaming? How can I stop him? Why did he stop? But now I have a wonderful opportunity to forget about these puzzles for a week, because Lisa and I are leaving for a trip to Paris. We have taken money from our house bond – not sensible, but irresistible.

We drop Jacob off at my parents’ flat on the way to the airport. ‘Thank you, thank you so much,’ I say to my mother and father repeatedly as I drag Jacob’s suitcase into his temporary bedroom, equipped with a mini cot.

‘The poor little sweetheart,’ says Lisa in the plane. ‘They’ll treat him so well, though. Do you miss him?’

‘Well, I’m sure I’ll miss him soon. Not yet, though.’ I’ve forgotten how quiet a plane can be. I relax into my chair, looking down at the clouds through the window.

‘It’s amazing,’ I say to Lisa after a while, ‘how bad I often am at dealing with Jacob.’

‘Really?’ she says with a toneless neutrality, playing it safe.

‘Like a robot. I’ll make a decision – say, time for a bath – and then carry it out regardless. He’ll be in the bath, yelling and writhing, while I’m just spreading that liquid soap over his arms and legs.’

‘Sometimes you do have a robotic quality.’

‘I’m a sort of mechanical husband.’

‘Well, you’d better get your parts oiled up for Paris,’ says Lisa, putting her hand in mine.

One of the best things about Paris is that old connections between cause and effect, unreliable in recent months, sturdily reassert themselves. If we decide to eat a chocolate flan, we go to a pastry shop and do it. When we want to see the Latin Quarter, we simply walk over. No one becomes suddenly enraged or unexpectedly falls asleep. We carry out our plans with uncanny ease.

Lisa and I stand in the crowd on the great plain in front of Notre Dame. ‘Look at those teenagers,’ says Lisa. ‘What a good-looking group. Spanish kids on a school trip, maybe? It’s funny to watch them, the boys trying to impress the girls, and the girls flirting and then pulling away.’

I am peering at the facade of the cathedral, trying to discern the figures. I feel the chill of the March wind through my coat. ‘Let’s go in,’ I say.

We enter, and shuffle around the cathedral, moving with the slow crowd.

‘It’s terribly depressing,’ Lisa says. But I am entranced: the stained-glass windows give light to the innards of this stone monster, and I have a sense of a weightless soul floating within an ancient body. The crowd has disappeared for me, and I am left with this strange vision.

‘I’m actually a spiritual sort of person,’ I remark to Lisa afterwards, sitting indoors in a café. She is drinking a giant mug of hot chocolate.

‘Remember a few winters ago,’ I say, ‘when I was lying on our leather couch, looking out at the bare branches of the oak tree under a white sky, and I suddenly felt that the world was good, that it was somehow unified, everything was one, and the universe seemed to be dropping me a wink?’

Lisa puts down the mug to eat her complimentary croissant. ‘So if you like that kind of thing,’ she says, ‘what’s wrong with a Jewish education for Jacob?’

A bowl of French onion soup arrives for me. Croutons and gooey cheese are moored in the brown soup, and the steam is fogging up my glasses. Jacob would enjoy this scene. I wouldn’t mind him sitting on my lap now.

‘Nothing,’ I say, ‘if it involves spiritual experiences and transcendent moments and so on. Who wouldn’t wish that for their child?’

Lisa focuses for a while on her croissant. It’s still cold outside, and French pastry is so warming and delicious. Then she says, ‘It’s not religion that bothers you at all. It’s people. You don’t like the idea of classes and synagogue visits and festivals; all sorts of communal activities. You’re happy for Jacob to be religious as long as he does it alone, like you.’

Surprisingly on a day like this, the café isn’t yet full. Apart from us, there is just one other couple. The owner keeps moving between us, anxious to keep his customers content. I ask for a croissant from his basket.

‘Now you’ll tell me,’ I say, pointing my pastry at her like a boomerang, ‘that I shouldn’t take Jacob as a small copy of myself.’

Lisa smirks. We are halfway through our holiday, four days until we go home, and when we arrive at my parents’ flat, Jacob will not want to leave my mother’s arms. I’ll have to disentangle him and transport his dense, wriggling form into the car, the holiday mood of sensuality and serenity gone in an instant – but at this moment I am sorry he isn’t here. I wonder whether a croissant will stay fresh if we take it home, and if he’s old enough for a bite.

From: The Book of Jacob

Pool Chats

The other day I took the three-year-old to his swimming lesson. Within moments I’d struck up a conversation with the other two mums as we watched our kids flounder in the water.

So what did we talk about? Let’s see.

  1. Trusted truisms

This conversation was designed to engender feelings of warmth and closeness between the participants. Women do this all the time in conversation.

Mum 1: Child A is obedient and trustworthy, Child B is stubborn, whereas Child C is a loner.
Me (soothingly): They all come out with their own personalities. No telling what you’re going to get. (This comment is a sure-fire winner. I’ve used it many times before.)
Mum 2: So true.

  1. Brags

This is about proving that one is an experienced parent who is not easily spooked.

Mum 1: Oh look, Child A is sinking under the water.  (Hollow laugh).  He’ll be fine, I’m sure.
Mum 2: Course he will.
(Child A sinks downwards. Instructor pulls him out of water.)
Me: That’s how they learn.

Alan De Botton, as far as I remember, claimed that almost all interactions are about status:  who has it, who wants it. Certainly with mum-type conversations, there is a lot of subtle bragging to determine pecking order. Men, I think, are quite familiar with this kind of nuance.

