They say, “Enjoy it while it lasts.” They usually follow it up with, “And it doesn’t last long.”
I’m doing my best.
I’m not so good with the lullabies. They are comforting, even to me, but also to my daughter—I guess that’s just the point. Still, the comfort comes from having them sung to you; as the singer I found quickly that my memories of the melodies were sharp, the lyrics not as much. As an audience you find solace in the intent underneath the lyrics, the softly sung choruses in whispered verse. Memorization of the poetry on top is far from mandatory. So I struggle with various on-the-spot mumblings and half-remembered couplets. Often times I find myself sticking with a single refrain, usually something simple like “Kum Ba Ya,” riffing on the tune with a stream-of-consciousness sort of babble that only half makes sense. Fortunately, we chose a name that rhymes with and matches syllables with “baby.”
The difficult part of singing lullabies isn’t the lyrics, though. That’s just the part that makes them awkward. The difficult part is that many of the standards, “Lullaby and Good-Night,” “Twinkle, Twinkle,” etc are in keys that aren’t readily hit by whispered singers. I have no delusions that my singing is stage-worthy or even publicly acceptable, but I love to sing. I’ll make up silly songs for no reason whatsoever and belt them out as I wash dishes or take a shower or drive along a nighttime road. Catapulting dippy made-up songs into the air is fun and fairly easy, but trying to maintain a sense of steady melody at a low, sleep-inducing volume is… not.
Sometimes the variations of song and lyric are clearly not for my daughter’s edification. She seems just as happy if I iterate endlessly over “Hush Little Baby” but there are so many songless Mockingbirds and clumsy horses I can promise to her before I start to go a little batty. On one night in question I’d exhausted my supply of lullabies but not my child. I continued to rock her gently in my arms and grasped clumsily at something to continue with, afraid in that deluded panicky state you enter as a parent of an infant that something you are doing, have done or are about to do will cause a startled awakening accompanied by the requisite wail of newborn anguish. Lacking any true inspiration I began to improvise on a hoarse, practically tuneless little melody that was half “You Are My Sunshine” and half “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The lyrics were standard lullaby fare: Blissful slumber, promises of new days tomorrow, reassurances of parental protection, simple exclamations of steadfast love and devotion, non-sequiturs for the sake of rhyming couplets. The difference, as near as I can tell, is that instead of struggling to excavate long-forgotten lyrics from the depths of my brain, I was expressing in the first person my affection for the sleepless and thrashing babe I rocked like an exhausted pendulum. It was far from the first time I’d ever made such thoughts and feelings known to her, but be it the inherent weariness or the structure of song or perhaps just the fact that it actually worked as intended, lulling her steadily into the desired state of calm and rest I’d been working on so diligently, the result was unexpected.
I’m not, by nature, an emotionally charged sort of person. At least I don’t perceive myself as such. My default mode tends to be a sort of mildly bemused observer, occasionally drifting into moderate crankiness or a slightly softened compassion. The range is fairly short between the extremes of my moods. I don’t really get hopping mad very often. I don’t have very many moments of unbridled joy. And I definitely don’t find myself moved to tears with any kind of regularity. I didn’t even cry when Callie was born, though I went into the experience fully expecting to. It surprised me when I discovered that instead of being moved I was simply overwhelmed and sort of terrified which resulted in me entering a kind of semi-robotic state.
But in this case, I watched my little girl open and close her tiny mouth a few times, slowly, as if tasting the air around her, drinking in my song. I saw her beautiful eyes flutter closed and stay shut. I felt her nuzzle just slightly closer to my arm with the croaking sound of my stupid and now forgotten song, the tears fell.
The First First
I don’t put much stock in “Firsts,” at least not the way it seems many parents do. And okay, I have no data to back this up but I suspect it is principally a “mother” thing. At least the tracking portion of it in cute little books that look suspiciously like low-rent scrapbooks to me. If I had to wager I’d say the demarcation of “firsts” originated with dads as a means of injecting some competition into child rearing.
