Today’s PSA: Try Not To Melt Down

I’ve been a little silent in this space for the last few weeks as we make our valiant attempt to become parents even more of a reality. I guess we’re operating under the theory that if we start acting like parents, eventually it will become true.

Since the last time I wrote, I’ve returned to work, and Gina has survived being a stay-at-home mother for a while. Noah, as far as we can tell, is happy with his living arrangements, though we fully expect him to phone back and ask for different parents one of these nights. We convinced Heidi to stick around too (treats help), so our little family is still intact. Despite five weeks of trials and toils, that’s a pretty good track record! If we weren’t so tired, we might feel like we deserve a medal or something. The truth is this, my friends: this parenting thing can be hard.

Before becoming a parent, I considered myself a fairly patient person. I still do, really. I try to keep my cool; in a crisis, I’d like to think that I don’t run around with my arms flapping in the air. My wife may say otherwise, but then again she also is one of the few who gets to see me at my worst.

But a baby, and by extension a family, requires tapping into a reservoir of cool and patience that you better hope you have somewhere deep inside you if you want to put in your dues and do your share as a parent. The last few weeks have required me to open up that part of my psyche after digging a lot deeper. This might sound a little cliched, but it is incredibly difficult to keep a level head when you’re short on sleep and the little guy you’re caring for is screaming in your ear, not realizing that food is just a few minutes away and then his stomach won’t feel weird. I’ve had some sleep-deprived freakouts, I can’t lie. I haven’t wailed quite as loud as Noah, but I was certainly acting like a baby all the same. I’m not proud of that, but I am slowly coming to rise above it – in being a Dad, I know I’m not allowed to act like a child (at least not until Noah starts playing with Legos).

Luckily, I have a wife whose maternal instincts have totally multiplied her patience times infinity, so she’s set me straight every time. As for me, I know what I have to do to not short-circuit, and knowing is half the battle.

The rest, of course, involves lasers.

Part of preventing freakouts is, of course, ensuring everybody gets enough sleep. We have settled into a patchwork way of getting through the night that works for us. I think this is another area where people love to tell you certain things that you should do, but in the end you just have to figure out what works for yourselves. For one, we are doing something called “co-sleeping,” which is just a fancy way of saying that we put Noah in our bed in a contraption that keeps him safe from flying pillows and blankets but allows him to feel more content and safe enough to sleep. It’s not for everybody but, again, it’s working for us. Anyway, I was a bit of a light sleeper before, but I now wake up at the flutter of a butterfly’s wings, so I’m content with being on diaper duty while Gina prepares for the feeding. We’ll alternate bottles if there’s more than one during the night (which is pretty often). Falling asleep on the couch after Jeopardy every night also seems to help. It’s not a perfect solution, but this isn’t a Middle East peace accord we’re talking about here, and we’ll have to adjust it every few months, anyway.

I’m told we’re still a bit early in the game for Noah to have completely established his circadian rhythm, so there are some many nights where he is practicing baby judo and cooing away next to us at about 3 AM. If I had no clue what day or night was yet, I guess I’d be just fine with that approach, too. But I’m learning to sleep through the judo kicks next to me, and I think we’re scraping along just fine, which should be a celebration in and of itself.

So I guess the State of the Household is “pretty okay.” We may not be gold medalists, but we’re at least somewhere in the neighborhood of a bronze.

The Baby Paradox

I’m in the final days of my “paternity leave,” but I’ve had enough time off to do a lot of pondering. It probably won’t surprise you that I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at baby Noah lately. When you’re a parent, it’s not creepy. In fact, these first few weeks of his life, there’s no way I can really get around it. He’s not exactly looking back at me or Gina yet, but I’m trusting that he at least feels comforted by these big, hairy, somewhat blurry giants that are always holding him and feeding him.

Gina commented the other day that caring for a newborn doesn’t quite feel like our definition of “parenting.” That’s probably because neither one of us spent a lot of time around infants while we were growing up, so our idea of parenthood, I think, came from our imagining what it would be like to raise little versions of ourselves. And of course, we’re finding out that our old definition is a little narrow and glosses over all the extra difficulties that come with an infant. This is the part that people like to warn you about, but while I can admit that it’s all true, nothing comes close to being able to fully describe what it feels like when you’re living it. There’s a whole flood of emotions, both positive and negative, that you just have to deal with. I could go on about that forever, but for now I will re-avow that we both fully recognize and have signed up for the whole package of parenthood, from dirty diapers and constant feeding, all the way up to sending our son off to college. That’s a done deal and neither one of us is backing out now.

