It’s been 27 years since my firstborn arrived.
In my arms, she was lighter than the dreams I’d had about what she might be like.
I cradled her between the mess of tubes, pads, and cold metal bowls strewn around us. Her exhausted mother moved only in breath, an occasional anaesthetized glance in our direction.
Days later, we drove home, on our way to becoming a nuclear family—mother, father, and halfway to two children. From there, days blurred. I returned home daily from a corporate office, half asleep at the wheel, arriving to gently bathe my daughter before easing her into a cot, then tiptoeing out.
Some mornings around 3 a.m., I woke to her grizzles, sleepwalking her back to our bed for her mother to breastfeed. Two parents, often out of our depth, bringing up our first and later second daughter.
The years flew, my life like a video stuck on fast forward. I lost and found jobs, walked the blistering roads of Vietnam, added dogs and a bird to the family, and each spring pressed bean seeds into the crumbly soil. Decades later, my second born announced her best friend was pregnant at 18. Her friend needed help.
We took her in—of course, we did. Who would abandon an expectant mother? We made up a bed, cooked meals, washed clothes. My second born even attended the birth—her friend’s pain during labor shouted into her. I’m sure it stayed in the spaces of my daughter’s body, the way an old scar remains creased across the skin.
I’d held other babies since mine were born. There’s something instinctive about how your arms fold to hold a child. Your arms angle so that their head is supported, and they watch the words form as you speak their name to them. You enclose them, so they’re safe, and you feel their slight breath.
The bends in the backs of their knees are like dimples, and even though everyone tells you babies can’t smile, you forever think you saw one. I took my daughter’s friend’s son one day as I did time after time, soothing him when he cried, showing him the moon and the birds that landed on telegraph wires, and our old dog limping through her last months.
In no time, he was sitting up in his green jumpsuit, propped in a chair far too large but giggling at my animated conversations with him. He went from a child to amuse, change nappies, spoon feed, rock to sleep, and push in a pram to a person I found myself comforting and protecting from scrapes, nightmares, falls, and touching a cactus. I never saw it coming, but I couldn’t help but love him.
But it wasn’t just me. My daughters became his grown-up sisters. Wise with him, easing him into a high chair, and providing antics that made him jiggle with laughter. My wife became his grandmother, arms and smile wide as he was carried, crawled, and, eventually, crookedly walked down our hallway.
His own mom doted on him, even though exhausted. Then a new man came into her life, building her son’s lego sets, convincing him to take an interest in a football team, pouring his orange juice, and helping him with first words and first steps. Then there was his biological grandmother, despite living some distance away, another voice and pair of hands.
You’ve probably heard the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It’s a belief that it takes a community to nurture, raise, and love a child. This experience has convinced me of the truth of that. It goes beyond the two-parent family we were when bringing up my children. But with the arrival of this child, we formed our own village around him.
We didn’t all stand together at any time, but he took our voices, touches, humor, nuzzles, and talk, carrying it with him between addresses as if each of us accompanied him. At times, I’m envious, thinking back to decades ago as I strived through exhaustion to be the best dad I could and how I may have been a better one if there’d been the help of others. There were days I could really have used that village.
It’s only a week since I’ve seen him. In March, he’ll turn five. He lays in my lap as comfortable as if I‘d dropped a rumpled, warm outfit there. He insists I read to him or take him outside to see if the apricots dangling from a tree are ready and to follow the soft weavings of butterflies.
That last time I glanced around the room, I saw my daughters, his mother, my wife, his stepdad, and my sleeping dog.
I was looking at his village.