To Hold a Child
Teresa H. Janssen on the benediction of Eavan Boland's "Night Feed."
I discovered the poem “Night Feed” by the Irish poet Eavan Boland too late. I had already weaned my youngest child and endured those hours of nether-world isolation and groggy mornings without Boland’s benediction. The late Boland’s poem describes waking at dawn to feed her infant daughter. Rereading it long after my children have grown brings me a new understanding of those hours cradling them.
I have reached the stage of life, like arriving at a waypoint on a road trip without a map, where I know I’m nearly three-quarters of the way to the end, and may be closer than that. I ponder how my life might have unfolded differently, freed from the care of children. What might I have accomplished, what books written, with more time for myself? There are times when I grieve that it took me so long to come to the page.
“Night Feed” brings me back to the peace of the gray dawn nursings, when I was swathed by the ghosts of others’ dreams, soothed by the rustle of wind through the oak outside. Like the poet, I conjured a perfect world. I gazed into my daughter’s somnolent face and imagined that she would grow into adulthood unscathed. I envisioned a time when she would gather my tired body in her arms, prop a cup to my lips, and hold me as I fall back into sleep, while looking out at the oak, deep in her own dreams.
Boland concludes her poem when the feeding ends:
And we begin
The long fall from grace.
I tuck you in.
Boland went on to publish many volumes of poetry, but we were both to learn that the road can be long, potholed, and serpentine.
Well, I knew as a young woman that I wanted to be an ancestor one day. Boland reminds me that during those quiet nights holding my offspring, I was doing important work—strengthening the umbilical of my foremothers. And when my granddaughter’s granddaughter awakens in the night, I will cradle her, too. Time is illusion. The stories will come.
Eavan Aisling Boland (1944-2020) was an Irish poet, author, and professor. “Night Feed” appears in her book Night Feed (1982), and in the book An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems 1967-1987. In 1994 she was the writer in residence at the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin.
Teresa H. Janssen is a retired teacher with four adult children. Her essays and fiction have appeared in Zyzzyva, Parabola, Chautauqua, Emrys, and other journals. Her debut novel, The Ways of Water, is forthcoming November 2023 from She Writes Press.