The diapers and college are two handy references to a couple of life’s bookends, but they also just begin to scratch the surface in terms of contrasts. What I’ve come to realize in the last week or so is that a baby introduces your lives to all sorts of paradoxes. Case in point: Noah was born weighing 8 pounds, 12 ounces. That’s a relatively big, above-average baby. But when seeing him sitting in his car seat or holding him against me, I can’t help but see that he is still so impossibly small compared to anything else he’ll have to face in his lifetime.

Then there’s the duality of moods. Noah can go from peaceful sleep to wailing yeti in the space of two seconds. There are moments of blissful silence where I can start to imagine living out a life that is depicted in an Anne Geddes photograph - a fantastical life of babies living in flowers, or failing that, you know, living a life that somewhat approaches serene and normal.

This is perfectly normal.

I imagine a situation where Gina and I are sitting back in recliners, sipping coffee, listening to classical music, while Noah climbs out of the bassinet and goes to change his own diaper. Those dreams, of course, are shattered when our son begins wailing in agony two inches from our ears, and we have to guess whether this particular intonation means he’s gassy, hungry, or needs a new diaper. Surprisingly, I think we’re starting to pick up on the little nuances, and our guesses are becoming a little more educated. (It helps our odds when he’s hungry 90% of the day.)

A final paradox is how such a small being can generate such loud and potent flatulence. No one ever warned me about this. Out of the blue, I will hear eruptions that would rival any full-grown adult male.  I don’t know why I’m still so surprised by it, but I guess I always thought that both the volume and volatility would grow along with the person. I was dead wrong. Or at least I hope I am, because if this is our starting point, God help us all.

Welcome to 2015, everyone!

Two Weeks Later

I write this as Gina and I have made it through around two weeks of parenthood after welcoming our son, Noah, into the world. First off, I’d like to say that everything everybody said about not sleeping is completely and utterly true. I have never experienced such a time warp effect of sleepless nights and dazed days in my life.  Throw in the fact that we’ve been caring for a newborn over the shortest days of the year, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for time distortion and disrupted sleep rhythms. Concepts such as “day” and “night” no longer hold any meaning. We either spent four nights or four years in the hospital – I can’t be sure, since all of our perceptions of time and space went completely out the window. I might have discovered the secret to time travel, but I can’t completely remember the last two weeks with any kind of certainty, so I fear it may be lost for all eternity. It’s all true, guys. Go ahead and laugh.

Looking back, I can say with certainty that the first two weeks of parenthood are an exercise in anxiety. You’re already sleep-deprived, but you’re also learning 1,000 new things on the fly while being terrified about doing something wrong that could cause a limb to fall off – either your baby’s or your own. All the warnings that come pasted all over every baby accessory don’t help, either – those are equivalent to drug companies having to list every possible reaction everyone has ever had to their medicine. “Side effects may include drowsiness or DEATH. This product poses a SUFFOCATION HAZARD to everyone within a 50-foot radius.” Great, thanks.

In retrospect, I have broken the two-week period up into a few phases. The first was the hospital. We left there with the feeling that all the nurses and staff at Inova Fairfax’s Women’s Center were wonderful, courteous, and extremely professional. They do good work there and took excellent care of Gina as she recovered, and they took Noah for some short stretches to help us get some much-needed rest. I had a hard time figuring out their chairs that converted to beds, but hey, this part wasn’t about me.

The second phase was the transition from the hospital to our home. The first few days back home were very, very rough for us as we desperately tried to figure out and adjust to our new routines. I think that we’ve been pretty lucky with Noah in terms of his demeanor (as I knock on wood), but it’s still nerve-wracking to think that you might be screwing up some part of your child’s development or not giving them some much-needed comfort. I’m also pretty sure Heidi was secretly packing her bag to go live the hobo life out by the railroad tracks after the first night. But she stuck it out with us, faithful dog that she is. We did have a rough patch there where she wasn’t eating and was hiding on the basement couch to get away from the crying – from all three of us. Gina and I, however, didn’t have that option, so we stuck it out for those next few days and survived. This, of course, was due in no small part to the help from our mothers. Their own maternal magic kept us going during this bumpy stretch with their gifts of time, experience, cooking, and laundry-doing. (Plus they got to bond with their grandson, so everybody won.)

I think that we’re in the third phase now, and we have been since day – I don’t know, day 10 is as good a time as any. We’re still up several times through the night, but things are starting to feel more normal. Gina is a lot more mobile. We’re both more confident and can tag-team the babysitting to allow the other to take care of important, basic hygienic tasks like showering. We’re sleeping when we need to and can go run errands when we need a breath of fresh air. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but it’s like a switch flipped and we realized that we probably can do this. No, I’m not going to pretend that we’ve got it all figured out and can do everything effortlessly, but it’s like we’ve hit our new equilibrium and can build everything up from there. I’m cautiously optimistic.

