Three years ago I started a Wordpress blog that would eventually evolve into this Building the Builders newsletter, and I titled my inaugural post All for Alice. It was written 10 days after the birth of my first child, and it explained how it was that she’d inspired me to start the blog—an aspiration that had stagnated for many years while I focused on climbing (or at least not getting hurled off of) the academic ladder.
This post is a kind of meditative sequel to that first, occasioned by the birth of my 2nd child, Adam, 10 days ago. It is a musing on what my new baby and his symbolic namesake mean to me.
Naming him “Adam”
The name Adam was originally my husband’s idea. He liked how it sounded, the fact that it’s near-ubiquitous across cultures without being particularly common in any of them, and, of course, the fact that it connotes partaking in the tree of knowledge of good and evil:
Although I held out in my indecision for as long as I could, the suggestion kept growing on me the longer I sat with it. What could be more fitting for me, a hardened atheist and devout nurturer of humans who build, than to name my child after that rogue “first man”—the ostracized bringer of knowledge and its enticing fruits to humankind? What Adam is scorned for doing and being, on the conventional account of divinity, is to my mind the most divine of human qualities, if by “divine” we mean “that which is best and highest”: that irrepressible capacity within us to probe nature’s secrets, disrupt its entropic status quo, and reap ever new life-sustaining fruits from its indifferent soil.
And so I’ve jumped on the opportunity to reclaim the story of Adam’s creation for myself, imbuing it with my own understanding and reverence for what makes him and his human descendants divine.
My conversation with the sonographer
Thanks to the inauspicious combination of my “advanced maternal age” and my gestational diabetes, I got to enjoy twice-monthly visits to a “high-risk” maternal fetal medicine clinic throughout my third trimester of pregnancy with Adam. Every visit started with a fairly elaborate sonogram to check how Adam was doing in there: was he growing at the expected rate, was he doing his practice breathing, did he still have all 4 chambers of his heart… wait, what? When I noticed the sonographer typing what I naively took to be this last (“4Ch”) on the screen, I couldn’t help but inquire—in what I can only imagine was that same “aggressively naive layperson” manner in which people ask me if I’ve seen X or Y strange behavior in my therapy clients: does she ever see less than 4 chambers?
Courteously sidestepping the fact that “4Ch” refers to a particular view on the ultrasound, not a “finding” about my fetus, the sonographer answered sincerely and without condescension: “Yes, that’s rare but it happens, and it’s a very bad thing when it does.”
“What’s the prognosis in that kind of case?” I asked almost in spite of myself, knowing there was no practical benefit and quite possibly a real emotional cost to learning the answer.
“It used to be a death sentence,” she replied, “but now there are surgical interventions that can repair it, if we catch it early enough to send you for delivery at a specialty center.” Then we went on to talk about the various alarming fetal abnormalities that show up on ultrasound even in these late stages of pregnancy, and how many of them were death sentences even as few as 10-20 years ago, but are now routinely treated without long-term complications. “My friends often say to me, ‘you must see so many sad things in your job!’” she said, mimicking their sympathetic tones. “But I tell them, no, I get to be the one who catches these things so then people can get the care they need.”
Indeed, when I think back on the many childbirth-related horror stories I’ve heard from friends over the years, I’m hard-pressed to think of one that didn’t ultimately have a favorable outcome for both mother and child. Obviously there are still tragic exceptions, but the point is that they’re just that: tragic exceptions, rather than the rule of life that they had been for most of human history. Quoting Our World in Data: “Before the Modern Revolution child mortality was very high in all societies that we have knowledge of – a quarter of all children died in the first year of life, almost half died before reaching the end of puberty.” Yes, do a double-take on that last bit, because I certainly did; almost half of all people born in the world used to die before reaching adulthood. Cf. my point about death being the default.
