Having grown up in a large family with dozens of younger cousins and siblings around all the time lulled me, as I plowed blindly into adulthood, into thinking that I was something of an authority on the juvenile human. From countless hours minding my younger relatives to the slew of babysitting jobs I had in high school and college, I garnered a feeling of intelligence about children which caused my breeding friends to knowingly admonish that I would better comprehend the true complexities of children once I myself was a tried and tested parent.
They would launch into some anecdote or other about how little Ferdinand* had helped the home redecorating effort by wallpapering the cocker spaniel, and how this unexpected twist of the day’s plan had derailed their entire weekend.
“Children can be so unpredictable sometimes,” they would sigh with the banal fatigue of parenthood.
“I understand,” I would say, thinking back to literally scores of similarly unexpected episodes of my youth.
“You think you do,” they would say smugly. “But you just can’t possibly get it unless you yourself are a parent.”
This condescension infuriated me to no end. How hard was it to see that a toddler wallpapering the dog might upset one’s plans? But my friends persisted in reminding me, sometimes even without my uttering any response to their amusing little stories, that I was for all intents and purposes a moron on the subject of children.
I began to understand how people with no kids could segregate themselves socially from their friends who had spawned. For a time I even flirted with the idea of breaking off one friendship in particular after a third patronizing offense. The first time, I could chalk it up to the sleep deprivation my parent-friends sometimes moaned about. The second time, well, I could forgive a bad attitude, especially when one had produced such obviously miscreant offspring. But the third time? Then that “friend” was encroaching upon my dignity as an intelligent human, and I was an adult and therefore no longer had to put up with people who didn’t respect me.
Then I got pregnant.
My first baby came into the air-breathing world a month early. I had a weekend of early labor, then my water broke, and after thirteen hours in which I attempted natural childbirth, accepted an epidural (six hours later), went back – briefly – to natural childbirth when the epidural didn’t help, actually tore my carefully written-in-triplicate birth plans to jagged shreds, had an emergency C-section, and discovered my doula was a raging and agenda-driven sociopath, my perfect daughter was born.
She was screaming and furious at having been lifted into a chilly world without an automatic food supply. By the time she was ten minutes old, my husband had calmed his little princess down and brought her to me for my tearful exclamations of her extraordinary beauty. She greeted me with a mouth puckering and gaping in search of food. I was astounded.
A few hours later, I held her in my arms as she suckled, and I marveled at the joy of having a whole family.
I count the week that followed among the most glorious times of my life. My hospital room was filled with flowers, fruit, admirers, and most importantly, my husband and our infant daughter. The most challenging moment was having to endure her night spent under a light for jaundice. When we arrived home five days after her birth, our baby was already smiling and cheerful and appeared to have an adorably impish sense of humor. And although I’m inept at scrapbooking, I remember thinking that afternoon that I would include a page in her baby book entitled “My Favorite Moment of Your First Day Home From the Hospital.”
The next several days saw numerous friends and family members come to pay homage at our home to the precious Infanta. It was April in Houston, the springtime exquisite. I wouldn’t have to go back to work until August. How could life be anything but extraordinary?
It should have occurred to me that my daughter’s unexpectedly soon arrival was merely a harbinger of the utter lack of control I would have to learn to accept – the lack of control that comes to all experts when they suddenly become parents.
I was abruptly a stranger in the world. The childbirth classes my husband and I had taken before the birth had devoted one whole evening to the concept of breastfeeding, and yet despite our little girl’s healthy appetite and my devotion to the practice, it did not come easily. Our doula (who had conducted said childbirth classes) had assured us that babies know instinctively how to nurse from the moment of birth – something I no longer, after having two children and witnessing the initial nursing difficulties of about a dozen others, believe to be true. So I panicked that I wasn’t doing it right, and my husband insisted we give the baby bottles full of formula to make sure she got enough to eat, and the two of us had dreadful arguments over it in the middle of the night. Repeatedly. On more than one night.
But our healthy child was a resilient little thing, and she shepherded us through her infancy with a laid-back grace, and everything worked itself out. The whole parenting thing became more blissful than stressful, and life was good again. I discovered, to my chagrin, that half of the things I thought I knew about raising children were a generation outdated and no longer considered safe. Now instead of certain of my veteran parent friends criticizing me that I just didn’t understand anything, they regaled me with just-as-knowing and just-as-smug commentary to the effect of “Didn’t I tell you so? Ha.”
Then, when our little girl was about fourteen months old, we discovered that I was pregnant again. Surprise! I settled in for the morning sickness that had signaled to me that perhaps I should take a pregnancy test in the first place and did my best to be a doting mother to a little girl who was really upset that, among other things, she was no longer allowed to nurse every morning when she woke up.
When our son was born the following January – also an early baby, this time by only three weeks – we were thrust into an entirely new species of unfamiliarity. Even though we assumed that we would have some clue about what we were doing, since we’d just done it less than two years before, our first night all home together, my husband turned to me and asked if I had forgotten everything about being a parent, as he had. He was not accusing me. He was hoping I could commiserate. Of course I could.
We hadn’t had a break to rest between the children. And our new son’s birth had been complicated, ending with a five-day trip to the NICU for him, and a paralyzing fear for me that he wouldn’t live to come home from the hospital. I spent the first fourteen hours of his life inconsolable, weeping, unable to see him or find out anything about him, confined post-surgery to my own room on a different floor of the hospital.
He’s fine, now; both the kids are. But what amazes me is how incredibly strange one can feel in a world that ought to be familiar. Perhaps this is why we feel compelled to offer advice to our friends when they’re going through something we already have under our belts. (And yes, I have to stop myself on a regular basis from vomiting out all kinds of wisdom to my friends. Sometimes I’m even successful.) We want the people we love to have the benefit of our hard-learned lessons. We want to help them, the way people helped us. (And yes, some of that unsought advice from before and during my own pregnancies was in fact useful to me when I found myself in the thick of fresh parenthood. Some of it.)
And our kids still aren’t listening to us yet, so it’s got to go somewhere.
* A made-up name: so far, none of my friends has named a kid Ferdinand.