May 24, 2012

"Dear 'Mother-to-Be,'" Letter to a New Mother


A co-worker prepares to become a parent.

“Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories.”
Lord Rochester

April 14, 2012

Dear E-,

Today is your last day of work before you go out on maternity leave, and I would say a few words to you about parenting as you prepare to embark on a new era in your life.

We have parking spots right next to each other and each morning I look at the infant seat already installed in your car, awaiting a baby that will arrive soon enough. So each morning I walk by your car on the way to my classroom and think to myself, “What would you say to her, if you could?”

A month or two earlier I would have told you I had no advice whatsoever to give on parenting. If asked, I would have made some Socrates-esque statement that parenting had forced me to admit the only thing I knew was that I knew nothing about parenting. Five years into parenting, I have done nothing so humbling and exhausting. The job is so overwhelming and all-encompassing that where would one start in terms of advice? And what might work for me and my family might be totally wrong for you and yours.

Still, I would repeat this one piece of infamous advice from Dr. Spock: "Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do."

Now, let me be clear. I remember reading that as a nervous parent-to-be and wondering incredulously, “Easy for you to say! I don’t even know enough to trust what I think I might know!” And in thinking this, I was not far from the truth.

I really did know next to nothing about babies and parenting.

You probably find yourself in much the same situation. But you will learn. With time you will learn. Painfully, you will learn.

My wife and I read dozens of books in preparing for parenthood. This was our way to prepare emotionally for what we knew would a life-changing event: we read about it. We would invest our nervous energy into thinking we were preparing by devouring book after book about pregnancy, infants, and parenting. I learned about a thousand things that did not help me at all when I became a parent. I look back and reflect that I learned next to nothing from all those books that really helped.

We had a very difficult baby who endured never-ending series of painful ear infections and suffered from a severe case of colic. After hour after hour of crying and then more crying, I read this book and then that book by experts. They gave me almost opposite advice on what to do to stop or reduce the crying. Who to believe? What to do? Then I went online and read secondary comments --

http://parents.berkeley.edu/advice/babies/colic.html
http://parents.berkeley.edu/advice/babies/crying.html

-- by parents on the primary sources, and my head hurt and I was more confused than before. “They might cry for hours and hours and that can be normal,” the authorities said, “and they might hardly cry at all and that can be normal, too.” Well, thank you for the help! Each child is different and there are so few fast and hard rules anyone can offer a parent. And then just when you think you have the little bugger or their behavior figured out, they enter a new developmental phase and you are back to square one.

But over the months you will learn. Despite the fact your daughter lived and grew inside of you for nine months, after she emerges and nests in your arms you are basically strangers to one another. But over months and then an entire year, and then two and three years of close acquaintance, that will change. You will come to know your child’s temperament, and will be even be able to shape it, to an extent. You will come to have your “sea legs,” so to speak, and the ground underneath you will seem more solid. Please keep this in mind in these panicky first months. Have faith – people have been doing this for a long time.

But clearly to be a parent means to suffer. It may mean many other things, too, but there is no getting around the suffering. Recently I asked my father (a parent for 45 years) what was his definition of "patience" as a father. He replied grimly, "Patience means biting down on your lip until it bleeds to keep from saying what you really think." He tries to respect the sovereignty of his adult children's choices, even when he vehemently disagrees. But you can never really know if your parental choices -- and you make thousands of them large and small on a routine basis -- are really the right ones. And there are plenty out there who will second guess a parent.

I have noticed nowadays American women engage in “mommy wars.” They clash loudly and aggressively over whether breast feeding or using a bottle is better – or to “co-sleep” with baby or to use a crib? And is it better to be a stay at home mother or to go back to work? Then there is the “attachment” versus the “free-range” parenting philosophies. Similarly, I have read with detached interest mothers argue over the “Tiger Mom” Asian (re. Amy Chua) and “Baby to Bebé” French parenting styles re. (Pamela Druckerman), and whether they produce superior children when compared to “American” parenting.” A child will thrive if loved consistently and give structure and support, whether she be breast or bottle fed. A child will do just fine if he is disciplined by “time out” or the occasional spanking, if the other more important factors (love, security, consistency) are present. I have personally seen mothers tear themselves up over the question of whether they're doing a good enough job, and I suspect little good comes from this. Parenting is hard enough without we making it even harder for ourselves.