Anyway, maybe I should put some stock into it because perhaps developmentally those milestones are more significant than I give them credit for. To me, though, it feels like our daughter’s firsts are hardly forebears of new chapters in her life. She has consistently displayed a propensity for various actions and achievements only to promptly discard the activity once mastered as if to say, “Check. What’s next?” Her first smile, her first head lift, her first babbled vocalization, her first object grasped from curiosity (as opposed to reflex) are all lost to the haze of overwhelming change and adjustment that has characterized the last six months.
But I do recall the first time I heard her laugh like a little person.
She has a number of distinct laughs: The throaty chortle she uses when she’s amused by our games of peekaboo and silly faces, the shrill delighted squeal she uses when surprised by happiness such as a tickle or a raspberry blown on her soft little tummy, the wide-mouthed tchkkkk of air escaping tightly stretched lips and firm tongue that she does when she’s cracked herself up and convulsed into a little twitching ball of self-congratulation. I love each and every one of these laughs, but the one I love the most is the braying “ha-ha-hee-hee-hee!” of genuine mirth when something really cracks her up.
The first time I heard it I was changing her diaper and trying to make her smile as has been my custom from nearly day one. I’m not as much of a speed-changer as other dads I’ve spoken to who view the chore as a sort of Nascar pit crew scenario whose principle measure of success is beating a previous best on the stopwatch. I certainly don’t spend as much time at the changing table as Nik or most other moms I’ve encountered, but I try my best to interact with the baby as I process her waste receptacles because I figure it’s not her fault she’s too short and too immobile to use the toilet. Heck, even I bring a book with me to the bathroom so the way I see it, people need some entertainment when they have their business taken care of.
I couldn’t say what led up to the moment, but it was probably the usual barrage of tickles and hugs and exaggerated smiles. At one point though I grasped both of her wrists and lifted them up to my closely-shorn hairline and tickled the tips of her tiny fingers with the stubble. She squealed a bit with excited glee. So I pulled her arms up higher and drooped my head down a bit lower and drug her little palms across the close-cropped pate of my balding head. With a clutch of her stimulated fingers and a laugh that sounded for all the world like a delighted little girl as opposed to an amused newborn, she screeched out the now-familiar sounds of real person laughter. The sound was so surprising and remarkable that it forced a hearty laugh of my own out of me and for a couple of minutes the two of us took turns cracking each other up. Whenever we would regain our composure I’d rub my head with her chubby baby fingers and we’d start all over again.
It took a long time to change that particular diaper.
Mistakes, I’ve Made a Few
We’ve made a lot of mistakes already as new parents. Thankfully and mercifully none of them have resulted in anything seriously detrimental to our baby’s health. One that stands out in my mind is mistake I made in planning a bunch of family visits almost immediately after the birth. The problem wasn’t in the family, it wasn’t even in the visitation, the problem was merely in the additional set of worries and responsibilities that come with having people over when added atop the already crushing weight of adjusting to life with a newborn.
For their part I think our families were gracious and patient with us. It couldn’t have been easy. I read a lot and assumed from the data gathered there that the early days would be times when any and every helping hand would be more than welcome. A lot of the visitors we had were in fact there to offer support, be it emotional or by attending to chores we would maybe otherwise have let slip or in perhaps subliminal offers to assist with the baby. The hitch is that Nik and I are stubbornly, perhaps stupidly, independent. We feel a collective loathing to admit that there is something that we need help with, that we can’t handle entirely on our own. I think in a way we felt that we had waited nearly ten years to have children just to make sure we were, in fact, ready so yeah, help appreciated but not necessary.
