When James Met Harry


Fatherhood and Parenting
Author James Botton

A couple of years ago, Melbourne journalist and writer James Button won a Walkley Award for his Time cover story on men. Today, he's father to Harry and in this wonderfully open, warm and honest piece, he tells of what happened when James first met Harry and the story that follows.
Harry slipped out at 10.02 p.m. on Monday 4 March 1996. May's contractions had only begun to get heavy at six. At nine she felt a need to push, and the midwife looked inside her with a torch and announced, “I can see a baby!” I had been braced for a 12- or even 24-hour ordeal, and here, emerging, was the top of a head, crinkled like a grey walnut. I remember May's last and loudest cry, the midwife calling “Hold your baby, May!”, slippery limbs, a face, a boy. And among the bundle of excited thoughts that followed was disappointment too that I hadn't loved Harry at first sight but merely felt his strangeness. It happened so fast. I wasn't quite ready.

And maybe he wasn't either. After a tentative little wail, he lay in May's arms and stared at the gaping world. I thought of a tadpole, the fine line between animal and human.
The family rushed in from all parts of Melbourne, iron filings clustering around a magnet. We took a family photo: Harry on my Dad's knee, May in her blood-specked nightie, my mother, brother, his wife, my father's second wife. It's a nervous pose, an attempt to give order to the extraordinary. I'm standing at the back of the shot - taken by someone better at midwifery than photography with my head cut off.

Harry is five-months-old now. A quarter Chinese, he has slightly almond-shaped eyes. But they're blue with long lashes, features shared by neither his parents nor theirs. Because his head is round and smooth and hairless a cartoon baby, like Sweet Pea in Popeye - I can't yet see the boy to come. He's still a mystery.

In his first month or so, I'd talk or sing to him as I held him, and he'd stare in my direction but never quite at me. I was like a poltergeist: he could only feel my presence. We found a magic remedy to his crying on side two of “Abbey Road”, especially “Here Comes the Sun”. Once he heard those guitar chords he'd shut up straight away, turning his head to the music as the last tear trekked down his cheek. Still, he cries quite a lot. From heart-rending whimpers to murderous howls, he's an opera. He beats his arms about and goes pink, his eyes film over and he looks, as an Englishman once wrote of his baby, like a homicidal fried egg. We call him the H-bomb.

That first night in the hospital, we had put him in a crib by the bed. But if he made noise, we woke. If he didn't make noise, we woke. So we put him in bed with us. And when we got home he stayed in the bed, while I, because he cried and fed and I had to work the next day, slept out in Harry's room. It was a pragmatic transaction, a convenient surrender to sex roles. Sometimes I'd feel jealous, but more often I was relieved to be getting some sleep.

For now our set-up is traditional, and not ideal. Because I work, I don't see Harry enough, while May sees him too much. I've learnt how to hold him right, but when it comes to nappies, I'm still a bit of a fumbler. The more I'm with him, the more relaxed and confident I become, the more playful we are together. I love to see recognition in his face, his plump, drumstick legs excitedly kicking.

But after long hours at work, or times I've been away, I worry that he doesn't remember me. I court him like a nervous lover, fearing rejection. The other day we looked in the mirror together, cheek to cheek, face to face. I've got new wrinkles - probably from all the hours of contorting my face, just to make him smile. I'd walk to Darwin for one of his laughs, but I've learnt that babies smile when they feel like it, not to be polite. And their fascination is promiscuous. I'll be grinning like a mad clown, only to find I've been upstaged by a spot on the wall.

I wasn't prepared for the power a baby has. Sure, he's the definition of helplessness, a creature that can drown, they say, in three inches of water. But for his sake we jump on demand, up-ending meal times and sleeping habits, rarely going out, putting friends on hold. Is he hungry, overfed, bored, too hot, too cold, too pampered? Coming home from work, I wonder what he'll be like. I turn the key, hoping not to hear screaming. The other night I dreamt I had put him down somewhere and forgotten him. I stumbled out of bed, still asleep, and blundered in a blind panic through the house, looking for him.

In all the advice, theories, cliches and lame jokes that are trundled forward before you have a child, none is more worn than “It'll change your life.” Yet apart from new routine, the change is not immediately apparent to me. I feel a detachment from work, ambition, conversation, sex, politics, football, even my friends. I have, in the predictable manner of a parent, huge, useless worries about the future of the Earth. I think of Harry a lot, in a happy, fairly repetitive way, singing to myself silly songs I make up for him, rolling around like sweets in the mouth certain images I have of him. It's a private pleasure. I worry I'm getting boring.

What's changed most is my sense of time. I don't can't cram my weeks any more with books, movies, dinners with friends, Saturday at the football. On the weekend we go for a walk, maybe have a cup of coffee down the street, rent a video. Until recently, with May and Harry in bed, I'd go out for long walks at night. Ordinary things hold great pleasure, if you think about them right.

Now May and I are sleeping together again and Harry is in his room down the back. After vigorous protest at first, he's taking it with surprising good grace and lack of complaint. We're getting back to normal, but for each of us there is a small loss. Harry still occasionally spits the dummy at 2am. Light sleep broken, we hurry into a dark room and rattle we hope soothingly a cot that feels too big for a solitary baby.

It's hardest for May. I feel her loss of that total, 24-hour connection with Harry, knowing even his 3am looks and ways. I've got the best deal. Still, part of me misses Harry's room out the back.

On weekend mornings, under a bookcase crammed with books and toy animals waiting for Harry, I used to lie in bed and stare at the dawn sky. Clouds tumbled by, large and restless one day, the next long and thin and moving north like hungry cranes. I could see pipes and turrets on the roof of the pub. Once a bird pirouetted and the sun caught its white underside. I thought of a coin tossed in the air. And I thought, as always, of showing Harry.

I want to tell him jokes, make him laugh, take him up the coast and show him the bright, true, disappearing things of the world. I see him in the back of the car, drifting in and out of sleep, knowing, as sunlight slants in between gum trees, that good things are in store for us.

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