In Passing

I love eavesdropping. It’s why I enjoy going out by myself so much. I like to sit somewhere comfortable, busying myself with a cup of coffee while listening to others talking. Perhaps it’s a consequence of growing up as the youngest where nobody much spoke to me and I was mostly left to my own devices.  Adult voices were always swirling around in the background. There’s something soothing, child-like, about having people speaking in one’s vicinity without them making any demands on one. listen in coil

However, it’s even more enjoyable to eavesdrop if the conversation is interesting. I don’t make this a requirement of my eavesdropping on others but do feel compelled, when somebody is listening in on my conversation, to make what I say more scintillating.  It’s only fair. I have been known to shout out a word like ‘masturbatory’ (in context, of course) or ‘it went where?’ merely to amuse somebody sitting less than half a metre away. I regard it as my civic responsibility, a kind of fellow-eavesdropper’s secret society.

But eavesdropping is not without its perils. The other day I was making tea in the kitchen and Jacob was hanging with a friend in the dining room. I use the word ‘hanging’ in its most literal sense. This eight-year-old friend of his, a sweet sandy-haired boy, is driven by a need to climb objects. If a tree is in his path, he will ascend it. Ditto a curtain. Or a table. He was hanging upside down from something or other while Jacob was rummaging around in the drawers of an old cupboard.

‘Hey, guess who this is?’ he said, turning to the feet of the friend to show him a photograph.

‘Eh.’ Eight-year old boys are not particularly interested in the family relics of their friends.

‘My mum.’

‘Eh.’

‘It doesn’t look like her at all,’ said Jacob. ‘But she says it is her.’

I charged through to the dining room. (Don’t let it be said that I don’t move fast in an emergency.) ‘What you showing him?’ The photograph was of me on holiday, slim, hands on hips, sun bronzing my hair, aged 23. ‘That is me.  I was just much younger then.’ I glared at my son before pushing the photograph back into the drawer. I went back to the kitchen to finish my tea, closing the door between us.

Sometimes, it has to be said, silence is golden, and other people’s conversations are far more trouble than they’re worth.

Happy Birthday, Big Boy

My beautiful big boy Jacob is eight today. He’s smart and funny and often interesting. This is what happened eight years ago, from my and Greg’s perspective. jacob birthday

The Crumbling Castle

‘You feel this?’

Some guy is down there, fiddling around with my vagina, putting a catheter in. I’ve never met him before. Above his surgical mask, I see only his eyes, blue and watery.

‘It’s cold.’

A hand appears in front of me and there’s a blur of colours. ‘Hey, what do you think?’ The anaesthetist has hauled out a slim volume of photographs from somewhere – perhaps his pocket, his briefcase, or a corner of the operating theatre, kept always at the ready. I’m paralysed and naked from the waist down, yet I treat his photos with great politeness, even feigned interest. ‘She’s cute,’ I tell him. His little girl has curly blonde hair – certainly pretty, like a doll.

‘Here’s another one.’

I suppose he’s bored. He’s done his bit: jackhammered my back with a chemical cocktail, leaving me limp and warm, spread out against the coldness of the steel operating table. Except I don’t feel the cold, just a druggy warmth – a slackness. It’s the morphine. Now he’s thrust a photo of his son in front of my face: the boy is dressed in a Superman outfit, the bright blue cloak flowing behind him. For a moment I’m him – a flying Superman, staring at my white half-naked form, my pale blue hospital gown flapping behind me.

I know they are going to cut me open now. The morphine is strong; it stands guard in my brain, a burly bouncer blocking the fear, letting just the good stuff through – blissful.

‘You’re going to feel some tugging.’

‘My God!’

I don’t panic. I locate the voice, taking my time. It’s Greg.

‘All that stuff is coming out of her.’

I want to tell him that it’s called amniotic fluid, but it’s too much of an effort. I know he has picked up nothing from the antenatal classes. He’s clearly struck by my flooding uterus – I wonder, idly, if he’s disgusted, or whether the thrill of anticipation bites into him knowing he’s about to meet his son for the first time.

The gynaecologist and his assistant play rugby with my belly. They heave it this way and that until finally my ball-shaped uterus releases its treasure. They hold him high.

‘He’s beautiful,’ says Greg, his voice catching.

Then: ‘He’s weeing.’

That’s the story that will be passed down. Jacob, we’ll say, you came out making a wee, or, as he gets older, we might say pissing, a man-sized word. It could be taken to mean anything: he’s comfortable with his body, he has no decorum, he’s free-spirited. The interpretation will come later, when Jacob’s personality is known.

I’m calm, as if it’s a painting or a pot that I’m about to view. In fact, I’m still not convinced that there was a baby in there. If they held up a lovely kelim rug, rich and velvet-red, I’d be pleased and probably not too surprised. These drugs are amazing, I think.

They hold Jacob above the screen and, true enough, it’s a baby. Yet it is just that – a baby. Not specifically my baby, or our baby, but a kind of generic baby. One that has dark hair, and is really tiny. The first discernible feeling that trucks through the morphine – one that isn’t only simple serenity – is pride that the baby doesn’t look like me; his hair is dark like Greg’s. I’ve always coveted dark skin and easy tans, being so pink and pale myself, and now finally here’s a part of me with this capacity. Behind the pride is a sigh of relief: he looks normal, his fingers and toes are all there, and he has what he’s meant to on his face – a nose, a mouth, that kind of thing. Despite the scans, despite the reassurances of the doctor, a part of me had always believed I’d produce something deformed, monstrous.

The morphine chugs cheerily through my intravenous drip; my family and Greg’s come to visit. Every now and again a nurse wheels a baby into my room – the baby is in a transparent crib, heaped high with blankets, even though it’s very hot outside. They attempt to latch the baby onto my breast. Nothing much happens. They wheel him away. I have a cup of tea. Greg’s mother, Arlene, grips my arm and tells me I’m wonderful. I shrug, not agreeing, but not disagreeing either.

