One of my favorite perspectives on Jay is watching him fall asleep in the backseat of the car while I’m driving. At least 10 minutes before he nods off I can see it coming. He levels his eyes in a blank stare at the seat in front of him. At that point nothing I could say—“Look at those diggers!”; “Where’s the kitty?”; “ICE CREAM, ICE CREAM, ICE CREAM”—would get his attention.
After a few minutes of staring straight ahead, Jay’s eyes begin to roll back in his head and his chin slumps forward. He usually jerks back awake once or twice before he goes down for good, his eyes coming dimly back into focus before rolling up into his head again. Try as I might, I invariably miss the actual moment when he falls asleep. I’ll glance in the rearview mirror one moment and see him staring into his lap; I’ll glance back the next and his head will be on his shoulder, his eyes closed, gone from the world for the next two hours.
On our recent drive to visit Caroline’s parents, Jay nodded off approximately 31 minutes after he’d eaten his last bite of Cinnabon. Caroline said that watching Jay fall asleep like that reminded her of the sociologist Erving Goffman, who she’d read in college. In his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Goffman argued that we have a “front stage” in our lives, where we put on a public face and try to shape how other people perceive us. He also said that we maintain a “backstage”—the private space in our lives where we schlump around in our pajamas, scratch whatever parts of our bodies happen to itch at the time, and prepare ourselves for going into public.
Goffman noted that there are certain classes of people who don’t get a backstage. These include mental patients and prison inmates whose entire lives are on public display. To this list Caroline added toddlers, who don’t get a backstage because they’re observed basically all their waking hours, and who don’t need one because they are utterly unselfconscious. And it’s this complete lack of self-consciousness that makes Jay’s descent into sleep so mesmerizing to watch.
There are many times each day where watching Jay is like watching someone on a hidden camera. When Jay gets really absorbed in play I could sit and watch him for hours. He zooms his cars around and narrates the whole experience in a series of non-sequiturs-“I got to the store to buy the chicken”; “Don’t touch anything bunny rabbit”-like he’s the only person alive in the world.
In this same way it’s also endlessly captivating to watch Jay go to the bathroom in his diaper. He’ll be in the middle of the living room going along fine, playing with his blocks, when suddenly he’ll stop, bend slightly at the waist, go a little red in the face, and make a small grunt. Then he’ll move on like nothing happened. You just don’t get to see such raw, unmediated behavior like that very often.
Which brings me to little Wally, who has even less of a backstage than his brother does.
When Wally was six-days-old our friend Brittany came over to take some newborn photos. Maybe you know what this entails, in which case you wouldn’t have been as surprised by it all as I was. Brittany set up a large beanbag covered in colored blankets while Caroline nursed Wally down to sleep. We put the sleeping Wally on the beanbag, and then Brittany turned on a space heater and a white noise machine. The idea was to recreate the warmth and wooshing sounds of the womb so that Wally would stay sleep while Brittany manipulated his body into all sorts of unspeakably adorable poses…