I don’t want to alarm you, but if there is something you have thought about doing, whether you thought you should do it or that you might like to do it or that maybe it wouldn’t hurt to do it, if it involved moving through space across a vast distance or even a relatively short distance but one that lay outside the walls of your house, if it involved speaking to, touching or spending any length of time with someone, or touching with a bare hand something that another person may have touched, also with a bare hand, or else breathed on, or sitting in relatively close proximity to other persons while indoors and maybe even eating something while you sat in those crowded surrounds, or being in the vicinity of persons who demonstrate a clear preference for speaking in raised voices or, god forbid, shouting, then probably it would be sensible to defer that desire for now.
It might help to think of this deferral as delayed gratification. There are many ways to spend a life. Right now, most of those ways could hasten the end of it.
I birthed a baby just before all this began. We are still getting to know each other. At first he mostly fed and, between feeds, whenever I lay him on the bed and set about changing him, while he waved the little fists that he didn’t know were his, the waving of which he didn’t realise he was controlling, he would tuck his chin into the two rolls of fat that lay directly below it, regard me with his slightly cross-eyed gaze, and frown. Nowadays he still frowns at me, but no longer in that sceptical way, which I take to mean we have made some progress.
When it became clear that the once-localised event was now a global showstopper, and people in the city started coming down with symptoms or remaining symptom-free but passing on whatever it was to individuals who presented with symptoms and sometimes died, I was on leave. By ‘on leave’ I mean not teaching the twelve-week semester that I usually taught at that time of year.
Instead, I was learning that I should never interrupt my baby when he was gazing at the flickering light and leaf shadows on the wall unless I wanted him to scream and plank and turn red, or that to him the calls made by magpies and wattle birds were endlessly fascinating but those of lorikeets, not at all, or that if I wanted to slip his arms one by one into the sleeves of his jumpsuit then I should endeavour to do so without grasping his fists because such would be a grave, grave affront to his sense of autonomy, or that I could make him laugh when he was gazing at the wall clock by clicking my tongue in time with the second hand, or that to be on the receiving end of a raspberry blown at a particular pitch and force can mean to understand that you have just been unequivocally insulted. In the final month of the semester that I had opted not to teach because I was otherwise occupied with all this extracurricular learning, the order came down at the university that there would be no new contracts signed, and by ‘new contracts’ they meant half the teaching staff, since they declined to employ us on anything but a sessional basis. This was how I learned that even though I had been signing new contracts, one after the other, since my early twenties, I was no longer on a kind of parental leave, but out of work.
I conferred with my baby about this bit of news. He frowned at me in a way that was less No doubt you’ll think of something, more But I thought you said you got this. When he nodded off shortly thereafter, I placed him in the bassinet. He turned his head to the side and, after a few seconds of stillness, his lips and chin started to move as he drew dream milk from a dream nip.
While he napped I took the opportunity to lanolise a wool nappy cover, a method that combined ingredients and steps including a pea-sized ball of pure lanolin, an enzyme-free wash, an emulsification technique that required a swirling motion, some soaking, some gentle squeezing, and a towel for rolling out excess liquid – all told, probably the most meditative of the new things I’d learned, and it was no coincidence that, of the many pressing tasks I could have attempted while my baby took a twenty-minute timeout to process his new status as the child of an unemployed parent, I chose this one, because I needed to think.
The weight of the wet merino, its animal scent, and the feel of its soft, waterlogged fibres drew my focus. In other words, I thought of nothing. Yet once I had lain the cover flat in the shade of the balcony, I felt calmer. Everything would be okay. Parents were responsible adults; I was evidently a parent. I was feeling more able to face the world, and my predicament, already. And by ‘face’ the world of course I did not mean face it, or not without a mask. No sooner had I stepped back inside than the lion cub let out a sudden, forceful roar that communicated IN CASE YOU DIDN’T NOTICE, I’M AWAAAKE!
