As Kirsten gets in bed, I arrange snacks beside the nursing chair in the baby’s room. I prep a basket with anything she might need: cashew clusters, pretzels, fruit leather, a peanut butter sandwich in a Rubbermaid container, a water bottle. It is around 10 p.m., our usual bedtime, but we both know that we will be up at midnight, and then again at 5 a.m., for Calvin’s nightly nursing. I am on support duty. When Calvin begins to cry from his crib in the room adjacent to ours, I get to him first, change his diaper and calm him, holding his small weight in the crook of my arm, pressed against my chest. Kirsten readies herself, braced against the Texas night in my large white bathrobe. She sits in the dim light for an hour or so with the child on her breast. I return to bed. This has been our routine for more than a year.
When we first had Calvin, I didn’t know what to get for Kirsten, didn’t know what she would need, or I knew what some of the steps would be, but didn’t know what would be the most helpful. We were still delighted by the middle of the night, tired, but not tired enough to resent any of it. She would settle into her beige glider chair and then, just as I pulled the covers back over myself in bed, call out for water, for a sandwich, for a foot rub. But after weeks of practice and getting tired of being summoned from half-sleep, I learned what her needs would be so that all I had to do was get the baby to her before I returned to bed. We even rigged up her iPad hanging on the wall to help pass the hours in the nursing chair.
The time in the chair is significant: a baby will nurse ten to twelve times a day in increments of twenty to forty-five minutes. Cal was on the long end of that, sometimes nursing for over an hour. Kirsten spent long stretches of her day in the glider, watching entire seasons of TV shows in mere days. When she tired of Modern Family, Parenthood, or Survivor, I had her station prepped with a book of New York Times crossword puzzles, which then made nursing time interactive for all of us. In the afternoons after work, I would lie on the battered, leather hand-me-down couch in the nursery while Kirsten had Cal at her breast. One of us would read clues to the others, spell out answers.
“Songs before bed. Nine letters, blank, blank, blank, l, u, blank, blank, e, s.”
But in the nighttime, during breastfeeding, Kirsten was alone with everything I’d prepared for her. When Cal was done, Kirsten would wake me again and pass him over, rousing me from whatever sleep I’d been able to get. I’d change his diaper once more and then, holding him tightly, rock him in my arm or burp him. I put his fuzzy head right up into my throat, at the jugular, and cradled him with my arms and my chin, then pulled down the rounded neck of my undershirt so that the fuzzy skin of his head touched the hairy skin of my chest.
My undershirt, too, reminds me of the importance, the sacredness, the essential holiness of skin against skin. Though we Mormons do not often talk about our underclothing, which we call “the garment,” sometimes referred to by those who do not understand it as “magic underwear,” it is an important part of our daily religious observances. We wear the garment continuously after going through the temple ceremony, where we learn that the garment will serve as a reminder of our promises to God, a tradition of holy clothing similar to the Jewish prayer shawl or the Sikh turban. The garment will protect us in this life, not because of magic or even sacred power, but because God will protect those who obey him. In the temple, we also learn the origin story of our garments: they represent the coats of skin given to Adam and Eve to “cover their nakedness” when they were cast out of the Garden. God, relinquishing his children to the fallen world, did not send them out naked, did not leave them with nothing, without protection. They were given his promises that he would deliver them if they would obey him. He gave them skins to cover their own, another sign that though they did not understand everything—least of all tailoring—they had a father to watch over them, to teach them.
We were taught to go skin-to-skin with the baby at the hospital, where posters advertised its health benefits for newborns. They regulate their body temperature better; they are calmer; they sleep better when they are right up against their parents. Most modern practices suggest putting a newborn infant directly on the naked breast of their mother within minutes of the birth. The infant, going entirely by smell, touch, and the miracle of instinct, will find the mother’s nipple and begin to lick and explore it for milk, perhaps even kneading it like kittens do their mother. There are nine stages to this process, called “The Magic Hour,” which include multiple periods of rest, relaxation, and active exploration, all done while the mother and child are naked, their flesh pressed together.
Perhaps the name, Magic Hour, comes because the infant goes through these stages without outside aid—there are stories, a nurse told us, of people finding dead or unconscious mothers with a newborn who had instinctually crawled to their mother’s breasts for support, surviving there until rescue. Of course, birth does not stop for war nor disaster, so women have always given birth in times of extreme difficulties. But when the nurse suggested that a baby would find even the dead mother’s breast, I wondered where the father was. He always seems to be missing in the stories.
