Failure to Progress
What Having a Baby Taught Me about Aristotle, Advanced Degrees, Developmental Delays, and Other Natural Disasters
irena auerbuch smith
Jordan was conceived shortly before the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and I always wondered afterward if our first crack at conceiving a child literally caused the earth to move. The earthquake hit at 4:30 a. m. on January 17, knocking out electricity, wantonly dumping books off our shelves—Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Slavoj ZiZek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy, the MLA Guide for Writers of Research Papers— and setting off every car alarm in the greater Los Angeles area. Neither David, my husband, nor I were in the least prepared. Here we were at the University of California, Los Angeles, getting advanced degrees (David was finishing medical school, I was in my fourth year in a doctoral program in comparative literature), and we had no flashlight, no battery-operated radio, no shoes by the bed. When the shaking stopped and we ventured out of our bedroom, we cut our feet on broken glass, then lit candles to assess the damage. In our defense, it was 4:30 in the morning; we were young; we were stupid; we believed we were invulnerable. We were also lucky— for in addition to being spared from heavy falling objects, exploding gas lines, contaminated drinking water, and house fires, I got pregnant. Practically on the first try.
Nine months later, nearly to the day, Jordan entered the world via semiemergency C-section after a twelve-hour labor during which it became manifestly apparent that my uterus was incapable of expelling him on its own. In hospital parlance, this was called “failure to progress due to fetal – pelvic disproportion,” so in came my OB, trailing a battery of scalpels, spreaders, sponges, and surgical nurses in her wake, and twenty-two minutes later, Jordan, with his head still in my abdominal cavity, took his first breath and uttered his first mewling cry. The noise was so jarring in that otherwise hushed operating room, filled only with murmured requests for instruments, the soft clink of metal, and the whooshing of suction tubes, that I asked David whether that was the baby. David, seated by my head in full surgical scrubs, said, “Well, duh,” with unaccustomed tenderness and squeezed my hand. “Of course it’s the baby,” cooed my OB as she stitched layers of muscle and skin back together and a pediatrics resident took Jordan’s vital signs in the corner. “Look at that little butterball.” Four days later we dressed the little butterball in a yellow onesie embroidered with ducks, slipped on a matching hat, inserted him awkwardly into a car seat, and took him home. And thus our life as new parents began.
Between Jordan’s conception and birth, three things happened and one did not. David graduated from medical school, I finished my PhD qualifying exams, and we moved into a rented two-bedroom duplex on a bucolic tree-lined street in Menlo Park, California. But in spite of a substantial dissertation-year fellowship, I did not write my dissertation. While David began his psychiatry residency at Stanford Hospital, I made no progress whatsoever. I swam laps in the local community center pool, cooked chicken saltimbocca, and, in a misguided attempt at nesting, bought hideous wrought-iron candelabra at Z Gallerie. The candelabra were not returnable, and David wondered aloud why some nesting women scrub woodwork and wash windows while others feather the nest with nonreturnable wrought-iron monstrosities. The answer was simple: I didn’t know what to do with myself, and the obvious solution—to get to work on the dissertation immediately, now, this minute, as everyone who had children suggested—was impossible, as I refused to set foot in the library.
I thought my refusal made perfect sense. Although I had practically lived at the library during my years at UCLA, I now had ample reason to avoid Stanford University’s library system—ample being the operative word. Truth be told, I was embarrassed. Embarrassed to walk into the hushed, red-carpeted lobby of Cecil H. Green Library; embarrassed to squeeze through the narrow stacks; embarrassed to be seen on a college campus at all, with my belly preceding me by a good foot or so and my belly button poking through the fabric of the dowdy maternity tops like a plastic timer on a store-bought turkey. I had gone and gotten myself knocked up, and now that the evidence was in full view—well, that was pretty much it for my life as an academic.
