Keep the baby alive, and other things I have learned about parenting

I visited a friend today who has a new daughter, 16 days old. The baby is extremely lovely. She looks just like her father and just like her mother and already has the capacity for skepticism which is of huge importance in my opinion. She slept in my arms for several hours and smiled in her sleep and stretched a lot and a couple of times opened her dark eyes and made contact with me.

Time changes around a new baby. There is no 11 o’clock or 1:45. There is feeding, rocking, changing, rocking, cooing, smiling, admiring, and so on and on. (There is also losing your mind from boredom and feeling worried about everything and being exhausted beyond limit, but more on that later.) I got to my friend’s house at 11am and it felt like twenty minutes had passed when in fact it was 1:15 and I was late for a lunch date. Also, I am never so much the inhabitant of my physical body as when I am interacting with a baby. Whereas usually my head does most of the work and gets most of the credit, with a baby it’s the curve of the arm, the swing of the hips, the lilt of the voice that is at work. Holding the baby today, I remembered the mammalian existence of my first weeks and months with E, moving slowly from couch to bed to couch again, constantly in physical contact with the baby, our mutual fluids running out of every seam. At the time it felt awkward, this shift from the goal-oriented-success world to eating-sleeping-humming world but now I am so grateful to have experienced it, to still be experiencing it every day with my daughter as she grows: the animal life that is only ever now.

My friend is having a hard time, as I think all new parents do, as I did. She said, as I remember saying, as I say to this day: No one told me how hard this would be! Even though I distinctly remember telling her that the first six weeks of E’s life were super, super hard, that breastfeeding was nerve-wracking and never completely worked for us, I don’t think it’s possible to hear and understand these things before you actually go through them. When people tell you “It’s totally life changing,” you don’t realize what that means: that the life you had before is over and a new one takes its place in which you have much less control and much less freedom. Given that we live in a culture in which both adulthood and success are defined by having control and freedom, this transition can be tricky. We build our identities around the work we do, the people with whom we interact, the activities we enjoy, our tastes and beliefs. When you have a child, all these things change radically overnight. Some aspects of ourselves return over time, others are permanently altered.  Added to these already stressful changes are the avalanche of mythologies and dogmas and opinions around motherhood and child rearing that can really drive a person crazy. Never had I been the object of judgmental looks as much as I have been since becoming a parent — just try mixing a formula bottle at Mom & Baby yoga class, my friends! You might as well put a lit cigarette in that baby’s mouth. All this on top of the sheer hard work and anxiety of it — the nights and days and nights of walking back and forth with the crying child in your arms, worrying all the time about whether or not the baby is still breathing, learning through error what you need to bring with you on an outing (answer: at least two of everything and if your baby eats formula, don’t forget the formula #oops! #ivebeenthere #thebabyisstillalive).

Talking with my friend today, I wanted so badly to palliate some of her uncertainty and exhaustion. I wanted to give her a full-body taste of how much better things get as you learn your child and yourself and find your voice as a parent, as your child grows and can do more for themselves. But of course, everyone has to find their own way there. In the words of Mary Oliver, “Nobody gets out of it, having to / swim through the fires to stay in / this world.” Still, there are some things that might have helped me 16 months ago, so here goes — for my friend and anyone else out there who is staring down at their new baby and thinking “This is the most amazing and perfect creature I have ever laid eyes on” and at the same time thinking “Holy shit! What have I done?!”

1) Here is the core task of parenting: Keep. The. Baby. Alive. On some days, like when you have the flu or you haven’t slept for more than 30 minutes in a row in 72 hours, this in and of itself will seem like a monumental task, but if you accomplish it which you likely will, that day has been a parenting success. Now there all kinds of more nuanced parenting tasks like cutting the baby’s fingernails (anxiety, thy name is infant fingernail clipper!) and getting on the right preschool waiting lists and teaching your child to say “thank you” and “ladybug” but you can’t always be attending to those things because you will have shitty days and that’s ok, as long as you do the things that are necessary to keep the baby alive. Aka feed it and keep the bleach in a locked cabinet.

2) It’s ok if it takes a while to feel fully connected with your baby. Some women pop their baby out and immediately feel connected on every level to that new person. Other people (aka: me) take a little longer. I loved E from the beginning but I was also in a ton of pain and dealing with post-partum complications for the first month. I was struggling through breastfeeding challenges and my own insecurities as a parent (that awkward moment when your fear that you are not bonding enough with your baby makes it hard to bond with your baby). Again, I loved her fiercely, but sometimes when I looked at her in her crib from across the room, I thought: Me? I’m that baby’s mother? And it seemed incredibly surreal. Then, sometime in the second month, we clicked into each other forever with a glue that will outlast time and space. For some women, it takes longer than that. But see #1 above. Your job is to keep the baby alive. The rest will come (as long as you are not suffering from postpartum depression which can throw a wrench in the process and should be treated. Take this quiz and talk to your doctor right away if your score is concerning).

