It seems that I’m in the middle of another one of those waves where my friends all get together and decide to procreate. And good for that, I say. Otherwise that whole “survival of the species” thing gets a little tense.
Several years ago, during the last of these waves, one of my friends asked me if I could distill my hard-won parental wisdom and write down some advice for them.
If there’s anything parents enjoy more than telling other parents how to raise their children, particularly if it involves talking about their experiences raising their own children, I haven’t found it. And the result was … thorough. My friend was gracious about it, though, and I hope that at least some of it turned out to be handy when the time came.
What follows is that advice, tinkered with and edited a bit. Maybe it will be handy for you too.
Or at least entertaining.
Congratulations! You’re having a baby!
You’re about to embark on a life-changing journey of magical proportions, one that will enlarge your heart and expand your consciousness to become one with the human experience and … gag … wheeze … damn, nearly made it through that with a straight face.
Let’s try that again.
Guess what? With tools you had hanging around the house you’ve somehow managed to create a total stranger inside your body. And the fascinating part is that after this stranger solves what would appear at first glance to be an intractable “Tab-A vs. Slot-B” mismatch and squeezes their way out into the world they will live in your house and mooch off your finances for the next couple of decades, during which you will get no sleep and buy no new furniture. Also, there will be stickers. Lots of stickers, on every conceivable surface, occasionally mounded to a depth of half an inch or more.
And brightly colored plastic objects.
For you, this will divide time into Before and After. Your entire life – your home life, your social life, your work life, and your private life, even if you don’t think you have any of these lives – will change. Naturally you’re a bit weirded out by the whole thing. Of course you are. Who wouldn’t be?
Shows you’ve got some sense.
And because right now you’re looking for any floating object to keep you from drowning in a sea of worry, I have prepared a Whole Lot Of Advice, just for you.
Don’t say I never gave you anything.
The first thing you have to realize is that everybody and their nitwit twin brother has advice for you when you are expecting a baby, and it doesn't stop when the kid is born, believe me. Remember that advice is free and worth every penny. DO NOT BE RAILROADED INTO ANYTHING. DO NOT BE GUILTED INTO ANYTHING. Advice is everywhere, but you are the one on the spot.
That goes for all of the things your friends will tell you, including everything that follows from this point on. That goes for all of the things you will read in books. You will find that most of them are written by people with ideological axes to grind, which will be glaringly obvious when you start to feel guilty halfway through the first paragraph. That goes for what your family tells you, and what you hear on TV. It even goes for some of what your doctor will tell you - if you think something is wrong and the OB/GYN or pediatrician is dismissive, this does not necessarily mean you were mistaken.
You should examine the advice, certainly - most of it is well meant, and some of it will be incredibly useful. But do not feel obligated to follow it.
Though when doctors tell you to take positive action, it's generally a good bet to do so.
This is a compilation of things that worked for me with my children. But you know, they were different kids. Things that worked with one did not necessarily work with the other. And neither of them is your child. Nor am I you. If you find that you have strong feelings about something, or if what someone tells you strikes you as absurd, well, then, go with your gut. Remember, babies have been born long before advice became an industry. Most of them turned out fine.
Trust yourself. You will not understand why anyone would say this to you, particularly not during the first 72 hours after you bring your child home, but trust yourself anyway.
The one exception to this rule is vaccination. VACCINATE YOUR CHILD! And again: VACCINATE YOUR CHILD! I firmly believe that people who willfully put their child at risk by deliberately ignoring the greatest medical breakthrough of the last millennium should be arrested, charged with child abuse, and infected with every disease their child would have been immunized against, one by one, beginning with polio. Survivors will be inducted into the army and sent to remote outposts. This may seem draconian, but I'm okay with that description.
A couple of years ago I had the misfortune to listen to one half-wit of a mother defend her decision to put her children at risk by saying 1) the vaccines have risks too, and 2) these diseases don't happen in her neighborhood.
Yes, vaccines have risks. Everything has risks. And the risks from vaccines are documentably lower than the risks from not having vaccines. Science: it works. Also, the reason those diseases didn’t happen in her neighborhood is that HER NEIGHBORS VACCINATED THEIR KIDS.
It is people like me who provide her children with what little margin of safety they have, and it is people like her who will destroy that margin for my grandchildren. On a very personal level, I resent that.