The problem was this: when the fellowship was awarded, I was pregnant but not yet showing, skinny and smart, the darling of the Comparative Literature Department, an exemplary student without a single incomplete, a teaching assistant universally acknowledged by the comp lit faculty to be one of the finest in recent memory, admired by (most) fellow grad students, beloved by (most) undergrads, a recent Russian emigre whose dissertation—on displacement and semantic instability in the works of Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov, themselves expats and emigres—promised to make of her own exile a thing of beauty. I was on the fast track to academic superstardom, a wunderkind, the student our chair liked to point to when asked about time-to-degree and other ticklish questions by prospective applicants. Now, however, I had grown big with child and become exiled—forever, it seemed—from the ranks of literary and literate anorexics to which I desperately wanted to belong. Without meaning to, I had internalized the unwritten rules of graduate school: academics, women in particular, were meant to lead a life of the mind. A life of the flesh, if it existed, was to be conducted elsewhere, coyly, discreetly. Excess in the form of eccentric clothing choices and unusual facial piercings—fabulous; fleshly excess, not so much. Fat people were lazy and stupid; everyone knew this, even if nobody said so. My dissertation advisor was serenely chic and rail thin; so was Ruth Yeazell, who taught the Virginia Woolf seminar; so was Virginia Woolf; so were Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jane Austen. Toni Morrison was a notable exception, but as an African American woman, she probably had better things to worry about. Plus, she had won the Pulitzer and the Nobel. She had published with steady regularity. Hers was clearly a life of the mind.
Mine, meanwhile, was fast becoming a life of the body. At barely five foot one, I was quite literally subsumed by my pregnancy. My new shape— all belly and breasts—began to attract attention from relatives, friends, acquaintances, strangers in the supermarket. Only recently, it seemed, I was in Kathy Komar’s feminist theory seminar, discussing with gusto (and thinly veiled schadenfreude) ways in which the female body, in literature as in life, was objectified, fetishized, commodified, subjugated by the patriarchal gaze, and now it was happening to me. I became the object of other narratives—of conjecture, jokes, criticism, unwanted confidences, unsolicited advice. People I didn’t know—or certainly didn’t know well enough—asked me how much weight I had gained, remarked on my size and shape (too big, too pointy, too round, about to burst), told me not to lift heavy grocery bags, swim, take hot showers, eat sweets, bend to the side, walk too fast or too far. Get as much sleep as possible now, they said. You’re not getting any when the baby comes, that’s for sure. Oh, and sex too, ha ha. And finish your dissertation, finish it now. Because after you have that baby, it’s all over. Your life will never be the same again.
I scoffed. It was painfully obvious that David and I were not like the pathetic people who pressed their advice upon us. We had advanced degrees; we had worked as summer camp counselors. Surely we would manage to lead fulfilled lives, pursuing our own interests while nurturing and molding our little one; surely we could get our child to sleep through the night. How hard could it be, for crying out loud? Everyone knew that babies slept eighteen hours a day (didn’t we see that in a book somewhere?). And anyway, Jordan was going to be exceptional. He would grow up reading Pat the Bunny and Pushkin, speaking two languages (maybe three) with fluency and aplomb, quoting Shakespeare from memory. He would go to Harvard, or in the worst-case scenario, Princeton or Stanford or Yale. Of course it would be tough going for a few days after he was born, but then we would settle into a domestic routine in which David went off to the hospital while I, cooing baby serenely cradled against my breast, completed my dissertation and ultimately landed a plum tenure-track job somewhere in the Bay Area.
Our learning curve after we brought Jordan home was steep. We learned, among other things, that newborns never sleep and that it is impossible to write a dissertation (or anything else, up to and including a grocery list) with a newborn baby in the house. David and I spent the first three or four months of Jordan’s life dazed, living from crisis to crisis. Everything leaked—diapers, breast milk, spit up, tears. I cried nonstop, because on some days my crowning achievement was a shower by 4 p. m., because there were no adults to talk to, because I was still fat and clearly getting stupider with each passing day, because I was never going to finish my dissertation, never, never, never.