Here are a few more assorted things that we have learned in the last two weeks, on our way to becoming actual parents:

  1. This must be a common one for new parents, but the first few diaper changes were touch-and-go. It’s just one of those things that you can only improve upon with practice. And of course, having a little boy adds an extra element of danger and requires a certain amount of dexterity and speed to avoid getting sprayed. I’ve gotten better over time and can now change a diaper like a cowboy roping a calf, but again that only comes through repetition. I bet that’s a study in learning curves that absolutely no scientist wants to do.
  2. Strapping our son into an impossibly-tight car seat for the first time felt like trying to decide whether to cut the red or blue wire with 10 seconds to go before the bomb goes off. When your newborn is over eight pounds, apparently the smallest size settings no longer apply for many child accessories. We got him home, but then several days later I had to tear the thing apart to adjust it for a bigger baby, causing us to be 20 minutes late to our first pediatrician’s appointment. This is an inauspicious start to what will be a long relationship with this practice. Luckily they were forgiving – this time.
  3. As a new parent, if you’re lucky enough to find that one combination of position and accessories that puts your baby to sleep, you use it. If he’ll only sleep in the car seat, then you put him in the car seat. I don’t care if you dropped a large sum on an animatronic bassinet that projects holograms of the mother’s womb in a virtual reality environment, if your baby will only think about nodding off if you hold her in your arms while you’re bent forward at a 35 degree angle and your left foot is propped up on the coffee table, then by God you’ll stay in that position until you need a chiropractor. Anything for a few blessed, merciful hours of silence and/or sleep. If you’re keeping score, we found Noah’s magic combination on day 12 or so, but it’s still not 100% effective.
  4. “Sleeping when the baby sleeps” is very wise advice, but good luck with that if you’ve spent years painstakingly making yourself a morning person in order to be somewhat conversational at work. I’ve now slipped back into a sleep pattern somewhat equivalent to what I was doing when I was 17 – staying up late and napping all the time, with pauses for food and bathroom breaks. Going back to work should be fun. At least I wasn’t drinking coffee at 17, so that might help.
  5. I mentioned it before, but I’m grateful for Noah’s three sets of grandparents. I’m grateful for family, friends and visitors who sent words of encouragement, congratulations, and food when it mattered. All of those contributions helped more than I could ever have guessed, so thanks again, y’all.

I could go on and on, and I most likely will, but for now I will close with the idea that I still believe our adult lives aren’t “over.” We’re just changing. Our hearts are expanding with love for this little guy. It’s an incredible feeling, and I’m blessed to be a part of it.

I have to go. My back is hurting from being bent at a 35-degree angle, and based on the noises I’m hearing, it’s time for the diaper rodeo.

Pre-Baby Thoughts

I realized a little while ago that I wanted to be sure to write a blog post that captures my thoughts right before our first child is born. It is a unique time to be writing. With everything after this, I’ll know what it’s like to have a kid. It’s like reading spoilers for the end of a movie or show – I can’t unlearn it or pretend it never happened. Later, I’m sure I will look back on these thoughts, realize how naive I am at this moment, and laugh in pity. I also get that the hardest job in the giving birth thing will always be Gina’s and that I’m merely observing. But since our lives are going to fundamentally change in just a few days, or next week, or tomorrow or whenever – pretty soon – I’m going to try to organize some of my thoughts as we wait.

You can read that last sentence with an emphasis on the “try,” because I’ve increasingly been feeling like I’m forgetting things and losing focus. I’m sleeping basically okay, but I guess this whole situation is distracting me a lot more than I consciously realize. For instance, I let my car safety inspection sticker expire and didn’t even realize it until it was two calendar months past the date. I’m lucky I was never pulled over. Maybe I’m experiencing sympathy memory loss?

Also, there’s a lot of hurry up and wait in the final few weeks of pregnancy, I’ve found. We’ve made a lot of preparations and spent a ton of money like drunk monkeys, but now all we can do is just literally wait for the little guy to arrive. Gina is going a little stir crazy now that she’s staying home. I’m finding myself trying to wrap up everything that comes across my desk at work really quickly, or if I know I can’t finish something, to hand it off to others as soon as possible in case I get that call in the middle of a workday. That makes me feel alternately productive and lazy during the day; it’s a bit of a roller coaster ride. I’m sure it’s worse for Gina. I can only suppose that as we approach the delivery date, time will slow down to an infinite crawl as if we were approaching the event horizon of a black hole. Maybe it’s a good thing that I can’t keep my head on straight, because trying to remember stuff could help me pass more of the infinitely-waiting black-hole time.