‘Yes, it’s a beautiful baby,’ I hear myself say throughout the day.

Time loses its usual rhythm. Many hours seem to go by though it’s still light outside, but then everyone leaves, so I know that night is approaching. I desperately want them to stay. They tell me I need my rest. I ask for pills to help me come down, to sleep. I crave a shield between myself and what has just happened – if it’s not to be people, then chemicals will do.

Suddenly, I’m standing, looking out the window. The scene is like something from a Brontë novel: windswept, desolate, wintery. A howling wind flattens the grass; the sky is black, no moon or stars. In the distance stands a castle, roofless, with stone walls that are crumbling from age or neglect. My drugged-out brain asks something; the question ebbs and flows. I can’t quite catch it, but I know it’s imperative that I find the answer. Slowly, it comes together: Have I had a baby? Now it thumps in my head, over and over. I mightily hope I didn’t have one; I remember being pregnant. Like a deranged accountant, I struggle to reconcile these two entries. It seems ludicrous that I could have had a baby, and yet …

‘Too much anaesthetic,’ says the doctor the next morning. He says it like he would say ‘It’s a sunny day’, bright and upbeat.

‘I was hallucinating. I didn’t know I’d had the baby.’

‘Really.’

His interest is more invested in the external, in my caesarean wound, positioned just above my pubic mound and stretching its length, than in my internal flights of fancy.

‘You must have overdosed on the morphine.’

I shift in the stiff clean sheets of the hospital bed, feeling foolish, embarrassed by my desire not to have a baby. My unconscious is clearly too stupid to hide my wishes in something more impenetrable.

It reminds me of the times I’d take a child to my lap when pregnant. I’d hold the little one close and parody being a mother. I’d stroke the infant’s soft hair and say baby-friendly things about animals or colours. It was an act of deception, designed to show myself and others that motherhood came naturally, and that the tremor of disgust, sparked perhaps by a snotty nose or a gummy eye, didn’t exist.

The baby doesn’t care about my hallucinations. How I wish that he didn’t exist. Instead, he craves existence – it pulses through him in the sharp outrage of his piercing cries. Existence requires food, which requires me.

It’s very early in the morning, three or four o’clock; the nurse stands beside my bed like an evil demon there to extract her pound of blood.

‘Baby can’t feed without a proper latch.’

You think I’m doing it on purpose? My nipple, plump and full, taunts the three of us. Impatient, or tired, the nurse has had enough of this masquerade. She grabs my offending body part, letting it rest for a moment between thumb and forefinger before roughly squashing and palpitating it like it’s a lump of Plasticine, into a more appropriate shape. Now she stuffs the nipple back into Jacob’s mouth. He spits it out, not satisfied. For just a moment I feel a spark of empathy: he seems as out of place outside me, in the frightening hospital surroundings, as I feel beside him. His world is as terrifying as mine.

The nurse sighs loudly and tries again, a yanking, twisting motion: again failure. Tired of turning my nipple into a straw, she uses her fingers to milk my breast – it’s agony. The nipples are forced to release their thick yellow colostrum.

‘What are you doing?’

‘It’s late, Mommy, and your baby needs this now.’

Drop by drop, the yellow goo fills a teaspoon. It reaches the rim and she crams it into the baby’s mouth. Not caring about its artificial presentation, he sucks greedily.

With what rationality remains, I come to realise that my mindset is wrong: against my baby’s needs, mine are insignificant. The three-hourly torture – the sharp, agonising pain of breastfeeding – is there to teach me self-sacrifice. My body’s priority is not to look sexy or to get aroused; its only function is to serve my offspring. I’m a disciple of motherhood now.

On the second day the paediatrician comes to visit. ‘I’m ready to leave,’ I tell him. My thinking goes like this: if I can get out of this place and go home, then things will go back to how they were, magically reversed. ‘I’m feeling much better,’ I say. This is not true, but the painkillers are devious – they return my body in snatches. I reach for a glass, sip some water: see, I’m okay. Now let me out of here.

‘It’s not you I’m worried about – it’s your baby. He’s losing weight. There are two of you now, remember. There’s absolutely no way you can leave the hospital today.’ Shame floods through me – of course, it’s not just about me: there are two of us now. And one of us is shrinking even if the other one is still as large as ever (the birth has done nothing to shift the beach ball of my belly).

Hospitals, like schools, like prisons, have a rhythm that is quickly learnt by their inhabitants. Jacob and the catering woman, Brenda, dictate my rhythm – their beat is food. Brenda doesn’t speak, at least not in the conventional sense, using words and sentences. Her communication consists of a list, which she thrusts into my hand: chicken with salad, roasted chicken, chicken sandwich, chicken schnitzel – a common denominator of chicken.

Jacob visits with an equal and regular determination. He is wheeled in periodically, yowling, in his plastic box. Because it’s day two, no one stays to help me.

‘He’s hungry, Mommy,’ says the nurse, and then she’s gone. I hate being called ‘Mommy’. It’s just him and me. His body is terrifying to touch, limp and soft and helpless. I don’t know what to do with him; his mouth slips away when I put him to my breast and his howl quickens alarmingly. My throat tightens. I, too, want to cry.

I ring reception: ‘I need someone immediately. The baby won’t latch.’

There’s a pause, an inward sigh: another rich white woman completely incapable of breastfeeding her child.

‘Don’t worry, Mommy. Someone will come and help you.’

A momentary sense of reassurance; someone will help me. The baby won’t die; they’ll get him to eat. It will be okay.

