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.

Fracture Lines, Suture Lines

E broke her arm last week. That’s not entirely accurate. She didn’t break her arm. Her arm was broken. But no one broke it. The most accurate way to describe the situation is: There is a fracture in E’s left forearm. Yes, our ten month old is currently sporting the world’s most tiny cast.

How did it happen? The truth is: we do not know. C dropped her off at day care one morning and she was fine. When she picked her up that afternoon, she was refusing to crawl. No one could offer us any history of trauma or episodes of unusual crying. No one noticed that she couldn’t crawl. Did it happen hours or minutes before pick up? We have no way of knowing. In the day care’s defense (just for the record, there is no defense), she was using the hand for all the usual eating, playing, grasping, and pulling up, just not crawling.

For several hours on the way to the ER and awaiting the X-ray results we wondered whether someone had hurt her. I knew a new kind of hysteria: the hysteria of unfocused rage. But the fracture turned out to be of the type caused by falling on an outstretched hand, most likely from some height. So no one hurt her, but someone did not supervise her adequately, someone did not catch her as we catch her 20, 50, 100 times a day.  She is lumbering around on her first legs and a set of capable arms needs to be constantly at the ready.

When I tell people what happened, there is a shocked pause. I can actually hear the person on the other end of the phone processing a moment of deep doubt at our parenting abilities. Even those who love us most cannot get on our side on this one.  “I’ve just never heard of this happening to a baby before,” they say. “Oh, it’s actually quite common,” I say, in my pediatrician voice. But the truth is, I’ve never heard of it either. I’ve read about it, seen it in older children, but it’s never happened to someone I know at such a young age. What can I tell them? We love E beyond all bounds of imagining. We took her to day care and something happened there. We are doing the best we can.

Maybe no one is judging us. Maybe it’s just me that is judging us.

Having to take your child to day care is a compromise. You can dress it up however you want—she loves being social (she does), she’s bored in our house all day (she is)—but the truth is that placing your child in the care of near strangers does not feel right. Added to that core uneasiness is the Herculean task of finding a spot at a day care and affording said spot. When we were looking, most of the places I called had a waiting list of 8-12 months or cost more than our monthly rent, or both. We needed day care in two weeks. When we visited the Day Care That Shall Not Be Named, I liked some aspects about it, but it seemed a little threadbare, glued together around the edges. But they had a spot and the director was a warm person. C was starting work in one week. We signed up.

In retrospect, it seems unimaginable that we settled for less than the best, but we were up against a reality that felt impossible. Every day these days feels like that old cartoon where the sailor is trying to keep his boat afloat by sticking a finger in one of the many leaking holes. Perfect is no longer an option. After the fracture, I sent an SOS email to a group of my fellow doctor moms asking for child care recommendations. I got twenty-five emails in three hours with stories of child care disasters, near misses, and last minutes switches. It made me feel a little better. We are all trying our best.

E is her usual sparkly self. She is crawling on the cast, continuing her quest for bipedal mastery, avid as ever for discovery, for novelty, for height. Every time I look at her little cast, two thought-sensations run through my head. How could I have let this happen? Followed by, thank god it wasn’t worse. The dual mantras of parenthood.

Needless to say, we are looking for a new day care. In the meantime, my parents are stepping up as they always do with extra days of child care each week and we are bleeding money through every orifice hiring our wonderful but expensive babysitter for the rest of the days.

It takes a village to raise a child, but sometimes you have to move to a new village.

*             *             *             *

Did I mention that things these days are pure desperate madness? Still there are these moments of grace.

