When your baby is born, people will tell you “enjoy every moment.” This has always irritated me, but I couldn’t figure out why. Something I saw recently helped me understand why this phrase has always bothered me so much.
The first couple weeks after our baby girl was born in January, Mr. B and I could not physically or emotionally summon up the energy to leave the house. Instead, we watched a lot of TV, especially whole seasons of shows that are available on every streaming service possible. With a new baby, though, it takes forever to watch a single episode of anything because every fifteen minutes, Crying Will Happen. In the first blurry days, it took 45 minutes to get through a 22 minute episode of Friends. But in those precious hours when she was asleep, we managed to watch the third season of one of our absolute favorite shows, House of Cards.
Every episode has some symbolism, but one that really stood out to me was episode seven, “Nothing is Forever,” in which Tibetan monks are installed in the White House as part of a cultural exchange,to work on a beautiful Mandala sand painting. The sand painting takes about a month to do as the monks guide out hundreds of intricately-designed Buddhist-themed lines of colored sand, one grain at a time, through a series of tiny devices much like a straw.
The monks work for weeks, guiding each grain of sand onto the outline of the geometric pattern they designed before beginning. They are bent over the same image for hours in a backbreaking show of concentration. They work in silence.
Once the design is complete they stand back and admire it for a second before completely destroying it, sweeping it away and releasing the sweepings into the Potomac River in an elaborate and moving ceremony.
In House of Cards, the mandala is a symbol of power and how long it takes to consolidate it, but how it only takes seconds to sweep it away, and how, for the scheming, vicious Underwoods, the process of maintaining power is much more ephemeral than what it took for them to get to the top.
For me, the mandala has come to represent something else: the development of a human being.
You start with almost nothing: a baby who doesn’t even understand day from night, who cries the same whether she is starving or has just lost one of her socks, more of a fetus than a person, really, at the beginning, and you build her up, from that nothing, to the point where she can pay a mortgage and choose a pair of jeans that fit her the right way.
One night, when I was about seven months pregnant, we were lying in the dark, and our thoughts turned inward. Mr. B said, “We have her now, here, but later, she will grow up and leave us,” and I felt so small and miserable, because it was true. If you’re successful, you let your children go out into the world to do great things.
But to get them to that is to create a beautiful mandala from scratch, which takes a long time and a lot of patience, and is full of fear, and worry, and sometimes, just mindnumbing skulduggery.
Which is why I hate when people say, “Congratulations! Enjoy every moment.”
You cannot possibly enjoy every single moment of building up a human being. You cannot possibly enjoy every diaper change, every scream at 2:35 am and then again at 3:34 am when your eyes feel so raw you’re not sure they’re not bleeding, every single word you tell them, every time you feel their forehead for a temperature, terrified that they are sick. You cannot possibly enjoy googling “Why does my baby always have a stuffy nose?” or reading stories about SIDS and listening to your child’s breathing, or feeling their bath water five times in a row to make sure it doesn’t scald their skin.
You love reading to them or playing classical music or showing them their toys and suddenly you see them following the toys with their eyes, but sometimes, you are still only going on four hours of sleep, so sometimes it is not enjoyable at all, but just drudgery.
In the beginning, these kinds of leaden, mindnumbing, terrifying moments far outweigh any enjoyment you might get from snuggling your baby after a bath, or looking into her eyes and seeing your own.
Having a newborn just plain sucks. There is no way around it. And the people who tell you to “enjoy every moment” have either never had a newborn or have just plain forgotten those days, the days when your eyes fee like lead.
You understand, of course, somewhere in your reptilian brain, that all of this effort will lead them to develop into a human being. Slowly but surely, the outlines of their personality will emerge as you help them build it, to transition to consciousness. Later, when you’re done, or at least part of the way there, and your baby smiles at you for the first time, you will start to see the design of the mandala emerge. And then you understand what it’s all for.
But in the meantime, you are the stylus, you are the sand, and you are the monk, quietly, slowly helping your baby’s self emerge, grain by painful grain.