As you have learned to have classroom management and develop lesson plans and curriculum in a way that reflects who you are as a teacher, so that will happen in your parenting. “Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string," says Ralph Waldo Emerson. Trust that with time parenting will come to feel more natural – that with experience you will gain confidence. Parenting is as much an art as a science. Nobody, least of all your child, is expecting perfection. I suspect strongly that in 18 years your daughter, if she could, would reach back in time and say to you, “Relax, Mom! You were a wonderful mother!”

Easy for her to say! She is not laying there with a screaming infant in her arms, scared shitless. (Although one day she might be!) I would not attempt to downplay the effects of stress and sleep-deprivation on a new parent. Perhaps we do nothing as stressful, demanding, and unremitting in our lives. Again, to be a parent is to suffer.

But the flip side is equally true: we might do nothing as beautiful and fulfilling. In the sturm und drang of coping with your new arrival, in all the wondering whether to do this or that, even when she throws up on you or ruins a Thanksgiving dinner with her willfulness, don’t lose sight of the minor miracle of the whole thing. Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. Don’t let overthinking and second-guessing turn a healthy desire to learn and be a good parent into neuroticism and incessant, unproductive worry. Don’t lose sight even in the worst most sleep-deprived moments that you are lucky to be a parent. Do not be so absorbed in the minutiae of never-ending feeding, diapering, bathing, and wiping up after that you fail to appreciate the magic that is this intense but relatively brief period of time.

The days are long with young children, but the months they fly by. Blink too long, and you might miss it.

Very Truly Yours,

Richard

P.S. If you have not already noticed, I write this letter as much for myself as for you.


A baby seat awaits the arrival of baby.

May 21, 2012

"Happy Fifth Birthday, Daughter Julia!"

April 14, 2012

Dear Julia,

Happy birthday, my love!

Today you turn five years of age. How well I remember the fear and excitement I felt around dawn of the day of your birth as your mother prepared for the final stage of delivery – the “calm before the storm.” That morning of April 14, 2007, as well as the weeks and months that followed, were so full of adrenaline, anxiety, fear, love, wonder, and exhaustion. We were all very new at this, you and I and your mother. We were just beginning to get to know each other.

It is now five years later. We know each other much better now. And you have already passed through many developmental stages – infancy, toddlerhood, pre-school. You learned how to talk, and then you learned how to read. You are potty-trained. You can swim. This coming August you will start kindergarten.

Let me say this bluntly: it has been a long five years for me, daughter Julia. Maybe you will only understand this when and if you become a parent someday. Five long years of sleep deprivation and financial strain. In extreme moments I have been as frustrated and angry with you (and your baby sister) as I have been with anyone in my life.

Don’t misunderstand me: I never lost sight of the great luck I have had in two healthy daughters, and I always delight in tussling your hair or carrying you on my shoulders. But if parenting can be enriching, fulfilling, and life-giving on a spiritual level, on a day-to-day basis it often proves to be not much “fun.” As an adult, I can only play blocks for so long. Playgrounds are boring for middle-aged men, beyond any delight they might give their children. Often I count the hours until bedtime when I can finally have some time to myself. I see much less of my friends; interests and hobbies have languished. In the 80 or so years a person is alive, it seems 10 or so of these are given to us to take care of babies and young children – and in those years we have not much life of our own. We change diapers and pay the mortgage; we parent and we work. Our time is much less our own. And so it has been much more “you” than “me” since April 14, 2007, daughter Julia.

Since I became a father I have thought often of my mother in a similar stage of her life when she was a full-time housekeeper with three young children taking almost all her time and energy. At the time she lived in the frigid snow and cold of Milwaukee, Wisconsin far from family and friends. Although my case is not so severe, I can see she was simultaneously thrilled by the physical presence of her children while stretched by the demands placed on her, and depressed at being so isolated from the adult world. My dad enjoyed this stage of parenting much more than did my mother, but even he now freely admits that he looked forwarded to going back to the office on Monday morning. He could get a break from the unremitting demands of young children in the relatively stress-free job of a lawyer. I find myself in the same position now.