Especially with my family it was just too much too soon. Nik and I were exhausted and terrible company. We sat around. A lot. We watched mindless TV. A lot. We fed the baby. We changed the baby. We rocked the baby. We watched more TV. Our schedules were dictated by the child we were determined to handle on our own, without apology. As first time parents who were accustomed to being basically homebodies anyway it didn’t feel so different from our normal routine, just a bit more intense and filled with 100% more dirty diapers than we were used to. What did feel different was the parade of guests. We don’t have house guests often: We’ve lived in smallish apartments for ten years. We’re the mobile ones, we do the visiting. Having people up in our space was awkward for us. We were trying to adjust to the idea of being a threesome instead of a couple and that’s weird enough, now we have my family and… well they probably felt like we were the worst hosts in the world.
They weren’t wrong.
But the mistake wasn’t in them coming. It wasn’t—I don’t think—even in us being preoccupied. The mistake was in planning the trips so close to the baby’s birth. Many of the trips were planned also to coincide with my leave of absence from work, so I think there could have been some more consideration of that to begin with. A lot about the time I spent on paternity leave would be done differently if I did it again. I’d have saved some time, if possible, to take a bigger chunk of time off later in the year. Like around the halfway mark. Like around now. Callie is so much different now than she was when everyone was coming out to see us and her. Nik and I are so much different now. I often think about how little I get to see my daughter during the week: I leave for work before she wakes up and I get a couple of short hours with her when I get home before we have to go through her bedtime routine and then I put her to bed and try to spend some time with Nik before one or both of us collapses into exhaustion. Nik does her best; she comes out to have lunch with me about once a week. She sends me pictures and messages during the day telling me about the activities her and Callie enjoy, relaying funny little anecdotes of the things she does.
I think about how most of my experience with my child was in her helpless undeveloped newborn stage and how little has been in the delightful, tiny emerging human stage. I wish I’d saved some time off to get in on that action. I wish we’d planned short introduction meetings with my family at the beginning and arranged longer visits for later, when she was interactive and funny and capable of being charmed and charming with her geographically dispersed extended family. It was a mistake, and you can’t take it back. I know the people who were so overjoyed to see Callie and us early on don’t mind that the baby they saw was minuscule and basically inert. Their excitement was genuine, as was ours. But it’s hard not to wish you’d done things differently, and harder not to worry that it might be a portent.
The Bold and the Beautiful
On weekends I spend a lot of time with my daughter. For one thing it gives Nik a much-needed break from the constant care of a baby for a couple of days and for another it gives me a short window to connect with her now that the hassle of needing to provide an income for our family has injected its unwelcome head back into our lives. It seemed long on the face of it and in fact the six weeks I spent on leave following the birth was the longest period of un-work I’ve spent since I was probably 20 years old, but looking back now it didn’t last nearly long enough.
Mostly we hang out and play at home, I feed her and change her and do all those things parents have to do with infants. But also we go out and do stuff together. Nothing super exciting like zoos or parks or museums (yet), but regular outings like the grocery store or the bank. I’ll never understand dads who think of spending time with their kids as “babysitting.” It’s certainly work of a caliber I’m highly unaccustomed to, but to me it came with the package. I’m not trying to convince you how awesome I am here. Quite the opposite. I feel like this is simply normal, like spending time with one’s daughter—even as young as mine is—was never meant to be strictly a maternal undertaking. I think it’s curious and a little sad that stay-at-home dads are kind of weird (being a SAHD, I mean, not the dads themselves) and it’s kind of discouraging that I get about equal numbers of pats on the back as I do pitying stares when I’m out alone with Callie. I’m not saying I should get more back-patting, I’m saying I shouldn’t get a second thought.
