Little Phantoms

It’s the little things. Phantom cellphone syndrome  is something I’ve experienced for years. I’ll be convinced that my phone is vibrating, even though it isn’t. Or I’ll be in a noisy environment – showering or using a hairdryer, say – and swear that I can make out the ringing of my phone.


Usually called phantom vibration syndrome, it’s a common phenomenon. (So common, in fact, that Australia’s dictionary authority selected it as their word of the year in 2012.) You think you’re hearing your phone ring or feeling it vibrate, and it turns out you imagined it. Scientists aren’t sure why it happens, though they speculate that it’s linked to the intense and immediate connection we have with our cellphones. One expert thinks it might be a form of pareidolia, where the brain interprets random signals as patterns.

In his thesis research, he found the two biggest predictors of phantom vibrations and ringing were age (young people experienced them more) and the extent to which people relied on their phone to regulate their emotional state—checking their phone when they wanted to calm down, for example, or get an emotional boost.


Here’s what’s interesting. I still experience phantom vibrations every now and then. But now, when I shower or use the hairdryer, I don’t hear a cellphone. I hear a baby crying.


I’ve changed.


Things I have learned from pregnancy

This is a post I wrote over two months ago, before Ra-Ra was born, and never published.


How can this thing feel both completely unique and desperately ordinary? Both enormously significant and utterly banal? Both normal and absolutely not?

As a confirmed cynic and lifelong environmentalist (overpopulation was a concern of mine when I was eight years old) I grapple with this every day. I knew all of this before I saw those two lines on the Clicks home pregnancy kit last year. But it was theoretical. Now it’s inescapably real.

The first thing is that there is nothing special about being pregnant. Women have been squatting in fields for thousands upon thousands of years. We happen to live in a world where some spend thousands trying to fall pregnant and fail, and others have babies despite not wanting them. Sometimes they will go to Marie Stopes; sometimes the child will end up in a dustbin.

I am wary of fetishising the experience of pregnancy or motherhood. This is something that happens all the time, sometimes out of choice, sometimes not. 7 billion people on the planet would suggest that it’s not an especially unusual occurrence. Being older and, yes, privileged, means that pregnancy takes on a different meaning for me compared to a teenager knocked up by an indifferent sugar daddy.

Pregnancy can kill you. How strange is that? Just the condition of being pregnant is enough to trigger potentially fatal high blood pressure and kidney failure. You’d think evolution would have taken care of that, but apparently not.

A very happy unbirthday to you

RaRa 1

Dearest Raphaela Ragini Pillay,

Today, April 29, is the date that you were due to arrive in the world. It would probably not have been your birthday – your father wanted you to arrive on April 27 (because it’s a public holiday, and he likes significant dates to fall on public holidays) – and Dr O’Hanlon would probably have insisted on performing the c-section around 10 days before now. Also, there’s the awkward fact that my ex-husband would have shared a birthday with you, and that’s not the kind of coincidence anyone would feel entirely comfortable with.

Anyhow, that’s all academic, because, of course, life listens to our carefully detailed plans and laughs out loud. The record reflects that you were brought, crying in fury, into the cold bright light of a delivery room a little more than two months ago, on February 26. You were placed very briefly on my chest before being whisked off to an incubator and hooked up to probes.

RaRa at birth

You’re still a little too small for newborn clothes.

In the beginning, you were fed through a nasal tube. You looked like a sea creature, arms and legs waving like tentacles. Your colour was as changeable as a squid. Your father and I calibrated our moods for the day according to how much weight you had gained.

RaRa in NICU

In the early days, I was terrified that you might die, and I didn’t know how I would cope with weeks and weeks of NICU.

When you were inside me, and I could feel the fluttering of your first kicks, I couldn’t wait to get to know you. In two months of looking at you (and you looking back at me), I have watched you develop an entire a repertoire of faces. There is alabaster angel when you are sleeping and calm; angry tomato (self explanatory); also grumpy old man, Stephen Hawking and – this is the one I love the most – naughty elf.  Watching your face change from one to the other is fascinating and when it happens, time slips past unnoticed.

(I wonder whether the first hints of character I see in your face will emerge in the fullness of time, or whether I’m just projecting. But you do seem to be a funny girl. You’re already good at making your father laugh.)

RaRa being changed Mia

Your sister Aura calls you squishy pink thing. Mia sings to you and sketches you while you’re being bathed and dressed (cue the angry tomato). Your grandmother Diana, who had seen you every Sunday in NICU, was pleasantly surprised when she visited you at home, and said that you are beautiful. You have Facebook friends who love seeing updates about you. You don’t know about them yet, but I am sure that one day they will tell you all about what you were like when you were little.

You sleep with one hand resting on your cheek, as though considering the state of the world. (Perhaps you are.) The tiniest sound you make is enough to stir me from the deepest sleep. I listen to your musical chuckles and marvel at the power you have to move me. I try not to think too much of the responsibility, because it is huge and marvellous and also, frankly, terrifying. Instead, I gaze at you and tether myself to the present moment, which matters more than any moment before or after.

RaRa with Sarah

You are my magnetic north, a soft and urgent tug at my centre wherever I go. We have had two months to get to know one another, two months more than I imagined. I’m looking forward to our adventure together in the world, my dearest Ra-Ra.

I love you so very much. A very happy unbirthday to you.



Out of the closet and inside the box

How much closet space does anyone need? I’m inclined to believe that clothing and associated clutter is like gas molecules in an enclosed space – no matter how much room you create, it will fill every last square centimeter.


I don’t have a lot of closet space compared to the past (when I lived with my grandmother, my stuff filled three times the cupboard space I have now), so I store the clothing I don’t wear often in large plastic boxes under the bed. This morning, reflecting on how, with May looming, I needed to think about hauling my winter polonecks and leggings out of storage, I peered under the bed and was greeted by the alarming sight of a rapidly expanding dust bunny colony. Clumps of God knows fluttered in a faint breeze like tiny tumbleweeds in a miniature desert. Now seemed as good a time to sort this out as any, so while Patricia our helper swept and vacuumed, I rearranged the contents of my cupboard.


Ahem. I am not a tidy individual. Bouts of order grip me spasmodically every few months; I chuck out the contents of my closet, rearrange about half of them, run out of steam and then chuck the rest back. I was last overcome by this kind of urge some six months ago. I’d stocked up on winter leggings in New York, and now I classified everything according to whether it was likely to fit me in my last trimester. Loose flowing clothes with lots of room for expansion stayed where they were. Warm clothing with room for cetaceanesque expansion was classified “winter baby”. Everything else was “winter post baby” or “summer post baby”.


Of course, my proportions didn’t expand according to plan. One month into my third trimester, I was suddenly no longer pregnant. I never did get truly huge. So much of the clothing I’d packed went unworn, and because I was back down to my pre-pregnancy weight within ten days – something I never expected – I didn’t need the clothes I’d put aside to accommodate my changing form.


So, out came some of the clothes from “Summer post baby – size 12” and back into the cupboard. And yes, I do feel a strange sense of loss. Women tell me that I was lucky that I never had to go through the final stages of pregnancy, but I feel… cheated. Just a little. An important aspect of the pregnancy experience was denied to me. Yes, it would have been uncomfortable, but it would also have been a rite of passage (nothing important ever happens without inconvenience). Now I can barely remember having been pregnant.


Apart from the large winter leggings I bought from a pharmacy in New York, I never actually stocked up on new clothing for the last stretch. Everything was repurposed, depending on whether it looked like it might fit. The clothes for what might have been remain in their plastic box, under the bed, waiting for the weather to get cold.