Friday, August 10, 2012

You Have Plenty of Time to Love Them Later: Unsolicited Advice for the Mothers of Newborns

 Beatrice at three weeks old

I originally set out to write this post as an email to my friend Sommer Browning who is due soon with her first baby. I preface this and all things I write by saying, I'm not an expert in anything, and who the hell am I to give advice to anyone? Still, if you will indulge me, I offer some unsolicited advice for new mothers:

1. It's only .004% of your life.

If I could only say one thing to every pregnant woman out there, it would be this: it's only a short time. The sleeplessness and the feeding and the crying and the leaking and the general overwhelming crappiness, it just goes by. Everyone knows this intellectually and yet it's really hard to have that perspective when it's 3am and you haven't eaten and you haven't showered and the night just seems to go on and on forever and you find yourself thinking, This is my life now, my horrible, horrible life. Know that this is not the new normal, this is a blip. Just buckle down and get through it and it's over. Unless and until you're stupid enough to do it again.
2. Don't do any big stupid things.

For the first year of this baby's life, don't make any major decisions. Now is not the time to get married, get divorced, quit your job, start a new job, buy a house, sell a house, move across the country, or do things involving big sums of money.

I hesitate to put this out there, because I think a lot of the talk about pregnant women and new mothers and their "mommy brain" is infantilizing and sexist and reductive and yetit's true, you are really tired. You are tired even if you do not know you are tired. I am an incredibly high-energy person, I had an easy baby who slept through the night from a young age, I had a flexible job I could do from home and a partner who wasn't awful all of the time, and yet despite these things, I was still tired enough to find myself standing on my porch trying to open my front door with my car clicker and—get this—when it didn't work, actually thinking, It must be out of batteries.

Almost the entire first year I had my daughter I felt like I felt fine—it was only around the one-year mark that I looked around and realized, I have been totally out of it for the last year of my life.

And yes, there are hormonal fluctuations to deal with, and maybe also issues with recovery or feeding or postpartum depression or your work leave or the absence thereof. And it's not just you, either. Your partner, if you have one, is tired too, and stressed out, and also you may slightly hate him or her most of the time now but you probably won't forever. So what I'm saying is, maybe now is not the time to drop out of school, leave your husband, and buy that dilapidated farmhouse.

But feel free to do plenty of small stupid things.

Use this as your excuse to get a tattoo, buy a butter churn, shave your head, or adopt a partially blind rabbit. Hey, who's going to judge you? You're tired.

4. Go out with your baby.

Immediately. Go. Right now. By now I think most everyone knows that the grandmotherly wisdom about taking young babies out of the house is wrong, and sure, if it worries you, you can drive a few miles over to that other Starbucks where the patrons look a bit less tubercular, but seriously, leave the house early and often.

5. Go out without your baby.

Go out with your friends, go out with your partner, go out by yourself. I know this isn't easy—in fact,
I always get annoyed when people glibly advise you to have a "date night" every week as though everyone in these economic times can afford to spend an extra $50 a week on optional childcare. But seriously, try. Hit up relatives, take turns watching your friends' kids, drop your kid off in the ballpit at IKEA and go eat meatballs in the cafe without her, just do something. If you really can't get away, at least invite friends over to your place after your baby goes to bed and go sit outside and light some candles and pretend it's a sidewalk cafe.

Also, please don't call it "date night." That is the worst phrase.

6. Serve alcohol at your baby's first birthday party.


Don't bother reading to your baby.

Okay, fine, read to him if you want to, but don't kill yourself over it.

Some people swear that their very young infants love being read to, and it may be that some babies (especially pre-mobile ones) enjoy the sound of the reading voice. Beatrice had a brief flirtation with Fluffy Chick and Friends around four months old but once she could crawl and then walk, forget it. I spent countless evenings doggedly reading Goodnight Moon to an empty nursery while she raced up and down the hallway beating the dogs with an empty paper towel roll. Until she was about eighteen months old, Beatrice would absolutely not sit still while being read to; now at three she has memorized all the words to every book she owns, reenacts scenes from her favorites, and is starting to sight-read some words. In other words, she's fine and your baby will be, too, with or without Goodnight Moon.