I am on my way to present a poster at one of the national pediatrics conferences. The conference is happening in New Orleans. When I tell people about it, they are of course excited for me. “How exciting! You get to go to New Orleans!” What I am thinking is: “Can’t they plan the national meeting in a major air travel hub where people I know live?” Boston? Washington, D.C.? Chicago? It is clear that the planners of the conference are not interns with small children supporting a family on one and a half incomes. There are no direct flights. I got up at 5 a.m. to catch an early flight, will present my poster this evening at 5pm and will be up at 5am again tomorrow to fly back. My main goal for the trip is to get back to the hotel by 9pm so that I can get eight straight hours of sleep for the first time in 18 months. When I heard there was an evening cocktail party that I “should attend for networking purposes,” my first thought was: “Doesn’t anybody care about me at all?” Hard won wisdom: Chronic sleep deprivation results in irrational egocentrism. Don’t get me wrong: I’m honored to have been selected to present and there are always interesting things to be learned at these conferences and there are worse things than spending the night in a nice hotel.

In my prior life, I would never, never have planned a flight that required me to be up at 5am. These days, I am excited because will be no traffic on the way to the airport. This shift in perspective is one of the ways I know that I will one day die.  I browse the New York Times from 6:10-6:15am while eating my off-brand Greek yogurt. Me time! I throw the dental floss in my bag on the way out, imagining flossing my teeth in peace while watching HGTV on the hotel TV. More me time! On the other hand, I should probably use the time to catch up on overdue discharge summaries.  Work-life balance should be called work-life death match.

On the way to the airport, I listen to Shawn Colvin’s rendition of one of my favorite songs, Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” It’s a live version. It’s not perfect. But it gets to me. Something in the strumming. Plus, heartache and bittersweet love loss is more convincing to me in a female voice. That’s just me. I lost my glasses somewhere—I think I gave the case to E to play with in the stroller at some point—so I have to slow down at each sign to decipher how to get to economy parking. The person behind me is clearly unhappy, but really, I am incapable of caring about it. Here is one thing that being an intern and a parent have given me, and pardon my language: I just do not give a fuck what other people think anymore.

For example, none of my clothes fit. I lose a size every 2-3 months since E’s birth and I’m not complaining about that, but my clothes budget cannot keep up. So I’m wearing the size 12 stuff until the weight loss plateaus and it’s safe to go shopping. My pants are constantly in danger of falling off mid-stride. Also, under my “loose-fitting” jeans, my legs are incredibly hairy. This might be TMI, but see above re: I’m kinda past that. I have not had an hour to get my legs waxed since mid-August. This morning I tried to shave them in preparation for the conference presentation — it’s going to be 80 degrees in New Orleans. Don’t these people understand that I’ve transitioned to the cold weather hair management schedule? (see above re: egocentric irritability) — but I discovered that the only razor in the house was dull. So there is just a single strip of socially-acceptable, hairless girl-leg on my left shin. No matter: I will wear black tights under my “loose fitting” dress. Problem solved.

Anyway, I pull into economy parking and this beautiful song is playing, and the sky is just turning from black to blue. The airport shuttle pulls up to the nearest stop, but I decide to finish out the song (see above re: me time). I allow myself to imagine getting on a random plane and ending up somewhere else, but the fantasy holds no appeal. My two loves are at home in bed and that is where I most want to be. I start to cry. Why? Because I am so, so tired.  Because in that moment I remember the dreamer traveler that I used to be and I miss that person. Because I am alone but never really alone. Because I am so grateful for my little family. Because I fear losing contact with the sublime forces in the world but I haven’t yet.

*             *             *             *

I’m working in the newborn nursery this month. What this means is that every 5-90 minutes a brand new human being is delivered into my temporary care. Day of life zero! No amount of mindless bureaucracy (so. much. paperwork.) can dull the wonder of it. Here are some of the observations I have been able to make:

1) Every human being grew inside a women. This is self-evident, but cannot be too-often noted and celebrated. Even more amazingly, the majority of us emerged through a vagina. Crazybeans!

