Having a Newborn Is Like Jacking Into the Matrix

Keanu Reeves in <i>The Matrix</i>.
Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

Life with my daughter — so close to 2 now that I simply tell people she is 2 — is full of everyday surprises. She wakes up each day with new words and new skills; just yesterday she edged herself off her little plastic toilet seat onto the ground without my help. Even the fact that she uses the toilet — pees into it, wipes herself, and then flushes, waving, “Bye, pee!” — is an earth-shattering development, one of many that happen every day. As a mother, you learn to accept these changes so quickly you barely notice, not because you don’t care, but because, by the time you turn to write it down in your baby book, something new, and even more impressive, has taken its place.

Though that first year is full of classic “milestones” — head control, sitting up, crawling — there are countless other things that happen along the way. One day you feed your baby her first taste of sweet potatoes and, before you know it, she’s opening cabinets and handing you boxes of macaroni. But before you get to almost any of that, there are the long and sometimes arduous months lived almost wholly isolated from your former life: Friends might pop in and out, but there you are, fully jacked into the Matrix.

Time has no meaning, day and night barely exist. Some days you don’t sleep, some days you do; it almost doesn’t matter. There’s no sense that there was any life before this, or that it will ever be any different. You have a newborn infant, and you live on newborn time — beautiful, goalless newborn time. You lose your phone; it doesn’t matter. You forget what day or even month it is. Your sleep-wake cycles have literally no meaning. You are 100 percent onboard for whatever this is: It’s an amazing, entirely alien way to exist. No one can accurately describe it (believe me, I’m trying) — each moment is laden with meaning and so full of the present that you feel exhausted but also hope it might never end.

But beyond that first year, most people do in fact find their footing and regain control over their lives. And the child learns how to fit into the family, at least more than before. Zelda can go out to eat with us without any real tragedies: She sits in her high chair, if not quietly, at least happily. She doesn’t freak out, she knows the reason we’re there. She can almost converse; she can put her bib on herself, use a fork. Most food hits her mouth rather than the floor. At home she will pick up things she drops on the floor — usually — if you ask her to. And she can tell you when she’s hungry (“eat”) or when she needs a new diaper (“Zelda butt poop”). When she wants to go outside or stay in.

Now, amazingly, she will sometimes even cop to the fact that she is tired. “Are you tired?” I ask her at the end of a long day, brushing her hair out of her face. “Yesh,” she says.

I don’t take any of this for granted, exactly: I’m writing about it, I am fully aware of these developments. But it is almost impossible to rewind myself to just a year or a year and a half ago, to the more helpless version of her, to the more overwhelmed version of myself. And then our friends with an infant came to stay overnight for New Year’s Eve.

I’ve spent at least the past five New Year’s Eves at home, with my husband, Josh, and another couple who have been together for just a little bit longer than we have. The four of us aren’t really partiers. We have some cheese and olives, a little Champagne, and ring in the New Year together with Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin. We did it the year I was pregnant (I fell asleep on the couch well before midnight) and we did it last year, when Zelda was just 10 months old. I remember them walking into our house, her carrying small bottles of, I think, ginger ale. “Not drinking tonight?” Josh asked, and she replied, “I won’t be drinking for at least another 8 months.” Josh didn’t catch it — I had to say it out loud: “She’s pregnant.” And she was.

And so, this New Year’s Eve, they went through the surely agonizing process of packing for an overnight trip to our place with a 4.5-month-old. They were anxious — their son might wake Zelda late in the night with his screams for food or cuddles. But the night passed in relative calm. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized: how quickly I forget. My memory, is it that bad? I had lost touch almost completely with the little fears and worries of infant life. My own daughter seems like she needs constant attention; you can’t look away for too long, but you can, in fact, look away. I’d completely blanked out on the period where you didn’t look away, not even for a second.

“Give him Tylenol” — “I can’t, he’s not old enough” — “Oh, right, ha!” is the least of it. The fears that are simply part of every moment with a baby that young had simply, over time, one by one, slipped away. It’s not that I don’t worry; I do, I worry constantly! But the fears are less alarming, and now I’m used to being worried. We’ve all grown and changed.

What was clear to me, seeing my friends and their baby, was how raw they still were. Barely sleeping, with an infant who doesn’t communicate all that much yet. Their stay sucked me back into a place I’d escaped simply by living each day, one after the next. I remember my daughter’s first months both in horror and joy: There were amazing moments and terrible ones. But much of it was covered in a shroud of seemingly inescapable anxiety, wrapped in a blurry layer of exhaustion. This period, I feel, has been, by something deeply coded into my biology, glossed over in my usually extremely exhaustive memory for detail. Reading my journals from that era is an unsettling experience: The edges are blunted.

It’s hard to communicate across the divide, from where I am to where my friends were. I heard myself saying things to them that I had bristled at just months earlier. “He’ll get it, he’ll sleep through the night any day now,” I said, realizing how each night seems like an eternity. “Once he’s 6 months old, things will get a lot easier.” But I knew they had no power to make the next month and a half move any differently.

I remembered shopping, looking longingly at 1T clothes, thinking, Someday soon she’ll be large and sturdy enough, she’ll walk, she won’t seem to be clinging so desperately to life. I remember not knowing when it was okay to give her water, fearing for her first cold, checking her temperature far more than was necessary. I remember pacing around the room in the near dark, her swaddled body cuddled to mine. I remember falling asleep on the couch, her asleep on my chest, not sleeping, not really awake. I slept for less than five minutes, she squirmed beside me. What did she want? I didn’t know.

“They’re still in the Matrix,” I said to my husband after they left. It is, in many ways, a glorious, timeless place to be, and my guess is that you really only get to be there once. If I had another child, I would be better at managing. We all would. And besides, Zelda would be there with us, and she is nothing if not aggressively successful at pulling people from their own weird reality into hers.

You get to look back on the Matrix almost fondly once it’s over, even if it was terrifying at the time. But you definitely do know when it ends.

One day, you throw the baby into a sling and throw on your winter coat and walk out the door only to realize that it’s spring, real spring, with warmth that goes into the ground and stays. You don’t need your coat; you need sunglasses. And you’re not so tired after all. And you know how to drink coffee with a baby strapped to your chest. And besides, that coat seems a little big these days, anyway. And you throw the coat inside, leave the house again. You remember your keys. You’re wearing lipstick. You meet your friend for lunch. She’s not even pregnant yet, but she will be soon enough. You tell her you’re feeling good, finally, because you are. It clicks. You’re out.