Parenting will always bring challenges, but there’s something uniquely difficult about those earliest weeks with your first child. As a newly minted dad who’s just survived this grueling period, I may be able to shed some light on it. First of all, to really make sense of things, we need to look back a few trimesters.
When you are a first-time expecting parent, all of your energy becomes consumed with scaling the “mountain of pregnancy.” You can read and prepare all you want, but if you haven’t had a baby before, the part about actually having a baby is as much as your excited, anxious brain can handle. During this stage, expect to have only enough mental stamina to focus on two things: preparing for labor, and getting all the stuff.
At long last, and still too soon, you’re in the thick of the birth experience. Among other things, this period of time includes all the stages of labor — early labor, active labor, screaming labor — plus whatever combination of a la carte factors happens to be included in your customized delivery package. Just be aware that the particulars of delivery are like a sandwich from a bad deli — whatever you planned for is not what you’re going to get. Still, as long as you have your baby and everyone turns out OK, there’s no sense in getting too hung up on the details.
As manic and magical as labor and delivery may be, it’s all over before you know it. And only now that you’ve crested the “summit of pregnancy” can you see that it was just the first in a whole mountain range of challenges that lay beyond.
Now, unless your name is Beyoncé and you’ve employed a platoon of nannies to keep your new baby from interfering too much with your life, pretty quickly you’re in the trenches of parenting. Here, you find yourself frantically asking questions like: “What does it want?” “How do I make it stop?” “It’s getting too big — what comes after onesies? Twosies? WHY DIDN’T WE PUT TWOSIES ON OUR REGISTRY?!”
Even if you are reasonably prepared for this, as the weeks wear on, you find that you’re being pushed nearly over the edge. Sleep deprivation and the nerve-shattering scream of a tiny infant are the main causes, but there’s another, less tangible one that you may not have allowed yourself to fully consider.
You see, during pregnancy, friends and family shower you with wisdom about how your life will forever change (“but in a good way!”), and about how you will feel love like you have never felt before. This creates a vision of unicorns drinking from a fountain while an enchanting harp plays and celestial light twinkles in the eyes of the cherub staring up at you. But instead, after a few weeks of running yourself ragged attending to your tiny baby’s constant needs, you still can’t tell if this odd little creature even realizes that you exist.
From the moment your baby was born, you instinctively felt like you would throw yourself in front of an oncoming yellow taxi to protect her, and yet, when you kiss your cherished weeks-old infant on the cheek, she just flinches and turns her head away like you’re a stray dog licking her face. All the while, she stares off into space and moves her little arms and legs according to some arcane ritual, as if she’s communicating with the alien mothership. For all you know, you’re just the silly earthling who is foolishly providing sustenance to the demanding creature that is engineering the enslavement of your entire world. Silly human! Silly, exhausted, distressed human, to be exact.
It’s a little bit funny that you’ve turned your life completely upside down for a person you know almost nothing about, and who, at some point in the next 16 years, is going to slam a door in your face and scream, “I HATE YOU!” Even your baby’s few recognizable traits could disappear. In the coming months, that brown hair may fall out and come back blond, and those blue eyes could turn green, or hazel, or who knows what.
So, in short, becoming a parent includes dealing with the fearful anxiety that your baby is an alien. Worse still, is that this leads to terrible guilt — at a time when you should be nothing but self-sacrificing, you find yourself wondering, “Why did I do this? What’s in it for me?”
It’s OK to have those thoughts — it just means you’re human. (And for the record, your baby is, too.) These first weeks are meant to push you to your limit — they’re priming you for the years to come. Parenting will be wonderfully gratifying, but it’s essential to understand from the start how desperately your little one relies on you. There can’t be any confusion about whose needs come first.
After the better part of two months, when all of that has had time to sink in, your little one will finally reward you with a sly look and a little grin. That, of course, is one of the most beautiful sights in the world, and no matter what else happens in the next 16 years, you’ll always keep that with you.
Tim Perrins is a part-time stay-at-home dad who lives with his wife and their brand new tiny human in Park Slope, Brooklyn. More of his thoughts about babies and other things that confuse him can be found at www.Revolt
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