2) A person’s unique selfhood is present from the very beginning. You need only examine twenty newborns a day to begin to feel that nurture pales in comparison with nature in determining life’s trajectory. Each of them is so resolutely themselves already! Here is what I take away from this: Relax, my fellow parents. Keep your children alive and they will largely do the rest. Ok, don’t let them have everything they want. But go out to the movies once in a while! Our children’s lives are intertwined with ours but they are also separate. In the first few minutes, hours, and days of life, you see this best. The mother is trying to recover, awkward, exhausted, labile, high and bereft. The baby is awash in sensation, ravenous, and knows no clock. The needs of the mother and the baby are at odds but yet they are uniquely suited to fulfilling each other’s needs. This complicated dynamic continues for life as far as I can tell.

3) Evolution works. Evolution is majestic. How else to describe the skull sutures that remain unfused to allow the baby’s head to pass through the birth canal? Every time I examine a new baby’s head, the pulsing spaces between the skull plates shock me anew.  Sometimes the plates even override each other like the tectonic plates deep beneath the ocean beds. Evolution found the point of intersection between the maximum brain size and the minimum pelvis size and so our skulls mold to fit the exit tunnel. You can always tell a baby who was born by planned C-section because their heads are perfectly round. I wonder if this creates a new existential category of human: people who have not had to yield in order to come into this world.

4) There are too many babies being born. Too many people have too many children. How will the earth support so many people? I’m not sure what to do about this. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. Meanwhile, maybe I’ll have another one. What’s one more?

Which brings me to the most disturbing side effect of working in the newborn nursery: it makes me want to have another baby. Not at some point in the future, but now. This is proof positive that the reproductive drive is a subcortical process. Or a mental illness. Thank god C and I cannot get pregnant “by mistake.” On the other hand, I wish we could get pregnant “by mistake.” But thank god we can’t….. and so on.

The newborn physical exam is one of the most important tests a human ever takes. It is the test that asks the question: Were you made correctly? It contains a number of check boxes that need only be checked off once in a person’s entire life. Once you’ve verified that a baby’s anus is patent, it’s a question that never needs to be asked again. Ditto with the cleft palate. Five fingers and toes. Closed neural tube. I love examining a brand new baby. They are a text that has never been read before.

When I examine the babies I catch myself calling them by E’s pet names. “Hi smoosie boosie,” I say. They cry and undulate and then suddenly open their eyes and regard you with an expression of sober contemplation. Are these a phalanx of anthropologists from another dimension, you wonder? Then they are back to rooting and burping up milk. “Hi boose boose,” I say as I run my hand over an oddly shaped head. “Who is gorgeous?” They all are.

*             *             *             *             *

Once in every ten days or so, E forgets entirely what is supposed to happen in the middle of the night. What is supposed to happen is that she awakens crying, drinks a bottle, and effortlessly falls back asleep. What happens on these fluke nights is that she awakens, but instead of crying she gives us the biggest smile you can imagine and starts clapping your hands. How can one gesture evoke such delight and at the same time such desperation? Hand clapping is the sign that you are basically screwed from a sleep perspective.

Last night was one of these nights. Ordinarily, we try to put her back asleep. This process can take 1-2 hours, is accompanied by lots of crying and dramatic thrashing about, and leaves you feeling more exhausted than if I you simply stayed up all night. Last night, after several rounds of unsuccessful rocking in C’s arms, I decided to just go with it. Was I secretly excited at the chance to spend some stolen time with E? I was. I work a lot of hours and my time with E in the evenings is all tasks. Dinner time, then bath time, then bed time.

I took E downstairs, turned on the light, and sat down with her in front of her toy box. There were still tears on her cheeks from the sleep attempts. She took a few seconds to adjust to the light and then spent several more seconds with her mouth open, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. Then slowly, she figured it out—Playtime! No more sleep attempts!—and her face was transformed into an enormous, electric grin that I hope is the last thing I remember before I die. She lunged into my arms, so grateful, so excited. We turned to the business of stacking blocks and using them as eyeglasses. I brought a pot in from the kitchen and she played a new game: Earnestly Filling a Pot with Objects. She is capable of an astonishing degree of attention and she spent 20 minutes exploring the buckles on her stroller, every so often looking at me as if to say, “Are you seeing this total and complete awesomeness?!” and “Is everything I’m doing ok with you, Ima?” I got to watch her, tickle her, laugh with her, catch her as she tumbled about with her little purple cast clanging against the sides of things.

