Friday, October 21, 2011

Advice for Expecting Parents, Part 3 of 3

From what I gathered, being an observer to the process, pregnancy goes through several distinct stages. The first trimester is a very tired stage. There is a lot of new construction going on, and this requires most of the energy that exists, so there is very little left over for anything or anyone else. The second is the Manic stage, where you've got all sorts of energy. Enjoy it. In the third trimester you grow weary again. Your limbs become more limber than strictly necessary. You are always warm (having 50% more blood and an internal furnace will do that). It can get very annoying. But remember – pregnancy is a self-limiting condition, and it will in fact come to an end.

Go to the prenatal classes. They're fun, in their way. Part 12-step program (“Hello, my name is Rebecca, and I’m an expectant mother. It’s been 3 years since my last child.” “Welcome, Rebecca!”) and part training regimen, some of what they say will be useful, especially the breathing bits. You also get a sense that there are many people all going through pretty much what you are and many of them are even less prepared for it, which is always a welcome lesson. There will be at least one Martha Stewart wannabe, and you can rest assured that either she or her kid will end up sniping from a clock tower someday. Enjoy them!

Be sure to get a tour of the hospital while you’re there. Also, if your hospital allows pre-registration so you can fill out all the paperwork ahead of time and just give your name (including your last name in any and all of its permutations) at the front door when the big event hits, that is good.

On the day everything happens, before you go in to the hospital, remember that you probably have more time than you think you do, so:

Eat something. You may be there quite a while, and once you’re hooked up to all the monitors it is a bear to get something to eat.

Shower, following the same reasoning as eating, above.

Don't go in until there are contractions. If you go in too early they will just send you home. Otherwise they get herds of pregnant women cluttering up the halls, not delivering babies. Call them to make sure if you think you need to go in - if you have an Ask-A-Nurse line, that is a good place to start - but they will probably tell you to stay home until the contractions start.

Having your water break is likely a good sign that you should be headed in, at least to see what’s up, though it can’t hurt to call.

Many well-intentioned people will offer to help you when you bring the baby home. On the one hand, such help can be invaluable, especially if you and they all get along. Such people will cook, clean and generally maintain the household while you both grow accustomed to the new normal. Friends will stop by with food also. All of this is wonderful. So long as everyone understands that the new mother is NOT NOT NOT NOT to play host IN ANY WAY, SHAPE, MANNER OR FORM up to and including greeting guests or putting on clothing clean or otherwise, and further that any such guests will fit their activities around her world and make NO NONE ZIP ZILCH IXNAY NADA demands upon her - well, then, that will work out just fine.

On the other hand, even if everyone agrees to this stipulation (and miribale dictu follows through on those agreements), it can be draining at a time when you will be drained enough.

You make the call.

When you bring the baby home, you will begin to discover what tired really means. Imagine how you felt studying for your worst-ever final exams period. Now throw in your worst workweek ever, and multiply the result by, oh, a very big number, and you will know how tired you will be on your good days. Newborns do not sleep. Or, rather they do - up to sixteen hours a day - but in two-hour increments all around the clock. Sleep when the baby sleeps, whenever that may be, and you will survive. Even if you do this, though, you will lose track of days. You will bump into walls. You will be - and here I repeat myself, as you will find yourself doing a lot in those first few weeks - very, very tired. This is perfectly normal.

It does have some consequences, though.

At this point, you probably have a lot of cares on your mind. Details that need to be addressed, things you have to do, that sort of thing. These will flee your mind when the baby arrives, or at least they ought to. You won't care about showers, you won't care about what the house or the baby's room looks like, you won't even care if you are dressed or not. Bottom line: you simply won't care about much of what strikes you as important now.

What you will care about is:

1. Is the baby eating?
2. Is the baby sleeping?
3. Can I sleep too?
4. Can I eat?

And you will care about them in that order. Babies exist to remind us that our other plans probably weren't that important.

