First days on earth

Through the whims of unlucky chance, geography and cultural restrictions, I grew to a ripe old age without ever seeing a newborn baby. I suppose I did see my little brother and other infants when I was very young but since I was old enough to care or remember, I have not really had the opportunity. Most Czechs retain the remnants of old superstitions about newborns by severely restricting visits for many weeks if not months after birth. As a result, I have never seen a Czech baby less than two months old, even when close friends became mothers.

This is Shaye on the first day we saw her

It should not matter, I suppose. Seeing a newborn is not such a huge experience, but it became a symbol for me when I could not give birth to my children and could not adopt them or even see them for months after birth. Partly, it was connected to my losses of infertility and partly it was tied to the sorrow of those lost months that my children spent, in my view unjustly and unnecessarily, incarcerated in orphanages by officials who are focused on maintaining job security above all else. The fact that I had never seen or held a newborn has grown into a symbol of all that loss.

When my sisters-in-law had their children, I could not be nearby. My Czech sister-in-law would not allow me near. My American sisters-in-law would have but I was tied up here, primarily because I was involved in IVF treatments, then in adoption formalities that could not be put on hold. Lastly, this fall both of my brother’s families added new babies, my older brother even had twins. And I could not be there because officials and bureaucracy would not allow Marik to travel so soon after coming home to us. We will be fortunate, if we receive the paperwork in time to visit my family by next summer. And I could not leave Marik, even for one night, let alone for a trip across the ocean. And so, I was trapped again by officialdom no less, the worst offender of all.

So, when friends in the town of Plzen in West Bohemia sent me a text message last week, announcing the birth of their son, I remembered that in a moment of solidarity and euphoria, after learning that they were finally pregnant after multiple rounds of IVF, my friend Bara had promised me that I could not only see and hold her new baby but I could come to visit her even in the hospital. That was how, even though we were in the midst of building closets in our playroom, the weather was holding steady at 20 degrees below freezing for a week and the hospital was four hours away, I called Bara to see if the offer still held. I figured that if I did not make every effort, I could no longer wallow in self-pity on this particular subject.

To my surprise, Bara not only remembered but honored the promise, and I found myself riding a train across the frigid morning landscape on Saturday, leaving Shaye and Marik in my niece Ember’s capable hands. On the way, I read from the book “Shared Sorrows” in which a Jewish woman chronicles the experiences of a Romani extended family during the Holocaust. Every so often, I would look up and out of the train window, catching picturesque glimpses of gentle hills, frost-locked cottages and quiet forests among the tangle of industrial Central Europe. The contrast and the parallels to my grim reading were both equally disorienting.

By the time I finally arrived in the blessedly warm room in the maternity ward where Bara was sitting with her baby, recovering from an unwelcome Caesarian and trying to train her painfully engorged breasts into the proper production of milk, I was only slightly nervous about breaking my odd record of banishment from the extremely young. Bara’s body shape was stranger than I would have thought, all bulges sagging in odd places. The baby on the other hand was more “normal” than I expected of a newborn, just a baby with papery, wrinkled skin, appearing the way hands look left too long in water. He was thinner than I had ever seen a baby look, all bones. That was a shock, but apparently it is standard.

Bara was in a room with three beds but only two were occupied. A woman lay sleeping in a bed on the far side of the room. I caught only a vague glimpse of short, dark hair. “She had her baby this morning,” Bara commented softly.

Bara had named her baby Maxik. He lay sleeping peacefully, satiated and completely oblivious to visitors, bright light and the plastic bed on wheels that he slept in. Bara said he’d already slept two hours and she thought he should wake up to try to nurse and to get him used to daytime. She tried to rouse him, positioning him to nurse, talking to him, stroking his hands, but nothing worked. She suggested that I hold him in hopes that my unfamiliar smell and feel would wake him. She passed him – a magically light bundle – to me, and he slept in my arms contentedly for some time, while we talked.

I was glad that I did not feel any great maternal attraction to Maxik. I think many friends have shied away particularly from allowing me near their newborns, not only because of the general aversion to early visits but also because of my infertility. It isn’t that they think I’ll try to steal their baby, but they don’t want to experience the awkwardness of my longing. I was sure that Bara was nervous about it as well by the abrupt and anxious way she pushed him into my arms. I did not know myself what my emotional reaction would be to a newborn. But as it happened, I looked down at him and saw only a baby, nothing more. He was miraculous, of course. How could a baby not be? But I felt no stirring of emotion within me, no pull. It could have been anti-climactic, finally holding a newborn after all that time, but I had not held out any great expectation. I wanted to see the size and shape of a newborn and with my eyes that means holding one in my arms. There is no other way for me to “see” something well enough. I wanted to be able to form a picture of what my children would have been like at that age. It was a small want, but I wanted it very strongly.