It is not by the grace of God that the vast majority of us, and our children, can now take for granted the luxury of surviving to adulthood. It is by the grace of the rogue, Adam-esque men and women who spent long nights in their labs, defied the established medical norms within their fields, and staked their reputations and livelihoods on the promise of experimental new medical technologies. It is, for instance, by the grace of bold upstarts like Dr. Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas, who together performed the first-ever heart surgery on a 15-month-old infant with “blue baby syndrome,” thereby laying the groundwork for all modern heart surgery. Blalock, now widely renowned as the “father of modern cardiac surgery,” started out as a middling student in medical school and a notorious “ladies man,” failing to secure a surgical residency at his own alma mater due to his mediocre academic record—and needed the challenge and excitement of a completely uncharted medical frontier to elevate him to excellence. Thomas was a Black man with no formal medical education, working alongside Blalock under the official title and salary of “janitor”—and indispensably contributing to a revolution in cardiac medicine. And then there was their successor, Dr. Benton Cooley, known for implanting the first-ever fully artificial heart; a highly controversial act at the time, which sparked a 40-year feud with one of his venerated mentors and forced him to resign from his academic post. The spirit of Adam burned strong in each of these rogue pioneers, as I can only hope it will burn strong in my newborn son.
Embracing the pains of childbirth: How the spirit of Adam (and Carly Simon) got me through
Fittingly enough, it’s also the rogue pioneers of modern medicine who have relieved many of us of the worst “pains of childbirth” to which God allegedly condemned us as punishment for Adam and Eve’s transgression. One of the biggest forms of relief they’ve provided us is the epidural: a wondrously safe and effective local anesthetic without which I couldn’t even imagine having survived my first pregnancy. As such, my messaging to every medical provider I encountered throughout my 38 weeks of pregnancy with Adam centered on one point: I will be wanting an epidural, and I will be wanting it as early in my laboring process as medically and legally possible. That’s it, that’s my only ask. Whatever I need to do, however early I need to arrive, whatever paperwork I need to sign, please just get me my epidural.
Well, guess what the sluggish hospital bureaucracy failed to furnish in the precipitous hour-and-10-minutes it took from when I arrived at the hospital to when I pushed Adam out into the world? A freaking epidural. Perhaps God figured he’d have to pull all the stops if he was to intercept my plan of rewriting his “original sin” narrative of Adam’s creation. Only his revenge backfired: far from feeling punished by the pain I’d been so hellbent on avoiding for so long, I felt in it all the fierce innocence and healthy strength of an organism fighting the primordial battle for life in defiance of entropy. This wasn’t how it stood in my head at the time, of course; I was far too busy trying to breathe through excruciating contractions that seemed to be chaining together in an endless escalation of pain, rather than coming and going like they were supposed to. But I did have a familiar song playing on repeat in my head, from the moment it had spontaneously occurred to me as I was Ubering to the hospital (my husband had to drop off Alice at our friends’ house first, and I had a pretty good sense that things would be moving fast at this point) to that singular moment when a wrigley, slimy Adam burst out of me and got plopped onto my chest. The song was Carly Simon’s Let the River Run—the version that plays over the moving panorama of Manhattan’s skyline at the beginning and end of Working Girl—and it turned out to be just the emotional IV drip I needed, in lieu of an epidural.
As an aside, it now occurs to me that this hymn to New York City and its particular brand of dreamers—”the great and small” who “blaze a trail of desire / Through the dark'ning dawn”—was a particularly fitting overture for our little Adam Lazarus, whose middle name is a tribute to the New Colossus poet. The story of genesis is not the only biblical narrative we’ve chosen to imbue with a divinely secular meaning of our own.
