Monday, March 10, 2014

Looking for Recognition

          I hope that Kiley and I are destined to have a long running relationship with each other similar to the one I have with her mother. I was caregiver to her mother when she was a baby and we have remained close all of her life. The fact that she asked me to care for her own baby is testament to the level of trust and affection we have for each other. Building such a relationship, however, takes time, time spent together as well as time for the baby to develop. An infant is not a fully formed individual and, like the ability to walk or talk, the ability to truly connect in a noticeable way with anyone other than its mother takes time and a certain level of development. They're only ready when they're ready. You can talk all day long to a one-year old coaxing it to repeat after you – "Come on say bottle, say booooottle, b-b-boooooottle" but they're not going be able to do it. The speech center in their brain hasn't fully developed yet. But six months later it's like a light turning on, and suddenly, out of the blue, it's "ma", "da", "ba", "more", "no!", "cheerios".

          So you just have to wait, but it's good to remember that building a relationship with an infant is a lot like building a relationship with a man, the first step is to get them to notice you. And by that I mean notice you, not what they think you are. With infants, what they think you are, at least initially, is nothing more than a constant supply of food, warmth, clean diapers, and comfort. With men, at least initially, it’s a possible supply of – well, let’s not go there.  We’re talking babies here, and the point is that babies, by definition, know absolutely nothing about the world, which includes you.

          So when Kiley and I first became acquainted it was a strictly one way deal. I was excited and eager to find out what she was like. I was interested and fascinated by everything she did. I knew that behind those little eyes was a unique individual unlike anyone who ever was, is, or will be again. Their uniqueness is one of the qualities that make babies, and people in general, truly precious things.

          Kiley, on the other hand, didn't give me a second look. I was about as interesting to her as a sink-full of dirty dishes. When the entire universe is brand new, how can any one thing be seen as more important or interesting than another. Or, for that matter, how could I be distinguishable from any of the other people she came into contact with, people who also hugged her and kissed her and held her and spoke baby talk at her. An infant, as the center of its own universe, is, at first, interested only in what effects it directly. The bottle, the binky, the mother, these are things of importance. And they are all related to eating. To an infant everything else in the world from the sink to the sofa to the president of the United States pales in comparison to the overwhelming importance of milk. And there was my advantage. As the "Giver of Milk", the "Holder of the Bottle", it was only a matter of time before she comprehended that I was unique and of more consequence than the car seat or the diaper bag or the guy who bags the groceries.

          And so I bided my time looking for that sign of recognition. Doing all the things that just come natural when you are around a baby, holding her, hugging her, feeding her, cooing and baby talking her, keeping her warm and dry, being the last thing she saw before falling asleep and the first thing she saw when waking up. Doing what comes natural is usually the best strategy for dealing with babies and that includes when forming that special bond. The bonding process is a natural one. Like walking and talking it just seems to happen.

          So the first few days went by with no real sign that she was aware of me as anything special. Then gradually she started watching my face while she drank her bottle. This wasn't really momentous since the position she was in while feeding made it natural for her to look in my direction. There were no apparent signs of recognition in her eyes, she was just staring at me the way my dog sometimes stares at the TV without having any idea what it is or what it means.  Still, it made me feel like she was interested in me, and I'm sure she was storing the shape of my face in her memory. Facial recognition is an important ability in humans and begins early in life. I took it as a beginning.

          This staring at me went on for some time without change, to the point where I started mentioning it to her – "What are you looking at, huh?" "Are you looking at me?"  "Are you eyeballing me, marine?"  "I don't see anyone else here!" I don't see anyone else here!" "Are you looking at me?" This had no effect on her what-so-ever and she just continued staring, so I thought 'two can play at this game', and started staring right back, giving her the "bug eyes". But this grew wearisome fast and I gave it up.

          Then one day it simply happened. Momentous things often "simply" happen. I was feeding her and watching "House Hunters" on TV and she was drinking and staring at me when suddenly, out of the blue, our relationship changed. But "changed" is really too small of a word. "Transformed" is closer to the mark. One moment she's staring at me as usual with that "thousand yard stare" that soldiers over-exposed to intense combat often exhibit, you know, the lights are on but nobody's home, and the next moment everything between us changed forever. In that instant she stopped just staring and her eyes, at last, focused on mine with what seemed like purpose and intent. She stopped sucking and opened her mouth in what looked like surprise though that's probably my imagination, the bottle made that gurgling noise it makes when air sucks back through the nipple. Then, with her eyes still on mine, she gave me the slightest smile, just a quick one. But in that smile and in those eyes were written what her mouth wouldn't be able to speak for another two years. Finally, in that one look, louder than any voice, were the words I had been looking for all this time – "I know you".


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