“How did you even know what to do?” a friend asked me as he reached past me to grab his beer from the bartender. I was at a friend’s daughter’s first birthday party. It was a big shindig at a public golf course clubhouse. The few people that I knew were huddled around the bar watching the Final Four games, talking about the upcoming White Sox season, and drinking Miller Lites from the open bar. The birthday girl was nowhere in sight, not that it mattered anyways. First birthday parties are pretty much for the enjoyment of adults anyways. As parents, you make sure your guests get drunk, watch your kid shove cake in their face, and celebrate the fact that you made it an entire year without fucking up and killing your kid. It’s an American tradition.
“Good luck,” I responded. The priceless look on my friend’s face told me I had answered correctly. I ordered a High Life from the bartender and watched as the entire group of guys shifted their gaze from the game to her tight black stretch pants. An old guy that looked like Walter Mathau squeezed past me on his way outside for a smoke break, trying to avoid the impending Easter egg hunt that was about to occur near the putting green.
“Funny. No big advice from the Omaha Dad?” he continued. I ignored the sarcasm and thought it about it for a minute as I watched a middle aged weirdo in suspenders make mediocre balloon animals.
“When it comes down to it, the only advice I could give you is this: don’t shake your baby no matter how much you want to,” I said. He thought I was joking. I couldn’t have been more serious. It really is the best advice. There are times, especially early on, when you want to shake your baby. This is the first test you must pass. Cross that line, and we find out really quick who is up for this parenting thing and who isn’t. It seems pretty simple, but there’s a reason we have something called “shaken baby syndrome.” It happens. “Get past that urge, and you’ll be fine,” I added, still not sure if he was taking me seriously. The childless can be so naive.
I looked at the time on my phone and intuitively scanned the room for the diaper bag. I noticed it on a bar stool and rummaged through it for a bottle and some formula right as my wife inquired about the time. “Yep, I’m making him a bottle right now,” I answered, heading off her question as I walked around the corner to the bathroom. My mom stopped me halfway.
“Do you want me to get some bottled water from the bar?” she asked, a look of fear in her eye at the prospect of me getting water from the men’s restroom.
“I’ll be fine,” I quipped as I pushed open the door and slid inside. I laughed out loud in the empty men’s room as I thought about Mom’s water suggestion. A formula bottle made of tap water wouldn’t kill the kid. Besides, Jack prefers his bottles warm and immediate, and you can be sure as hell my mom poured that same Lake Michigan tap water down my throat for all of my formative years. It’s funny how much pickier my parents are with my son. They treat him like baby Jesus.
I left the men’s room and located the “blessed one” in the arms of my sister. I grabbed him from her and set him down on the floor to groans from both my sister and mother. I leaned him up against his diaper bag next to the gift table and let him chug his bottle as much of the room looked on, some snapping pictures, as Jack sat oblivious to anything but the sweet fake boob juice flowing down his throat. My mom wasn’t pleased, but let it go for the time being. Heaven forbid the “Christ child” touches the floor. She quickly scooped him up as soon as he finished the last drop and took him home to put him to bed.
Without the mini-me responsibility, I went back to the bar to wait for the kid-cake comedy fiasco, stepping on a balloon puppy as my brother in law asked me about my weight loss regimen. “It doesn’t include many of these,” I said as I ordered another beer from the bar. The draft came back flat so I waited around for the bartender to return and traded it in for a High Life bottle that I placed in my ever present beer coozie after instinctively retrieving it from my back pocket. My brother in law always gets a kick out of that.
“Hey kids, let’s find the Easter eggs hidden in my pants,” interrupted my younger brother, mocking the suspender guy who was now dressed in an Easter Bunny costume and posing for pictures with the remaining children who were up way past any sensible bedtime. I noticed that the birthday girl was less than enthused, which was no surprise since she hadn’t even been allowed to paint her face with chocolate cake and frosting yet and we had been here for four hours already. I was running out of patience for the entire scene, and believe it or not, despite being free, I was pretty much over drinking beer for the time being.
I had just spent three and a half glorious beer filled childless days in downtown Chicago while my wife attended a Sociology conference, and now I felt like a kid on the last day of summer vacation. After ten and a half months, my first three and a half day respite from my fatherly duties was a godsend. Unfortunately and predictably, it had gone by too fast, and now I was one day away from getting back on the Daddy horse and riding seven hours back to Omaha. It was no longer time to celebrate, I had to start getting back into the full-time “Daddy” mode frame of mind. Knowing full well that I’d get to witness my own child covered in cake in less that two months, I decided not to wait any longer, left the childless ones at the bar and bummed a ride to my parent’s place.
I lay in bed that night savoring the last few minutes of my Spring Break from daddy day care. I thought about the past few days and how simultaneously wonderful and odd it was to be relieved of my child for seventy-two hours. I thought about the past ten and a half months, what I had learned, and how different my life now was for better or worse. I came to the conclusion that it was mostly better, especially now, as we approached my own son’s first birthday. Then I thought about the question my friend asked me earlier: “How did you even know what to do?”
The truth is, I didn’t. I stand by the advice that I had given him about the baby shaking, but that’s obviously only part of the puzzle. Sure, I do have a ton of advice, but does it really matter? Children are like the world’s hardest Rubik’s Cube that you have to try and solve blindfolded before it explodes in your face. As soon as the O.R. nurse handed me my bloody, gooey, tear inducing bundle of joy, it was go time. She had a smile on her face, but behind it was the reality of it all that said, “Good luck, don’t fuck up.” That’s pretty much all you get. I couldn’t believe that they just send you home with your new baby and that’s that. There are no instructions. There is no owner’s manual. There are no training wheels or batting practice.