Besides being unable to manage space and time (you need a TARDIS for that), I also definitely have an underlying sense of excitement. I can appreciate the magnitude of this parenting thing, and I can vaguely understand how difficult it’s going to be at times, even though I obviously haven’t seen anything yet. At this point we’ve both heard all the different iterations of advice from parents of all ages. I know that people are just compelled to share their horror stories and unsolicited advice, and that’s fine because I’m sure we’ll use it at some point or another. But not being one to back away from a challenge, I am eager to put my own stamp on fatherhood. So then I can turn around to the next new Dad I find and repay all the unsolicited advice favors, keeping the cycle going into eternity. Overall, I am honestly just very excited to get started.

There’s one piece of “advice” I’ve heard in various forms I simply do not subscribe to: the idea that our personal lives are going to end once we have children. Our family life is going to be whatever we want to work hard to make, dang it. We will do fun stuff. Gina and I will continue to do creative things independently, but better yet we will also nurture our children’s creativity. Life isn’t going to end. I get that I won’t have as much time to devote to things and our priorities will shift and all that, but really this will be just a kind of beginning.

You might ask yourself: Bret, what about anxiety? Do you have any of that? Well, there was a little, but most of that went away when I decided not to try doing too much and as we got more things done around the house. I had a nice goal to get the entire inside of the house painted, but that idea wasn’t absolutely necessary for baby prep, and Gina convinced me to wait until much later to finish. It’s hard for me to give up on something once I’ve convinced my head to do it, but I am thankful now that she talked some sense into me.

Anxiety can often be followed by exhaustion, and I definitely can identify with that. It’s just been a marathon since September, with something new to worry about every day. We were so innocent in the summer, thinking that we had all the time in the world, but then the time snuck up and kicked us in the shins. I’ve learned a lot over these few months, however, and when I get the chance, I’ll look back and wonder how we did it all.

Again, all of these thoughts are a little jumbled, just like our lives right now. But I do get the sense that we’re on the eve of a great adventure, even as I perpetually feel like I’m forgetting something.

In the end, I really just can’t wait to meet the little guy and give him a high five. Let’s get started already!

When We Run

Over Labor Day weekend, I was afforded the opportunity to perform a song I’d written at our church. This was a big deal to me, and I have our bandleader Andreas to thank for gently prodding me to submit a number for consideration. He is a songwriting machine, so it was gracious of him to ask.

Ever since the days of my and Stuart’s various incarnations of middle- and high-school bands/duos (namely Caffine, The Express, Summer, Big System, U.S. 52, and Hello to the Ghost), I’ve been involved with making original music. But most of those songs were Stuart’s creations, with me contributing bass-lines, or piano licks, or the occasional lyric here and there. My earliest attempts at putting all the pieces of the musical puzzle together on my own were pretty laughable for many reasons, not the least of which were that I could barely play bass and piano in those days, and I don’t know too many pop songs that were written solely from the bass.

Anyway, as I picked up the guitar and got better at it through the years, inspiration struck me on and off again to write something original. With a very few exceptions, I would give up before completing the piece, and I darn sure didn’t believe in the few completed songs enough to play them for anyone. I would record them on whatever software I had on my computer at the time and leave it at that. Most of the time, the music and the lyrics just wouldn’t mesh, or I’d be worried that what I’d written was too much like a cover of whatever band I was listening to heavily at the time, which it probably did.

But hey, I’m older now, and that gives me both the wisdom to not care what other people think so much (I’ll always sound like my influences) as well as the modicum of confidence to just follow through on an idea and see what happens. That’s what happened this summer: the right mix of timing and blessings and inspiration hit with this particular song, such that I was just wrapping it up (and actually kind of liking the result) when Andreas asked if I had a song available.

That being said, even after making my live debut, I’m still not really all that confident in letting my music be heard. I know that shouldn’t matter, but for years it’s been such an internal, private pursuit of mine that it seems weird to actually let a song go out into the world.

For all of these reasons (as well as preoccupation with becoming a parent), it’s taken me a while to muster up the courage to post this demo for you all to hear. I also have a recording of the acoustic bluegrass-y live version from church, but I’m still working on improving the quality of that recording. So for now, I submit this GarageBand demo of “We Run” for your hopeful listening enjoyment. Ironically, In addition to being drawn from a favorite Bible passage, for me it ends up being about a lot of what I’ve written about here.

I hope you like it, but hey, if it’s not your cup of tea, that’s okay too.

I’m also committed to this being just the beginning. With a little help from Divine inspiration, or whatever part of the soul these kinds of things spring from, I’m just going to keep going and enjoy writing at whatever speed I can.