Written August 5, 2020. Can someone tell me where the last 6 weeks went?
I’ve been spending some nights recently looking at photos. If I put the photos of our baby from his first 6 weeks against the photos recently, I could make the case that I’m looking at 2 different kids. At almost 12 weeks old, our little boy has almost doubled his birth weight. His head nearly touches the edge of his bassinet, and he responds to us with strong opinions, expressed by loud or soft coos (“OOOH”, “eeeh”, “ahhh” and hysterics).
This stage of parenthood has allowed me little time to sit back and reflect. It is the ultimate “living in the moment.” I now realize the added benefit of taking those photos is capturing the changes that my own mind has difficulty tracking. I’m thankful for that. Behind us are the fumbles of learning how to nurse him, diaper war stories, leaps, growth spurts, and first vaccines; ahead of us are sleep regressions, teething, infant colds and flus, and the separation of when I go back work. Meanwhile, all around us – when we least expect it – are smiles, new expressions, signs of awareness, and the occasional full night of sleep. Our baby is beginning to absorb the world around him and shares every single moment of that with us. If those first 6 weeks were the Longest Shortest Days, these last 6 weeks were the Days of Change.
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To our friends without kids, we must seem slightly obsessive and definitely boring. Our kitchen bar trolley is now filled with children’s books, gifts, and toys, the “BAR” sign blocked by a growing pile of baby “stuff”. It stares at me as a reminder of my past self, and how different that lifestyle was compared to this new, beautiful one I’ve chosen. In short, while the first few tries sounded foreign to me when I heard it aloud, I now very proudly also call myself, “M–‘s mom”.
Since M’s birth, we’ve gotten variations of the question: “What has surprised you most about parenthood?”. I didn’t feel like I could answer that question in earnest until now. Before I can list my answers, I confess that my expectations for new parenthood were extremely low. And by low I mean I thought that until the baby reached 8 months of age (a number I randomly made up), he’d be a blob who mainly only ate, pooped, spit, and cried. For 4 years (another number I made up), we’d have no friends, no social life, no sleep, and become social pariahs on every flight we took.
The nice thing about having low expectations going into a major life changing event is that your chances of being pleasantly surprised are much higher. On the other side of it now, I can say I was wrong. If the last 6 weeks showed me anything, it’s how long I can hold our baby (even when I also want two hands to do other things), how excited I get when I see small changes in development, and just how fast they change.
So in no particular order, here’s a list of the things that have surprised Daniel and me the most in these first 100 days.
Motherhood Surprises: My Perspective
Things Move Fast.
Really fast. Like day-by-day fast. Parenthood is basically a constant test of FOMO. “Did you hear that coo?”, “Was that a new vowel?”, “He lifted his butt to help with the diaper change!”. One thing the pandemic has gifted us is an abundance of time with our baby without distraction. This means that we share a lot of bonding time, and perhaps overanalyze each change and developmental milestone.
It also forebodes a menacing future. It sounds ridiculous, but sometimes Daniel and I have to remind ourselves that this cute little one we’re raising is going to accelerate in intelligence. Fast. With intelligence comes manipulation, more demands for attention, and increasingly difficult negotiations. We can barely outmaneuver our baby now, and that’s with two adults colluding using language and complex signals. Once our kid can understand us, we’re screwed.
Breastfeeding is Hard.
“It looks like a snake just grabbed hold of you in the pitch dark! How did he do that?!…Does that hurt?” – Daniel
I touched on this in my previous post about the newborn stage, but I’ll say it again. Breastfeeding is hard. Ali Wong got it right, and I had no idea until her Netflix special on this (after watching it, I cried. Someone understood!).
Before birth, I just imagined that breastfeeding would “happen”. It would be peaceful and beautiful, like all the photos I saw. I’m not sure what other moms experience, but I was way off on that (at least in the beginning). Frankly, nursing did not come naturally to me at all. As a new mom, I was terrified of dropping the baby or squishing him. My arms were stiff, and I tensed up constantly. I couldn’t understand why he would nurse for so long, and latching was a constant battle (Which angle? Is he actually on? Should I hold him more upright to make sure he doesn’t swallow air? Is he actually still eating or just tricking me into holding him?).