Anyway, one of the differences early on between Nik and I was that she marked out a sort of activity comfort zone for herself. She avoided going out alone with the baby, she found the tools and tactics that seemed to work for her and she resisted deviation. I, on the other hand, felt like a brave adventurer when charged with the baby’s care: I’d see how much I could integrate her with all my “normal” activities. I tried all the carriers first, I took her to places she didn’t “have” to go because I wanted to be with her and go wherever at the same time, I forged ahead with bottle-feedings and bathtimes. Honestly it wasn’t that I was or am particularly adept at any of this: But there is this thing that guys do when faced with uncertainty and that is feign absolute confidence and control. It’s a defense mechanism and you’d be surprised how often it works. Sometimes simply trying to be in charge of a difficult situation is the same as actually having a handle in the first place.
I have no idea if my brazen disregard for the klaxons of panic that sounded in my head at the prospect of extraordinary “newness” helped ease Nik’s transition into confidence or not. I like to think my willingness to try things like showering with the baby in a bouncer just outside the door when Callie and I were home alone opened the door to the notion that having a baby didn’t mean donning a leash. Now, of course, Nik is unimpeded by the existence of a child in our lives: She spends more time outside the house and outside that comfort zone than she does within.
Digression aside, when the baby and I venture outside on weekends I’m intrigued by how many people are struck by the presence of a baby. I classify people’s reaction to seeing Callie into three categories: The Melted Heart, The Panicked Soul and The Unimpressed.
The Melted Hearts are those who, regardless of their mood before laying eyes on her, will dissolve into a sappy grin. The more socially forward of this group will come up to us and interact with Callie, often then engaging me in some mild conversation, “How old is she,” “Is this your first,” etc. They’ll openly stare and try to get her to smile at them (which Callie is typically more than happy to oblige). Often people in this category are women, often older either of a grandmotherly age or approaching it although there have been plenty of guys who fall into this category as well, though none of them have been under 30. Obviously these are my favorite and Nik and I have discussed often how happy it makes us when we see someone’s mood noticeably lift on account of our baby. I confess I think she’s ridiculously adorable and I semi-shamefully admit to sort of showing her off when I’m out but I think sometimes that that weird effect dads-alone-with-babies has stunts the Melted Hearts moreso than when Nik is present.
The Panicked Souls are those who definitely take notice of a baby in their midst, but they regard her not like some kind of wonderful surprise addition to their day but as a ticking time bomb of some sort. Generally these people will also stare openly at Callie but not in the admiring way Melted Hearts do, but in the way you might stare at a slavering and obviously rabid deer that wandered into your picnic area. Logic dictates that you probably aren’t in any immediate danger, but you don’t want to take any chances. I’m not entirely sure what Panicked Souls are concerned about: Maybe it’s that I’ll whip off her diaper and start twirling it above my head like a sling, maybe it’s that she’ll suddenly break out into eardrum-puncturing wails (little do they know she reserves those for bedtime) or maybe they just think I’m suddenly going to rush up to them and tell them they have to babysit her for an hour because I just got called away to do an emergency heart transplant or rescue a litter of puppies from a burning building (what? like I can’t be a cardiologist or a superhero?) thus initiating a sequence that resembles something out of an 80s comedy starring Steve Guttenberg. I have no idea. People in this group tend to be males younger than 30 and any woman whose outfit costs more than my monthly car payment.
The Indifferent are those who try to pretend that Callie doesn’t exist. Often these people are those who are patronizing businesses without a lot of square footage in their storefronts like coffee shops and libraries. The presence of unpredictable infants in areas that are typically reserved for relatively quiet conversation is, I understand, kind of a potential disruption but I think no one wants to be “that guy” who’s got a problem with a dude carrying around his child on a Saturday afternoon. Their strategy seems akin to “ignore it and maybe it will go away.” The irony of the parallel between this and the way a child might hide under covers to avoid a scary imagined monster is something I like to savor. The mischief in me often wants to try to get Callie to take a nap in places like these just to spite the people who would ordinarily be Melted Hearts but I usually resist the temptation. To provide context: Callie loathes naps. Curiously the other large group of people who fall into this category are parents who have slightly older children like around 5-9. I wonder sometimes if they have finally exited the baby/toddler/preschooler stage and are counting their blessings but desperately fighting the hidden longing they harbor to have a baby around the house again. The wounds of sleepless nights and fearful worry for the well-being of someone so helpless and wholly dependent are still fresh, but not so much so that they cannot be overlooked or overwhelmed by the sight of a fresh-faced little cherub riding in a front-carrier with a happy toothless grin.
