In December, my wife and I were at last able to hold our first baby, a boy. Since then, life has been a mess, but well worth living. Here are a few things I’ve learned (other than that he’s objectively the cutest baby around).
1. What happens to your time
Everyone knows that children require a huge time investment, and I had certainly read the fine print before signing up for fatherhood. The time commitment didn’t surprise me, but what I did learn is that the cost is not just in the time you spend with the baby. The sheer frequency of the interruptions leads to schedule havoc. If you’re reading a book, you might only get three sentences read until you need to put out the next fire.
But typically the highest cost doesn’t fall on the father but on the mother. After coming home from a productive day at work, I sometimes found that my wife had spent her entire day consoling the baby, and felt that she had got nothing done. My naive idea that I could read a relaxing book had to be replaced by the reality of taking care of him, so as to give her a break. But you can’t measure the value of time spent with children, so the change in plans is always a win for me.
2. Needing space
Taking breaks can help you appreciate your baby. As new parents, sometimes we’re a bit scared to hand our baby to someone else—no one else has as much invested in the baby’s life and health, so you wonder whether they will be as attentive to his needs. However, your sanity is at stake if you insist on providing the baby’s only care.
We’ve found that having a bit of time away from the baby in order to be together or to spend time with friends is essential. This helps in two ways. First, it keeps you from spending your entire time surviving, allowing you to experience more of the range of humanity. You feel you are a person again, not a slave or a machine. Time off also gives you a break from your baby, allowing you to return and see his cuteness and incredible value with renewed eyes. Otherwise you risk being inured to the wonder of the new life you’ve helped to create.
3. Babies and personality
Babies have personality. I didn’t realize that before. Our son has his own ways of telling us that he is hungry or sleepy. He has unique facial expressions and ways of interacting with people. He enjoys experiencing new tastes, even medicine. He also responds uniquely to trouble. Though sometimes he loses control and wails, he often doesn’t. When he was in the hospital, we found that he could sometimes stand being poked with a needle if we were holding his hand.
In one or two cases when we weren’t allowed to be present, he still seemed to understand that the procedure was for his own good. When we returned, the nurses told us that he hadn’t cried much, and for some time afterward, he acted just as you would expect a baby to act if he was proud of himself for having endured an operation bravely. Did he really understand what was happening? We don’t know. But quirks like these seem to run deeper than simple mannerisms, instead demonstrating the child’s worldview and fundamental ways of interacting with the world around him.
4. Adults and losing personality
Everyone knows that mom or dad who just can’t stop talking about their child. They’ll tell you who the child smiles at, exactly what developmental stage the child is in, and any number of cute and utterly boring things that he did the other day. Hey, even this article could be blamed for that.
However, it’s worth losing a bit of personality to love a baby. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re original people, anyway. The best of what our society can do is the best that every age before us has been able to do—live and love before we die. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it’s at least partly true.
Holding and living with a tiny human being is one of the best things ever. Very irrational, I know, but God made us to dote on our kids, and I don’t propose to edit his plan.
I’ve learned to do everything with just one hand—unscrewing baby bottles, typing articles, unlocking doors—you name it. If you’re not holding the baby, you’re holding something else. And typically, even your “free” hand has only a range of six inches in order to do whatever you’re doing, or you risk dropping or waking the baby. I’ve even mastered (perhaps that’s too strong of a word) the art of reading or writing while feeding the baby a bottle.
6. Living in the past, present, and future
It’s easy to get lost merely doing the next thing, for days and days. There’s always more to be done, but if the next task is all you can think of, your mental health is at stake.
When I’m overwhelmed in day-to-day life, I need to remember to balance loving the past, present, and future. I don’t automatically live fully in any of them. Sometimes that requires leisure time, even time spent alone. I don’t like taking alone time, because it feels like there’s always something better to do, but it must be done.
7. Imposter syndrome
For us, having our first child feels like we’re playing at being a family. Can it be that I now am “one of those people”? Our culture knows how to think of families, categorizing them differently from singles and couples. But just because you’ve now had a baby doesn’t mean that you feel like a family, instead of just two young adults with a big responsibility on their hands.
Often, I experience this thought as a game, rather than as a fear. Honestly, it’s fun having a child. (Nobody knows this, but I’m actually not really a parent, deep down inside. Just a regular guy. But it’s kind of funny that everybody thinks I’m a parent kind of person.)
8. Handy excuses
You will never lack an excuse for missing a deadline. Whether your baby is in the hospital, or your spouse is sick, or the house needs to be organized for hosting, or whatever it is, there’s always something that is more important than that article you’re supposed to write.
Why do I write the article anyway? Because at some point writing becomes more important. Not because this article is going to rock the world, but because someone in this busy world needs to be writing things. And who will do it, if you or I won’t?
9. Worry and guilt
As a parent, you are basically committing yourself to never stop worrying until you die. I’ve never (as nearly as I can remember) felt worse than when I followed an ambulance containing my son from Chambersburg to Hershey, not knowing whether his systemic infection would respond to treatment. I had known this little tyke for less than two weeks, but I was desperate for him to live.
Now I have a little bit of an idea what it must be like to lose a child, and, honestly, I would rather that almost anything else would happen. When you love, you are choosing to tie your own happiness inextricably to the fortunes of whoever you love. It’s true that love is the only thing worth doing, if we are to remain Christian, or even human. But the things that are most worth doing also cost us the most.
It’s also easy to blame oneself for anything and everything that doesn’t match one’s high ideal for parenting. Did we make the right medical decisions? If he’s not smiling, does that mean he doesn’t know we love him? Since not everything will go perfectly right, we’ll always be tempted to regret things we’ve done, even if we spent plenty of thought and prayer over our decisions. We are radically responsible for the little one, and our decisions could easily ruin his life.
But that’s not a weight that anyone should carry. We are responsible, yes, but we only have limited control over our lives and only limited wisdom for how to take care of our family. We can only do our best and trust God to bring a good outcome, even from our imperfections.
10. Changing habits
Sometimes you learn that you need to change your habits. Personally, I enjoy sneezing. It is so relieving, and I hate when I have to sneeze but I can’t.
Sadly for everyone else, I have inherited a sneeze that must either be vocalized or repressed uncomfortably. So . . . I sneeze loudly. And I like it.
It wasn’t long into taking care of a child until I found that loud sneezes can wake babies. So now when a sneeze comes, I pinch my nose, twist my neck, constrict my throat, or whatever else it takes to muffle that sneeze.
The fact is, a parent’s role is to spend oneself for one’s child. So, unfortunately, my sneezes have got to be quieted.