The Parental Ups and Downs

Our son Noah has reached a couple of miniature milestones: he’s turned over on his own (once, and to great surprise by everyone involved, himself most of all) and he’s starting to sit up if we give him a little help. Every time he does when I’m playing with him, we smile and laugh because it’s a big deal. If all you’d ever done up to this point was just kind of lie wherever you were until someone moved you, you’d be ecstatic to discover that you have some of your own locomotion! These are great times.

But I don’t want to completely sugarcoat parenthood. It’s still a tough job, you guys. When we’re at our most vulnerable and exhausted, he still needs us. Our peaks and valleys are in direct correlation to his. When he’s happy and cooing and doing baby gymnastics while farting in his crib, I can’t help but laugh and feel the special pride reserved for new dads. When he doesn’t feel good and we can’t figure out why, or I’m at home with him on one of those days where he doesn’t want to sleep and is constantly fussy, a pit opens up directly into my stomach and everything else in the world fades away. This, I believe, is now part of the job. It’s who we’ve become. We signed up for this, and like the Grinch, our hearts have expanded right on schedule, and we’re way past Christmas.

It’s a good thing there’s a no-return policy on this gift, because the fact is caring for newborns takes quite a toll on parents, and the adjustments we have to make are myriad. Preparing to go anywhere takes an inordinate amount of time and logistical planning. You must be prepared to change a diaper anywhere. If you decide to go run errands on a day home with the baby, you must think long and hard about which stops are really worth it, because you’re going to be carrying a minimum of 50 extra pounds worth of gear. I feel like a Navy SEAL sometimes, carrying a freaking boat on my back while running down the beach.

Nah, forget the SEALs. Gina and I may look outwardly calm a lot of the time, but we’re really just paddling hard under the surface like scared ducks.

Kinda like this.
Kinda like this, but flipped the other way and in the water.

If any other new or prospective father out there ever reads this, I just want them to know what they’re up against. There are the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and while not all of them are instigated by Noah, he is now an integral part of our home, of our family. To be honest, I still sometimes scold myself for not putting my son first when I should, maybe by trying to watch a few more seconds of The Wire before feeding him, or hesitating a few moments before deciding whether that diaper really needs to be changed right away (hint: the answer is always yes).

Maybe this stems from being married and being an adult in the real world for a few years before having a child. We built up a pattern of routines, habits, and hobbies that got disrupted. I was perhaps a little set in my ways, and even though I of course do everything necessary to care for my son, early on I also was trying too hard to keep going on like nothing had changed – when, of course, everything has.

The good news is that I’m learning and getting better about it. I may still be learning how to be a Dad for another eighteen years, but at least I’m willing to learn. And I’m still able to enjoy all my hobbies and old routines, I just have to be more efficient at enjoying them. Gina and I still have a relationship, we just have to rearrange our time spent together around the baby’s needs. And I’m beginning to learn that sometimes, it’s okay to leave things unfinished for a few more days because the timing just doesn’t work out. That can be a hard pill to swallow for a guy who never really ever truly “rested” on my days off and who relishes finishing a project.

Many people tell me to just keep enjoying this time, because it will be over soon. I’m trying to do that, even as I adjust my expectations on what I can get done. I have to, because before too long Noah will be completely mobile, and then the fun will really begin.

 

The Price of a Gallon

I pulled into our favorite gas station the other day after a quick session of running errands. There are two clusters of gas stations within five minutes of our house. Depending on whether you turn left or right at a particular intersection, there is usually a 30-cent price differential. There doesn’t appear to be any logic behind this, as both sides of the intersection are a mix of all sorts of major brands of gas, as well as weird Econo-brands that are of questionable quality. The cheaper side has a lot of banks, the other has two 7-Elevens and a CVS. Maybe the cheaper side of the intersection is supposedly seedier or otherwise “the wrong side” of the tracks, or possibly it’s all a giant conspiracy designed to draw traffic to the laser tag place behind the Shell station on the cheaper side. (And really, laser tag is reason enough to always choose the cheaper side.)

Ah, suburbia.

