In which we discuss the parental ramifications of George Carlin's observation, "That's all a house is: a place to keep your stuff."
The Baby Industry will try to convince you that you need a buttload of Stuff, all of it coordinated and all of it ready to go at least a month in advance. This is a crock of yuppie guilt.
Babies do not require a whole lot of stuff. They GET a whole lot of stuff, because a) babies are fun to buy stuff for (you will be amazed at what strikes your fancy after you become a parent) and b) once other kids are grown a bit, their parents are desperate to unload stuff and the Baby Stuff Jet Stream will park over your house and items will rain down on your head. This is a good thing, and the only way you can survive without going broke.
Also, you will become a connoisseur of garage sales - you will be amazed at the high-quality, lightly used (or even unused) stuff you will end up with when your baby is grown a bit and you have your own garage sale, and other people's garage sales are just the same. We bought a staggering percentage of our children's clothes at garage sales, and we found more than a few really cool (and otherwise very expensive) toys as well.
Do not worry about getting ready six weeks in advance. First of all, babies don't need that much stuff all at once. Second, you will never really be ready. You have no idea what is about to hit you. Trust me – you don’t. Many kindhearted and thorough people tried to tell us - intelligent and educated souls that we are - what to expect, and it was just so much scorched rubber on my scalp. Whooosh! What hit me!? You won't know what you need until you need it, and thank God for all-night supermarkets, overnight delivery and mega-stores. Emergency runs for supplies are Perfectly Normal, so relax.
In terms of stuff, though:
No matter what people tell you, there is a VERY short list of things which babies absolutely require. This list includes 1) diapers and cleaning supplies, 2) receiving blankets (especially for a cold-weather baby - you cannot have too many receiving blankets), 3) onezies (do not buy or use infant clothing that does not snap at the bottom, no matter how adorable it is), 4) a small can of formula in case the nursing doesn't work out, 5) a carseat, and 6) a place to sleep. This last can be as simple as your own bed, which works fine (though Dad may end up sleeping elsewhere for a couple of weeks if that happens).
EVERYTHING ELSE IS OPTIONAL, and all of this except the carseat can be purchased at your local megastore for around $50 to $100 total. More if you buy a cradle.
The carseat will probably be expensive, but this is one thing you definitely do not want to cheap out on - kids spend a LOT of time in the car these days, unless you live in a major metropolitan area with decent public transportation, so splurge on this one. Check out Consumer Reports, too.
The hospital will probably give you the small can of formula when you leave – formula companies pay good money to get their product into your hands, and you might as well take advantage of the system.
Remember, you will end up with much more stuff than this when all is said and done (oh, my, will you ever). You will want it, and your baby will be happy to see it, but this does not equal "necessary"
On the list of "Really Useful (if not strictly necessary) Things To Have, you can place the following:
Cotton balls - soak them in warm water and use them instead of baby wipes when dealing with newborns; they're easier on gentle skin and provoke fewer rashes. Make sure they're 100% cotton, though - the polyester ones leave strands behind. This works for the first few weeks, maybe a bit longer, until they get a little bigger. Then get wipes.
Door mice - those little foam rubber things you put on your doors to keep them from slamming and waking up napping babies - priceless.
Pillows - pregnant women use an ungodly number of pillows. You don’t have enough pillows. No, you don’t. Really, no. Stock up now.
Rocking chairs - preferably one in the baby's room and another somewhere where you will be taking care of her (best if it's in front of a TV, as you will be amazed at how often you will be rocking a sleeping child in your arms and can't move or read). I like glider rockers, since they don't wander off when you rock, but that's just me. Glider rockers also have the advantage of coming with solid sides, so they don't catch toddler fingers when you rock.
A small CD player in the baby's room for to play lullabies upon, and a lullaby CD. Any quiet, soothing CD will do – it’s not like they’re hipster music experts. They just want something nice to fall asleep to. So do you.
Finger food for the first few weeks - you won't have time to cook or even reheat, so have a big vat of something you can leave on the dining room table and snatch as you go by. Cookies are fine. Remember – empty calories are better than no calories, particularly for people who are red-lining their energy reserves, as new parents tend to do. This is not the time to be health-conscious or go on any diets. You need calories. You will lose weight anyway, and this is especially true of nursing mothers.