A tap-tap on the door.

‘Come in.’

It’s Brenda. Above the baby’s cries, her eyes make their habitual request – the list is thrust at me. I’m not hungry; I’ve hardly eaten since the birth, which makes her presence even more superfluous.

‘Can you get some help? Please. I can’t feed the baby.’

I feel desperate. She seems to notice the crying for the first time, but her task supersedes any human suffering.

‘I’ll have a cheese sandwich and a salad. Please call someone …’ I plead to her retreating back.

Jacob’s cry does not sound human to me. It’s more like a small, desperate animal clawing to life. It creates the most intense feeling of anxiety I have ever known. Months later, I’ll read about the relationship between the release of anxiety hormones and a baby’s cry. Right now it feels like a giant hand is squeezing my belly, releasing toxic acid that rises to my throat.

Another knock and a big, bulky woman enters. She cranks up my bed with a lever.

‘Support his head with your right hand and bring him cross-length to your body.’

I’m a useless dancer and this feels like a dance: Jacob is my partner and I’m meant to lead.

‘Perhaps the football grip would work better for you.’

The football grip! Male words in this most womanly of pursuits stress the craziness of this new world I’m in. She tucks the baby to my side as though I’m about to run for touch with Jacob bobbing beside me. It’s no better: he howls desperately. She does the twisting thing with my nipple again (later, a black bruise spreads outwards from those heavy fingers; it takes days to disappear) and Jacob finally latches. His anxiety diminishes instantly; his tiny cheeks inflate and deflate.

With the baby latched, my attention shifts to the door, which appears to be edging open. A tray makes its way in, behind which stands Brenda. She deposits her offerings by my bed: a piece of roasted chicken and some potatoes. No cheese sandwich.

I say nothing; it seems fitting. Each time Brenda appears she presents a meal, always including chicken, not of my choosing. Sometimes it’s tasty, sometimes it’s not. In my freaked-out mind, I wonder if the chicken lady has been sent to teach me a life lesson. You thought you wanted a cheese sandwich, or a baby, but actually you don’t know what you want. Here’s what you’re getting, now make the best of it – and while you’re at it, surrender yourself to something larger out there that isn’t about you or your comfort. I eat what she gives me and don’t complain. I’m learning to be a mother, I think, as I persevere through some soggy bread pudding or a meagre square of salad that tastes of crunch and water.

I visit Jacob in the nursery because I remember being told that I must watch how they bath and change him. My back has collapsed under the strain of the additional twenty kilograms I carried in the last few weeks of pregnancy, the ligaments and tendons stretched paper-thin. I hug the walls as I limp through the hospital, unable to walk without support. People look at me in a vaguely interested way – like what the hell’s wrong with her? – until their features settle into a bland, compassionate stare. In the nursery I’m not sure which baby is Jacob; luckily, they all come with labels. I try not to make it obvious that I’m reading them. I watch as he is bathed, which seems so arduous a process for no clear upside. His pink little body is scrubbed clean – of what? I wonder.

And then it is time to leave.

I’m still unable to breastfeed, but this doesn’t seem to worry the nursing staff. Nobody, in truth, seems to notice. I request a flask of formula. They keep forgetting to make it up for me. Even asking for the stuff seems tantamount to killing the baby slowly. Breast is best; it’s been hammered into me. Breastfeeding is natural: ‘I loved it,’ says my mother, whose memory of it dates back a third of a century. I have no idea how to make up the thin, pale liquid I finally extract from the nurses. All I know about feeding the baby I’ve learnt from the antenatal teacher: ‘Take the baby,’ she whined, holding up a plastic doll whose head she had twisted backwards (it stared at us, unblinking, with its inscrutable face), ‘then take your breast.’ She pinched hers for those of us unsure of its whereabouts. ‘Tjoeps.’ As she said it, plastic baby and breast met, a forever-happy union.

Clutching the still-warm poison food, I hobble out the ward and down to the parking lot. Greg’s there – and Jacob. There’s also a nurse, Winnie, who has carried the baby to the car and is now meant to strap him in. She has no idea how to place the baby in the car seat. Surely she’s done this a hundred times before? Greg’s sweating, like he did at our wedding, and Winnie’s fat presence is not comforting. Jacob responds with his single solution to life’s problems: a plaintive, shrill bleat. It does nothing to reduce our sense of utter helplessness.

Eventually we drive off. A feeling of dread cloaks itself around me – perhaps Jacob too. My life as I know it is over.

Cut the Cord

It’s five in the morning and I’m wheeling Lisa’s blue suitcase through the empty hospital lobby. The wheels of the suitcase go tlicket between each tile. On the left we pass a cafeteria with a display of chocolates on the counter and You magazines stuffed into a wire rack. A cleaner sits at one of the tables, eating a packet of orange Chipniks, her mop thrust into the bucket of grey water next to her chair.

When we get to room fourteen, a dormitory with no one else in it, I take a picture of Lisa lying in her bed. A blanket covers her gigantic bump. Soon the sun will rise; now she stares ahead, frightened into silence. In a distant, toneless way she says that they are going to cut her open. A fat, smiling nurse comes to take some information, and slowly records it on her pad with a stubby pencil, an act punctuated by my repeated thanks. Then Lisa turns to me. ‘I’m scared of what I’ve made. I’m so slapdash. It’s ridiculous to think I can make a baby. What if he’s blind?’

So far I have avoided thinking about our lives after the birth, and I’m not prepared to consider whatever features the baby might or might not have. ‘He’s not blind,’ I say firmly.