Don't both of you stay up for the late night feedings so you can enjoy the magic of it. Take turns if you are bottle-feeding. If Mom is nursing, let Dad sleep - PROVIDED he takes over every other function of the house (laundry, dishes, everything). At minimum, the partner of a nursing mother of a newborn should prepare meals, take care of whatever older children are about, and make sure the house doesn’t burn down. Anything after that may or may not have to get done at all.

The magic lines are 3 months and 11 pounds. At three months (past due date, not birth date, so if Junior is really early you will have to add) your baby is cognitively advanced enough not to need you every second, just most of them. This is liberating. And at 11 pounds, her stomach is large enough to hold enough food to sleep through the night, defined as five consecutive hours of sleep. This may not seem like much sleep now, but you will think you are at a spa.

Any restaurant that delivers is your best friend during those first few weeks, especially if it produces leftovers. Indulge in this liberally. But beware of leftovers - monitor their dates carefully. New parents are very fuzzy thinkers and will sometimes eat very fuzzy things, much to their detriment. Trust the voice of experience - this hurts.

Babies cry. Babies cry A LOT. You probably know this, intellectually. You may even have had some experience with this, babysitting or taking care of friends' kids. But you don't know this in the marrow of your bones the way you will when it is 5am, your loving partner fell over an hour ago and it is just you and the tornado siren until dawn. You will despair. You will know the extremity of frustration. You will cry along with your baby. This is Perfectly Normal.

It has been scientifically proven that a newborn's cry is the single most irritating sound to the human ear (really - I have no idea how they did it, but there actually was a study on this). This is so because it is the only sound they can make - they can't ask for things, they can't point, all they can do is wail and hope you catch on (and believe, me, catching on is something that takes practice - you will find yourself running through all the options, one by one, until something works, and if nothing works you just run through them again or wait until the kid falls asleep). Also, babies, especially newborns, are AWESOMELY needy things - they can do nothing for themselves, not even fart. They need to make sure you respond to them, otherwise they die. A newborn with a soothing cry is a newborn that gets ignored and starves. Darwin at his finest.

Remember - it is PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE to spoil a newborn. Do not listen to harpies telling you to let them cry or they'll become brats. Until the kid is at least six months old and probably older, she won't cry unless there is some reason somewhere - it may not be obvious or even detectable, but it is there. She needs something - give it to her, or at least give her reassurance that you're looking for it. Pick her up, try your best to sooth her, and DO NOT IGNORE HER. There are still parenting manuals that tell you otherwise. If you find one, burn it. Newborns cry because they need to - not because they want to.

This means that your little one DOES NOT HATE YOU, no matter how much you may think so. She is not trying to make you crazy (that comes when she's a teenager). You will go loopy anyway, especially when she doesn't stop (we never went through colic, but I hear that's even worse). Remember that it isn't her fault - she's programmed that way, and so are you. She is just trying to get your attention.

The most important lesson to take away from that is do not take out your frustrations on her. You say now that of course you won't – OF COURSE! – but it's not 5am now, is it? Believe me, you will be tempted. You will understand how children get abused, though you will sympathize with it even less than you do now. I heartily support cruel and unusual punishment for child abusers, the Constitution be damned, but there were definitely times when the darker corners of my soul started making unwanted suggestions.

You will resist those suggestions, because you are not evil. You are the Parent, the grown-up, the adult in the room, and more than anything else in this world that is what your child needs – someone who will love them and protect them and take care of them even when they are not being lovable. Parenting is not for wimps. It will not be easy, but you will be okay.

Remember a couple of things.

First, it is okay to put the child down and let him cry for a few minutes. It won't hurt him, and sometimes you just need to take a break. Five minutes is about as long as such breaks can possibly last, even in theory - in practice it will be more like two, and even that is pushing it sometimes - but sometimes that's all you need to unscramble your marbles. Take a walk around the house. Go into your room and shut the door. Turn on a random TV show and crank the volume. AND THEN GO BACK. Again: parenting is not for wimps - get back to the front, soldier, and take what comes. You may be pleasantly surprised. Either she'll still be crying, in which case the cycle repeats and you may actually figure out what the problem is this time and solve it (hey, it happens now and again), or - and this does happen as well - she'll have worn down and conked out. Repeat as necessary.