So, there I am pumping gas after going through the five-minute process to load up my grocery store points to get an even bigger per-gallon discount. I usually tune out my brain during this mundane few minutes of life. This station has TV screens playing sports highlights and week-old news clips, but most of them have been washed out by constant exposure to sunlight, so I typically don’t pay much attention. Sometimes I try to see if I can time how long it takes to pump one gallon, but usually I’m just staring blankly.

This particular evening, a young lady’s voice interrupted my slightly vegetative state.

“Excuse me sir, I’m not asking for money, I just need enough for a gallon of gas. My mom took the five that I had in my car and we literally just ran out of gas as we pulled in here.”

Slightly startled, I turned my focus to her. She was young, probably in her late teens, no more than twenty. Her dirty-blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was wearing her boyfriend’s too-large coat. No makeup, maybe she’d even been crying. She looked distraught, but not merely from running out of gas – it was clear she was suffering through the latest of many crises in her young life. From my side of the pump, I could just barely make out a long-haired guy, presumably the owner of the coat, sitting in the passenger seat of their beat-up old Honda Civic.

Now, if you’ve read this blog long enough or know me in real life, you know that I am a Christian. You also probably know that I don’t usually feel the need to proselytize nor be super expressive and open about it, but it’s not like I’m hiding it, either. So of course I’m familiar with the Golden Rule, “What Would Jesus Do?”, and all those other great verses about helping your neighbor. But, this being a gas station on the “seedy” side of the road in a large metropolitan area not too far from DC, I was, despite myself, instantly wary.

“I’m sorry,” I replied back to her, as if that was somehow a real reply. And I turned back to my gas pump, suddenly transfixed by the digital readout. Seeing that she wasn’t going to get any more out of me, she slumped back into her car.

Immediately, my mind was racing and guilt was pouring through me. Why was that my first reaction?

Well, for one, I’ve been burned by seemingly honest requests before. Years ago, shortly after starting work in DC, I was accosted by a man in a wheelchair asking for money in a Metro station. He had a picture badge – with a lanyard and everything, so it had to be official – saying he was a Katrina refugee being housed in the DC Armory not too far away. I gave him some money without thinking too much about it. A few weeks later, I saw the same guy in a different Metro station, walking around upright with no trouble. Either my $5 had helped him complete the final payment for a miracle medical procedure, or I’d been duped.

Years after that, Gina and I were in a parking lot of a grocery store, and I stupidly rolled down my passenger side window to see what this youngish man who had appeared out of nowhere wanted. He spouted some nonsense about also being a Hokie (since he’d noticed the VT stickers all over our car) and about how his sick sister was across the road in the McDonald’s parking lot, and they needed money to get to the hospital. I mumbled an apology and hastily rolled the window back up, Gina rightly admonishing me for exposing us to someone clearly a little unbalanced, and I felt bad about it for a time.

From homeless people on the streets of the city to the downtrodden holding handwritten signs at busy intersections, I have been numbed to their condition despite myself. The usual trains of thought now pop into my head: “They’re just going to use it to buy drugs / get drunk.” “If he has enough time to stand around and write a sign, he has enough time to go looking for a job.” You know the drill, and many of us have thought the same things.

How are we, in the midst of our busy lives, supposed to filter out the legitimate requests from those that are not? How do we know who’s going to help themselves or not? Is there any such thing as an illegitimate cry for help?

By the time my tank was full, the girl had moved on to begging another lady who had pulled into the pump in front of me. I was finishing my transaction when my conscience finally got the best of me. Finishing my payment and setting the pump down into its slot next to the 87-octane sticker, I walked over to the attendant’s window.

“So there’s a couple of kids over on pump three asking people for money for gas. What’s their story? Are they for real?” I asked the man through the bank teller glass.

He looked surprised. “Uh, well, they just got here.”

So at least they hadn’t been bumming people for money all day. I briefly ran the risk analysis in my head and figured the simplest way to honor their request, and to be sure it was used for the intended purpose, was to be the middleman and just pay for their gas.

“All right, I’ll buy them a gallon,” I replied, slipping the cash that I had in hand under the bank-teller style pass-through.

The transaction completed, I turned around to find the second lady the girl had talked to in line behind me. Seeing she’d had the same idea, I let her know what I’d just done, and she looked a little relieved as she put away her pocketbook and headed back to her car.

On my way back, I stopped by the despondent girl and her still-immobile boyfriend.