My friend Dan and I began fatherhood nine days apart, yet our children couldn’t be more different. During many of our discussions about parenthood and parenting advice, he’s tossed around the idea of writing our own parenting advice book. We settled on the title, “Something up with your kid? Here are one million things you can try that may or may not work for you.” That pretty much sums up parental advice as far as I’m concerned. It can often be a game of throwing everything at the wall and praying your ass off that something sticks. An idea lottery where you’re hoping that your number gets called just once so you can sleep.
Despite this, or maybe because of it, there is no shortage of good or bad “help” available online, in magazines, in books, on television, and often among friends and family. Some of this is great. Sometimes you don’t know where to start. Sometimes you need a hint to point you in the right direction. Sometimes it’s nice to know you are not alone. Sometimes you just want some reassurances that what you are experiencing or feeling is normal. The only problem is, there is no “normal.” There is no “right way.” No two babies are the same, yet they are all the same. It can get pretty damn confusing sometimes.
There’s a reason that there’s a huge market for baby blogs and baby books and baby magazines. We are all just trying to not fuck up the whole thing. We think that we can’t figure it out on our own in our own way. For some parents, it can be downright overwhelming. They are so afraid of doing something wrong. They are afraid to let their children figure things out, explore their environment, or just plain live. They try to avoid all the dirt, all the germs, and often, all the fun. They fear the stupid shit and ignore the problems later in life when it’s really time to worry. I get it, but I see the absurdity in many of these sterile, “by the book” parents, and I’m striving to do it our way. Though, I sometimes do need a little help.
I will admit I’ve spent some time perusing online message boards myself, especially in the early days. Hell, the internet in general has done wonders for parenting in my opinion.You feel less alone in the sometimes solitary world of parenthood. Social networking online can be a savior to the stay at home caregiver stuck inside all winter with a child too young to communicate. You don’t feel so out of touch. Plus, when you need that little bit of help, it’s often just a few clicks away.
There’s something comforting in knowing that what you are experiencing with your baby is not new or unique. It gives you a slight sense of relief when you realize that there are hundreds of other people dealing with the same issues that you are. You feel like you are part of a club. It also helps to get a nice variety of “solutions” from people who have already gone through what you have, whether the circumstance is exactly similar or not. It gives you some other things to try. It hopefully keeps you from shaking your baby.
My wife and I spent a good couple of months in agony over Jack’s lack of desire to sleep or stay asleep. It was an underlying issue that was affecting every aspect of our lives. I’d go online daily looking for books, websites, or other afflicted parents looking for answers. In the end, I was referred to a book about the sleep issues we were dealing with from a good old friend of mine after a discussion of the topic at my brother’s wedding. I went on Amazon.com upon our return to Omaha and ordered it. Then, at some point between the ordering of the book and its arrival, we pretty much solved our own problem through a combination of trial and error and heeding advice from multiple sources, including the comments on Amazon under the book listing. When the book arrived, it only backed up what we had already figured out. We never looked at it again. Go figure. Maybe I should write a book?
In fact, being the cocky ten month veteran of parenthood that I am, I’ll now sometimes find myself scoffing at many of the often hilarious questions that new parents want answers to and are not afraid to ask online or in nationally published books or magazines. You can feel the desperation in their posts online, and you realize how good you have it compared to some of the other rubes who can barely tread water in the baby pool. People have examples for everything and questions about anything. If you can dream it up, somebody’s kid probably did it somewhere and their online asking if it’s normal. As always, there will also be someone else that can relate. It’s a never ending source of laughs.
Take for instance the often helpful bestseller What to Expect: The First Year, a series that I like better than most in the genre because they present a good broad view of just that, what you might be able to expect from your new parenting adventure. You can take or leave the advice offered, but again, it’s nice to at least have an idea of what’s coming your way and whether or not you should be concerned. The questions they use are golden. One day I stumbled upon this gem of a question on page 397 regarding the eighth month: “When I’m diapering my baby, he sometimes gets an erection. Am I handling his penis too much?”
Short answer: If you have to ask, then the answer is probably, “yes.” I’ve spent ten months diapering and bathing my son and he’s never gotten an erection. I’ve touched his penis more than any other penis aside from my own, and I still haven’t touched it enough to give him a baby erection. Therefore, yes, you may be touching it too much. Thanks for your question, and thanks for buying my book. The end.
As a parent, it’s hard to not want all of the answers all of the time. But sometimes a little trial and error is the only option. Sometimes you need to make mistakes to learn. Sometimes you have to put the book down and just figure it out at your own pace. It’s okay to seek advice. It’s okay to ask for help. However, it’s also okay to relax and let nature take its course without worrying about fucking up a little. Parenting is about learning not only how to raise your children and keep them alive, but also about learning about yourself, and learning how to be a better person and parent. Every day is an education.
Today it’s back to the internet to search for helpful hints on potty training before the age of one. I noticed that Jack has finally discovered his penis, so I guess now is about as perfect a time as ever to see if he wants to learn how to use it outside of his diaper. Plus, we don’t want to have to buy the next size up in cloth diapers, which is quickly becoming a necessity. So, as has been the case for the last ten months of my life, I’m open to any and all advice from everywhere. And here’s hoping I won’t have to touch it too much.