‘How do you know?’ she asks. I sit next to the looming Lisa mountain, speechless. It occurs to me that I will have to give a lecture on fictional characters to my philosophy class tomorrow, and I wonder what I will say. I take out a notebook and begin to write, but I feel too distracted to think about philosophy as Lisa lies in misery, so I sit quietly with my notebook in my hand.

A male nurse comes to wheel her in. I give him a toothy smile. Why am I being so wheedling? Maybe I’m embarrassed by my giant wife, as if she’s done something stupid and I need some goodwill to fix things up.

I walk along the passage next to her trolley, and then she is pushed into the operating room while I am led into the changing room. A cheerful doctor gives me two rosy shoe coverings that look like Lisa’s shower caps, and a thin pink raincoat. Standing there dressed like a big salmon, I miss her terribly. Why am I in a locker room while she is being prepared for slicing? I feel a nausea of desperation, but when I look at the doctor I am silent. My fear of institutions conquers me. He leads me into the operating theatre, and there is Lisa sitting at the edge of the bed, surrounded by her gynaecologist, who greets me in his keen, boyish way (‘Good to see you again on this special day!’), the anaesthetist and a nurse.

I bustle over to Lisa in my rosy shower-cap shoes. I hold her hands with a dizzy wash of love and dearness and need. ‘I’m here for you,’ I say, but I am clinging on for dear life myself.

‘Ag, nothing to worry about,’ says the anaesthetist. He is wearing a martial-arts sweatband with a motif of cartoon turtles. The pattern goes all around the sweatband. No matter where he turns, some turtles are always visible.

‘I’m going to dope you up,’ he says to Lisa, touching her upper arm. I feel a sad tenderness for her. She seems alone among all these steely cutters, nattily dressed under their coats, and while the rest of them will finish their operations and then have lunch, my poor wife is going to be scissored and bleeding. As for the baby, I don’t want to think about it. All my worries are for Lisa, and there is nothing left to spare.

The Ninja Turtle anaesthetist puts up a screen, with Lisa and me on one side and her belly on the other. For a few moments we are secluded, my wife and I. We are both the youngest in our families. As toddlers we each sat under the table at mealtimes, warm and safe with a forest of legs around us. Now we lace our fingers together, with a screen for shelter.

There are vigorous movements behind the screen.

‘We can see the head! Take a look, now, Dad,’ says our gynaecologist heartily, ‘if you want to see him coming out.’

I rise. I see a knife, and a great gush of red fluid pours over all the sheets. ‘Dear God,’ I say. Then the gynaecologist’s hands pull out a bloody baby with black hair and closed eyes.

‘What does he look like?’ says Lisa. Although her voice is weak, I can’t believe she is talking at all after this enormous thing has been taken out.

‘He’s beautiful,’ I say, and I am crying. ‘He’s beautiful.’ The baby pees, his tiny penis sending a fine, clear stream straight into the air. The doctor holds him over Lisa.

‘He’s beautiful,’ she says too, in a voice like someone calling out from miles away.

‘Do you want to cut the cord?’ asks the gynaecologist. The baby is carried over to a side table, where he pees again. They hand me a pair of scissors, and I make for the gleaming blue-white cord snaking out of the baby’s stomach. I am about to snip when the doctor says, ‘Just a sec,’ and puts a clip over the cord on the baby’s navel. I’ve nearly killed him, I think, and he’s just one minute old. I imagine cutting that cord before the clip goes on, and a hose of fluids juddering out of my child. I cut. Snip, two snips, and it is done. With my scissors I make him ours. Then the baby is taken away and I am left with Lisa.

‘How do you feel?’ I ask.

‘Good,’ she says. I wonder whether everything will be fine after all, and if having a baby isn’t, in fact, quite simple.

Already the baby is back, now in a plastic box on wheels, ready for his trip to the nursery. ‘You’ll need to provide a nappy for him,’ says a nurse.

‘But didn’t you give us nappies when we signed in?’ I ask wildly.

‘No.’

‘Where do I get them?’

‘The pharmacy.’

Running to the hospital dispensary, I pass my parents and my parents-in-law. ‘He’s beautiful,’ I shout. My mother manages to kiss me as I run past. At the pharmacy, the computer system has frozen, and the clerk and I spend half a minute staring at a throbbing cursor on the screen.

‘I’ll pay later,’ I say, and hump a bag of one hundred nappies up to the nursery. A nurse tells me that she must measure the baby, who is still in his plastic box, now with his eyes open and confused to the depths of his being. I press my finger on the top of his box. His hand reaches blindly towards my finger. It is heart-rending.

The nurse is the same genial round person with the stubby pencil we encountered before the birth. She begins some futile task – moving a file, I think, from one cabinet to another – while my baby lies, alone in the world and stuck in a plastic box.

‘Sister,’ I say. ‘Sister, I want to hold him.’ I have been taught to say this by the midwife in her antenatal classes. I may not have listened much during those classes; I may have dozed off a lot, but I do recall her insistence that we shouldn’t let the nurses push us around. The baby has to go on the father’s chest straight after birth to experience the warmth and the heartbeat, and now I am letting the nurse stall me. I become frantic and outraged. No more wheedling.

‘Nurse,’ I finally say, as she is telling me that she needs to weigh the baby, ‘I want to hold him, on my chest, now.’ She looks into my mad eyes, opens the box and gives him to me. I unbutton my shirt and open his blanket so that we are skin to skin. Holding my baby is heavenly. His eyes are closed, and he lies damp and warm on me. I drowse into a kind of sleep, a primal swoon where it is just him and me.

After a timeless period of drifting along with my son, a woman comes up and asks if I am mister something-or-other. I say yes. She sits down on a chair opposite me and gently says, ‘We have the results from your son’s test. There seems to be a hearing deficiency.’ She looks at me kindly.

