Thoughts From A Still New Father

My son was born six months ago tomorrow. It’s put me in a reflective state of mind, or at least, it does on the rare occasions when I’m rested enough and the baby is calm enough that I can be reflective. Currently, he’s sitting in the exercise pod thingy that we lovingly call “the Circle of Neglect” and is intensely examining his own fingers, which means I have a bit of time to write, at least until he decides this whole thing is bogus and we have to go do something else.

So what have I learned in six months of fatherhood? Turns out, a lot!

I’m not as smart as I used to be, and also I’m worse at things involving my brain

Since becoming a father, my spelling has gone from pretty damn good to see me after class. I usually don’t need to rely on spell check except for words like rythym rhythm, but in the introductory paragraph above, it took me ten tries to get the word “occasions” spelled correctly and the only reason I didn’t just let the spell check get it was because I had to prove to myself that I could do it. There were also numerous examples of poor typing throughout that didn’t used to happen.

I think this is a combination of getting much less sleep than I used to, not sleeping as deeply as I used to, and the fact that I’m tired. And between the two of us, I’m the one who is getting the lion’s share of the sleep between my wife and I. This is due to the unfair genetic advantage I have, as when I do sleep, I’m a deep, heavy sleeper. Which means that by the time I’ve heard the baby fuss long enough to rouse me, my wife has already been awake for fifteen minutes and has been working on soothing him. Add to that the fact that even when roused, I’m basically still in Low Power Mode mentally speaking, and you get situations like this:

Baby: *cries loudly*

Me: *awakens with a start* OH NO, FUSS BUG!

Me: *goes back to sleep*

My wife: . . .

Baby: *still crying*

Add to that the unfair burden of responsibility created by breast feeding (which is to say, she does all of that, I do not) and you’ve got a situation where we’re both sleeping less than we used to and even though I’m getting more sleep than she is, my brain just isn’t where it used to be compared to when I could clock in a leisurely 8 hours uninterrupted.

There’s also the constant state of distraction, in that at any given time, there’s about a 10% chance that he could do something to endanger himself, so even when he’s happily playing in a safe environment (like right now), I’m still keeping some of my attention on him, just in case it turns out the toy that was specifically engineered to not be a choking hazard turns out to be a choking hazard.

Which brings me to my next point . . .

I’ve reached a stage of acceptance with regards to worrying about him.

When he was first born, I was terrified of SIDS. Even though he’s been perfectly healthy and we have the safe sleep environment and we don’t smoke, etc. etc., there was about a two month period where I was convinced he’d just . . . stop breathing at some point while he was asleep. And then I’d go and check on him and he’d be fine, of course.

There was one night where I got up to check on him so many times that I finally just had to give up. If he’d suddenly stopped breathing, there was nothing I’d have been able to do about it, so it would just have to be a problem for Tomorrow-Matt.

I also carried him with all the attentiveness of a student driver who is committed to hands in the 10 and 2 position. Every movement was planned and executed like I was carrying around a Fabergé egg. At any moment, I was certain his neck would snap and his head would fall off.

Six months in, when we need to go somewhere, I kinda just sling him under my arm. A lot of this, admittedly, has to do with him these days; he’s much stronger and he can support his own head, so he just doesn’t feel as fragile as he did as a newborn. But even so, I can feel the change in my mind. I know I’ve got him safe and secure in the “Dad Side Carry” position, I’m not going to drop him, and he’s having a good time.

But I imagine it still looks weird to people, especially people that don’t have kids, and I’m sure they have opinions about it even if they don’t say anything. Which brings me to . . .

Everyone has advice and opinions on what you should do, what you should read, what you should buy.

For the most part, I don’t mind. My brother once started a phone call that began with “you’re going to have everyone telling you what you should do on how to raise a kid and it’ll get really annoying” and then, guilelessly, told me everything he thought I should do.

I have a  philosophy, let’s say, when I’m in the car with my wife. Sometimes she’ll point out something, like “look out” or “car’s coming” or any number of other alerts, advisories, or guidance. And then she’ll apologize for backseat driving, acknowledging that I probably already saw the thing she was pointing out. I, however, prefer that she tell me rather than not, because in the worst case scenario, I’m hearing something I already knew (which doesn’t cost me anything) and in the best case scenario, I’m hearing about something I didn’t know, such as an oncoming car (which would cost me a lot, possibly everything). And so I take a Pascal’s Wager mentality, in that I’d prefer she say something rather than assume I already knew, because the potential benefits outweigh the costs.

Thus, I don’t mind getting opinions and advice from other people about parenting. You never know when you’ll learn a trick that unlocks something you were stuck on. I don’t feel threatened by well-meaning advice, because I know that while I’m not an expert on babies, I am one of two people on this planet I can say is an expert on my baby, having spent more time with him than anyone else save my wife. So I don’t feel like my status is threatened.

That said . . .

I get a lot of well-meaning advice from people that don’t have kids.

Maybe they have a niece or nephew somewhere that they see once in a while. Maybe they babysat a kid twenty years ago. Regardless, while I appreciate the intention behind the action, I really would prefer to not have to go through the emotional energy of being gracious while being advised “to try white noise, or get him on a schedule, or baby massage, or . . .”

