The strange appearance of a child

For two years I have been watching Jay, and in that time I’ve noticed that I see him differently than I see anyone else.

Just this evening, for example, he was in his pajamas, standing at the bars of his crib in dim light, when I went in to give him a hug goodnight.  I stopped about five feet away from him and studied his face.  No matter how hard I stared, I couldn’t quite get a straight look at him.  He’d flicker in and out of focus like a hologram, or he’d shift just a fraction to the side of my line of sight.  No sooner would I reset my gaze then he’d move again, making it impossible to pin down where exactly he stood.

My understanding is that the brain has all sorts of mechanisms that shape visual data into the movie we see in our minds.  There’s the process of stereopsis, for example, by which the brain takes images from the left and right eyes and melds them into a single picture, thereby giving us depth perception.

And, according to a mind-bending profile of a neurobiologist in the New Yorker last April, it takes the brain a very brief amount of time—a few milliseconds—to combine all the sensory data it receives into what manifests as our view of the world.  Because the brain requires this processing time, we’re always living in the very (very) recent past.  Or as the article puts it, “Reality is a tape-delayed broadcast, carefully censored before it reaches us.”

The details of these processes—which I’ve surely simplified and probably misrepresented—are not the point. Rather, the point is simply that there are all sorts of factors that play a role in how we see.  After watching Jay closely all his life, I think there are some specific conditions at work between a parent and a child that make me cognize Jay in a way unique among all other people I’ve ever looked at.

The first distinction is that Jay (and Wally) are the only two people I’ve ever watched closely from the very moment they were born.  I asked Caroline what she thinks it is about Jay that makes him appear to us in the strange way he does.  She thought it had to do with the fact that while he changes imperceptibly from one day to the next, he’s also changed an extraordinary amount since he was born.  So, looking at him is like looking at a drop of water poised on a glass—you strain, but you can’t quite tell if you can see it moving.

I wasn’t just present at Jay’s birth, of course.  I made him. It’s hard to understand how a piece of knowledge—“I made Jay”—assimilates into the sensory experience of looking at Jay. But there’s no doubt that that knowledge is inextricably bound up in my image of him.  When I look at him, like I did tonight when I stood in his room before bedtime, sometimes I think I’m looking at myself.  Or not quite myself.  Rather, I see him as something that is connected to me in a manner that goes beyond the ways we usually think of things as being connected, and that maybe begins to explain why it is that when I look at him, he flickers.

PS- Trying to pin down the way I see Jay has me wanting to know how other parents think about the experience of looking at their children.  If any readers would like to share, I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section below.

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3 thoughts on “The strange appearance of a child

  1. I find it interesting that, more so than with anyone else, I can almost predict the movements and expressions of my infant. I also get a thrill, however, when he does something unexpected. It reminds me that he is changing and developing every day.

  2. Looking at my children when they were infants and toddlers found me in a state of extrapolation, I suppose. I would ask myself, “What are they thinking? How will they interact and react to and with things in their environment? What will they be like in the next “phase”?” Now, my children are grown, and when I look at them, I see the children they used to be as well as the adults they are now. It can be disorienting and sentimental at the same time. And I look at them and wonder what their children will look like! Extrapolation again!

  3. Hi Anne- Thanks so much for your comment! I like this idea of “extrapolation.” I find I do it a lot more with Wally than I did with Jay. Having already watched Jay develop for two years, it’s easier for me now to try and draw lines between where Wally is at 3-months and the toddler he might grow into. So thanks again for taking the time to share, and for reading!

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