3) It’s ok to do things for yourself. It’s ok to leave your baby in the care of trusted people while you eat, sleep, get a haircut, or talk to your best friend from college on the phone. Your baby needs you but not every single second of every single minute of every single hour etc. If you need to go away for a night for work or, in my case, have seven residency interviews when your child is five weeks old, it’s ok, as long as you have left your baby with plenty of its nutrient source and another loving adult. Some people believe that their child should be with them always and if this works for you, I think it is a wonderful thing. For me, it has worked best to recruit a little love army for E and she has an extended network of people who think she is the cat’s meow. This is working for us. Do what feels good and right to you but if this includes going to a movie while your best friend watches your baby once in a while, it is ok.

4) It’s ok to feel sad about things you miss from your life before the baby. It’s ok to feel sad period. It’s ok to feel bored when you are caring for your baby. It’s ok to feel frustrated with the baby when you can’t figure out why he is crying and it is ok to feel relieved when she goes to sleep and you can get a shower in and watch twenty minutes of The Wire while eating a chocolate pudding pack standing up in your towel, or you know, whatever it is you like to do. There is a lot of crapola out there about how your feelings can hurt your baby. Depression, anxiety disorder, and other mental illnesses that impair a person’s functioning can have a detrimental effect and should be treated pronto, but your average feeling cannot lash out scissor-like and gouge a hole in your baby’s future. Mothers are still allowed to have a full range of feelings, thank you very much! Do not waste mental energy feeling guilty about your feelings.

5) Come to think of it: Do not waste mental energy on guilt at all. Banish guilt as much as possible. Do you try your best to make good choices for your baby? Are you providing a consistent, safe, and loving environment for your baby? Does your baby have nourishment, medical care, and high quality child care? If the answers to these are yes, then you are doing everything you can. Accidents, illnesses, and adolescence will happen to all children and are not your fault.

4) Breastfeeding does not equal love. Breastmilk does not equal love. Breastmilk is good. It’s the best food for babies if it’s safe and available. But if you are not making enough breastmilk or you have an illness or take a medicine that precludes breastfeeding or you cannot or do not want to breastfeed, this does not mean that you do not love your baby. As a person whose first month of parenting was made 80 times more stressful and guilt-ridden by my inability to make enough breastmilk despite pumping EVERY TWO HOURS AROUND THE CLOCK, I think that it would have been better for my baby had there been less emotional drama around the issue and had I felt free to spend less time pumping and more time enjoying my baby. If breastfeeding is easy for you and it’s all going swimmingly, remember to be gentle and kind and nonjudgmental to the mothers who are struggling with it.

5) Don’t let anyone tell you what is best for you, your baby, and your family. This includes friends, co-workers, mothers, mothers-in-law, doctors, lactation consultants, books, or the judgmental voice in your head. All of these except the last two may love you and want the best for you and your baby, but they are living their lives and you are living yours. If working is the best thing for your family, work. If staying at home is the best thing for your family, stay at home. Either one will have sadnesses and frustrations and difficulties and joys and pleasures and advantages. Read parenting books and doctors’ guidelines as a way to inform your choices, but collect their ideas into a larger collage of possible options. Every child is different and no child will fit perfectly into a paradigm. Be skeptical of dogma, advocate for yourself and your child if you are worried about something and doctors brush you off, trust in your own intuition about what your child and your family needs.

6) Anxiety is part of parenting and it’s here to stay. The thing you love most inhabits a mortal body and then develops the capacity to move independently, to put things in it’s mouth, and finally to make bad decisions for itself. You will learn to live with anxiety and manage it. It will wax and wane with the circumstances. Current worries will pass and new ones will arise. It’s tiring but you can survive it and thrive in spite of it. You’ll maybe never sleep quite as soundly again. I’m just being honest.

Having a child is the ultimate adventure, which is a cliche, but apt in this circumstance. It is full of unknowns and good and bad things happen along the way. It’s exciting to watch a person develop and you learn a lot from accepting and negotiating another person’s total dependence. You get to see the world anew through an unjaded pair of eyes every day — again a cliche, but a true one — and this suffuses life with pleasure and meaning and hope. Becoming a parent puts an end to your childhood, but reawakens your child self. Mostly, there is the love, the massive, unconquerable, infinite love. It’s like they always say: there is nothing like it.

Here is my favorite meme of all time, which kind of says it all.