Only after I had set him back in his plastic bed later on did I really think of my children, Marik and Shaye. It was the bed that made me think of them, not the baby. The maternity ward room was just what I would have pictured, clean, almost sterile, only white-draped mothers’ beds, too narrow for comfortable co-sleeping, plastic baby receptacles on wheels, hospital trays with glasses and a book. Nothing more. No homey touches. The hallway outside was even more bleak with nothing but a sticky keg of instant sugar-heavy tea to relieve the institutional walls.

Marik and Shaye were born in a hospital much like this one and by all accounts they were taken from their birth mothers immediately because the mothers said they wanted them to be adopted. The practice here, particularly when such a child is Romani, is to take the child away right after birth, allowing no contact or visits, if adoption is mentioned as even a possibility. I don’t know if their birth mothers might have held them for a moment, whispered some secret message of love or hope, or whether they had turned their heads away in grief. What I know of Shaye’s birth mother makes her sound like she has a strong will and was intensely protective. I hope perhaps that meant that she fought to see her baby for more than just those few seconds after birth, but the chances are not great. My imagination of these events breaks my heart. It is all I have of birth and newborn babies, all I will probably ever have and all Shaye and Marik will have until they have their own babies. But I was glad I had come to see Bara and Maxik, even for those moments of sorrow.

I have two tiny pictures of Shaye at six days old, taken and passed on to me personally by an uncommonly kind social worker. Marik has no newborn pictures, because his social worker was not interested. I think of how they must have lain in little plastic beds like these all alone and then a harried nurse would come and hold a bottle above them, so that they could suck and she’d probably resent it and grumble about these “horrid Gypsies, leaving their children for us to take care of” the way one often hears Czechs grumble. And that would have been Shaye and Marik’s experiences of their first days on earth. I do not want other people’s newborn babies. I want my children when they were newborns. I want to have been there to comfort and shield them from the world.

A nurse opened the door to the room and shouldered it aside to wheel in another plastic baby receptacle. “Wake up, lady! I’m bringing your baby. You need to wake up now,” she bellowed at the woman in the far bed. I cringed at the nurse’s grating tone. There was not even a hint of compassion for a woman exhausted by hours of labor. The baby was not crying. Surely, whatever the need was there was no need to be so rude and insensitive. The woman stirred and moaned. Bara’s stiff silence seemed to indicate that she agreed with my sense of the situation. The woman sat up slowly and reached for the baby. “You need to take care of your baby,” the nurse reiterated and turned to leave. It was 1:00 in the afternoon. The woman could scarcely have slept a few hours after giving birth. I shook my head at the unchanging meanness of Czech officialdom.

Then, the nurse reached the door and called back over her shoulder, “What is your citizenship again, lady?”

The woman with the baby did not look up but mumbled, “The Ukraine.” I stopped my head-shaking for a second and then resumed it with an even heavier sigh. So, that was it. I had been certain the nurse’s reaction was a little harsher than “the usual.” This was the extra special meanness reserved for foreigners, particularly eastern foreigners. I hoped the woman was not here alone. So many young Ukrainians come here to work, to try to escape grinding poverty at home. Most had no family here. I wished I could think of something of comfort to offer her. I had heard from Roma and foreigners alike that being in maternity hospital is unpleasant because of this kind of treatment.

I had given Bara several gifts, four different kinds of slings, some of the better baby toys that our kids no longer use, some herbal tea to boost her sluggish milk production, some herbal salve for her bleeding nipples and a small box of chocolates. Now, I brought out the slings and started demonstrating for Bara, who was at first skeptical but then increasingly enthusiastic, until she insisted on stuffing the still soundly sleeping Maxik into the most complicated of the slings draped around my shoulders. She was overjoyed with the look and fit of it and tried to put it on herself. But her breasts proved too painful to support even the baby’s tiny body squashed against them, for the time being.

Maxik finally woke up just a little, enough to nurse lazily. Bara chatted with the Ukrainian woman, introduced me and cooed at the woman’s red, shriveled bundle of baby. The woman smiled at us and replied with ease and familiarity. Obviously she and Bara had talked before. Her Czech speech was as good as mine. Bara brought Maxik over to the scale by the other woman’s bed to weigh him. We brought our chocolates along and sat with the roommate for awhile. Then, as Bara and I drifted back to our side of the room, the woman called after us, peering up from a cell phone text message, “My family will be here shortly. Please don’t be alarmed.