Writers and grad students, in particular, love to talk about what adorably inappropriate thing they read aloud to their precociously appreciative infant, and maybe Baby Edgar really does sit rapt for whole chapters of your thesis on Being and Nothingness, but it's more likely he just lacks the dexterity to unfasten his bouncy seat. Or perhaps young infants simply respond well to voices pitched at a maximum level of self-satisfaction.

8. Get over yourself.

No, this is a big deal, I get it. I, personally, am genuinely glad to hear all about it. Call me up, I can talk about babies all day. But respect the fact that your non-baby-having friends have news, too. Yes, you're ragged and puffy and sore and newly and wholly in love with a being whose waste has suddenly turned a worrying shade of green, and maybe you aren't actually all that riveted by the story of how Cary's boss was such a bitch to her in that meeting, but fake it. Cary doesn't care all that much about latching either, but she'll fake it, too, because you're friends.

And please, while we're on the subject, do not tell people without babies what they are missing, or how they can't possibly know how parenthood feels until they try it. No, of course they don't know how being a parent feels. I don't know how it feels to be a man, or a hemophiliac, or a Hugenot. No one can know how anyone else feels, that's the tragedy of existence, but having a baby doesn't make you a guru, either. Go to any Babies R Us on a Sunday afternoon and look around: does it look to you like all the people in this store have access to a hidden well of radiant cosmic knowledge?

9. Children aren't always babies.

I was shopping alone at Target when I was pregnant with Arthur and a woman, incorrectly assuming this was my first baby, actually came up to me and said, "Enjoy it now! Go shopping, go to the movies, because after the baby comes you'll never do any those things again!"

Leaving aside the obvious point that people with babies can and do go to the movies, I also like her assumption that the baby I was about to birth would remain one-month-old forever. My next-door neighbors have two boys in college and they seem to go to the movies whenever they feel like it.
Maybe it's just the media I consume, but I feel like there is a huge emphasis on parenting young children, those under five or so, and then markedly less attention placed on parenting after that. I imagine some of this is just demographics—the people who write the articles I read are around my age and so they have kids around the ages of my kids. But the effect is to make you forget that these are your children and you'll have them forever.

Inevitably there's someone on Pinterest who made a photo album of her infant daughter dressed up every day like a different kind of desert finch, and I will look at my youngest child, who is fifteen months old, and seriously find myself thinking, "Well, it's too late, you've blown it now, it's too late to make a film of Arthur and all his hospital nursery roommates enacting tableaux from Labyrinth, so I guess you're done forever."

This is seriously insane. We've barely even started making memories, we're not running out of time. It's just that no one on Pinterest is making felt collages of their kid's eighth year.

10. You don't have to cherish every second.

You will be out with your baby and some well-meaning person will tell you, "Savor every minute of this time, it goes by so fast!"

This is a terrible thing to say. It's true, but it's still a terrible thing to say.

"Savor it!"  What if I'm not savoring it enough?

I really like babies—plenty of people don't, maybe you don't, and that's fine, too—but even I can't savor a baby 24/7. Yes, with both of my children there were times when I felt truly enraptured by my love of them, totally connected to the wonder and joy of their burgeoning personhood, but there were also times where I was a little burned out on their burgeoning personhood and would really rather have just read the New Yorker in peace. But every time I would put the baby in his highchair and let him amuse himself with some Cheerios while I caught up on "The Talk of the Town," I'd feel guilty.

Savor it! Why am I not savoring it?! This is his brief, fleeting infancy, a time I will spend the rest of my life longing for, a time to fill to brimming with memories, I should be wringing every ounce of irreplaceable joy out of this afternoon instead of feeding him handful after handful of Goldfish crackers so I can finish reading Adam Gopnik's twee musings on Parisian deadbolts.

Yes, it goes fast, and then it's over, and then there are whole new phases and problems. And yes, you'll feel bad when they aren't babies anymore, but you would have felt bad anyway, so at least you got to read that magazine. Don't kill yourself. Have fun when you can, get through it when you must. Relax. You have plenty of time to love them later.

11. Get a dog. Your life is ruined anyway, you might as well.

Arthur at one week old

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