“I just bought you guys a gallon,” I said, trying not to sound high-and-mighty-look-what-I’ve-just-done-for-you.

Her eyes lit up. “Thank you so much!” I nodded, smiled awkwardly in a “you’re welcome” gesture, and got into my car.

As I drove away, I reflected on whether her story had been believable. I decided that I could certainly imagine many scenarios where a jobless teenager and her lazy boyfriend would be strapped for cash and faced with a parent who would steal gas money from their car. But I could also imagine scenarios where that story was completely fabricated.

In the end, though, it wasn’t the story itself that sold me. She could have made up anything.

I suppose part of it was my conscience, part of it guilt, and partly my sense of charity stemming from my faith. But really, more than anything, as I stood there pumping gas, I realized that being cynical all the time is tiring. The numbing to other people’s problems, the shell that you have to erect in order to make it through modern suburban life, doesn’t have to be impermeable. I don’t want to always assume the worst of everyone. So buying these kids a gallon of gas was a tiny, small stand against my – and by extension, the world’s – indifference. It was an all-too-rare chance to make someone’s life better, however briefly, and at least I know they actually used what I gave them.

I headed home, wondering how far a gallon would take the young couple, whether it would be far enough to escape their problems or lead them into more, whether they would lean on each other in the dark times or if they would finally break up, whether she would reconcile with her mother, and whether the sunny days would ever outnumber the cold and gray ones in their lives.

At the stoplight, I paused. Then I turned the corner and moved on.

It’s A Tummy Time World, We Just Have To Live In It

As a new parent, I naturally want my child to be good at everything. This is a natural parental reaction for anybody who ultimately sees their children as their meal ticket to a gold-plated retirement. Of course there are people who take it too far – beauty pageant moms that doll up their four-year-olds, or Little League dads who get ejected from ballparks for chewing out the coaches, umps, or whoever’s in earshot. While I don’t think I’ll ever get that bad (I want my son to ultimately choose his own destiny, though I do hope he embraces whatever talents he’s been blessed with), I probably have a little bit of that in me. Although, give me a few years and I might be shouting at a referee too.

At every one of Noah’s check-ups, the pediatrician hands out these little sheets before we go home. They list the measurements that the nurse took, among other advice and stats, but there are also usually lists of “things your baby should be doing” by that point in time. A typical list might include such milestones as “your baby should be able to lift their head” or “your baby should be cooing and smiling and grasping for things” or even “your baby should already be writing their first computer program YOU HAVE FAILED AS A PARENT.” There’s something buried in the fine print about how not all babies will exhibit all of the behaviors at the same time, but that might as well be written in invisible ink.

These lists are insidious for several types of parents:

  • Those that are nervous they’re doing something wrong (check! and see above)
  • Those that are lazy and can never finish to-do lists
  • Those that are driven to see their child achieve (check! and again, see above)

Two out of three ain’t bad.

Wait, yes it is.

So I look at these lists and I instantly blame myself for any skill my son hasn’t already begun and mastered. And out of all the lists we’ve received so far, the dance moves that Noah hasn’t displayed yet can mostly be traced back to one thing: tummy time.

If you’re not well-versed in the latest child-raising lingo, tummy time is fairly self-explanatory: you’re supposed to put your baby on their stomach for several minutes each day so they can build up their core muscles and learn how to push up, look around, roll over, and eventually crawl. It’s become an important consideration ever since the early 90’s when pediatricians began insisting that babies sleep on their backs to avoid sudden infant death syndrome. (Side note: that is hands-down the scariest, and yet simplest, name for a medical condition ever coined.)

And, as the saying goes, since you have to crawl before you can walk, you might as well say that tummy time is now the most important thing ever for a baby’s development. At the very least, the little pediatrician sheets call for ever-increasing amounts of tummy time. Not giving a baby tummy time is to condemn them to a lifetime of having a noodle neck.

It’s a cutesy name, this “tummy time.” The only problem, and Noah is no exception, is that apparently most babies hate it. Over these first few months of life, our bundle of joy will usually tolerate only a minute or two of tummy goodness before unleashing wails of complete and utter terror and fury, instantly sending waves of guilt throughout the house. We’ve gone through all of the distraction techniques listed on the most popular baby websites. We usually try laying Noah on the couch so we can be eye level with him without too much contortion, but that only works for a little while. We’ve mixed it up with toys, brightly-colored objects, and getting him to look at any object within arm’s reach (be it a dog bone, an actual dog, fuzzballs from the carpet – the usual favorites). We’ve tried singing, talking in a soothing voice, and dancing. Nothing can delay the terror for long.

