Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Month Three Musings

Smile. Somewhere between month two and month three, having a baby starts to pay off. Granted, there is something intrinsically special about having a baby right from the start… you feel like God, having created life, you suddenly have justification for your house being a mess, you have an excuse to stay in on Friday nights and be in bed by 9:00 pm without your friends judging you, etc - but during those first two months you are doing a lot of internal justification and rationalizing that your baby likes you. Phrases like the following are running through your pretty frequently over the course of the first two months of having a baby:

“The baby sees me more than anyone else, they know I’m their parent.”
“The baby loves me – I feed / clothe / bathe him.”
“The baby would miss me if I wasn’t here. They like me more than their swing… or the lamp.”

Sure – those statements might be true… but you have no way to know for sure. For the first two months, you could perform a test on a baby - give them the option of either looking at you, a smiling, talking, real-life human being who is calling their name and motioning towards them… or looking at a blank white wall – and there’s probably an equal chance they’re going to pick the wall. It’s a little disheartening.

Then, one day, your baby becomes a real person. One day, you’re talking to your baby and they actually look you in the eyes. You see the little wheels turning inside their brain. They start to think “wait a minute, I’ve seen this guy before – he generally seems like a pretty cool dude, and doesn’t seem to mind when I suck on his arm or pee on him. I think I’ll smile at him to show him that I like his style.” And then they smile.

Suddenly, you have some evidence to back up all your crazy thoughts. Sure, they might also smile at the lamp from time to time, but there’s a pretty good chance that they do actually recognize you and appreciate all the blood, sweat, and tears that you’ve dedicated to them over the course of the first three months of their lives. You finally start to get some return on your investment!

For me, this is probably the moment when a baby starts becoming a person. It’s the first step towards social interaction, the first step towards being able to communicate with the outside world, and the first step towards Jackson being able to appreciate all the hilarious things I say to him all the time. The smiles become a measuring stick for how much a baby likes you, a pick-me-up after a crappy day at the office (hypothetically speaking, of course), and an elusive sight that quickly vanishes as soon as the cameras come out, much like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. Any day that you get some smiles is a good one.

Of course, the next step in this communication evolution is the laugh. Thus far, Jackson gives a “talking laugh” – you know, the kind you would give if you didn’t really think that something was funny, but were actually saying the words “ha ha ha”. I’ll classify it as a laugh for now, but either he hasn’t quite mastered the belly laugh yet, or my jokes aren’t actually that funny and he’s just humoring me.

The other interesting thing about babies? The line between laughing and crying is razor thin. One second they’re smiling and talk-laughing at you… then without notice, it becomes a cry. “Ha ha ha ha… waa!” It’s mind-boggling. On numerous occasions Jackson has gone mid-laugh into cry and mid-cry into laugh. On some occasions, he’s even done the elusive laugh-cry, where’s he doing both at the same time. The eyes say “I’m not happy”, but the mouth says “you are entertaining me. Keep it up, large person who cleans up my poop.”

Stress. But life with a baby isn’t always smiles and laugh-cries. It can also be stressful… like the most stressful hour of my week each week – the sixty minutes each Sunday that I’m at church. Babies inside churches (or any other quiet place for that matter) are a ticking time bomb that could go off at any minute. It’s horrible. You nervously keep one eye on them at all times, looking for any cracks in the armor or signs that loud noises might be coming. Church time is spent unleashing one preventive measure after another upon your child in hopes of avoiding a loud outburst. Rocking. Pacifying. Picking the baby up. Shaking the baby. Passing the baby to someone else like a hot potato so that if he does start crying, the congregation will look at them and think “what horrible parents, they must be sinners” rather than looking at you.

The good news is, this leads to plenty of prayer going on in church, although most are some variation of “God, please keep my baby quiet”. I guess all those prayers must be paying off, since thus far Jackson has been nearly silent in every church he’s ever attended. Heck, he even slept through his baptism, and that involved forcing him to wear a dress while a stranger dumps water on his head. What is this, a fraternity initiation? Still, the prospect of a mid-mass melt-down, especially during one of those “quiet reflection” portions of church is absolutely terrifying. I can’t wait for the day when Jackson is old enough to develop Catholic guilt so that I can shame into behaving at church.

Baby Books Become Useless. One of the things that Kate and I have discovered is that all the baby books that we have become utterly useless around month three. Up until this point, they’ve been giving us day-by-day, week-by-week instructions on how to properly raise our child. We’ve followed them pretty closely, and they’ve worked pretty well. Jackson is a very happy, calm baby who sleeps a ton. The problem is, every baby book either ends on month three – or jumps from month three to one year. There is literally no advice about what to do during months four through twelve. The authors cop-out and say things like “each child develops differently” or “congratulations, your baby is well on their way to being the happiest baby on the block”, and then just assume that everything is magically going to work out for the next nine months.

Clearly, someone is putting far too much faith in me as a parent.  

I’m fairly certain Jackson isn’t self-sufficient quite yet – maybe next month – which begs the question - what do we do now? Some talk of “tough love”, letting a baby cry it out, teaching them that the world is a cold, cruel place that they need to learn to tackle on their own. Others say this will make your child grow up to listen to goth music and hate you. On the other extreme are people who continue to baby their babies, attending to their every need and desire, teaching them that the world is caring, loving place full of sunshine and puppies. However, this risks creating a child who grows up thinking that everything in life should be easy, guaranteeing that they will never be able to become a Bengals or Notre Dame fan. It’s a pickle! I’m sure the answer lies somewhere in the middle, but without a so-called “expert” telling us how to get there, we’re left to navigate the treacherous waters of child-rearing on our own…

Back to Reality. Or are we? Month three marks the hardest part of every mom’s life, at least according to my unofficial research of females that I know – wrapping up maternity leave and heading back to work. Their lives have been fully consumed by one thing – taking care of their baby - for a quarter of the year… and suddenly, the party is over and it’s time to return to the reality of work. For fathers, this was a much smaller event that took place a week or two after the birth of their child – like when the NCAA tournament ends.  For mothers, many have literally spent every waking moment for three months staring at their child – it’s more like the end of the NFL season. It’s a hard transition. Work is like baseball. Sure, it fills the time in the day and keeps you entertained, but the same level of love and affection isn’t there. You spend your free time thinking about your fantasy football team – er, your baby – and can’t wait for it to return.

The silver lining here? In the case of Jackson, he’s going to start going to day care where there will be a staff of people who have degrees in things like “How to Care for a Child”, “Teaching Babies to Nap in Cribs”, and “Advanced Sock Puppetry” – critical skills that people like KB and I lack. We do our best to make up for these deficiencies with things like unconditional love and undivided attention, but it’s somewhat nice to think of day care as a safety blanket – someone else that can ensure we’re not missing anything crucial to successful child development… and if we are, someone that can take steps to fix our mistakes. It’s like an insurance policy for our parenting skills – and I kinda like that.

So while I know it’s going to be an absolutely brutal few weeks as we get adjusted to the “real life” or working and having a baby, I take solace in the fact that it’s a critical step in making Jackson a well-adjusted human being who can go out into the world, make friends, and learn things like baby sign language and Spanish. Over the past three months, we’ve done the best we can to arm him with all the defense mechanisms we can – a thick layer of body fat to get through the lean times, cuteness to help him receive favor from his teachers, and now the ability to smile and talk-laugh, which should help him get out of any sticky situations with day care bullies, and also help pick up day care chicks.

It's a big beautiful world out there. It's time for Jackson to start experiencing it.