And second, don't be afraid to take out frustrations and anger on inanimate objects. The pillows don’t complain. Nor do the walls. You might, depending on what you aim for, but that’s okay – you’re an adult and you can handle it.

Oddly enough, given all this, you will get used to it. As with everything else, the first three months are the worst, and after that you find yourself building up a tolerance. Eventually you will be able to sit in a room full of crying babies and not even notice - you will reflexively check to see that your own child is okay and that the other screaming munchkins have someone looking out for them, but you will calmly eat your meal and carry on your conversation anyway. Crying babies in public spaces or at events/ceremonies/etc. will just leave you with a wry and knowing smile. You will feel mostly sympathy for your crying baby, and even other people's crying babies. Your first reaction will go from "Oh no!" to "Aww, poor little thing..." You will even feel this way on airplanes, believe it or not. This is a survival skill, and a welcome one. Remember that it will happen to you eventually, no matter how unlikely this may seem at first.

Do not hesitate to reach out to friends and family for help. This is why they exist in the first place – to help you get through things that may seem too big at the time. There will be moments when that’s what this will seem like – babies are not all sunshine and roses. As you can tell from the length of this tome, parents generally love being useful this way. And I can tell you from experience how important it is to be able to talk to someone who can say, “Yeah, I remember that stage. You’ll be fine. This is how it goes…” Soon it will be you giving those reassurances, and you will understand it from the other side. We’re all in this together, and you might as well make good use of that fact.

Get used to your floors. Babies spend most of their time on the floor, and if you want to be part of their world you will too. Play with them on the floor. Talk to them on the floor. Spend time on the floor - don't you hate it when people look down at you? Get down on their level.

A side benefit of this is that if you get on the floor and crawl from room to room, you will get a much more thorough picture of the hazards you will have to correct when the kid starts to move on her own. Also, assume your carpeting is disposable and get it replaced when the kid is in junior high.

Science fiction is probably the best preparation for parenthood, because it teaches you to accept as reality whatever is presented to you as such. There will be more than a few times when you will need to fall back on this training.

Write things down. When you are in the middle of it, it seems like it will never end - things have always been this way, they will always continue to be this way. And yet by the time you turn around, that squalling little lump will be walking and talking, making his own plans and doing his own things, and you will have no idea where the time went, nor will you remember any of it on your own. Not the day-in, day-out stuff anyway. Every day, even if it is just a word or two on a calendar square, write something down.

Likewise, take lots of pictures. Digital storage is cheap, moments are priceless, take pictures accordingly. Make sure you get a camera that records the date! It's not like your former childless life, where all of your pictures are of holidays and you can pretty much tell that if people are wearing sweaters it must be Thanksgiving or Christmas. You will find yourself taking all sorts of pictures just because, and those are hard to date.

Above all, stop now and then and try to take in the magic of it all. This is an amazing process, for all its nuisances and inconveniences. It will change your life in ways you cannot even imagine now.

Some of these ways will be rather quixotic. Your time will not be your own, ever – babies are such awesomely needy things. You will have to PLAN for activities you used to just DO - grocery shopping, for example, becomes a well-thought-out strategic strike, complete with intense amounts of baby baggage. MacArthur went into the Philippines with less forethought and baggage than the average new parent needs to go to the mall. You can forget traveling or eating out for a while, at least for a few months (if you're brave – probably longer if you’re like most of us).

On the other hand, what you get back is far more important. You will see things differently. Your priorities will shift. You will never sneer at drippy Hallmark Mother's Day cards again, because you will understand what the corporate flacks who wrote them were trying to get at. It's hard to explain, and no matter how I try it won't make sense until you're there. You just have to experience it. And you are experiencing it - stop every so often, just stop, and try to take it all in. If you do it right - and I've managed to succeed maybe once a month during good stretches - it will be the most awe-inspiring feeling you'll ever have.

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