He was frowning at the ceiling but soon swivelled his head and arched his neck to direct that frown at me, following me with his frowning gaze as I walked around the top of the bassinet and leaned over, reaching for him. I tried to imagine being so small that anybody at all could pick me up and take me wherever I did or did not want to go, and how I would never know which it would be, would find it impossible to guess where my luck would fall at any given moment or whether I could trust the adult person to transport me without, say, accidentally knocking my head against a doorjamb.
When the squirmy weight of him was in my arms, he started nudging my collarbone with his face. His back warm, the top of his head soft with downy hair and also warm in the way sleep makes us warm, he kept nuzzling as I carried him to the couch. I lowered my body into it, making sure to aim in such a way that a waiting pillow caught me in the small of my back. Then I stuck my feet on a chair and let him feed.
You might already know that there are two kinds of jobs in the world: those that a breastfeeding parent can do and those that a breastfeeding parent cannot. I thought about the hours a day I spent right here, in this position on the couch, drowsy from the cholecystokinin that my baby’s suckling released in me, and how most paying jobs, before we global citizens came to be in the situation that we were in, would not have been possible for me to do, not at all.
Previously, paying jobs that fell into the category of jobs a breastfeeding parent cannot do took place in a location that was not the home, and you did that job in the company of many other adult persons rather than by yourself. Maybe those other adult persons around you were also working, for example seated on either side of flimsy dividers. Or maybe those other adult persons around you were not also working, for example seated at tables that they were constantly calling you over to attend but who nevertheless let you know their needs by voicing them in words and whose needs were not even all that demanding, like Can I have the beetroot risotto? or Would you mind clearing this?
All this involved much sitting and fetching, and my mind goes to those particular categories of paying jobs because right now my non-paying job superficially involves both activities in a turbo-charged, back-to-back-shifts kind of way. But the point is that nowadays, to consider only the examples I have mentioned, all those adult persons who every weekday travelled to their workplace to work in each other’s company while seated were now scattered across the city in their own home spaces, still seated but in chairs that were positioned a great distance apart and with very many actual walls between them, and those who worked at their workplace in each other’s company while fetching were now at home too, and seated too, off their feet at last, but out of work.
My baby detached, stretched a tiny fist above his head, and arched backward until I had removed my arms from their position around him and he was lying independently across my thighs. He looked up at me and smiled, his little tongue moving about. His tongue was probably his most expressive feature. It rarely left his mouth but his mouth was often open and I could see it dancing around in there, pointing and flattening and holding still, always adding nuance to whatever the rest of his face was saying.
I still had my feet on the chair and was slumped low in the couch, so there was not a lot of distance between our faces. He was a reptile much of time but a mammal just after a feed, it was the best part of our day together. He angled his head over the edge of my thigh and hung there looking at the upside-down room. Then he wriggled the opposite way, gradually sliding more of himself onto the couch, looking around and making little mm-mm noises. Finally, he locked eyes with me once more and grinned before turning away. His eyes glazed, and the encounter was over. If I had to guess I would say he was conserving energy for the many indignities of existence that assaulted his person, and above all for those instances where tolerance was out of the question and he was duty-bound to make it known how utterly, mind-bendingly furious he was.
I scooped him upright and stood to take him on a tour of the flat. He rested his chin on my left shoulder and from that position regarded the world. Some of my shirt was bunched in his fist, and he was sucking hard on a lock of my hair, to help him feel safe, I guessed, amid all this outrageous variation in shape and colour and texture, not to mention the tricksy glints of light that were suddenly blinding and just as suddenly gone. Leaf shadows on one small section of the wall, but only unfathomable shape and movement when you don’t know ‘leaf’, when you don’t know ‘shadow’, and so you keep staring and suck harder.
As I made a slow circuit of the living room, my thoughts turned to the many adult persons who right now were seated at home working, probably some of them in this building and the next, maybe through the glass on the other side of those balconies visible from here. (A pigeon on the balustrade of one; towel hanging from twine strung across another.) The labour my neighbours were providing for employers who were paying them to provide it was happening at a great distance from their co-workers, including their team leaders and managers and bosses.