Again, Julia, it has been a hard five years.

I have always been a believer in giving full attention to something new at the beginning – especially difficult things. “What is well begun is half done,” goes the saying. Julia, you (and your sister) have had my best hours and my full attention these past five years, and I feel like I can see you clearly – when you are just a bit off, when you are sullen and wanting to fight, or happy and dancing and full of smiles – I can sense when the mood changes, and I can sometimes know what will happen next. This understanding has come from five intense years of watching and listening to you closely. In fact, Julia, I look at you today on your fifth birthday and I strongly suspect I can already see your strengths and weaknesses in high school – I might be wrong, but I doubt it. I will not rule out formative influences from your mother, myself (or other caregivers), but you were born with a temperament all your own that will change only so much and no further. That is how I see it now, at least. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. You have changed as you have grown and matured, but your core personality remains the same. Or so I seem to see it.

And I am so excited to move forward! I have a whole closet full of famous children’s and young adult literature for us to explore together. This summer you start tennis lessons, and I foresee hundred or even thousands of hours of tennis between us. (I have so many happy memories of time spent at the tennis club with my father!) I imagine listening to you opine on the characters of Elizabeth Bennett and Jo March. We shall journey through the Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, and Little House on the Prairie series. How exciting to look upon these stories with fresh eyes, eh? I shall live in literature vicariously through you.

In some ways you have already grown so much easier as a child than in earlier days. You put your own clothes on now unassisted. I open your door at bedtime, you get under your sheets, and I then I turn on a Harry Potter audiobook for you to fall asleep to. Then I kiss you goodnight (“I love you, my darling! Sleep well, and I will outside watching out for you all night! Relax, relax, relax! Go to sleep! Night, night!”) I walk out, close the door to your room, and that is that. This is so different from the bedtime battles we used to have when you were an infant and toddler. You can occupy yourself at home with your invented games and toys; we don’t have to watch you every minute, as used to be the case (and still is with your younger sister, Elizabeth Anne).

Historians talk easily of “change” and “continuity” over time. So it will be with our family, too. Stages of development will start and end; things will always change, yet remain unchanged. Elementary school, middle school, high school. Adolescence and then young adulthood. “Little children, little problems; big kids, big problems,” veteran parents remind me. They ominously warn the following: “Enjoy their childhoods, for it will go quickly!” So far the days have passed slowly and sometimes even painfully – but the months have flown by. In baseball as in tennis, they warn you to never take your eyes off the ball – to watch the tennis ball even before you take it out of the can.

And so, daughter Julia, for five years I have not really taken my eyes off the ball. I have watched you – I have come every time you cried in the night (or cried more than a few minutes, at least). I put you in timeout when you had your tantrums. (“I need to get some peace of mind!” you sometimes proclaimed through tears, showing masterful self-awareness, I thought.) I taught you how to swim. I taught you how to hold a tennis racket. I laid there in the dark next to you until you fell asleep at night for two full years (you would howl in outrage if I tried to leave before you were fully asleep). I taught you the alphabet and how to read. I wiped your behind and changed your diaper. I left work to make surprise visits to your preschool class just to watch you in action (and you glowed with happiness when I did).

I would argue this is what it means to be a “father” – not the mere biological fact of impregnating a woman.

And when you act out in adolescence, when you become willful or test the boundaries of family rules, this is why I will have the authority to say “no” and mean it.

But we can deal with these challenges as they arise in the future. You sometimes overwhelm me by wanting my time and attention so often – you put your arms up to be held by me and proclaim, “Daddy time! I want daddy time!” After a long day of work, sometimes I just want some peace and quiet. But I have never told you to go away and leave me be – never told you I had to grade papers or pay bills. (I would do that after you were asleep.) I remind myself that in future days when you are a teenager and I have become the epitome of “uncool” I might look back fondly on these early days – the times when you actually wanted to spend time with me…

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s enjoy the days of your childhood as they are upon us.

Happy birthday, daughter Julia!