I stare at her with bovine astonishment.

‘Hey?’ I ask. She begins to say her piece again, this time more slowly.

‘My son has just been born,’ I say.

‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘Wrong one,’ and she leaves.

Jacob and I continue, drifting unperturbed through space together in the corner of the nursery. I wonder briefly where Lisa is. I’m sure she is somewhere in the hospital, and that seems good enough. Then I notice a machine on the mantelpiece near my head. I watch it as Jacob lies on my chest. It appears to be a clot of iron tubes and glass pipes. A nurse passes. I ask her about it.

‘It’s old – we don’t use it any more,’ she says.

‘What’s it for?’

‘Breasts.’

The ancient breast pump begins intruding on my idyll with my son. It is too rigid to be placed near our warm, fleshy union. So I begin getting bored and uncomfortable, and after a while I ask the nurse to put the baby back in his box. Then I go to find Lisa.

Both families are gathered. My mother is talking to Lisa, bent over her great round body. Nothing seems to have changed; her belly looks as if she will keep having kids, rabbit-like, for a while. My father sits on a chair next to them, looking uneasy. Taking up most of the space in the room are the Lazaruses, my wife’s family, who have opened up Lisa’s gifts and are unwrapping her chocolates, chewing from the fruit basket and telling jokes. I jump up: I have suddenly remembered, as I look at my wife, that the first thing she wanted to eat after giving birth was sushi. She couldn’t have it during her pregnancy in case she poisoned the baby. So I leave the hospital and drive off for food.

At Woolworths, roaming the shelves – where is the sushi? – and buying other snacks as I go, I encounter a breezy colleague from my first and most disastrous job in information technology, when I lived in a flat in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, growing fat with misery and loneliness until I came home to Cape Town. I haven’t seen him in a few years. As I approach he jiggles his cellphone to show that he is on a call. Strangely, I feel obliged to wait by his side until he has finished. Then he asks how things are going. I reply that I am very well; my wife has given birth this morning. This seems implausible, something I’ve made up in the middle of the pasta aisle at Woolies.

‘That’s great,’ he says.

‘Yes.’

Then he says, ‘So what’s going on otherwise?’

I say goodbye and go back to the hospital. ‘Well done,’ says my father, sitting nervously on his chair but wishing to show his support for me when I arrive with my bag of goodies for Lisa, most of which – apart from the sushi – I eat.

That night I go home. I have to get some sleep before my lecture the next morning. In fact, I still have to prepare my lecture. Our two dogs are roaming the garden, restless without their dinner. I pour pellets and mash some chicken jelly into two bowls, then sit in the lounge, looking at the wooden floor. The schnauzer pads in, licking her lips. Before I go to bed I sit with her on my lap, thinking nothing. My hand strokes her grey-and-white hair again and again, strumming at her softly.

I have swirling, smudgy dreams. At three thirty the next morning I wake up to prepare my lecture. I read with total focus, my mind narrow and sharp. By seven I am exhausted. I call the hospital to speak to Lisa. She picks up the phone next to her hospital bed and slurs into it. It sounds like, ‘I can’t move the bed.’ Then I hear a clunk; I picture the phone falling from her hands and dangling.

‘Lisa, Lisa!’ I shout, but there is no time to worry. I have to drive to university. At eight I stumble down the steps of the lecture theatre to the blackboard, thinking how I must look: blue shirt, untidily tucked into my pants; an uncombed thicket of hair with a bald patch in the middle. I spread out my overhead projector sheets on the lectern. The black words printed on them look spiderish and alien.

‘Sorry if I’m a little spaced out,’ I say to the class. ‘My son was born yesterday.’ I start lecturing with the feeling of abruptness I always have, a jerk from a fluorescent room into an abstract world. Soon I am warmed by my philosophical lullaby about fictional characters.

‘What sort of thing is Sherlock Holmes?’ I say. ‘Not a fleshy creature like you or me, clearly. But not nothing either, because we can say many things about Holmes – that he lives in London, for instance.’

‘No he doesn’t,’ says a clever boy in the front. ‘You can go to London, but you won’t find him.’

‘He lives in a fictional London,’ says his girlfriend, who is sitting next to him.

I take refuge in the ensuing discussion of how, exactly, Sherlock Holmes exists. The jangling events of the previous day recede slightly.

But after my lecture, I drive to the hospital and run into Lisa’s ward, feeling panicky. I find her looking desperate and pathetic in her gown, sitting on a chair. A nurse is sitting on the other chair, speaking harshly.

‘We didn’t give you too much anaesthetic,’ says the nurse. ‘We gave you exactly what Doctor said.’

‘Hello,’ I say, with as much authority as I can, hoping that my word will bring order to this miserable scene.

‘She’s accused us of giving her too much anaesthetic,’ says the nurse. Lisa looks at me, clearly scarcely able to think.

‘Can’t you see she’s confused?’ I say. This nurse is treating Lisa callously because there is no one to stop her. ‘Thank you, Sister,’ I say. ‘I’m here now.’ The nurse leaves and I’m alone with my bewildered love. I crouch next to her and stroke her hand. She looks at me, frightened, and says how sore she is.

‘Where?’ I ask, expecting that her poor sliced abdomen will be on fire.

‘My ankles,’ she says. Ankles? And before I can say anything else, she looks at me with her head cocked and asks, ‘Are you real?’

I try to prove I am real by stroking her hair. I can see that she isn’t convinced. For a few minutes we say nothing and I stay crouched with my hand on her arm. Then the baby is wheeled in.

