On November 27th, 2012, I became a Dad. My little girl, Scarlett, was born at a little past 8pm that night. Being that she's coming up on nine months here in just a few days, I thought I would look back on what lessons I've learned in the nine months since she's been on planet Earth. This post could alternatively be titled: What I wish people had really told me before becoming a Dad.
9. Your life will change ... but not immediately.
Everyone often tells you how much your life will change after you have kids. This is absolutely true! However, the thing that surprised me was that the change isn't immediate, and this actually lulls you into a sense of complacency.
When we first brought Scarlett home, I was surprised how little our lives actually changed. We were more tired, sure. Those "every 3 hour" feedings and diaper changes in the middle of the night wear on everyone. But other than that our lives proceeded very much as they always had. We still ate out, we still sat on the sofa and watched TV or played on our laptops.
Through most of this, Scarlett just slept. As a friend put it, this is the "pet rock" stage. Pretty much all the baby does is eat and sleep.
It's actually not until a few months after birth that they really become more demanding of your time. It starts when they realize you can entertain them, and then they want you to entertain them. If they aren't being entertained, they get upset. Then comes the rolling, sitting and crawling.
These days, we rarely go out to eat, or if we do, we get takeout. We spend very little, if any, time on the sofa. We watch so little TV that we're about to cancel our cable subscription. Every moment the baby is awake, one of us is with her, interacting with her and entertaining her. And when she goes to bed, we quietly retreat to the bedroom.
So if you have things to wrap up after the baby is born, you still have a few months, but the clock is ticking.
8. Have a checklist for when the baby starts crying.
A baby crying isn't a pleasant thing. Even less pleasant if it's your baby. And because they can't communicate any other way, all they do is cry. Cry when hungry. Cry when needing to be changed. Cry because they're tired. Cry because they're frustrated. Lots of crying. But (to me, at least, my wife swears otherwise) it all sounds the same. So how to go about figuring out what the source of the crying is?
When the baby is crying is not the time to be coming up with reasons why the baby might be crying. You're tired, frustrated, scared and your baby is reaching octaves and volume levels you didn't even know existed.
So, early on, we developed a checklist to go through whenever the tears started. When as the last time she ate? She slept? She was changed? (This is very useful for tracking that information). Write down all the potential reasons the baby might be crying. Then, when the tears start, go through the checklist item by item until you find the cause.
Even then, this is no guarantee. Several times we've gotten to the end of the list and she's still screaming. One night, after we had exhausted every other idea, on a whim, Sarah changed Scarlett's pajamas ... and she went right to sleep. She just didn't like what she was wearing! So, "pajamas too uncomfortable/don't like" was added to the checklist.
The key here is to do this now, when the baby isn't crying. That way you're ready when the baby does.
7. When you think your baby is incapable of doing something, you are very likely wrong.
Don't underestimate your little one. They will constantly surprise you with what they are capable of, sometimes to their own detriment.
For the longest time when she was young, we would put Scarlett on the sofa, surrounded by pillows, while we did things. She slept most of the time anyways, and even if she was awake, she couldn't move, so we saw no harm in it. Until one day, Sarah put her on the sofa and went to make a cup of coffee. She was out of the room maybe 90 seconds (as long as it takes to make a cup of coffee in a Keurig). When she came back, Scarlett had rolled out of her little cocoon and was perched right on the edge of the couch. Before she could even get to the couch, she rolled right over the edge and onto the floor.
A few months later, we were staying in a hotel room. We needed to change Scarlett. Having learned our lesson the last time, we strapped her to the changing pad on the bed. I turned my back for just a few seconds (as long as it took to get a diaper out of the diaper bag - maybe 15 seconds, max), but when I turned back around, she had rolled - still strapped to the changing pad, mind you - and fell right onto the floor.
Both of these times we thought she was incapable of something, and she proved us wrong.
Now, fortunately, both times she was completely fine (after the tears, of course). She fell onto carpet both times, neither time from a height of more than about two feet. But it was enough to teach us important lessons. These days, if she isn't in our arms or strapped securely to something bigger and heavier than she is, she's on the floor, and we keep a very close eye on her when she is.
On the plus side, sometimes you underestimate your baby and have a good outcome. I was petrified of taking Scarlett on an airplane. I had visions of her wailing for hours, with us unable to comfort her and everyone else on the plane hating us. But when we had to fly to Connecticut, she was an almost perfectly behaved little angel. Now, we worked very hard to keep her entertained for the duration of the flights, but she really didn't fuss or complain much at all until about the last 10 minutes of the last flight - and we were all tired by that point.
