Tallulah fails to welcome her new sibling.

Tallulah fails to welcome her new sibling.

Tallulah fails to welcome her new sibling.

Notes on fatherhood.
April 22 2002 5:23 PM

Sister Trouble

Tallulah fails to welcome her new sibling.

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The last place to recover from what they do to you in a hospital is a hospital. When Tabitha staggered down the hall from her delivery room to her recovery room, she left a place where people had cared for her so well that it brought tears to my eyes, and entered a place where she was a nuisance. You might think that people who work in hospital maternity wards have some special feeling for new mothers. You'd be wrong. Some of them enter the spirit of the occasion, and a few do it with obvious pleasure. But an astonishing number seem to resent any woman who has had the nerve to reproduce. To ensure that she thinks twice before she does it again, they bang bedpans against her door every 20 minutes, holler down the halls all hours of the night, ignore all her gentle requests, and, in general, exude the warmth and charm of an old Soviet border guard. "Oh, great, another fucking baby," I half-expected a few of them to say as they breathed their heavy sighs over my wife's pale, spent body. For all I know, this is sound hospital strategy. Certainly, the atmosphere in the recovery ward discourages anyone from staying longer than necessary. The patient remains on the premises just long enough for the hospital to collect the data it needs to prove to the courts that it didn't kill her. 

Anyway, the last time around there was no question about what I would do after our child was born: I'd curl up in a little ball in the chair beside my wife's hospital bed, protect her from the hospital staff, and pop down to the nursery every half-hour or so to make sure that Tallulah hadn't been sold on the black market. This time is different. This time I'm free to go; indeed, it is my duty to go. By default, I'm now in charge of family harmony. Which is to say, I'm supposed to fetch Tallulah from home, bring her to the hospital, and prove to her that her life, as promised, is now better than ever.

When baby-to-be Dixie was easier to love
When baby-to-be Dixie was easier to love

The past few months Tabitha ginned up what we both imagined a ruthlessly effective propaganda campaign to brainwash our 2-and-a-half-year-old into thinking that the arrival of Dixie, and the subsequent collapse in her share of parental attention, was actually in her interest. Out went Dr. Seuss and in came I'm a Big Sister! and Hush, Don't Wake the Baby. Each night Tallulah laid her head on her mother's swelling belly and engaged her imaginary sibling in loving conversation. A few weeks back, I even drove her over to the hospital, walked her through a play–by-play of the birth, and, to encourage her to think of this as a win-win situation, bought her a chocolate doughnut from the hospital vending machine.  

When I got home from the hospital, I found Tallulah as delighted as ever with life. "Daddy!" she cried as she freed herself from the baby sitter and threw herself into my arms. Then it dawned on her something was missing. "Where's Mama?" she asked.

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"Mama had the baby!" I said. "A baby girl! You're a big sister!"

"But where is Mama?" She was no longer a happy, loving child. She was a personal injury lawyer taking a deposition.

"In the hospital! With Dixie!"

"I want my family back," she said.

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"But now you have even more family. We have Dixie, too."

"I hate Dixie," she said. Then she howled and bared her teeth.

Registering protest
Registering protest

It was an unpromising start. In this situation an unprepared father, a father who hadn't done his homework, might say something foolish. He might say, for instance, "That's not a nice thing to say," or "Of course you don't hate Dixie. You love Dixie. She's your sister." But I'd read the parenting texts, or at any rate the passages Tabitha highlighted and dropped in my inbox. I'd listened intently to the many reports Tabitha brought back from the parenting classes she attended every week. I'd taken note of the instructional parenting cartoon Tabitha glued to our refrigerator. I understood that my job was no longer to force the party line upon Tallulah. My job was to validate her feelings.

"You hate Dixie because you're afraid she's taken Mama away," I said.

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"Yes," she said.

"Yes," I repeated. And then … I was stumped. I couldn't think of what to say next. All I could think was: Of course you hate Dixie. She has taken Mama away. I'd hate her, too, if I were you. Truth is, a tiny part of me was proud that she saw the situation for what it was, a violation of her property rights. It boded well for her future in the free market.

The parenting books don't tell you where to go when your first move doesn't lead to psychological checkmate. The only thing I had going for me was the toddler's indifference to logic.

"So you want to go see Dixie?" I said.

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"To the hospital?"

"To the hospital."

She thought about this. "Can I have a chocolate doughnut?" she asked.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls
Ask not for whom the bell tolls

The hospital visit went well enough. The doughnut purchased the hour needed to initiate the first of the peace talks. But that night, when I put Tallulah to bed, something was not quite right. First, she insisted that I lay her head at the foot of her bed and her foot at the head. Then she demanded three books and two stories instead of her usual two and one. Finally, as I switched off her light, she said, "In fact, you forgot to give me a kiss." I gave her a kiss. "A kiss doesn't make all the angry go away," she said. And then: "Good night, Daddy" in a voice I'd never before heard. A chillingly adult-sounding voice.

An hour later there came from her room a sudden noise. She was still awake, fiddling furiously with something on her floor. It was a book of family photos, given to her by her grandmother, which had given her a year of pleasure. She'd yanked it to pieces and scattered them across the room.