She wove language from the plainest of threads. Before she could talk, she could spin lengths of undifferentiated sound, just by voicing an outbreath and letting the noise push out on a flow of exhaled air. By eight weeks she could shape her mouth to make a contented ur-ur, expressing satisfaction at the way the world looked and the fact that she was at the centre of it. Her growing awareness of reality meant multiplying objects of desire, new ways for her material ambitions to be thwarted.The Baby in the Mirror by Charles Fernyhough
It’s strange, but I’ve read so much about motherhood that it’s easy to overlook how very little I’ve read about fatherhood. Nicolson Baker’s wonderful Room Temperature. Peter Carey’s essay A Letter to Our Son. I think of Gilead but although that is a wonderful book of fatherly love, it is, of course, written by a mother not a father. It doesn’t amount to much.
So it was wonderful to read The Baby in the Mirror, a tender and searching account of the first three years of life from a father’s perspective. And Charles Fernyhough brings not only his novelist’s eye to bear on the subject but also his background as a developmental psychologist, which results in a book both beautifully written and rich in insight. Although much of what Fernyhough is trying to capture is the development of his daughter’s language, memory and concept of self, he also conveys the delight and deep love his daughter elicits in him.
I can remember seeing this book when T was around two and feeling strangely disinterested in reading it. I had my own daughter to watch as she unfolded into her growing awareness of her own self and her place in the world. It seems strange ( — or maybe not so strange) that just as my youngest is three I should suddenly be interested in reading about those years.
I particularly loved those parts of the book set in Sydney where Fernyhough and his wife spend six months with then then two-and-a-half year old Athena. He captures that age — and my memory of it with T perfectly. He’s also great on the difficulty of trying to record someone who is changing at such speed,
Time is pressing on. I have work to get on with, empty ages to fill up with ghosts. The living has already become the remembering. As life sweeps her away, I’ll follow along with my notebook, trying to scribble it all down. I’m hitched to her star, tugged out of myself by her relentless velocity, trying to remember things before they have even finished happening.
But however careful Fernyhough’s observations of his daughter are, life is messy. When his wife’s second pregnancy ends in a miscarriage, he records both Athena’s reactions (‘Her reaction to the miscarriage was not to cry. It was to think.’) and his own feelings,
How can you mourn a child you have never seen? We tried to love an idea into existence, and now that love had lost its target. The idea became real too soon. Its only chance for survival was to stay invisible, nourished in our minds. Death is supposed to be where we lose our footholds in the physical world, say goodby to corporeality. This was the opposite. Dying made our baby substantial. It ejected it from its dream into the world of cold flesh. […] Just as we had always loved Athena, in part, for what she had the potential to become, so we had loved this child for what he or she might have been. Love is not just about what you are giving to a person now. Love is a promise for the future. It is about saying ‘I will’ as much as ‘I do’.
How perfect that phrase ‘Love is a promise for the future’ is. Because it’s true that the implicit promise of parenthood is to love them no matter what, no matter who they turn out to be, or what they choose to accept or reject of the way we raise them. That the love is independent of outcome; that the love just is.
The Baby in the Mirror is fascinating for its exploration of the first few years of life and the boundaries of our knowledge about how the brain develops. But far more than that, it’s a moving and vivid portrait of the love and awe a father feels for his young daughter. Those fleeting years, when each day brings with it new things and it is hard to keep up with the passing of babyhood into toddlerhood are captured so perfectly (which reminds me of this, Gerard Woodward’s immaculate description of watching one’s children grow: ‘It was hard to remember them as babies. Watching a child grow up is to watch it die a hundred times, each new self overlaying the old, concealing it.’).
Throughout, Fernyhough grapples with how his daughter will view her inclusion in the book when she is older. In the end, after seeking the approval of the now seven-year-old Athena for his project, he concludes,
If she quibbles with the narrative, with my own partial, skew-eyed telling then it means she has a narrative of her own to compare it with. It’s her word against mine, her story against my story. The point is, there’s a story.
Yes, there is a story. And it’s a beautiful one.