We tried a nanny, Lena, who had recently arrived from St. Petersburg and was available Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday mornings (cash only, please). The arrangement was doomed from the very beginning. In our 800-square-foot duplex, I could hear every sound she and Jordan made as she gurgled to him in Russian (one of her selling points) and I stared idly at a blank computer screen, overwhelmed by guilt and inertia. The dissertation was going nowhere fast. Like Jordan’s birthing process, it, and I, seemed to be suffering from a failure to progress. I also—overnight, it seemed—acquired what Henry James called “an imagination of disaster.” Lena would take Jordan for a stroller walk and I would envision scenarios in which she tripped and spilled him out on the sidewalk, or he was abducted, or she dropped dead from a heart attack in the middle of the street, leaving him alone and helpless. I could see the police reports: “Abandoned infant placed in protective custody after nanny drops dead; police officers located the mother banging her head against a blank computer screen. The distraught woman assured the officers that she was ‘planning to become a good mother as soon as this damn thing was finished.’” What I couldn’t see—at all—was how I could care adequately for a child and at the same time produce intelligible, let alone intelligent, prose. The mind-numbing routine of feedings and diaper-changing and stroller walks and bath time and nap time and story time had done just that—numbed my mind. I could not for the life of me write without obsessing about not taking care of the baby; nor could I take care of the baby without obsessing about not writing. I felt like I had discovered nuclear fission: hey, combining a baby and work is really hard!
For all her good intentions, Lena was not helping much, which was probably my fault rather than hers. Plus, she had opinions and ideas, some of which, to put it charitably, were a little eccentric. She bundled Jordan in so many layers when they went out that it looked like they were setting off for the North Pole. Every time Jordan fussed, she claimed his stomach was bothering him. One day, she noted in passing that he never looked straight at her. “I try and try to catch his eye,” she said, “and he just looks straight through me, like I’m not even there. Or he looks away. Have you had his vision checked?”
We had not had his vision checked. David was on call every third night, and his pager beeped incessantly even when he wasn’t. Neither of us had had a full night’s sleep for months. We were subsisting on frozen dinners and cheap takeout and having screaming fights four to five times a week. Did I mention that we were young and had had very little experience with infants? That none of our friends had yet gotten around to having children of their own, so we had no peer group, no point of comparison? That it seemed like we would never again lead a normal life?
At his wit’s end, David floated the idea of placing Jordan in part-time day care, provoking our most spectacular screaming match to date. “Why even have children,” I sobbed at the kitchen table, “if you’re just going to let them be raised by other people?”
David’s suggestion—“so you could finish your dissertation and move on with your life”—set off another explosion (you don’t respect me now that I’m a stay-at-home mom, etc.). And on it went.
Gradually, grudgingly, I had to admit that David was right. We let Lena go and found a spot at Stanford’s day-care center, where a meticulous Frenchwoman named Yvet presided beneficently over Jordan and five of his colleagues. And it turned out that Virginia Woolf was right: all I needed, really, was a room of my own. I would drop off Jordan, come home, barricade myself behind stacks of books, and write, and write, and write. I lived on a steady diet of coffee and Hershey’s miniatures left over from Halloween (oddly, that and the intellectual exertion seemed to do the trick that diet and exercise could not), and as I grew slimmer, the dissertation took on shape and heft. And then it was done—done!—all 283 pages of it, not including the acknowledgments, where I thanked my parents, who had brought me to America, and David, who had brought America to me, and mentioned what a delight it was to watch Jordan grow and learn as I wrote the dissertation.
That last part was not, technically, accurate, but it seemed important to link bringing Jordan and the dissertation into the world at roughly the same time. It was a fitting end to the “How Motherhood Did Not Stop Me from Leading a Life of the Mind” narrative I had envisioned. I had finished the dissertation against long odds; that spring, I landed a parttime humanities lectureship at Stanford. I had it all: a flat belly, a baby, and a life of the mind.
But that was not the end of it at all, because while I had been blithely writing about ways in which exile impelled story making and artistic experimentation in the lives and novels of James and Nabokov, another narrative was unfolding right under our noses. It was marked by a persistent unease, a nagging sense of something out of place, something missing. It developed slowly at first, then faster and faster, with the inexorability of a train picking up speed on a downward slope. It came down to this: we were not having much fun with Jordan.