My labour of nourishing a small but demanding creature who to all appearances I was doing a commendable job of keeping alive was happening at a similar distance from my neighbours’ co-workers, a point of comparison I made because, unlike them, I had no co-workers of my own, providing my labour as I was without the windfall of an employer who would pay me to provide it. But if I did have co-workers, I would likely be working a distance from them too, and this was an interesting detail to consider.
As I headed towards the bedroom, mentally I pushed through the cottonwool of sleep deprivation to consider the implications of these new and widespread working arrangements. They meant: workplace relations were now fostered over web conferencing platforms. They meant: deliverables were not only worked on remotely, untethered from the usual dependants-hostile space, but were also to some extent untethered from time, contingent on how much your boss needed to know. (Could work now be carried out in the evening? What about during naps?) And, they meant: certain, unusual qualities such as staying motivated while in confinement, or being mentally resilient while in confinement, or having the wherewithal to focus while in confinement, or remaining sane while estranged from interaction with fellow adult persons, to mention only a few of those certain, unusual qualities, had become highly sought after. Since starting my present, non-paying job, these were qualities I’d had abundant opportunity to cultivate. In other words: in terms of employability, and even when considering the fierce competition engendered by the twin pressures of rising unemployment and a contracting job market, this breastfeeding parent, in a complete reversal of fortunes, was now kind of a catch.
My baby started fussing at the bare walls monotone carpet plain sheets, so I carried him out of the bedroom. The dim recess where the door to the building stairwell was situated, the one part of the flat where the light washing through the windows barely reached, was just about the saddest thing I’d seen. I remembered the first month after he was born, the sound of the door scraping open and its dull thud and click shut, the people who came through it, the jars of nuts and the breastfeeding cookies and the hand-me-down pram and the tiny clothes on loan and everything else they came bearing, but especially the time I didn’t hear the scrape thud click and a friend appeared in the living room as if by magic or teleport, smiling at the fact that we were eating lunch and there was a single slice of bread remaining on the table. Here he was, joining us, a warm loaf in his hands.
He took a seat and delayed eating until he was sure we’d had our fill, telling us he had been at the bakery talking to a friend who bakes and had looked at the loaves and clocked how close our place was, and how new our baby was, and how soon his trip to the other side of the country was, and before he could buy a loaf his friend who bakes had pressed one into his hands, giving him the pretext or maybe talisman to get him from there to here, and he had come cradling that talisman and had set it gently on the table, gifting us the gift that had been gifted to him.
He peered into the bassinet and looked at our baby’s sleeping face and said yes like he was recalling his fifteen-month-old when she was newly born. We told him that we wanted to be around for this, that we’d scrapped our life-shall-continue-unchanged plans and were figuring out how little we could work so that we could be around for this, and he smiled and nodded and laughed gently, basking in the this with us. We talked about making art, and about community, about gifted bread, about Boyer’s take on Epictetus, the sitting at the dinner table and choosing a small portion of any dish that happened to come by, limiting your wants to these available things, a piece of furniture on the kerb, for example, which was there for the taking and so was something you could accept or refuse, and it all felt suddenly possible, somehow, it could all work out, we would make our needs modest enough that we could experience every moment of this, together we’d work it out.
Now, as my baby fussed some more, I tried humming in his ear. I tried swaying. I tried placing him on his stomach across my forearm.
Maybe you already know that working minimally feels feasible when there is work, when you have, or can return to, a paid job, when you are fairly confident that, frightening though the thought might be, if you lost your paid job you could find another.
I hummed some more as I thought about the many points of contact in that single visit: our friend, his friend who bakes, the bread carried by our friend, his interstate trip. These points of contact were the junctures of connections and those connections bound us, in our flat, to people known and unknown, because back then there had been invisible tethers crisscrossing the city and country, keeping us held, even in our self-imposed new baby seclusion.
My baby wasn’t having a bar of my humming.