And so there are moments every day where Gina and I have to make a hard call. Do we completely upset our cooing and smiling baby for a few minutes of tummy torture, or do we just let him keep cooing and smiling? I’m a little ashamed to say that, most days, the cooing wins. Who wants to kick that hornets nest, even if every time we delay it I picture every pediatrician in our practice shaming me, scowling and foretelling “your son’s going to have a noodle neck… NOODLE NECK!!!”

One day, not long ago, Noah was due for some shots at the end of his checkup. The nurse had us strip him down to his diaper and, for some reason, lay him on his stomach. I remember grimacing and turning my head to Gina, bracing for the maelstrom that was about to occur. I was pretty sure we would be kicked straight out of the doctor’s office for having a too-loud baby.

But as the normal screaming threshold elapsed and there was nary a peep from our son, I dared to open my clenched eyes a bit. Noah was not only not screaming, he looked to be actually enjoying tummy time. We could not understand why, until we noticed that he was drooling (a lot) on the paper the nurses put down on the exam table before we arrived in the room. You know the stuff. It’s the same kind of paper that rattles like crazy whenever you’re trying to be quiet while awkwardly sitting down in your underwear in any doctor’s office, waiting to be examined.

Noah was turning this paper into a feast. Or more accurately, he was drooling so much on the paper that the area around his mouth eventually turned into mush and we had to keep moving him around the exam table. It was clear that something about the crinkly noises the paper made, combined with the (no doubt) exotic taste, was keeping him happy despite being on his stomach. This went on for a good fifteen minutes, even while the nurse and doctor finished everything they needed to do.

Naturally, I began wondering if we could steal a roll of the exam table paper. Thinking better of it, I then wondered if we would be able to recreate the results. For one reason or another (parental amnesia), we didn’t even try at home for a long time, until this week. Faced with the reality that we needed to try tummy time again, a worn-out synapse in my brain finally fired up and reminded me of this miraculous doctor’s office cure.

I rushed to the kitchen, pulled out a sheet of wax paper, and ran back to slide the paper under our son. And, wouldn’t you know, it worked. Twelve minutes of uninterrupted tummy time and one soggy sheet of wax paper later, everyone was relaxing.

This is the stuff dreams are made of.
This is the stuff dreams are made of.

Is this the answer to life’s problems? No. Is it going to save Noah from having a noodle neck? Maybe. But thanks to this discovery, we no longer dread tummy time quite as much. We still need to get in a routine of doing it more often, but at least it appears we have enough of a distraction to make it work.

And you read it here first, but I’m thinking about buying up a bunch of wax paper, re-packaging it, and selling it as a baby product. “Crinkle Sheets” or something like that. There’s a market for it, I guarantee you.

It’s Here

Today, hope arrived. For the first time in months, spring’s arrival has a glimmer of a chance. Until now, winter’s icy fingers have had us in a stranglehold, keeping all of us indoors and sheltered, our dogs futilely looking out windows toward the Arctic wastelands that once held their vast, green bathrooms. The world is their toilet and, for three months or so, all but the smallest patches are rendered into icy and unforgiving tundra.

But today, I could finally smell something more than the bland scent of the winter wind. Mulch, mud, pine needles — even the leather seats in my car — all came back to life today. I swear I could almost hear the puddles of water soak deep into the ground to awaken the flowers slumbering deep below. The sun, no longer held to its low winter angles, has finally mustered enough courage to aim higher in the sky, sending the piles of snow into rapid submission. Heidi has her bathroom back.

There’s just something about spring that can instantly recast everything in a crazy Instagram filter of bright yellows and greens, though it should be experienced in person rather than through a camera lens. Spring is a giant reset button and a beacon home, a time of rebirth and relaxation, rain and allergies and blooms and picture perfect days.

I know that, meteorologically, we’re still a few weeks away from spring, but this was one of those days where I could finally just believe it was coming. Today was one of those days of demarcation and significance that we can soon point back to and say, “this was when it started.”

