When I first decided to become a midwife, people would often remark, “Oh, you must just love babies!” or “You probably can’t wait to have your own babies!” (Do people who announce they want to become obstetricians get the latter reaction too? I’m guessing not so much.) In reality, midwives mostly care for babies when they’re still inside the mother. Midwives take care of women, pregnant and not; once a baby is out in the world, it’s generally the midwife’s purview only for the first few weeks of life.
The truth is that prior to nursing school, I didn’t think that babies, especially newborns, were all that fascinating. I was sure I would be fascinated by my own, but newborns as a whole seemed largely to sleep, and when they were awake they seemed largely to scream. Nothing too thrilling there.
Then I got to do my OB nursing rotation, and had an excuse to spend hours inspecting newborns: observing their entry into the world and their adjustment to its climate; their experimentation with their limbs, muscles, joints; the perpetual, quiet movements of their mouths; the almost elderly expressiveness of their foreheads. As obvious as it may seem to anyone who has actually had a child, I discovered that for the brief periods when newborns are awake and alert, they get up to plenty of very subtle business. You just have to be paying attention to see it all.
But there is an encounter even beyond that. If you are attending a woman’s birth, and you get very lucky, you get a chance you stare into the eyes of a human being only a few minutes old. The conditions must be right: the room cannot be so bright that the baby refuses to open its eyes; the nurses cannot have applied so much antibiotic ointment that the baby physically cannot open its eyes; the baby cannot be too exhausted from a difficult labor or too dopey from analgesic drugs — and of course, the woman has to allow you to do it.
Today I got lucky. Despite enduring a long labor, the tiny girl emerged pink, alert and calm. Once she had been tidied and bundled according to hospital policy, and had a chance to be adored by her mother, I held her while the mother made herself comfortable on the bed. The girl fixed her eyes on mine, and I was reminded of the special color of the irises that only newborns have: a deep, dusky blue like the lightless ocean floor.
As a child, I remember the first time that I stared into the eyes of a bird — a pet canary — and was startled and frightened to find that they were not human eyes. It was my first understanding that my perspective was not that of all creatures, and that the minds of almost all others would be unknowable to me in the most fundamental way.
The eyes of a newborn force me to confront this fact again; there is a recognition that we come from the same root, but their look is otherworldly, ancient. As if they were a new immigrant from another universe. I am reminded that they have just gone through a process that I also went through, but have irretrievably forgotten. The preciousness with which we cradle them seems the only reasonable response.