6. Live and die by the routine.
This is one of the first mistakes we made as new parents. It took us almost two months to establish a routine. The sooner you do this, the better things will be.
Babies need routine, and they need structure. With Scarlett, we try our absolute best to give her a predictable environment. We try to do the same things at the same times every day. She eats at the same times (give or take 15 minutes), and naps at the same times (again, give or take a little bit). Every night, we do the same things before bed: story, bath, lotion, pajamas, and milk. Bathtime is at or around 7:30pm every time, with the goal of having her in bed asleep by 8:15pm.
Even if we're traveling, we still try to do these same things if at all possible. And when traveling, we try to keep her on our home timezone as well. So when we're visiting family in the Eastern timezone, she stays on Central time.
Early on, Scarlett's schedule much mirrored our own. That is, we kept her up later than we probably should have (our bedtime was around 10pm at that time). Though we tried to get her started at around 9pm, it was always a battle. So we moved the whole thing up an hour and a half. It's also tempting not to give them a bath every night because, let's face it, they really don't do anything early on to get dirty. But only bathing them every other night is changing the routine.
These things serve as signals to her that certain things are going to happen. When she sees bath, she knows it's almost bedtime and, by the time we get pajamas on her, she's rubbing her eyes (her signal that it's time to sleep) and wanting sleep. She knows these things are predictable and she doesn't have to be scared of anything, because she knows exactly what comes next.
The goal of the routine is to stay a step ahead of her - to feed her before she's screaming with hunger, and get her into bed before she's screaming because she's tired. We still have some nights where getting her to sleep is a battle. But most nights, this works great.
5. Be flexible.
So my previous point was about routine. But the thing about routine is that it's not perfect. You have to know your baby, and learn what his/her signs are. And sometimes that means breaking the routine or changing it to accommodate your changing baby.
With sleep this is especially important. One bit of information I saw somewhere said that, for most babies, you have about 30-45 minutes from the time you see the signs of "tired" to get them into bed. If you don't hit that window, they catch a second wind and getting them to sleep becomes very difficult.
With that in mind, we watch Scarlett for signs that she's sleepy. With her, it's increased fussiness and rubbing her eyes. When we see this, we immediately try to get her into bed. Most nights this happens at or around 7:30. Some nights it's as early at 7 or late as 8. Same with naps. But sometimes, you just get no warning. A couple of days ago, Sarah was playing with Scarlett when suddenly she started fussing a lot. After checking all the easy items on the checklist, she gave her some milk and put her down for a nap ... and she went right to sleep. It was time for her to sleep.
With food, same idea. Normally she eats at or around the same time every day. But some days are different - sometimes she wants to eat earlier, or isn't hungry at all (she's actually gone to bed before without eating anything, despite us trying to coax her to, and woken up perfectly happy the next morning - she just wasn't hungry). Sometimes, she wants more food, or less. So staying flexible is key.
4. Other parents will drive you nuts.
No matter how good a parent you are, you are constantly having to overcome other parents' bad parenting.
Before I became a parent, misbehaving kids drove me nuts. Now that I'm a parent, the kid's don't bother me as much but their parents drive me absolutely bonkers.
Earlier today, we were at a restaurant. Not a nice restaurant by any means - it's an order at the counter and they bring it out to you type of place. Sitting behind us were a couple with two kids, and those kids were completely out of control. Standing and jumping on the seats, running around the restaurant unrestrained, yelling and screaming and generally being annoying pests. All the while, the parents were completely oblivious to what they were doing - or were actively choosing to ignore them.
Now, I don't expect kids to be perfect. They are, after all, kids. They aren't adults, and they aren't robots. They're going to misbehave sometimes. The problem comes when the parents fail to take corrective action to stop it. Prior to becoming a Dad, I would have been frustrated and angry at the kids. The older one looked at least seven - old enough to know better behavior than that. But the me after becoming a Dad is like, "why the f*** are the parents not being parents?!"
The thing is, kids don't exist in a vacuum. The whole time those kids are running all over the place and yelling and screaming, Scarlett is getting riled up and starting to yell and scream herself. So here we are, having to calm our daughter down because other parents are failing at parenthood.
And there's nothing you can do about it.