Possibly the most remarkable thing to come out of Callie’s birth has been the emergence of Nikki as a superstar stay at home mom. Not that the road has been entirely smooth, far from it. In very many ways it has seemed to be the hardest transition she and, as an extension, we have ever had to make. Which was not entirely what I expected. I said last year that Nik was singularly fixated on being, or perhaps even born to be, a mother. This, I think, led to an assumption on my part (at least) that she would glide effortlessly into the role and relish it from the outset.
It hasn’t been that easy.
But, Nik doesn’t get the credit she deserves. So let me take a moment to enumerate just a tiny fraction of the reasons why she is indubitably the best wife I could ask for and why she is literally the only person I would ever want to be the mother of my children.
- Breastfeeding: Nik and Callie struggled mightily to figure out breastfeeding. We tried so many things: We saw lactation consultants, we pestered our friends and families, we acquired a vast array of assitive devices to try and make nursing easier. Nik toiled with it for almost two months and when circumstances made the prospect even more challenging she switched to exclusively pumping. This exhausting, uncomfortable, time-consuming, onerous task was carried out for five additional months all because she wanted Callie to have the benefits of breast milk no matter the cost to herself.
- Courage: A huge part of why this phase of our lives has been challenging for her is because Nik, long prone to clinical depression, has been fighting off the effects of postpartum depression. Ignore that idiot celebrity scientologist (excuse the redundancy), PPD is real and it’s rough. It didn’t help that I, in all my granite-like density, completely missed the symptoms that I was supposed to be watching out for. Somehow, though, despite what could have been a debilitating handicap she bravely soldiered on and simply met every challenge head on. She may have felt like she was drowning under the weight of the new responsibility and the struggle to reconcile the roller coaster emotions coming along with it, but she never missed a beat.
- Support: We had hoped that even after I went back to work I would be able to spend a lot of time at home, especially during the first year. But then the wheels of change started turning at work and as opportunities arose, that changed rippled down into our plans. It wasn’t feasible for me to be at home as much as we’d thought and that in turn meant that in order for me to take advantage of the career opportunities in front of me Nik was going to have to rise quickly to the challenge of being a full-time solo SAHM. She may have been nervous about it and felt like she wasn’t up for the task but she’s proved to be not just a wonderful primary care giver for our daughter but also the most dependable partner in our collective responsibilities that I can imagine. She thought she couldn’t do it without me, but it turns out I couldn’t do it without her.
- Team Parenting: I’m trying very hard to be a good dad to Calliope. Time will tell how effective my efforts will be, but while it sometimes feels like society at large is either skeptical or ambivalent of my goals, Nik has never once given any indication that she was anything other than fully supportive of my desired involvement level. She shares everything, even though she is often the one who has to carry out our collective decisions. She makes it a point to include me in everything, she sympathizes with the fact that even though she’s got the harder job of the two of us, I wish I could switch with her sometimes or even just wish I could be there more. She sends pictures of her and Callie many days. She relates all of their triumphs and difficulties each evening so I’m always clued in. Above all, she makes me feel appreciated.
This has by far been the hardest, most rewarding, craziest, most phenomenal six months of my life. I can’t believe it’s been so long already. I can’t believe it was ever any different. But more than anything I can hardly bring myself to take a breath for fear that I might wake up and realize this has all been the most wonderful if achingly fleeting dream. I thought before that I felt like a lucky man to have the family I do. I know now that feelings aren’t a factor. The stone fact is that no one has ever been more blessed than I am and a man couldn’t ask for a better wife or a more perfect daughter.