Love,
Your Father

"Making the decision to have a child - it's momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking outside your body."
Elizabeth Stone

May 17, 2012

Second Birthday Letter to EA

February 25, 2012

Dear Elizabeth Anne,

Hello, my love! Today I sit down a week late to write you a letter on your birthday.

You just turned two years of age, and I want you to know how much you are already such an integral part of our family. We are the following: Mommy, Daddy, Julia, and yourself, our Elizabeth Anne. We don’t call you Liz, Lizzy, Elizabeth, Betsy, or any such thing – we call you fully “Elizabeth Anne.” All of us (your big sister not the least of which) can hardly imagine life without you, and it gives me so much happiness to see you greet your sister by stumbling towards her in your toddler-gait with arms outstretched. “Julia! Julia!” You call for your sister in your toddler-English and then hug her. You both are smiling.

I have often thought with thankfulness how amiable a child you have been so far. Not fully asleep before I leave you for the night? That’s OK, Daddy, you leave and I will not scream in protest as you walk out. (Your older sister never let me get away with that!) No book tonight before bed? You might complain a bit and then let it go. Not really tired when it is time to take a nap? Most often you will go to sleep anyway after I urge it. Parenting is hard enough, and you have made it less hard with your easygoing nature.

Sure, you can be cranky, tired – full of plaintive tears. But much more often you are full of smiles and laughs. You are a superb hugger and shower us with kisses. And you are so athletic! Your mother especially likes to tell stories of your fearless attempts at scaling rock walls at the park, or jumping from chair to couch without fear in the living room. “She pulls herself up on the jungle gym; she is so strong!” your mother brags. You love to climb onto my back and then onto my shoulders, hanging on for dear life. “Hee haw!” you exclaim, as I walk around with you on back as if I were your horse. It is widely predicted that one day you will become quite the athlete. At the park we come to a set of exercise bars, and you climb up to the very top and hang like a daredevil. (Your sister, on the other hand, decorates the bars with flowers.)

We have well entrenched daily routines and rituals, Elizabeth Anne. For example, almost every evening of your life I have bathed and put you down to sleep. I pay careful attention to your sleeping gear. In winter I was so worried about you getting cold in the middle of the night after you kick off your covers, as you seem unable still to get a blanket over yourself. So I make sure you have long pajamas and a shirt underneath, in addition to your heavy overnight diaper. I come to check on you in the middle of the night, as the thought of my little Elizabeth Anne helpless and shivering in the cold torments me. At bedtime I read a book or two with you and then turn out the light and place you on my chest. With your head lying on my chest you move gently up and down with my breathing, probably listening to my heartbeat. I kiss your hair and slowly rub your back until you have completely given in to sleep. Then I place you in your toddler bed. I can get you to fall asleep just about anywhere anytime, Elizabeth Anne, and your mother looks to me to do it. I am the “closer” at night. I will sit in the dark and pat your back gently as long as it takes – until you let go and sleep overtakes you.

I insist you sleep in your room at night (despite your occasional loud protestations) and have a gate and lock to ensure this. But around 5:30 a.m. each morning I come in and carry you asleep to our room and bed. The 45 minutes of semi-awake cuddling makes for a wonderful transition from night to day. What a nice way to wake up!

All this highlights one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a father: the physical joy of hugging your child – or just the reaching out and touching the solid flesh and bone of their arm or tussling their hair. There are all the higher connections between parent and child formed through language and reason, and then there is the primal link of physical touch – a baby daughter deep asleep on her father’s chest – comfortable, protected, not a care in the world, completely relaxed. You have not yet learned to complicate (poison?) your life with overthinking.

So it has been for two years, my daughter. You have kept me up all night before long days of work that next day. You have thrown up on me. You have pooped on me. You have gotten me sick. You routinely dump things all over the floor. You write all over your face with a pen. Last month you dropped my glasses on the floor and then stepped right on them. There have been many sacrifices large and small, but that is par for the course and, overall, you have been an “easy baby.” You are our "Elizabeth Anne" and that has meant more good times than bad.

I have enjoyed these past two years, and you have enriched our lives so much. I think of you and smile. And the future (mine, yours; ours) I look forward to.

Happy belated second birthday, daughter mine!

I love you,
Dad

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