‘Time to feed your son, Mom,’ says a nurse, and plunks the baby onto Lisa’s lap. The two of them struggle to clamp the infant’s mouth onto the breast. The baby reddens and squawks. The nurse bunches Lisa’s breast and pinches her nipple, and my wife groans.

Early Reading Experiences

As part of Short Story Day Africa, we’ve answered these questions.

 

What is your earliest memory of books and reading?

Greg: A book called The Blue Banana. An enterprising boy finds a blue banana and takes it to the king. A villain called Grizzlegrub tries to steal the banana but ends up in the moat. Grizzlegrub had a bald patch on the top of his head, like the one I have now. children reading

Lisa: I was the last of three kids and so nobody could ever be bothered to read to me. I remember that I had an old fairytale book at the bottom of my cupboard – heaven knows why it was there or even if I’m correct, but that’s my memory – and it terrified me. At one point, in complete fear, I tore off the cover, but that didn’t seem to make the book any less petrifying – if anything, it made it worse. So you could say that my early memories of books were in fact very negative.

 

As a small child, what book/s were your favourite?

Greg: The Famous Five, by a mile. I was completely swallowed up by them.

Lisa: Ah, at last, something in common with my spouse – I also loved The Famous Five, but George alarmed me a bit – she was so brave and always up for adventures. I loved boarding school stories as well – Malory Towers, etc. – there was something both intimately cosy and scary about the set-up. I read anything; I was very undiscerning as a kid – I guess I’m still a bit like that.

 

Where did you grow up? Do you have a particular memory of a library, bookshop or other place of books in your hometown?

Greg: I did not grow up. I imitate maturity, but still feel a lot like I did when I was six: authorities unsettle me, and I like to be alone on my bed, eating copiously and reading.

My childhood was in Claremont, Cape Town. I paid many fines over the years to the Claremont Library, where I often took out And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street and Yertle the Turtle. In later years I haunted the shelf at Dewey number 737.4, the section on coin collecting. I was obsessed with Thalers – big European coins of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – and with German hyperinflation banknotes of the nineteen twenties. Dr Seuss and chunky old coins… such things influenced me deeply, though it’s not easy to say how. In general, large parts of my identity stem from my childhood reading. I recently reread a seventies thriller called Shibumi, by Trevanian, which I took from my eldest brother’s shelf when I was around ten. I was shocked to see how directly the character of Nicolai Hel – Russian-German-Japanese mystic, international assassin, man of shibumi – had shaped my long-term aspirations.

Lisa: I loved the library at my primary school. The sheer number and range of books was exciting – in reality, the library was probably extremely small, but very soon I picked up that hanging out in the library was nerdy, and I had to pretend to hate the place. I loved the Claremont Library as well, but my mother took me there very erratically and we’d always have to face massive fines and a stern, disapproving librarian. Another memory in common with my spouse: stern librarians.

Unlike Greg, I never read non-fiction as a child. I only wanted to lose myself in stories.

 

As an adult, in the role of parent or caregiver, what has been your experience of reading with children?

Greg: I love, love reading with the children. We enjoy favourites from my childhood (like J.P. Martin’s eccentric and delightful Uncle), brilliant new books (Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum series makes us laugh) and classics that I’ve never read before (The Wind in the Willows – as a children’s  book, as close to perfect as I’ve read yet). One great feature of many children’s books is that they unashamedly try to be thrilling or funny.

Lisa: I never read to my children. I’m terrible.

The Path towards Enlightenment

Every now and again you need to view the world from a different perspective.  So we took ourselves off to the Celebrate Life Festival.   I mean, when you are asked a question like this: ‘Are you feeling out of whack, lacklustre and slightly off-centre?’, how can you not answer ‘yes’, ‘yes’, and ‘YES’.  And anyway, feeling ‘out of whack’ is better than feeling ‘whacked’, at least in Tony Soprano’s world.

spiritual

It’s difficult to read the sign behind Greg’s head. It says: ‘ACADEMY OF ENLIGHTENMENT’. Clearly, he needs to pay this academy a brief visit because a few minutes later I saw him giving out his name, email address AND cellphone number to a woman running a ‘Metavarsity’ (granted, a more catchy name than UCT), who would soon send him an animal spirit meditation and a personal inspiration message, based on the number 14.

The things with these places is that one is always waiting for something to happen, the penny to drop, the world to shift on its axis. One is looking for the big experience – after which nothing is the same again. I sat with the kids listening to ‘Marvelous Mouth Chris’, who played a very strange musical instrument – you can see it on his lap – before he spoke at length about Nostradamus and breathing. He told us that you can think of the seer’s name as a  play on words – it’s ‘Nostril-damus’.

Marvelous Mouth Chris playing a god-knows-what.

Marvelous Mouth Chris playing a god-knows-what.

I quite liked the music, which was rhythmic and soothing, and I found my mind stopped skittering neurotically around, at least momentarily. I guess that might be one of the functions of art – a soothing soporofic, like warm horlicks at night, although I do tend to prefer my art a little bit more edgy.

The kids seemed happy enough with motormouth Chris or perhaps it was the popcorn. Either way, I thought it was good of the kids to provide a few more bums on seats.

Kids enlightenment

Kids need enlightenment, too.

 

 

 

And then as a final treat we went to listen to a talk on Past Life Regression therapy. The presenter was lovely. The slide at the front says, ‘That was Then; This is Now.’ I quite warmed to the whole concept – it seemed like a concrete manifestation of Freud’s idea of the unconscious.  Something happened long ago and this causes some kind of blockage, but the person doesn’t understand what that blockage is about. Perhaps the reason I’m the way I am has nothing to do with my mother or my father but is rather a result of working long hours as a French maid in the Palace of Versailles, just as the French Revolution was about to happen. Who can say? It could be true.