I appreciate the intention. I really do. But you can tell within about 5 seconds whether someone actually knows what they’re talking about when it comes to babies. It’s okay if you don’t know babies! I didn’t know any babies until the one came along, and even now I’m really only qualified to tell you about him, and even then, half the time my answer is probably “fuck if I know, I just try things and see if it works.” And that’s after a six month intensive study of this one particular baby.

I remember the first time we had several friends over after he was born, and one of my friends was giving him a bottle, and I made a few adjustments, like “hold it a little more like this.” And even though it looked like this effortless wisdom, like I just knew what I was talking about, that’s only because I’d had two months of trying a hundred other ways and managed to develop a semblance of understanding through trial and error.

So, please. If you have people in your life that you love or even just like, and they have new babies and you don’t . . . please don’t advise them. It’s well meaning, but it’s annoying and I really need to marshal all my patience reserves for other things, like my baby.

That said, let me give you some advice (hah) . . .

There are many baby raising philosophies, but this one is mine.

For me, the thing that made it click was the “Circle of Security.” You can look it up if you’re interested, but in a very abbreviated version, it explains why kids do the thing where they want you to put them down so they can play with a thing and then five seconds later, they cry and want you to pick them back up again, then ten seconds later they’re done with you, so put them down again, now it’s been a whole minute, pick me up, and so on and so on, seemingly for the rest of time.

It turns out kids have a reason why do they do this! And knowing that reason helped me immensely, because what seemed like random caprice was much easier to endure when viewed as a fledgling approach to learning and exploring. It continues to help me every day.

That said, it’s something that works for me and my baby. Maybe it’ll work for you. Maybe not. I don’t know your baby. Try it and see. Or don’t.

One nice thing is how much easier it is to have a “try and see” approach with your own baby. When it’s someone else’s baby, you’re terrified of fucking it up, especially if you don’t have any experience.

For example, when my brother’s first child was about a month and a half old, he said “okay, it’s time to learn how to change a diaper” and tried to walk me through it. And I was so afraid of making it too tight, or too lose, or wiping too hard, or not wiping hard enough, that I basically minced around the entire process, which resulted in a diaper that worked only until her next big production and the diaper came off, to the horror of my sister-in-law who was holding the kid at the moment it happened.

But when it’s your baby, you’re okay trying things. What’s the best way to do (anything involving the baby?) I dunno, I’ll try a bunch of stuff and see what works. And half the time what worked the previous time won’t work the next time, because replicability only matters for science, not babies. Since then, I’ve put on diapers that came off because I didn’t do a great job. You shrug, clean him up, then jump in the shower, having learned one more way to not put a diaper on.

It sounds like that shouldn’t square with how much I worry about him, as mentioned above, but all I can say is that I’m now capable of holding a paradox in my mind and being fine with it. Every single thing I’ve learned about my baby, all the casual confidence I have now, came in slow, furtive attempts. Most people don’t get to see that, which is a good thing, because if you did see how slowly and painstakingly that confidence is earned, I think the human species would die out. Just kidding, it’s easy and fun. You’ll do great.

Here’s something else I learned during the pregnancy phase and which continues to be true in the first six months of fatherhood . . .

The standards for fatherhood are very low.

Let’s say it’s your turn to watch the baby. You want to know if you’re doing a good job or not. Here are the standards of success for parenting:

For mothers: “is your baby thriving? Is he perfect? Is everything perfect? Did you read to him? Did you mentally stimulate him? Did you protect him while also allowing him freedom to explore? Did you speak to him in at least three languages today?”

For fathers: “is the baby still alive?”

When we found out we were going to have a baby, my wife got a bunch of books about babies from the library. I grabbed a couple and started reading through them. Most of them automatically assumed the reader was a mother, but there were occasionally mentions of things dads should do. Unfortunately, these scintillating pearls of wisdom included things like:

  • try holding the baby sometimes
  • ask your partner if she needs a break if she looks like she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown
  • tell your partner she’s pretty, even though you don’t think so
  • change a diaper once

I can only imagine what the advice was forty years ago. “Try remembering the names of your children,” perhaps.

Fortunately, there are slightly better books out there and I picked up a few of them and got some better guidance. But it doesn’t change the fact that things I considered basic were somehow looked at as something special in most of the reading material.

I think fatherhood is what realized my understanding of what privilege is; she’s expected to do everything and do it perfectly or the baby is ruined forever, and for dads, it’s like “hey, you tried to change the diaper and even though you put it on his head and that’s not where it goes, good effort, champ, way to contribute equally! You’re a modern parent!”

There are some things in this whole parenting gig that aren’t fairly distributed and there’s nothing you can do about it, like the unequal burden created by breastfeeding and the random biases of the baby himself (sometimes Mommy holding him soothes him in a way that Daddy can’t do). So you already need to be working pretty hard to carry your share of the load. And then you look around and wonder, okay, what does my share of the load look like, and you get this feedback loop that praises you because you changed a diaper once this week and everyone is like oh my god, you’re so involved with your baby and it’s like, please, stop. Don’t praise that. It’s like praising me for not dropping the baby on his head, which should only be praiseworthy in extreme circumstances, such as slipping on a patch of ice or while baby is slathered in soap or something.

In conclusion

Having a kid has been great. I’ve really learned a lot. I look forward to sharing more of this wisdom in the days to come, but not right now, because he’s crying and there’s a chance he’s crying because he swallowed a battery or something and I should attend to that. Bye!

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