Bara cheerfully called back over her shoulder, “Don’t worry. I’ve had visitors too. It will be fine and they have to know that they’ll see half-dressed women if they want to come to a maternity ward.” And Bara continued to nurse with both of her huge painfully swollen breasts in full view. After a few minutes the door opened and several brown-skinned, black-haired men came in. I blinked. They were followed by three similar women and two children. I smiled with the pleasure of the surprise. They were Roma.

I was gratified by Bara’s composure too. Roma or no Roma, I don’t know that I could have been so cool if my breasts had been swollen and too painful to cover in front of so many strangers. And this is the Czech Republic where Roma and non-Roma rarely mix. Still, except for an initial, wide-eyed look at me, she showed no outward sign that this was anything out of the ordinary. It did explain the nurse beyond any shadow of a doubt, however. Bara’s roommate simply had the lightest complexion in her family and Bara herself happens to be dark enough to be mistaken for Roma at times, so we had not noticed.

The family mumbled greetings to us as they passed Bara’s bed and gathered around the other woman. The men were obviously sensitive to the situation. They looked as unsure about being here among bare-breasted women and tiny babies as my husband would have been. After some minutes the smaller of the Romani children, a boy the same size as Marik, wandered out of the group and came to stand by my knee. He looked up at me with his big, beautiful eyes and pointed at the baby sucking at Bara’s breast and made one of those little interrogative sounds, just like Marik does to say, “What’s that?” I talked to him quietly for a minute, until the younger of the Romani women noticed and rushed over with apologies and anxious haste to drag him away.

Later, we went to their side of the room to weigh Maxik yet again after his nursing and I stood in close proximity to a young Romani woman with the little boy on her hip. I asked her his age and she replied that he was 15 months, at most a month younger than my Marik. I complimented him on his beautiful eyes and steady walk. The young woman said nothing but just stared at me with a hard, unwelcoming vibe. That is common enough across this ethnic divide. She may well have thought my words were contrived and expected insult at every turn.

The Romani family was impeccably dressed, quiet and sensitive to Bara’s privacy, completely the opposite of every stereotype about Roma. I couldn’t help but remember hearing women at the local community center gasp in horror when one told a story about rooming with a Romani woman at the maternity hospital and the visits of a Romani family. Bara made an excuse to follow me out into the hallway, when I had to leave. She left Maxik in his little plastic bed and called out to her roommate in the center of that family circle, “Stazia, I’m leaving Maxik in his bed. I turned on the monitor. Please yell, if the alarm goes off.” She replied amiably and we closed the door.

“I will say,” Bara said almost immediately, “Everyone always says Romani families are so problematic in hospitals and such. These people are fine and so considerate. The last roommate I had, her family was really awful. She wasn’t Romani. They always smelled like smoke really strongly, like they had just been smoking outside and it smoked up the whole room. And they were really unpleasant in general. Just goes to show about stereotypes. It is so amazing what you are doing with your kids. How are the Romani language lessons going? I’ve been telling people about that. That’s just wonderful.”

Such are the baby steps of change. Three months ago, when I first told Bara about the Romani language lessons she was shocked to the core and she cried out, “Why ever would you want your children to learn that language?” I had explained calmly, and she had apparently listened.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Peter Farnam
    Feb 10, 2012 @ 01:08:36

    Very cool! I really enjoyed this one…thanks so much for sharing all of this.


  2. carrie
    Feb 10, 2012 @ 22:10:40

    I found you via Brook (we went to HS together). I find your site very insightful. I am an adoptive mom of 2 black children. While I haven’t yet experienced such drastic issues as you do, it is just more subtle here. It takes many generations to change negative bias. But, at least here, I believe it is changing can be part of the change, education and familiarity is key! Thanks for writing!


    • ariefarnam
      Feb 11, 2012 @ 06:11:39

      Hi Carrie,
      I imagine that it can be difficult dealing with the more subtle stuff that comes up in the US with black children. I have heard that it can become pretty rocky at times. Here the one advantage is that it is so blatant that it is easy to identify the problems and often easy to identify who is a true friend. That said, I expect things will get more complicated as my children get older and I can not protect them from everything.


  3. Nathaniel Farnam
    Feb 11, 2012 @ 07:39:53

    Here’s a quote from a friend of mine on Facebook- I “shared” your blog post so others who are not subscribed can read it:
    Cori Castaldo: All I can think to say is again, I love your sister. And I’m crying again.

    You have fans everywhere!


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