The Fourth Trimester
Thank you God.
It's the only thing in my brain. There is not a single other thought. There is no room for love, exhaustion, or amazement. There is only tremendous, humbling gratitude.
Ten minutes ago: I sit in the operating room holding the hand of my wife. The OR is walk-in-freezer cold. It's a giant tiled bathtub designed for the single purpose of being easy to clean. Easy to get blood off the floor. My wife looks at me, petrified, as the near-silent, mechanical physicians pull my son from her tired body with great heaves and violent tugs. I have no enmity towards these doctors and nurses. At this moment -- this exact, narrow, electrically thin moment in time -- I want the humans on the other side of the light-blue paper screen to forget their biological heritage and be nothing but automatons. I want them hardened and finely honed. I would not care what injustice, insensitivity or crime-against-humanity they commit, as long as my wife and my son survive.
I close my eyes. I hold back tears. She needs me to be strong, to be present more than I have ever been before. I pray. From a place inside I did not know held much belief, I pray with truth and honesty. I beg and I promise and I bargain and I plead.
After the wet and pain and cold subside, I am a dad for the second time and my wife breathes in and out with peace. Thank you God.
It was hard. Both births compressed a lifetime of energy, angst, and focus packed into a combined 60 hours of labor and one to-close-for-comfort trip to the the sterile room. An outlier birth story to help the bubble in the the bell curve for the rest of the world's women.
Looking back, I should have saved the depth of my prayer for the 90 days after the event. Human children require a full year of gestation; the last 3 months just happen to be outside the womb. Babies are simply not done yet. They are tomatoes: apparently complete on the outside, but just a nasty mess of confusion below the surface. It may be less intense, but that fourth trimester as a new parent can be more stressful than the intensity of the miracle itself. I don't honestly know where I found the strength to do it that first time. Perhaps deep inside all of us there are parenting ready-reserves called up for the task -- a remnant from our days as cavemen, where intensity-on-demand meant survival in the face of an angry wildebeest.
7 years later, I hardly feel the expert. No Dean of Parenting has lowered a doctoral hood onto my shoulders. There are fathers who have more calm, more cool, more sense of "getting it" than I ever will. But I am where I am. I am unabashedly proud of my kids and my wife, and I believe I have had more good days than bad, and that's all I can hope for.
Since then, I've seen dozens of friends, many much younger, face the wall of the fourth trimester. Last night, another friend, a young mid-20s man of faith and intellect, nervously sired a baby girl. Christian, here's all I can think to give you of any worth -- the one liners and mantras that have guided me through the darker moments. Perhaps one -- just one -- will ring true and help someday. Then I will consider this a worthy gift.
Care and Feeding: You
-- You do not need the advice of every relative and friend. Never listen to anyone unless you want to. They are not "your kids" in the way that that Toyota Prius is "your car." They are your uniquely sacred trust, and to hell with anyone who thinks they can walk a mile in your shoes. Default to ignoring everyone, including me. Extract what wisdom you can, and leave rest in the dustbin where it belongs.
-- You do not need endless reserves. You need to breathe. That's what the well-meaning hippie woman told you in the birth class, but she got the target wrong. Your wife remembered how to breathe, I'm quite sure. You're the one who needs to remember, every moment of every day.
-- You do not need to know what to do. You only ever have to figure this out a single day ahead of your kid. The day you get home, the only thing you need to know is how to protect her, feed her, clean her, clothe her and love her. College and boys (and firearms) are years off. You can figure it out then.
-- You do not need anything you buy from Walmart or Babycenter or anywhere else. You do not need a butt-wipe-warmer. You do not need a swing, a sling, a high chair, a diaper changing table, a fuzzy floor mat, hundreds of cute little pink outfits, a crib, a mobile, a baby bathtub or a night light. You need love and food. Everything else can be improvised, and is often better. By all means, use what works, just don't pretend you need it.
-- You do not need a sense of self. Just this once, subvert your ego. It's all too easy, as a dad with strong will and a quick mind, to build resentment in your heart -- to wish that things could be the way they were. Let it go. Embrace no-mind. You have become a Buddhist, in addition to whatever you were before: Christian, a Jew, an Atheist, or a worshiper of the FSM. Embrace it. Cherish it. Grok the lack-of-self in fullness.
-- You do not need to be "on" all the time. Create time: time for yourself, time to be with your wife, time to play games and sing and dance and pray. Your mother, mother-in-law, best friend -- they are all wired with protective genes. If you love them and trust them, let them be with your child while you remember why you had kids in the first place. Do this from the very first day you get home, every once in a while.
-- You do not need pink, yellow, baby blue or lavender anything. Eschew color. Every child I know that is surrounded by clean white blankets, clean white towels, clean white clothes and leftover shirts from dad's old-clothes pile is a happier baby. Plus, they look better in pictures.
-- You do not need all those toys. If it's plastic, and it takes batteries, throw it away.
-- Embrace pornography.
-- Only one of you has to be the man in the yellow hat at a time. The other one can be the monkey. Takes turns.
-- Go into the corner, alone, and just cry sometimes.
-- Only play games when your wife is asleep. Of course you should be sleeping too.
-- You can play a game with a child on your lap, or even better, strapped into a chest pack. This is a good time not to play Gears of War and Counter-Strike, but perhaps something tamer with pretty colors. Like Magic or Brettspielwelt.