Even in present literature regarding this special moment, the fathers, usually referenced only as “other family members,” have little to do with the magic of the hour. This is simply explained by the fact that fathers do not produce breastmilk and, as such, have very little to offer a newborn who wants little else. The nurses in our parent trainings also emphasized the Magic Hour and its benefits for the mother: Skin-to-skin contact soon after birth increases milk supply and promotes healthier recovery from birth complications. “Other family members” are encouraged to use skin-to-skin later, after the initial hour, though the nurses never did follow up on how I was doing, only if Kirsten had been getting skin-to-skin time. But in the hospital, when we were alone, I unbuttoned my shirt and held my son at my chest.
Like many holistic and traditional practices, skin-to-skin is only beginning to reemerge in modern hospitals. Since doctors worry about infections, it is even rarer for mothers who have a C-section, like Kirsten did, to be granted the time immediately following the birth. We were relieved when our doctor didn’t hesitate when we asked about it, said that of course it would happen. The actual delivery was quick, but sewing up Kirsten’s gaping womb took longer. The time passed quickly as we watched our purple son rooting around, exploring his mother’s skin with his own.
It is as intimate an experience as one can have, to be skin-to-skin with someone. The importance of touch continues into our adult lives, too, where handshakes, pats on the back, and hugs keep us grounded with other people. To choose nakedness with another person, to have your flesh against theirs, is one of the profoundest signs of trust. To be naked is not the idyllic of nude. Like many synonyms, naked and nude mean essentially the same thing, but differ in connotation: the first is Germanic and raw, the second is Latinate and the subject of art. To be naked is to be humble and insecure, exposed. In scripture and tragedy, those who are naked are also hungry. No one is ever born nude, we are most assuredly born naked; if babies are nude, it is only in photographs.
I wanted to hold him all the time. The feel of his head resting against my exposed chest was as soothing for me as it seemed to be for him. And though I had never been much of one for babies, this one I was enchanted with, and walking him up and down the nighttime hallway—at least in my recollection—was a delight. The memory is colored by the holiday décor, as he was born less than a week before Christmas; the earnest sentimentality of the tree’s lights warmed the hallway’s darkness. I wandered up and down that half-lit space, singing softly to him the songs of the season:
Come and behold him,
Born the king of angels.
Oh come, let us adore him!
Oh come, let us adore him!
In singing those songs, contemplating Mary with her own baby before her, Christmas seemed particularly poignant that first year. We celebrated it quietly with less fanfare than normal. Humming hymns, I kept thinking of Mary not as the Mother of God, but just as a mother, a child pressed to her breast, him suckling, receiving from her the first protections he would need in the world, physical, biological nutrition. Yes, even the Son of God, before he could grow in stature before God and men, received antibodies and lipids and hormones from his mother. She passed to him the bacteria that colonized his guts, creating a biome that was only his. The Victorians, when renovating York Minster, censored that image on the ceiling, giving the Madonna a modest covering for the nursing Babe. I laughed when I learned that, staring up at the murals on the ceiling, but it is absurd now. I’ve always thought we should talk more about the sacred, let it be seen, share with the world the joy we feel in the most human, the most biological moments. Perhaps some people will take offense at my insisting on inserting the sharing of body fluids into the Nativity. Perhaps it is disrespectful; maybe it takes some of the magic away from the miracle to focus on the biology of such things. But Cal’s fragility, his complete dependence on my wife’s body and, to a lesser degree, on his contact with my body, without which he could not sleep, was essential in the dark hours of the night—the witching hours—when I soothed my child, stalking up and down the hall in my underwear.
It honors mothers to remember what they go through with a child at the breast. It was not all magic, not all a picturesque scene of repose. Many nights, Kirsten cried with pain, and there was nothing I could do to soothe her. Cal did not latch well. We visited the hospital’s lactation specialists—if anything can take the magic out of the moment, it is the word specialist (you thought I was going to say lactation, but I find the word rather enjoyable on the tongue; if not at all like milk’s fatty sweetness, it does, at least, have a certain percolating rhythm). Though I am sure the lactation rooms were as well-lit as any other rooms in a hospital, I remember them being dark and unpleasantly dim as the specialists stepped outside to give Kirsten a moment to try some new technique or a new nipple guard, first in one style, then another, anything that Cal might find comfortable to latch onto. It felt strange and absurd that this, the first and most basic instinct, would have difficulties, should need accessories and aid. Didn’t he want to eat? It was clear he did. Did he know where he could eat? Yes, again. So why the trouble? It seems even infants, though their experience is so limited, have preferences for texture and mouth-feel, for the body of their drink.
