Brett Ortler takes us on a rollicking look at the changes that happened and the things he learned during his son’s first year of life.
My son will be a year old next week, but I already have a strange sense of nostalgia. In the first year of parenting, each month has its own flavor, almost as if each is its own decade. The first month is like the Roaring Twenties: there are gifts and presents and everything’s gilded thanks to complete sensory overload.
There’s the first night together as a family in the hospital room, and the adrenaline rush after waking to hear your newborn’s creaking cry in the night for the first time, then dashing around the bulky edge of the hospital bed and using an eyedropper to feed him a few drops of colostrum.
I don’t know what’s it like to have more than one child, but when you’re raising your first, parenting consists of establishing routines, followed by the sudden destruction of those routines. In this respect, it’s like watching a city progress in fast forward. It starts out as a slapdash village of feedings and diaper changes and bottles full of breast milk. Then the city begins to prosper and there’s a golden age of stability: The baby naps! Feedings are regular! The child sleeps through the night!
Then, calamity: teething begins, laying waste to the city, which must be rebuilt again. This process continues with each new facet of development. Each phase is worth it, but each is uniquely difficult. This may have been the happiest year of my life, but it has also been the hardest.
When you’re twenty-five or thirty-one or eighteen and you don’t have a kid, life usually takes place in present tense. Everything is short-term; the future’s a foreign country: you’ve booked your tickets, so you’ll get there eventually, but you’re usually more focused on the next weekend, or the next summer.
When you’re a first-time parent and holding your child, the future’s right in front of you. It’s almost a temporal split screen: you’re still immersed in the present—you have to be to make sure the little one doesn’t start gnawing on the cat’s tail or take a header into the hardwood—but in a real respect, you’re also constantly thinking about the future. Whether it’s the child’s afternoon nap, plans for the upcoming weekend, or scheduling the next doctor’s appointment, these contingencies become a simple fact of life. It’s not just a matter of planning the baby’s meals, either: soon you’re calculating how many months there are before the medical bills are paid, and how many years you have left to save for the college fund and retirement.
In a real respect, when you’re a parent, there’s no longer a discrete ‘I’; because nearly all of your decisions directly affect your child’s, life becomes plural. I becomes we. That might seem obvious, but it sure as hell doesn’t feel obvious at first.
It’s probably going to take me about twenty or thirty sittings to write this. If you want to realize how much time you’ve wasted, have a kid.
Babies live in an adorable police state. The NSA might have metadata, but it has nothing on parents. A baby’s schedule is regimented. They sleep in spare, open-air cages. With pacifiers, we curtail their freedom of speech. Their reading preferences are carefully monitored. With baby monitors watching their every move, we even wiretap their every sigh and gurgle.
And we are always watching: in the middle of the night, if there is any noise, my wife and I will stare at the monitor, cringing when a heavy sigh becomes a cry, when a cry becomes a wail.
As the child’s cries get louder, the monitor begins to blink. If it’s just background noise, it’s a green bar, but as it gets louder, the colors shift. Like storm signals on a radar map, it goes from green to yellow and finally to red. With each new color, my wife and I stare more intently at the monitor, as if we could will the child back to asleep through force of will alone.
When the child is awake and standing—we inevitably hear the pacifier thrown across the room in protest—and then the true shrieking begins. The monitor light flashes frenetically.
Like stockbrokers watching the ticker as the market tanks, my wife and I sigh. We’ve reached DEFCON 1; the bombers are in the air, the missiles readied for launch: The child is awake and unhappy.
Babies may be under surveillance, but they are essentially royalty. When an infant joins the household, the entire house is redesigned so it might be more to their liking. Rickety ladder bookcases are moved downstairs, child gates are put up, an entire room is usually dedicated to their presence. The budget is taxed, thanks to new expenses: diapers, pacifiers, the newest toys from Vtech.
Once they can eat solid food, they get their own thrones and food tasters, nonetheless, more often than not they, throw down their food and toys in disgust, babbling and yelling incoherently. If we could translate what they were saying, it’d probably be something like this: The one named “Da-Da” does not heed my commands! Behead him! Why does “Ma-ma” not obey me? Traitors, all of you! Dog-dogs, do not just sit there, waiting for me to drop scraps. Attack! Why does no one obey me? Treason!
I have no idea who taught my baby Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but he shows it off every time I try to change him.
I first noticed it when he was about six months old. I was initially optimistic because he held both of his legs in the air, and it looked like he was helping make changing him easier. Before I could finish thanking him, he had already used both of his legs to catch me with an arm bar. After I paused to extricate my arm, he quickly rolled over and attempted to crawl away—sans-diaper—in an apparent effort to escape by pitching himself over the edge of the changing table and into the tall laundry basket.
I have to imagine the Gracie family would be proud.
New parents spend much of their waking lives evaluating potential threats to their child. When our little guy began to crawl, I crawled alongside him, inspecting every piece of detritus on the hardwood floor. We tend to keep our floors fairly clean, but I was shocked about how many different things there were that could have harmed him: random clumps of dust, fraying dog toys, occasional strands of carpet dragged in from the other room.
Seeing things at eye-level for him made it apparent just how big the world is, and how many potential threats there are. After all, that was just the just the start of what could harm him in our house, let alone in the wider world. You do the best you can, but sometimes it isn’t enough. He pokes the dog in the eye, and the dog mock-lunges. He takes a few steps, then falls awkwardly to the bamboo floor.
That’s both the most obvious and the hardest lesson to learn: this is a dangerous place; it’s impossible to protect your child from everything. There will always be scars and falls and poison ivy. And far worse: leukemia and earthquakes and mass shootings.
Even when you find a spare hour or evening, the fear doesn’t go away. (In some ways, it gets worse.) Child-free dinner dates can end with a single phone call; a relaxing family vacation at the lake can turn into a dash to the emergency room. When you’re a parent, a buzzing uncertainty is always present, there’s always a vague notion of everything that could go wrong.
My son will be a year old next week, but I already have a strange sense of nostalgia. And like the fear, the nostalgia never goes away.
photo by jondejong / flickr