There are a great many decisions involved in child-rearing which are Not Moral Decisions. Cloth diapers vs. disposable ones. (Tried both.) Breast feeding vs. bottle feeding. (Tried both.) And so on. Do what seems best and do not be railroaded by people with agendas.
That said, if you can breast feed, do it. It's cheaper, it's better for the baby, it's always ready and always the right temperature, and it travels better. Plus, you can't beat the packaging. Not all babies are up for it, though. We ended up with one of each, with no harm done. Ah well. Your mileage will vary.
The down sides to breast feeding are a) the baby is Mom’s, not Dad’s - Mom gets to stay up all night feeding her and there is a certain amount of bonding that takes place there that will leave Dad out in the cold for quite some time, and b) when Mom goes back to work, there will be pumping.
If you plan to keep nursing for long after you go back, buy your own pump. Breast pumps are definitely items where you get what you pay for, so don't get a cheap one. You do not want to be economizing with any machine whose stated purpose is to grab onto your nipples and pull. You’d only spend the difference on salves and ointments anyway.
Diaper-changing - a primer. Skip this if you’ve already had experience in this matter with siblings, nephews/nieces, and/or kids you babysat for.
The first time you change your baby's diaper, it will take upwards of five minutes and you will feel exhausted from the effort. This lasts about a week, maybe less. By three months, you can (and, in fact, will) do this in your sleep. You will do it in her sleep. Eventually you will get to the point where none of the parties involved will have any conscious memory of the process. This is called Progress.
A few hints for the road:
If you have a boy, be sure to have an extra cloth diaper on hand to lay on the appropriate appendage. As my mother said, the worst thing that can happen with a girl is that the changing table gets wet - with boys you get a face full.
Wet diapers are easy, especially if they are disposable. Peel and toss. Wipe her down and rediaper. No problem.
Poopy diapers (yes, you will talk that way too - just you wait) are another matter. Some things I have learned, generally the hard way:
Remove the baby's socks, shoes and pants completely, at least until you've really got the hang of this sort of thing. Babies are squiggly things, and you only have to have them plant their foot in it once to realize that feet can just be wiped but socks need to be laundered.
Hold her ankles in one hand and wipe with the other.
Wipe the butt cheeks first. That way you can put her down without contaminating the entire surface.
If there is a blowout, there is nothing to do but get dirty. Get her cleaned up and out of the way, then attack the mess. Take the clothes to the nearest toilet and rinse - this is why God gave you hands and Proctor & Gamble gave you anti-bacterial soap. This will not faze you after the first time.
Despite this, you will continue to eat finger-foods because you are a Parent and Parenting Is Not For Wimps (see below).
Have some sort of system for sharing this load, no pun intended. It should be something that requires no long term planning – flipping coins is great for this. You will find that it will be impossible to remember things like “turns” so you’re better off with random chance. In the long run it will even out, and in the short run it avoids arguments over whose turn it is.
Have a replacement diaper ready and waiting before you start. For some babies, removing the diaper is a signal to commence peeing. The waterproof little pad you have won't catch it all unless you're fast with the new diaper. If you miss, it isn't a tragedy but it is a laundry nuisance.
Have a changing area on each floor, at least in the beginning. When they're really tiny and you're really tired, schlepping all the way to the baby's room is a drag. The floor will do if you keep it warm enough and put the proper pads down. Remember the Old Drunk’s Rule - you cannot fall off the floor.
Being a new parent and being a drunk have a lot in common, actually: incoherence, the inability to dress or eat properly, the constant coating of random bodily fluids, the odd combination of curiosity and pity from on-lookers, and so on. All the psychosis without the health problems!
Beware of the meconium - the tar-like substance that extrudes from a newborn's nether end for the first couple of days. It is a bear to clean off tiny skin. Warm water and cotton balls are best - wipes are hard on new skin. Don't use wipes for at least a month if you can avoid them, possibly longer.
One of the advantages of nursing is that poopy diapers don't really smell all that bad. Formula changes that. Solids change that even more. Reason no. 14b why nursing is good.
Very little ones do not wet much. Put a tissue in the diaper and you will know better when it has been used. This is especially true with disposable diapers, whose absorbency is stunning.
If you do go with disposable diapers, invest in a Diaper Genie. It will vastly improve your air quality