Binkies. This is another issue that many people confuse with a Moral Dilemma. We got many earnest dissertations on the evils of pacifiers, and ignored every last one of them. Binkies are incredibly useful - they work exactly as advertised, pacifying babies and allowing the rest of the world to soldier on. Good things. The silicon ones are tougher when Junior gets teeth, and if you’re worried about allergies they’re probably better than latex, but otherwise don't worry too much. The one really useful thing we discovered is that there are a number of brands that come with binky clips now - plastic clips that attach to Junior's onezie, with a ribbon that goes up to the binkie. Eliminate searching for lost binkies! Coolness. Avoid anything with an alligator clip at the end.
A nursing pillow, if you will be nursing. It props up Junior and saves your arms.
A big clock with glowing hands (or a clearly visible LED digital one) for the baby's room, so you know just how long you've been rocking the kid to sleep.
A good fragrance-free detergent. Anything marketed as a “baby detergent” is going to be heavily scented. There are those this does not bother, and you may be one of them, but we found that very hard on baby skin (not to mention ours).
Nylon netting for any stair rails or hallway rails the kid could crawl through (available at most hardware stores premade for just this purpose). Cabinet locks and other child-proofing devices. By the time you need these (at the earliest when Junior is 7 months old or so) you will have a good feel for what you need.
Tiny little hats - newborns lose heat through their heads and can't control their own body temps, so always have a hat on them for the first few weeks.
A cheap full-length mirror that you can tack to the wall at floor level in a room where the baby will be spending a lot of waking time (we put ours in the living room). Babies love to see themselves, and many never outgrow this. You can play Zoom-In Baby! Zoom-Out Baby! When they can sit on their own you can prop them up in front of it and buy precious minutes of down time. When they can walk, they will often go over to admire themselves.
Trashcans with lids. At first this will be because used diapers will find their way into every trash receptacle you own and eventually your air quality will suffer. Later it will be to prevent junior explorers from doing unsupervised archeological work on your middens.
A good-quality handheld vacuum, preferably cordless. You will be stunned at where all sorts of things end up.
Desitin - it's the scent of new parenthood.
A nice pair of soft slipper-type footwear. Until Junior is walking around outside, there is no need for shoes with hard soles - and until she's walking, there's no need for shoes at all. Socks and slippers will keep little feet warm, otherwise don't bother.
A four-door car, if you don't have one already. Schlepping a carseat with an infant into the backseat of a two-door is a sure recipe for back problems, particularly for older parents. I spent a great deal of time thinking, “So that’s why we’re biologically programmed to have kids when we’re TEENAGERS, dammit, and not in our 30s.”
A good stroller. Umbrella strollers are cheap and work fine for older babies, especially when you're traveling and need something portable, but they're not good for newborns. The kid has to be able to hold her head up while jostling over bumpy sidewalks, and that takes a few months. Get a nice big one that folds up. If you can, get one that has an infant carseat system so you can snap it out of the base in the car and directly into the stroller.
A good carseat. Again, do not go cheap on this one - your baby will be spending an awful lot of time there. And try to sync it with the stroller if you can - we had one that just lifted out of the car and snapped into the stroller, which was wonderful. Babies can sleep fine in these infant buckets, so if she falls asleep while you are driving, just carry her, seat and all, into the house and park her somewhere quiet for naptime. DO NOT attempt to take a sleeping child out of a carseat and put her into a bed, as you will just wake her up and make everyone miserable. Get one with two bases if you have two cars, so you don't have to transfer the base from car to car.
For favorite items, it is a good idea to have a backup. If there are one or two special toys or blankies, make sure to have an identical spare for when the first is in the wash or lost. Be sure to rotate them, though! If you just keep one in reserve, eventually it will still look shiny and new while the favorite gets worn and comfortable - and then the point is lost. At first you may feel guilty about such trickery, but this will pass. Age and treachery will beat youth and skill every time.
The key to parenting, as with any power relationship, is to control the options. In any system, from government to child rearing, power lies with the person who sets the options, not the person who makes the choices. If I can give you a choice of A, B or C, all of which are acceptable to me, what do I care what you choose?
While this is true for all phases of parenthood, it is especially true when it comes to Stuff. This means only stocking children's movies that you don't mind seeing repeatedly, only stocking food that you don't mind her eating, and so forth. If all the food is healthy, she can eat the same thing every day for months if she wants. If none of your movies rot your brain and curdle your innards, let her choose.
