Thoughts on one year as a parent
Around this time last year I spent a lot of time walking around, thinking about all the things I wanted to teach my daughter: how a toilet works, how to handle a 4-way stop, how to bake cookies. One year later, the only thing I have taught my daughter about toilets is please stop playing with that now, sweetheart, that’s not a toy. Babies shouldn’t eat cookies. And driving is thankfully limited to a push toy which has nonetheless had its share of collisions. On the other hand, I can recite Time For Bed and Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You from memory. Raffi is racing up the charts of our household weekly top 40. I share the shower every morning with a giant inflatable duck. It has been a challenge and yet still joyful. Here’s an assorted collection of observations and advice from someone who just finished his first trip around the sun as a parent.
Speaking of advice, I try not to give too much to new parents. They have surfeit of books, family, friends, and occasionally complete strangers telling them what they should and shouldn’t do. I don’t want to be one more voice in that cacophony. The first months with a new child is a struggle, and you have to do whatever it takes to get through them. Sure, there are probably some universals when it comes to babies, but as someone who has done it just once, I’m not a likely candidate to know what they are. I’m happy to tell you what I think, but only if you want to know. Let’s just assume for the rest of this article that you want to know.
That said, please vaccinate your kids.
It’s easy to forget how many experiences an adult has accumulated in their decades alive. The first year for a baby is almost nonstop first experiences. Everything that has long since become ordinary in your life is new to a baby: eating solid food, going to a zoo, taking the bus, touching something cold, petting a dog. The beautiful thing is that being a parent makes all these old experiences new firsts for you too. I hope never to forget the first time I watched Samantha use a straw: she sucked on it — like everything else — and then when water magically came out of the straw she looked startled, and then, suddenly, thrilled, as if she were not merely drinking water, but had discovered water on Mars.
Nothing can prepare you for this. Maybe it’s smooth sailing for some parents, but we were exhausted, completely drained, dead to the world, and whatever other synonyms there are for being tired. Lots of people told us that we would be tired beyond belief, but I think this may not be something that can be communicated with language; it can only be learned through experience. I thought that being an experienced all-nighter-puller in college would be good training for having a baby. It’s completely different. In college you stay up all night writing a paper, turn in the paper, and then it’s OK if you sleep for 36 hours during the weekend. Having a baby is like there’s a term paper due every day for months.
Breastfeeding is really hard. I don’t know why they don’t work this into more breastfeeding curricula. Caitlin and I took a multi-hour class and I don’t remember this coming up. Just lots of stuff about all the benefits of breastfeeding, how wonderful the bonding is, how the mother will be totally in love with breastfeeding. Nobody wants to attend a breastfeeding class taught by a dude, but if I were teaching one it would go something like this:
- There are a lot of good things about breastfeeding.
- By the way, it’s really hard and Mom will probably end up in tears several times.
- Working with a lactation consultant can be a lifesaver.
- Formula is not the end of the world.
- Good luck, happy latching.
If you want to make a new parent’s day, ask to see pictures of their baby. I tried not to subject people to them, but there’s only so much self-control one can have. I loved it when people asked.
You end up with so much stuff for a baby. There’s a lot of stuff you don’t need. If you skip that stuff, you’ll still have a lot. Car seat, stroller, bottles, diapers, a bathtub, continually outgrown clothes, more diapers, a crib, a rocking chair. And that’s before you even think about toys and books.
Here are some of my favorite things that we bought this past year:
- Halo sleep sacks. They zip from the top to the bottom which means you only have to unzip them partway for late night diaper changes.
- LectroFan white noise machine. We actually have two — one for baby and one for the lucky napping adult.
- NoseFrida. I never would have guessed how much fun decongesting your baby would be with this snot sucker.
- Giant Inflatable Duck. I can’t say I love sharing my shower with this duck, but Samantha loves it, so I kind of love it too.
One recommendation I make to all my expecting friends is to check out The Nightlight, the baby equivalent of The Wirecutter and The Sweet Home. They don’t give you a spreadsheet of data and rankings, they just tell you what to buy, with a detailed explanation if you care to read it. I did a lot of independent research and ultimately came to many of the same conclusions, so I stopped reading.
Trivia: the set of clothes and items you need for a newborn is called a layette.
I read something somewhere about video monitors being distracting and got it into my head that we would only use an audio monitor. I didn’t want one more app to hijack my phone. Boy was I ever wrong. First, we live in a small apartment, so the idea that we need radio frequencies to transmit baby sounds across it is ludicrous. Second, I got so much peace of mind from actually seeing what my baby is doing that I highly recommend it. When we were doing sleep training it was a huge help to be able to see that things were “OK”. Streaming live video from my house to the cloud is a bit creepy, but it’s so nice to check on her taking a nap when I’m at work, and being able to rewind 30 seconds and see what just happened is handy. I guess this is how privacy dies: with little, convenient features here and there.
Being a parent is like gaining membership to the world’s least exclusive club, but finding out that the club is somehow still great. It gave me a new way to bond with other friends and coworkers who are also parents. I thought (naively in retrospect) that all parents have a sense of this shared camaraderie. As it turns out, though, parents are just a random sample of people which means that some of them are strange or petty or just mean. I was surprised by how many interactions with other parents left me feeling like somehow we were still in high school: cliques at drop-in play areas, passive-aggressive remarks about the strangest things.
You could write a Shakespearean tragedy about the Herculean trials of flying with a baby. We rolled the dice a couple times and got lucky but it was exhausting.
I had access to a generous paternity leave policy — 10 weeks paid — due to California’s progressive policies and my employer’s good will. It’s completely crazy that this isn’t the norm across the U.S. The law of the land is that, if you meet the requisite conditions, you are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. I cannot understand how the wealthiest country in the world can’t afford to prioritize reasonable family leave policies (and neither can John Oliver, who has a much funnier take on the state of parental leave in America). On top of that, it’s not like new parents are actually doing the best work of their career. I was sleepwalking through my job for weeks even after I got back.
Politicians say they love families; how about actually helping them out when they need it?
Being a new parent is a struggle, even if you are thrilled to have a child. You lose so much of your previous life: free time, hobbies, spontaneous dining-out, sleeping in — it’s a lot of change. You trade these things in for something new. This new thing is hard to describe in a way that doesn’t sound trite or glib. I’d say it feels like trading some happiness for joy.
I love being Samantha’s father. The past year has had its share of challenges, but honestly we’ve been so fortunate and I hope that confronting our small share of problems has made me a more empathetic person. Samantha arrived on time, easily, and healthy; we didn’t have the burden of illness or an extended stay in the NICU. We never worried about the cost of diapers or formula; I can only imagine how crushing it must feel not to have what you need to take care of your child. We have had help from so many of our family and friends, help you absolutely need to keep your head on straight. I have a wonderful partner and I don’t know I would get through parenting without Caitlin; I have a new appreciation for single parents.
Who knows what we’ll teach our daughter this next year, or what she’ll teach us. It has been an incredible journey so far. I can’t believe how many years we get to have. They won’t be non-stop happiness, but I hope they’re as joyful as this first one.