At first we thought it was us—cerebral, neurotic, overeducated parents. We would go out on date night and end up in a bookstore, in the child – development section, browsing through books with titles like Your Fun Toddler and Games Babies Play. But somehow the rousing game of peek-a – boo that was a hit with the random toddler at the supermarket left Jordan cold. While other children in his day care squealed with delight when David or I walked in, Jordan remained unmoved. And he wasn’t talking—repeating, yes, but not generating words or stringing them together in meaningful, creative ways. So we would have maddening conversations along the following lines:
“Do you want a waffle?”
“Do you want a waffle?”
And so on. At first it was funny. Then other children in his day care began to put two, three, four words together, and then, seemingly overnight, speak in sentences. Jordan, meanwhile, ran in circles around the playground, head tilted to one side, gaze trained on the ground. Or he would open and close doors—cabinet doors, bathroom doors, oven doors, microwave doors—or he would lie on the floor with a toy truck and watch the wheels go round and round. At first we found explanations: he was working on his gross motor skills; he was testing out cause and effect; he was befuddled by the combination of Russian and English he heard every day.
But then he turned two, and he still wasn’t talking, or holding a crayon, or calling us “Mommy” or “Daddy,” and one day one of his preschool teachers cautiously mentioned the phrase “developmental delay.” So we took him to a developmental specialist, who told us what we already knew, but with numbers and percentiles attached: that he showed a significant delay in expressive and receptive language ability without an attempt to compensate through gesture or other nonverbal communication; impaired eye contact; lack of imaginative play; delayed fine motor skills. The office was sunny and spacious, as offices where bad news is delivered often are. Jordan met eight of the ten major criteria for autism. He would, in all likelihood, eventually acquire language, although it was too early to tell if he would ever use it in a meaningful way. We got a long list of speech therapists, occupational therapists, behavioral therapists, parent support groups (everything, David said later, except for some good tips about how to commit suicide) and went outside, into the bright May morning. Jordan was two years and seven months old.
All at once, the things I had prized as a graduate student (aside from a low body mass index)—indeterminacy, ambiguity, open-endedness—receded, and I wanted clarity and closure. How autistic was Jordan? Was autism permanent? Would he ever be normal? Would he ever have meaningful speech? Would he go to kindergarten, to college, to the bathroom unattended? Would he fall in love? Would he ever love us? Would he ever hug us spontaneously, without one of us holding his hands together behind the neck of the other?
Clearly, the earthquake accompanying Jordan’s conception, the very one that knocked our books into a jumbled heap on the floor, had been trying to tell us something. Having children was unpredictable, messy, and dangerous. Unlike books, children did not come with informative labels— “This One Will Break Your Heart”; “This One Will Cry for Three Months Straight When You Bring Her Home”; “This One Will Steal Candy from 7-11”; “This One Will Be Funny, Engaging, Smart, and Beloved by All until He’s Killed by a Drunk Driver at Seventeen.” We were on our own with this one. As David put it, “It’s like all the other parents got on the fun train to Disneyland and here we are at the station.”
“Kicked off at Bakersfield is more like it,” I said.
We went to Lane Medical Library and checked out all the books on Applied Behavioral Analysis, the only approach to teaching autistic children that had shown consistent and validated results. At its core, this was operant conditioning, a way of breaking any task, no matter how complex, into small, manageable steps, and rewarding successful completion of each step with praise (which was secondary to the autistic child) and the much more motivating “reinforcers” (Cheerios, M&Ms, pretzels, dime-store toys, etc.). Apparently, anything could be taught this way, from tying shoelaces to imaginative play (“Move the truck forward. Now say ‘vroom.’ Great job. Have a Cheerio!”).