Handing over authorship: How Adam has already begun to self-create
Building on my thorny (or should I say bitey) experience of breastfeeding Alice, I had a grand plan for “starting things off right” the second time around. I refreshed my memory of all the techniques and guidelines for encouraging a proper latch, and I did my best to put them into practice within the first 10 minutes of Adam’s arrival. But alas, his adorable grunts of persistence notwithstanding, he got nowhere close to latching on the first several tries, and when he finally did attach himself, he started chomping down painfully with his tight and narrow gums just as newborn Alice had done. The hospital nurses and lactation consultant each made their own hands-on attempts to get him latched on in the right way, and all ended up converging on one consistent piece of advice (not counting the swill about getting him assessed for tongue or lip tie, which I’ve learned is the current panacea of choice among breastfeeding dogmatists): stop him right away if he’s painfully and shallowly latched, or else this will be what he learns. I’d gotten similar advice the first time around, but I hadn’t been quite as ready to receive it then, because I had too much of my insecure first-time-mom identity wrapped up in being able to breastfeed my child. I felt I needed to control the narrative, if you will. But 2½ years of parenting Alice have taught me what a ridiculous fool’s errand that is: the whole joy and responsibility of parenthood has been in progressively turning over authorship to her, and gazing in wonder at what she does with it. And so it only took a couple days of Stoic teeth-gritting through Adam’s largely futile attempts to pinch some milk out of my nipples before I admitted that this wasn’t working for either of us, and embraced the project of pumping and bottle-feeding almost exclusively until and unless the latch issue gets worked out (with full recognition that it may not). And Adam, for his part, has gone to work on that bottle like that hungry first man must have gone to work on his forbidden apple, regaining and surpassing his birth weight by the time of his one-week checkup.
What’s struck me most about the whole experience is just how much even a newborn human’s work of feeding himself—to say nothing of my work of feeding him—is complex and non-automatic, depending as much on trial-and-error experimentation and skill-building as on reflexive instinct. This is apparently truer for primates than for other mammals, and it becomes truer in proportion to the intelligence of the primate, culminating, of course, in the human: “the most problematic nursers of all primates, if not all mammals,” according to this research review. The article cites a prominent anthropologist and primatologist, Sarah Hrdy, who chalked up this difference to “a trade-off between the reliability of innate behaviors and the flexible power of a learning brain.”
Which, um, has to be the mother of all understatements? It is the “flexible power of our learning brain”—the same one that got the original Adam in trouble with his authoritarian creator—that has enabled us to invent everything from agriculture to app-based food delivery to infant formula for feeding ourselves and our young, to say nothing of antibiotics and heart surgery and soap and refrigeration for keeping ourselves alive and well. And, yes, this same capacity has also enabled us to rationalize and enact mass genocide and enslavement, to defraud each other on scales both large and small, to hijack the scientific discoveries of our fellow humans for all manner of evil, to starve and destroy ourselves by degrees. This is the power implied in that James Baldwin passage Matt was quoting in his tweet: “Remember the proper name of that troubling tree in Eden: it is ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ …What is meant by the ‘human condition’ is that, indeed, one has no choice: eat, or die. And we are slowly discovering that there are many ways to die.”
Adam was the first man who chose to eat, and thus to live. This is the legacy I want my son to inherit. And I, as his mother, choose to worship at the altar of his divine human capacity to make that choice, over and over and over again, in whatever form and at whatever level of complexity and ambition he is able—and to vigilantly resist every urge to undermine his power of self-creation for the sake of my own dogma- or insecurity-driven narrative.
This is my one holy vow to him, and to Alice, and to everyone I love, and to everyone who comes to me for therapy or coaching, and to everyone who reads this newsletter, and, ultimately, to myself.
The TLDR is that baby Alice made fully, viscerally real to me the defining purpose that energized my life: to nurture “the struggling, striving, growing person.” To build the builders, as I’ve since come to refer to it. That clarity of purpose propelled me to start writing for a general audience of struggling, striving, growing people, rather than comply with the academic ethos of churning out as many esoteric peer-reviewed journal articles as possible. Readers of this newsletter will know how far I’ve since let myself descend (or ascend?) along this path, even leaving the academic tenure track entirely so that I could craft a more entrepreneurial relationship with academia—one more fully centered on the nurturance of builders.
Fantastic work as always! You're a very clear writer. I'm never left wondering what you mean by certain things.
Also, I was wondering about your take on the latest study of human happiness published by Harvard. There was an article published in the Atlantic called "What the Longest Study on Human Happiness Found is the Key to a Good Life," by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Your mind is of such value!
I enjoyed how this essay weaves precise specifics about childbirth and mythic symbolism and a little bit of everything else! "Turning over authorship" is also such a lovely way of framing it. Thanks for sharing.