I've always had a thing for French maid outfits. (No, not really.)

I’ve always had a thing for French maid outfits. (No, not really.)

 

 

The Blue Baby

They say that publishing a book is like having a baby. You conceive (granted: not as much fun with book writing) and then you give birth, you publish.

At some point, you have to introduce others to your creation.  I remember asking my sister-in-law’s domestic if she found Joshie cute. Okay, it was more of a statement than a question, something like this.

Me, cradling baby in my arms:  ‘He’s really cute, isn’t he.’
Domestic gazes at baby, takes a step back, screws up eyes, assesses the situation objectively: ‘The eyes are too big.’
Me: ‘What? No! They’re cute.’
Domestic: ‘Too big.’

In a similar vein, I remember when Greg’s friend came over to us for a drink. He’d just read our first novel. Convivially, pleasantly, on entering the house, he said: ‘I read your book last night. Didn’t like it. Anyway – you got some whisky?’

The thing about books and babies, I think, is not that the process of creation is similar, but that a part of oneself exits the world through the book or the child, and exists independently. It feels as though one is suddenly distributed and that makes one feel vulnerable.  With children, the feeling usually runs much deeper and is longer lasting.

This excerpt from The Book of Jacob seems apt:

BOJ_Cover1On the second day the paediatrician comes to visit. ‘I’m ready to leave,’ I tell him. My thinking goes like this: if I can get out of this place and go home, then things will go back to how they were, magically reversed. ‘I’m feeling much better,’ I say. This is not true, but the painkillers are devious – they return my body in snatches. I reach for a glass, sip some water: see, I’m okay. Now let me out of here.

‘It’s not you I’m worried about – it’s your baby. He’s losing weight. There are two of you now, remember. There’s absolutely no way you can leave the hospital today.’

Shame floods through me – of course, it’s not just about me: there are two of us now. And one of us is shrinking even if the other one is still as large as ever. (From: The Book of Jacob)

Of course, the idea that children or books are a part of oneself is really just a narcissistic perception, and it’s not really true at all. Books and children are separate from one. And, ultimately, one must toughen up, and as one becomes a more experienced parent and author, one does. But still… at some level, that’s how it feels.

Just a reminder about our launch next week, Wednesday at The Book LoungeParadisegreg-lazarus

 

And here’s the blue baby, fresh from the printers:

paradise book

Paradise by Greg Lazarus

Make Mother’s Day Meaningful

Children and Greg barrelling into bedroom this morning. ‘Happy Mother’s Day  to you, Happy Mother’s Day to you.’

chocs

Three-year old won!

Women and home

Gift from family: woman&gnome, as Greg calls it. I did ask for the new Damon Galgut; however, ‘Is your house making you fat?’ is one of the lead articles. Looks like a good one. I always like an excuse.

Me, after unwrapping gifts: What lovely gifts – thank you!
Three-year-old: Can I have a chocolate?
Seven-year-old (outraged): No!
Three: I want a chocolate, I want one, I want one.  I want two.  (Starts to cry. Grabs box and runs away.)

Mother’s Day is a sanctimonious affair. The kids are hustled at school to make gifts and write notes. It’s a day for mom to be ‘spoilt’ and ‘taken care of’ – part invalid, part child. The irony is that the rest of the year mothers are expected to be all-adult.

The odd thing is that fathers are really not held to the same level.  Greg thinks he’s a great dad – fair, involved, doing the best he can with a wide variety of competing commitments, and he’s right: he is all those things. It’s just that the bar for mothers is impossibly high, leading to feelings of deficiency, guilt and second guessing for all kinds of minor things.

If you genuinely want a ‘Mother’s Day’ concept, then start thinking about shifting the entire workplace so that part-time work is acceptable, insist on genuine paternity leave and include fathers in all school newsletters. And that’s just for starters…

I Love Mash

Greg (thrilled): Joshie said he loves Maths!!!
Me: Joshie.
(Three year old toddles in.)
Me: What do you love?
Joshie: I love mash.

Minime

Parents want two things for their kids – and, as frequently happens, these things contradict each other. They know their kids are separate from them and must move towards eventual autonomy, but they also can’t help seeing their children as extensions of themselves. It’s tricky – you’ve got this small person who looks like you, a mini-me, who has also picked up many of your mannerisms. How tempting it is to fall into the trap of seeing this person as you, and projecting your ambitions onto your child.

Perhaps one counter-intuitive way of separating yourself from your kid is to stop praising your child so much. Stephen Grosz is a psychoanalyst who describes some encounters he has with patients in his book, The Examined Life. He says:

“Now, wherever there are small children – at the local playground, at Starbucks and at nursery school – you will hear the background music of praise: ‘Good boy,’ ‘Good girl,’ ‘You’re the best’. Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signalling to those around us what fantastic parents we are and what terrific kids we have – but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self.”

Without so much meaningless praise, a child’s real ambition and self may emerge more smoothly. But don’t take the ‘no praise thing’ as far as the father of Henry Rider Haggard, the author of King Solomon’s Mines: KSM

“As a child Henry Rider Haggard was believed to be stupid: his father told him he was destined to become a greengrocer. The books aren’t proof that he wasn’t stupid; but they are proof that he was dogged and canny, with a strange and lurid imagination. Haggard’s father lived long enough to see his son become wealthier than he was and the author of a 15-volume series which ran for forty years…” (London Review of Books, April 2014)

One can’t help seeing the flinching man as Haggard’s father and the rampaging elephant as Haggard himself, although those might just be my projections.