A lifetime ago, it seemed, I had debated with undergrads if Aristotle was on to something in Ethics, if virtue really could be acquired through mechanical repetition of virtuous acts. We were about to find out. We bought a small table and two tiny yellow chairs at a school supply store and got to work—an hour in the early morning, an hour in the evening, and lots of what the books called “incidental teaching” in between. My life, like Humbert’s in Nabokov’s Lolita, became “monstrously two-fold.” By day, I taught precocious first-year students at Stanford; by night, I was a behav – iorist to a recalcitrant two-year-old who didn’t talk, deliberately avoided eye contact, and arched his back when I tried to hold him. Unlike my Stanford students, however, Jordan was not argumentative. He sat in his little yellow chair, his feet not touching the floor, and (for the most part) did what we asked of him. “Touch blue,” we would say, and he would, and we would feed him a Cheerio and say “Good job!” and repeat the whole process and then switch to expressive language and then to fine motor skills and then play skills and then repeat the whole thing all over again the next morning. Ten attempts in every drill, with 80 percent mastery the goal (since no self-respecting two-year-old, normal or not, would ever comply with a request ten out of ten times), until he achieved consistent mastery of a task regardless of prompter or setting. It was a tedious, repetitive, and frustrating process; it felt completely counterintuitive.
But it worked. Within three months, Jordan had gained close to a year across all domains—language, cognition, motor skills, play skills—and within a year, it was difficult to distinguish him in a roomful of kids in nursery school. While we were nowhere near finished with the project David had taken to calling “making Jordan into a human being,” Jordan was, with lots of help from us and hordes of professionals and paraprofessionals, catching up and blending in. So is this, then, the happy ending? Yes and no. In fact, there is no ending, and that, kind of, is the whole point.
Jordan is twelve now. He just started middle school, where he’s on the cross-country team. He swims competitively. He has friends—not many, but enough. He makes consistent eye contact; he tries to tell jokes (with mixed success) and laughs in the right places; he rides his bike to school; he makes a passable peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and knows how to microwave a frozen burrito. He also throws gargantuan tantrums, often for no reason, which involve flying barstools, broken pencils, and high decibels. He has comprehension, processing, and behavioral problems, which is why he is in a social-cognitive class with what he calls “a bunch of freaking weirdos.” To compound the irony further, he wants more than anything to be like everyone else. All this calls to mind the accusation Caliban hurls at Prospero in The Tempest: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse.” We did try to teach him not only language, but also—broken down into component parts, reinforced by pretzels and Cheerios—what it is to be human. But how do you teach reciprocity, imagination, kindness, humor, tenderness, spontaneity? To a small degree, Jordan possesses all of these; they are poor and paltry things, but they are his—taught to him and perceived by him as a second language, with an alien vocabulary and grammar. He may become fluent one day, or he may not.
This is supposed to be the part where I talk about how much we learned, how we revised our assumptions and expectations, how humbled we were by having a special-needs child, how we realized what was truly important—or, alternatively, how Jordan was miraculously cured, how we got on that train to Disneyland with the other parents after all. We’re south of Bakersfield, but certainly not at Anaheim; Jordan has good days and bad days, and David and I occasionally fantasize about sending him to boarding school, where he can tantrum at leisure about math problems that don’t work out or recalcitrant Ziploc bags. So here, instead, is a partial list of all the things I got as a result of giving birth to a dissertation and an autistic child in the same year. They are, in no particular order: a no longer quite concave belly-button; a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of Applied Behavioral Analysis, speech acquisition, and play therapy; a deeper appreciation of cosmic irony and Aristotle’s Ethics; an ability to quote from memory from most of James’s and Nabokov’s canonical works; unexpected insights into The Tempest and Frankenstein; a series of part-time, dead-end academic lectureships that fit into Jordan’s school and therapy schedule; and a newfound sympathy for my graduate school colleagues who took incompletes rather than finishing seminar papers—even toward those who couldn’t get their act together and received threatening “failure to progress toward degree” letters from the Graduate Division. I know all about failure to progress now—the kind that no amount of pushing can overcome, and the kind that imperceptibly, painfully inches forward. For that reason I prefer to think of Jordan—and of my patched-together, part-time academic life—as an outstanding incomplete, not a lapsed one—a work in progress, in fact.