-- Your in laws are now your very best friends in the world. Your daughter has given you phenomenal leverage with them for these 90 days. Use it.
-- If you're not careful, you will throw your back out getting the infant car seat in and out of the back seat. This will happen precisely between 4 and 6 months from now. Your wife will have built up her back-strength doing this movement many times a day. Help her out, start progressive weight training (babies get bigger!) keep yourself healthy.
-- If it all gets too much -- if there are no words that matter, no prayers that bring the peace with passes understanding, nothing that will make the tension ease -- just walk away. Give everyone a breather. Put her in the crib, send your wife to the basement and you go sit in the attic. There's rarely a reason to panic, and the panic will only make bad things happen.
Care and Feeding: Momma
-- If Momma's happy, everyone's happy.
-- Breast feeding is hard. Very hard. One bottle a night, so that Mom can sleep, will not do any harm, and it will do a lot of good for your wife.
-- If breast feeding is not to be, by choice or biology, understand that there will be guilt, acknowledged or not. Let it go. What works for you and your family is what is right. Period. End of story. There will be others out there who feel it's their duty to berate her for this choice. She is entitled by law, and required in some states, to punch them in the side of the head. Repeatedly.
-- Post partum depression is very real. She is not crazy. This is especially true if she's not breast feeding, as the intimacy that comes with breast feeding every 11 minutes is missing. I've never figured out anything you can actually do about it other than be on your toes and love the crap out of her and the baby. See note about becoming a Buddhist.
-- As soon as possible, encourage her to join the cult of new moms. My wife established a rotation of having coffee, knitting circles, play groups, grocery shopping with friends, etc. This is doubly important if this is the first time shes taken a bunch of time off work. If she has no friends with babies, find some. Long distance runners got nothin' on new moms when it comes to feeling lonely.
Care and Feeding: Baby
-- Like dogs and horses, babies smell fear.
-- She doesn't know what to do with her body. When you strap her into a chest carrier, or a sling, or an improvised bed-sheet-salvaged child-holding toga, you are bringing her close and holding her the way she remembers being held for 9 months. When you wrap her tightly like a psychiatric patient in swaddling clothes, you are quieting these spastic-flesh-puppets called limbs that she doesn't understand, and allowing her to simply be. This is not cruel. It is a gift.
-- Stimulation is a fickle beast. Her little neural network just doesn't know how to process the data yet. A little stimulation -- one sense at a time, is a good thing. Lots of stimulation can be a convenient overload-and-shutdown mechanism. In the middle lies madness.
-- Start her musical education today. My children think that the Clash and the Sleater-Kinney are lullabies. I don't know a single adult that actually enjoys those "nap time CDs."
-- Listen to Elysium for he is wise. Babies cannot be reasoned with. They are selfish. And attempting to save your back by transferring your sleeping child into her crib is like "rubbing your body in bacon grease and playing with feral wolves."
-- The umbilical cord stump and the first 5 diapers are the most disgusting part of being a parent.
-- The next 90 days are not the time to become an environmentalist. 1800diapers.com is much more important than greenpeace.com.
In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn his Stately Pleasure Dome Decree: (aka Sleep)
-- Your child will sleep. They will stop crying. But very often there is nothing you can do to make them stop. That's OK. Crying is exercise for babies. Invest in extremely good earplugs, then put headphones over them. Then love your child. Exodus contains no commandment that "thou shalt make the baby stop crying." Just stare at them from your induced cone of silence and ooze love into her little heart. It's all you can ever really do.
-- Do not drive your child around at night to get them to sleep. You will join the ranks of dads who crashed their cars at 3AM.
-- Babies, and really children of all ages, thrive on structure and routine. From the very first night, we established a simple bedtime ritual, and the idea that the darkness was the safe place in which you slept. It may take some time before these routines and structures seem to matter, but they will.
-- Babies have no circadian rhythm. They do not know that night is night and day is day. While your child may not care to sleep, establishing a pattern where it is dark and quiet from 7PM-7AM sets you up for success.
-- If you wait until she makes two little snuffling noises on your shoulder, she's down for two hours. Drop the tike on the carpet and rejoice (quietly).
-- There is no perfect solution to getting your baby to sleep through the night. That said, letting the kid spend 7 hours trying is not necessarily a bad thing. Eventually they figure it out. She will not suffer a life of expensive therapy bills because you let her learn how to go to sleep without a hand on their back for 5 hours a night. See note about earplugs and headphones.
-- There's rarely a need for both parents to be on call at night. Make a simple schedule: one of you gets earplugs and possibly a bed on a separate floor. The other one takes the duty. There should be no guilt in this for either party.
That's it. That's all I know about this 3 month window. It's not much of a gift, but it's the best I can do. Nobody can teach you how to be a dad. There's no manual. There's no degree. There's not even an Indian company you can outsource it to. But it will all be OK. In two years, you will have forgotten the stress and anxiety, and you will revel in the miracle that is your child. You will know the unquestioning love that only a child can give. You will be the single most important person in another human's life, and no matter what you think, this is true of nobody but you kids.
It's a cliche to say it's all worth it. When I was in that fourth trimester for the first time, people told me and I didn't believe them. It was plain God-damned hard. I had moments of resentment and anger and anxiety and bile and despair. More than once, in the endless night, I felt I could not go on.
But I did. And you will too.
P.S. - Don't forget the earplugs and headphones.