Let them win the battles so long as the war is safely in hand. They will be happier, and so will you. They won't figure out this lesson until much, much later – frankly, most people never figure it out at all – so banzai!
To be honest, I'm a lot better at this sort of thing in theory than I am in practice. Life intervenes, particularly when the kid gets older and starts to make her own decisions. I tried though, since when I did succeed, it made life just so much easier.
The best course of action on food is only to stock food that is appropriate. You won't do this absolutely - nobody does this absolutely, not even diet gurus or baby-mavens - but you can avoid a lot of grief if you keep the crap to a minimum.
Our pediatrician told us not to worry about balanced meals but to focus on balanced weeks. Some days are veggie days. Some are meat days. If you don't have any on hand, there won't be any potato chip days. If it balances over the course of a week, you're fine.
There are an awful lot of children's movies out there, and most of them are miserably bad. Cloying, poorly animated, plotless things with music you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy's wedding reception, they will kill you if you buy them because children like to see things repeatedly. Unless you intend to watch Hello Kitty a hundred times, don't buy it. We learned that one the hard way.
Though if you’re interested in how cross-cultural communication can go disastrously awry even with the best of intentions, get the Hello Kitty Christmas movie – it’s fascinating the first time, as train-wreck television often is, but unless you quickly “lose” it into the nearest landfill it will make you want to run to the nearest federal office and beg to be shipped to Guantanamo.
Avoid anything that prominently advertises itself as “heartwarming.” It will only give you gas.
Bottom line, when it comes to movies only get what you want to watch. This is not has hard as you may think. We live in the second golden age of animation and there are a lot of good movies for kids out there. Some examples:
For very little ones, the Baby Einstein company puts out an entire line of wonderful videos. Buy them. For the very littlest ones - anytime after about 5 or 6 months - Baby Mozart is cool. It has good music and pleasant little shots of toys in motion. You can watch it for hours without suffering brain damage (it’s actually kind of catchy), and your child will love it. The movies have gotten more slick with recent entries, since Disney bought them out, but they're still worth it.
Pretty much anything Disney puts out is worth buying, actually. This is what they do - they're good at it. Some of the older ones have not worn well (Peter Pan comes to mind), but you can't go too far wrong with Disney.
This is especially true with their Pixar branch. The Toy Story movies, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Up, Wall-E and so on are great - and, as with the best children's stuff, there is lots for the adults. Monsters Inc. is perhaps the best children's movie ever made, though the bottom limit for viewers is 3 years old.
There are a lot of other good animated films competing with Pixar. The secret is that the good ones throw in plenty of stuff for the adults who will be watching too. The Shrek movies are good for kids. Ice Age is fun. One of my favorites, actually, is a shamefully little-known movie called Hoodwinked. You can also get all of the first three seasons of Rocky and Bullwinkle, as well as the entire run of the Pink Panther cartoons, on DVD. The Pink Panther is especially nice when the kids are older and you have one of those DVD players for the car – there’s no dialogue to distract the driver, just Henry Mancini’s glorious jazz score.
Elmo rules. Especially for kids between 18 months and 3 years old. You would be surprised at how painless Elmo can be for adults
And so on. The key thing about videos is that it is okay to park your child in front of them now and then in order to get other things done, such as cooking dinner. This is not, as one (childless) social worker told a friend of mine, a form of child abuse. This is how things work. Don't use them as a substitute for parenting unless you want your child to send Mother's Day cards to Disney from prison, but as an occasional holding device, they're invaluable.
The same goes for music.
Getting children into music early is a great thing, but there is a lot of awful stuff out there. Avoid anything sung by kids, since these are made by grownups who have no sense of humor.
The ones we really liked were "Philadelphia Chickens," by Sandra Boynton (and its sequel, "Dog Train"), "Bright Spaces," a compilation, "Holiday Songs and Lullabies," by Shawn Colvin, "Night Songs" by Dan Zanes, "You Are My Sunshine" by Elizabeth Mitchell, and a few others. Anything by Dan Zanes is good, actually. There are also a lot of kids CD’s out now by “real” artists – it’s one of those trends, so you might as well take advantage of it. They Might Be Giants has one, for example. Bottom line, though, stick with the tunes you like and your sanity will benefit.