3. Don't count on businesses to support you, even when they claim they can.
This was a lesson I learned just this last week when we had a family emergency and had to make a last minute trip to Connecticut. Many times businesses claim that they are "kid friendly" or seem to offer things that make a parent's life easier. But more often than not, this is theoretical or maybe even outright lies.
After landing in Boston, we first had to obtain a rental car. When making our reservation, I saw that the rental car company offered to rent us a car seat, thus saving us the trouble of having to check ours and the possibility of it getting lost. Only when we got to the rental office (and after waiting an hour, but that's an entirely different story...) we find out that the rental agency had no car seats. They had to go to another agency to get a seat for us to use (and added another 30 minutes to an already long day for us).
When I made the reservation for the hotel in Connecticut, through the hotel's site, I saw that they offered cribs. Great, I thought! One less thing we have to carry with us up there. So I put in my request. But when we pulled in off the highway at 9pm at night, with Scarlett screaming because she was so tired and hungry from a long day, the lady at the desk informs me that they don't offer cribs. We ended up sleeping in a king sized bed with the baby between us surrounded by pillows.
On the flight back, we had a fairly long layover in Detroit. I looked up on my iPhone and found that, supposedly, there were kids "play areas" scattered throughout the terminals. We thought this would be great for Scarlett to go crawl around for a little bit as she was getting kind of antsy. But as we walked the terminals, most of the places that were supposed to be play areas were occupied by nothing more than rows and rows of seats. When we finally did find a "play area" it was nothing more than a single plastic playhouse. We ended up just letting her crawl around at the gate.
The common theme here is that all of these businesses made promises to us as parents that they either didn't keep, or half-assed. So, there are two potential outcomes from this. You can either become one of those parents that travels with literally everything that they might need, or you can make these requests but have backup plans when they inevitably fall through. I refuse to be the former because that's silly, so I'm becoming better at the latter.
On the plus side, on our last night at a much nicer hotel - the Hyatt Boston Harbor - they provided us with a very nice pack and play for Scarlett to sleep in.
2. Nobody knows what they're doing, and everything contradicts everything else.
(The irony of this point is not lost on me, by the way. Bear with me, you'll see what I mean by this.)
This has been one of the most immensely frustrating things for me so far: there are absolutely no "absolutes" when it comes to raising a child. Every single book, web site, or piece of advice will be contradicted by something else. This, of course, is enormously frustrating to an engineer used to dealing in absolutes.
As so many parents of babies do, we have at times struggled with Scarlett's sleep. And, as someone who works in tech, as I often do, I turn to the Internet for advice. But the signal-to-noise ratio for parenting stuff on the Internet is very high. Perhaps higher than anything else. You have to wade through mountains of crap to get to the one diamond.
But even if you don't turn to the Internet, there are thousands of books out there, each giving you different advice. And even worse, there are lots of people out there looking to take advantage of you. New parents are tired, frustrated, confused and often scared. This makes them the perfect target for shysters and charlatans. Just Google "help getting baby to sleep" to see how many people are willing to sell you a "miracle solution guaranteed to work."
The thing you have to realize, and that took me months to realize, is that nobody really knows what they're doing. That's the big secret of parenthood. There is no wise old man or woman that can swoop in and fix all your problems - everyone is just making this up as they go. And when you begin to look at advice, websites and books, regardless of how they present it to you, as their own unique experience, things suddenly start to make sense. They are options for you to choose from.
Accept a piece of advice here, something from a website there and cobble together your own solution. Tweak and change things until you have a solution that works. And, inevitably, when the baby decides that you're too complacent, start again.
1. You will never love anything that frustrates you so much.
I was never a "kid" person. In fact, most kids annoyed me (see point 4). I always "wanted kids," but the whole idea was kind of theoretical. It was theoretical when we decided to have kids. Even after we brought Scarlett home, it was still theoretical. I had no idea what I was doing. Hell, I still don't really have any idea what I'm doing.
And the kid doesn't give you any kind of grace period. She has no idea that we're just making this up as we go and learning as things happen. She expects us to know. She can't really communicate, so the only way she can get her message across is by crying. You're always having to guess what she wants. It has been just an immensely frustrating nine months so far.
And yet, when I see my daughter laugh or smile, it's all worth it. When we were taking off on our trip to Connecticut, I held my daughter up to the window. As the pilot pushed the engines to full throttle and we started our takeoff roll, Scarlett started bouncing and laughing, looking out the window. That makes it all worth it.