You don’t always get these kinds of days to kickstart a season. Around DC in particular, we’re fortunate to even get enough of a springtime to appreciate the cherry blossoms before nosediving straight into the oppressive summer humidity. Autumn is the next loudest season, announcing its arrival with football and a kaleidoscope of colors, but even those are more gradual indicators and are, let’s face it, only forestalling the onset of winter. Spring is reserved for the enjoyment of no overcoats, drying sidewalks, bare feet in the grass, and the celebrations of Easter.

It’s been a long, challenging, record-breakingly cold winter for many of us. But it has had its day. We won’t have to hope much longer – spring has arrived as sure as the morning.

Let’s begin.

 

Gone Before We Could Miss It

Let’s recap what has happened in the last few days:

  1. I logged into our bank account Wednesday evening when what to my wandering eyes should appear but our tax refunds. Last year, after our first-ever tax bill, I painstakingly calculated exactly how much to withhold so that this year’s taxes would be as close to net-zero as possible. That was, of course, before we even knew Noah was on the way. Since our fourteen-pound, diaper-wearing tax break was born in 2014, he gave us a nicely-sized refund. As I stared at the screen, the possibilities of what to do with the money were tantalizing: pay off some debt! Put most of it in savings! So recklessly carefree!
  2. Thursday morning, we had a snowstorm and the government was on a two-hour delay / unscheduled telework day. I had signed up for some online classes for just such an occasion, so I sat down at the computer in our basement den/office/music studio/creative space to plow through some of the lessons. Before long, I noticed that my socks were getting wet. Figuring that Heidi had tracked in some snow that had left the carpet damp, I ran upstairs to put on new socks. Back at the computer, it wasn’t long before this fresh pair of socks was also soaked. Frowning, I rolled my chair back to look at the situation a little more closely, and saw trails of sopping-wet carpet left by the wheels of the chair. Panning my head toward the rest of the room with a growing sense of dread, I finally noticed the damp spots that were springing up across the floor like little oil slicks. I ran back to the rear of the room to the water access panel, fearing the worst – only to have my fear confirmed. Our pressure regulator valve was leaking, and there was no telling how long it had been doing so. I cried a little inside when I realized just how much junk stuff we had in the room that would need to be quickly moved and bounded upstairs to recruit Gina.
  3. The plumbers were mercifully able to come that same afternoon. They fixed the pressure valve, but as a special bonus, they also discovered the burst pipe leading to the spigot on the front of the house. They happily repaired this for me too, as a two-for-two special. And of course they had to cut a couple of holes in the drywall for good measure.
  4. Thursday evening, I was still hopeful that I could Rug Doctor the excess moisture from the top of the carpet and all would be well. I was so young and naïve. By Friday, the carpet was still soggy, and I finally resigned myself to the fact that this would not be an easy or quick process.
  5. Gina and I manhandled the remaining furniture out of the room, exhausting ourselves and pulling muscles in the process.
  6. I called in a homeowner’s insurance claim and a water damage restoration company. There are currently five high-powered fans and a dehumidifier running in the room downstairs, and they’ve been going strong for two days now. The room still has an interesting smell, and the fans have played havoc with the temperature differential through the house.
  7. The rest of the basement looks like a creepy warehouse you see in TV shows where the bad guy is a creepy magician that lives in the warehouse and random stuff is stacked haphazardly everywhere and oh no, look out, the creepy magician IS RIGHT BEHIND YOU.
  8. In a completely unrelated chain of events, on Saturday afternoon I smashed my thumbnail in the inner workings of the baby stroller in the dining room at Chuy’s before sitting down to a nice Tex-Mex lunch with family. I’ve been cataloging the kaleidoscope of colors that my thumbnail has displayed. It’s moved past blood red and is currently sitting somewhere near dark-washed denim. It will likely fall off.
  9. Between the insurance deductible, rising home taxes, thumbnail replacement surgery, and other various bills coming due, that tax refund is suddenly thinning out. So much for that life-size replica of the Iron Throne.

So I guess you could say that this hasn’t been a banner weekend for our house. I’m ready to move on from winter.

Oh, and anybody want some wet carpet? I can get you a good price.