We don’t talk about breastfeeding much. By “we,” I suppose I mean the professional world, where discourse happens, most likely because it has been so dominated by men for so long, and not just men, but men who left the children at home with the mothers, a world apart from the expectations Kirsten and I share for partnership. At home, breastfeeding is a constant topic. Kirsten and our friends who were mothers talked about it all the time. Our friends who were not yet fathers were very rarely present for such conversations and sat awkwardly silent when they were; our friends who were fathers nodded softly in consolation. I nod softly in consolation. Even here, I recognize that I have very little to add on what might be the heart of this essay, that essential, most important element of skin-to-skin contact. I was not there for most of it, I witnessed but a fraction of Kirsten’s feeding. I will leave her to tell her own story, and shall return, again, to mine.
Though I remember those early nights fondly, memory also reminds me that in the first weeks, Cal slept in a bassinet next to our bed, and with every small noise he made, I woke with a start. Or, when it seemed that the world had been silent for too long, I woke terrified that he had stopped breathing. It seemed plausible—because his existence seemed so implausible—that his heart would suddenly stop or his lungs give up. He was as healthy as a child could be, and I had no logical need to worry. I suppose it was some doubt in the miracle of life. But I was exhausted, as all new parents are (and old parents, too, I am learning), and so I know those sacred nights, which I can so easily remember suffused in the glow of Christmas, were really spent trying desperately to get Calvin to sleep. And as soon as his eyes closed, a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.
One night, too tired to keep pacing, I collapsed onto the long white couch in the living room, the babe still in my arms. I fell asleep and then, I have no idea how much later, he did, too. That night—or rather, early morning—he slept longer than he’d ever slept before, and I woke in the morning almost refreshed. And though I had previously been strongly against the practice of co-sleeping (having the child sleep in the parents’ bed), I became a believer, and Calvin slept swaddled in a blanket, his tiny uncovered heard nestled into my armpit, my arms wrapped around him, the perfect distance where I could nestle my bearded chin over his forehead. When Cal joined us in bed, I told Kirsten that I was only doing it for myself. That as long as this allowed me to sleep better, I would do it; once it stopped working, he was out again. We still had our usual routine, and Kirsten mostly still retired to the nursery to nurse, but for two or three more months, Cal and I slept nestled like this, warming each other. I could feel him breathing all night, could quickly adjust with small movements to make him comfortable. Where I used to wake at each small noise or prolonged silence, I now gently rocked him when I woke, easing him and myself back to sleep. I read that my heartbeat would soothe him, that this time together, though we were both asleep, would bond him to me and me to him. But eventually, he started kicking and poking and pulling, and this is when we moved him to the crib in the other room and began sleep training.
It has been three years since Cal was born. He sleeps well most nights, though he still wakes too early for our tastes, rising around six to crawl into our bed, kicking and jumping his way through the covers, begging for a pillow while we shield ourselves from his wayward feet. Then, a pillow granted, he cuddles in close, asking for “back tickles”—our fingertips gently gliding over the skin of his back. He moves our hands where he wants to be caressed this way: his arms, his legs, the bottom of his feet. These moments don’t last long before he asks for breakfast or toys, a show, to go to the library or the park. Throughout the days now, he rarely wants to be held, does not like sitting still, and often protests if I sit on the couch to observe his train tracks or Legos rather than play with him on the floor. It is only at bedtime that he really cuddles now, when it is time for his story on the couch. While I hold a book and read to him about trucks and sea turtles, his body presses into mine, his head once again nestled into my armpit. He longs for the moment, will do most any chore for the promise of a second or third book, and I sometimes give it to him without any bribing. We have been told—over and over again, the cliché so ready on everyone’s lips—to cherish these moments. And I do, I suppose, though I know that Kirsten and I will both be more content as parents when our children have independent hobbies, or at least ones that we can engage with. I am anxious for Cal to play and understand board games, for him to experiment in the kitchen, to find hobbies I know nothing about. I anticipate feeling very content as a parent then. I anticipate sleeping more, though who really knows what the future will hold, except that I know I will hold him less, that the physical affection will dwindle to occasional hugs after long absences. But the absence then is not what brings pleasure now. There is no before or after when he is nestled in for a story, my arm wrapped around him to hold the book, his knees up close to both our chests.
But then storytime ends and he is off to bed, where Kirsten or I sing him lullabies. As I sing, I brush his cheeks with my fingers and kiss him at the bridge of his nose. Both gestures encourage him to close his eyes, but they are also excuses to pull myself in close.
He now knows the songs we sing well enough to request them by name. Since it is Christmastime as I write this, that is what he requests. “Faithful, faithful,” he says, so I sing him the songs I’ve been singing him all these years:
Oh come, let us adore him.
Scott Russell Morris is a faculty member at the University of Utah Asia Campus in Incheon, South Korea. He has a PhD from Texas Tech University and an MFA from Brigham Young University. His essays have previously appeared in Brevity, The Chattahoochee Review, Superstition Review, and elsewhere.