The nice thing about parenting is there is just so much time for things to happen. It is the most time-intensive relationship in life. You spend hours upon days upon months in the constant company of your child. Every once in a while, at an unexpected moment, your orbits go into perfect phase. It’s like you’re on the best date of your life, where everything you say is funny and everything the other person says is smart. That was us last night, just enjoying each other in the pool of a lamp’s light in the otherwise sleep-silenced night.

I may not always be winning the work-life death match and but E and I are still what we are to each other, two people who were at one point separated by the thickness of only one cell. We are separated now by time, by my responsibilities, by her curiosity about other people and other things and that is how it should be. Her life is her own. I’m just here to catch her when she falls.

Happy New Year!

Tonight is the Jewish New Year. We were supposed to celebrate with my family, but since E started daycare last month, there has been about one illness per week and I just couldn’t face packing, traveling, unpacking, packing, returning, and unpacking in the space of several days. It’s work enough just keeping everyone hydrated these days.

Instead, we bought a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket and lit Ikea tea candles. Instead of wine, we blessed a bottle of Beck’s. Instead of challah, we blessed the heel of a loaf of multigrain bread. I was sad not to be with my family, but this version of the holiday was somehow fitting for our current life. E was able to eat all three of the foods in our meal. For some reason, this new fact of her culinary competence delights me every time. I love taking the food right off my plate, cutting it into tiny pieces, and watching her feed it to herself. It may sound odd, but I find it more satisfying than breastfeeding, perhaps because I am in no way anxious about it. What’s mine is hers, no nipple cream required! After dinner, while C put her to bed, I swept and mopped our dining room floor (not as common an occurrence in our household as it should be).

Jews count the years from the creation of the world, from “molad tohu,” or birth from nothing. Apparently some rabbis calculated backwards from the destruction of the Second Temple using the record of successive generations and came up with Monday, October 7, 3761 B.C.E. as the first moment ever. So now it’s 5773. Part of me thinks this is totally ludicrous and part of me is attracted to the ballsy exactness of it. I love that religion continues to stand its ground in the face of overwhelming evidence favoring other explanatory models. Well, I love it minus the bigotry, violence, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and confusingly hypocritical social policy that seem to go along with it. Basically, I just want there to be space in the world for mystery and for that which cannot be articulated. But religion is doggedly specific in its ideology and demands, and thus it’s Ikea tea candles and Beck’s for me!

But back to the first first:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the Earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.”

I love the existential and linguistic bravery of these lines. Sure, it’s impossible for there to be something before the first thing, but language forces us to imagine just that. The book could have begun with that first line “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” and gone straight to the third line “And god said, “Let there be light” (the first speech act! I can’t get enough!) but instead the author wants to tell us what there was before anything was. The second line has always slayed me, from a poetics perspective: And the Earth was unformed and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. In the original Hebrew, there are internal rhymes, alliterations, a cadence that suggests both howling wind and stasis. It’s good stuff. The face of the deep: who has not seen that unseeable face? It’s the kind of language that can be spoken a billion, a trillion times and still remain fresh.

Molad tohu has new meaning for me this year, having been witness to the growth of E from a sub-micron in my darkest insensate recesses to a completely extant being who got tiny broccoli stalks stuck in her eyebrows from playing peek-a-boo during dinner. I have studied every step in the biological process that contributes to this remarkable transformation and yet it retains the quality of total mystery. The science of it does not negate the miracle of it. The science of it IS the miracle of it, and yet, for me, the miracle of it extends beyond the science into the realm of that which cannot be named, that which is unformed and void.

All of which is to say: Happy 5773, that is also 2012 years since the birth of Christ, plus or minus, that is also 13+ billion years since the birth of the universe, that is also a completely subjective experience that each of us is having beginning when we are born and ending when we die. Pass the apples and honey!

May the year be a sweet one.