Thankfully, our kid was far more confident at feeding himself than I was at feeding him. With his insatiable appetite and love for nursing, he forced me to practice enough until I could feed him while walking, eating, typing, and talking on the phone.
It’s taken me about 10 or 11 weeks to enjoy it (and right in time for teeth! Joy!). I’m not sure if this is some kind of Stockholm syndrome, but we’ve both learned how to nurse more efficiently. Which leads me to the next surprise.
You Do Get Better, Until the Next Challenge.
There’s that motivational quote that I think applies well to my experience so far, “It never gets any easier. You just get stronger.”
The first few days, Daniel and I used to both have to change a diaper together. “Poo-tastrophes” were the thing of legends. Now, we can change a diaper one-handed, in the dark, half asleep.
It’s the ultimate Type-2, never stays the same kind of “fun”. During the first week of parenthood, I remember crying that I couldn’t get any personal time – I barely ate because M wanted to be held, I couldn’t read, Netflix was unthinkable. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point, I could maneuver both me and M so that I can do some simple tasks: books were read, podcasts listened to, shows watched, food dropped onto the baby as I ate dinner with him on my lap.
Of course, just as I managed two handed activities again, M became a lot more aware and demanded undivided attention. Challenge accepted, M. Challenge accepted.
Even Very Young Babies Are Really Smart, and They’re Watching You All the Time.
My mom told me this, but I never really got it until I saw it. M absorbs my feelings. This is a far divergence from the hungry and crying “blob” I imagined young babies would be! I don’t know how he does it, but he does. Even the NHS recommends that parents go into vaccinations relaxed and calm because the baby will behave as the parents do. Once, Daniel and I got into a fight over burned potatoes (not our proudest marital moment), and just as I said, “You had one job!” M started screaming. It quickly sunk in just how much of an example I’m providing for my kid, even when I don’t realize it.
Without being able to speak, M demands conversations as well. Not the fake kind where “parents are talking to each other but looking at him to trick him” kind. Real conversations with eye contact, tones, and pauses as he interrupts with babbling. Each week, he’s able to call us out on fake talking more and more. It’s as annoying as it is amazing.
High Stakes Fear of Failure
During the early weeks, Daniel said, “I think we should consider getting you some childcare support a few days a week to help you manage.” I got really defensive even though I had been the one to beg for help a week earlier*.
Call me naive, but I didn’t expect to be so sensitive about motherhood: Am I doing this right? Have I really messed that up? Is this going to give my kid problems for life? In hindsight, I’ve never done anything where the stakes are so high – I barely had any pets growing up, and most household plants I bought wilted within a year. Then overnight, I became responsible for a human being, who really doesn’t know much about this whole life thing. There was no easing into it. No matter how much I had thought about it before, nothing compares to that experience of both wonder and terror from when I was first left alone with my baby.
I came to realize that as new parents, we’re also bombarded with well-intentioned opinions and not-so-well intentioned advertisements promising better sleep, easier nursing, and less crying. I’ve learned to tune into the advice that applies to us and tune out the ones that don’t. In the beginning, I was really interested in reading all the blogs, books, and taking advice from friends. I wanted to make sure I was doing okay, and that M was okay.
What I’ve realized in the last 6 weeks is that M will be ahead of the curve on some things and behind on others. He’ll have his own preferences, and no one knows them better than Daniel and me. In short, “Babies are humans, not statistics.” Instead of being so worried about when he learns to roll over compared to other babies his age, I’ve enjoyed taking notes on each day – highlights of our favorite moments, funny stories, and how M changes.
*In the end, we decided not to get help (yet) because I started “managing” better.
Joy with No Trophy
Maybe I set myself up right with such low expectations going into motherhood, but the biggest surprise of all is the continuous joy of being a mom. Sure, there’s low points. Very low points that make me question my competence. Anything challenging and worthwhile has them. But, the funny thing about this is that moments are not calculated equally. I can have 7 nights of horrible fussiness and then 1 night of amazing, cute, coo-ing baby, and that 1 night will outweigh all the others.
I’m never bored. Maybe this is biology at its best, but having M in my life has opened up an entire new world of things to feel happy (and scared) about. In other parts of my life – like my career, hobbies, or personal goals – I tend to put myself on the “hedonistic treadmill”, feeling happy for a moment once reaching a goal and then shortly after, feeling unsatisfied until I can find the next goal. So far motherhood has provided a very different feeling of accomplishment. As my sister Y has said, “I used to think there was a trophy for being a mom, the sleepless nights, the diapers, that sort of thing. But there’s no trophy. No one congratulates you.” We joke about this all the time now. No, there’s no trophy and no one gives you an award for being a mom. It’s certainly not for everyone, and that’s perfectly fine. But for me, it’s a new kind of satisfaction that continues to bring surprises day-by-day.
Fatherhood Surprises: Daniel’s Perspective
I Had to Shave My Chest.
Dads beware. I was warned. And so I took the early warning signs to heart, but children come with a very strong grip.
I Lost Time I Didn’t Know I Had.
I thought I knew what busy was. I worked at a start-up. I’ve started my own business. Then suddenly I was scheduling when I could go to the bathroom, or take a shower. It wasn’t until M was born that I realized I had so much time before.
The Little Guy Comes with Strong Preferences.
“He prefers to eat facing the skylights.” – words I would not expect to be saying about an infant.
Before he was born, I thought M would be a worm. Screaming, eating, pooping, and sleeping until, I don’t know, 7-8 months? Wrong! The Little Guy has strong opinions. He consults his “Skylights” for the weather and all the things decision making related (do not break his gaze with the Skylights). He hates swaddles, and any form of restraint because he loves to sleep with his hands over his head.
M never gets bored of looking at trees. Walking him in the park, his eyes go wide with wonder at the trees.
I Enjoy It A Lot More Than Expected
It’s been fascinating watching him learn and change day-by-day. He’s way smarter than any pets I had (though to be fair, I had rottweilers as a kid). You’ll never find anybody as excited to see you as your own child. That excitement is still surprising each day.
Dads Need Paternity Leave to Stay Out of the Dog House
It should be obvious, but it’s not recognized it’s important. You really only have one chance to see this development stage of your child. And it’s very short. Also you need to help your wife recover.
No One Asks
After M was born, lots of people asked about how the baby and Pan was doing. No one asked about the dad. Not the NHS, not your parents, nobody asks. Don’t expect it.
Dear Little Daniel,
You’re really starting to show your personality. Right now, we like to call you “Little Daniel” because you show so many similarities to your dad. It’s scary, but you sleep the same way, have the same crooked mouth expression, and you’re both obsessed with lights. The other night, we heard you “talking” to “Daddy’s Panopticon” (e.g., baby surveillance system, or, the monitor) for an hour. Daddy thinks it’s hilarious that his genes are stronger than mine.
I hope you’re not offended later when you read this, but we really did think you’d be a blob for a long time. You’ve surprised us each day. I know the pandemic has made things tougher for all of us – you haven’t met your grandparents yet in person, and you don’t really “see” too many other people. But, this means that we’ve gotten to really know each other.
Like so many other contradictions that come with being parents (maybe one day you’ll understand), we’re both excited to watch you grow and sad that time is moving so fast. We feel anxious when you cry, but we’re also proud that you’re displaying new awareness. We love that you gain so much weight each week, but we’re nostalgic for when we could hold you with one hand. This past week, even though I know I shouldn’t, I let you sleep on me for 2 hours on 3 separate occasions because I felt you were changing so fast.
You’ve humbled us. We’re both adults well into our thirties, with careers, having traveled around the world and yet we were both so wrong about what parenthood would be like. Not even close. I know we’ll continue to learn, and I hope we stay one step ahead of you for a long time.
I know the world is changing for you too. Your eyesight is better. You have more awareness of your surroundings. You’ve experienced the pain of vaccines, and the wonder of trees. Just know that when you feel overwhelmed, bombarded by new objects, sensations, and understanding, we’ll still be here in one form or the other. Growing up isn’t for wusses, but we’ll do it together.