When I was growing up, my parents had one of those wall sayings you get from the Hallmark store tacked up in the house that read: “Raising kids is like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree.” At the time, I attributed it to corny parent humor; yet, lo and behold, a few decades later, I find myself appreciating its truth.
Ashlee and I have been inundated with parenting advice since Jackson arrived but, like my parents’ sign suggested, no number of tips and tricks can really make the nonsensical process of childrearing much easier. What works for some may not work for others. And when you find something that does work, it seems like by the next week, a new strategy is needed. We’ve appreciated (most) of the well-intentioned advice we’ve gotten but, in these first three months, we’ve already found that the best parenting lessons come from just doing. ‘Forget the chores’.
This was one piece of advice we’ve largely taken to heart. Right before Jackson was born, we had everything in order: The house had been scrubbed, the lawn mowed and all the dining room table held was a “Welcome Jackson” sign ready to be affixed to the wall.
Within a few days of his arrival, I looked at the dining room table and saw that it housed a portable napper stained with spit-up, a half-used pack of diapers, a few gift bags of baby clothes covered in tissue paper that had been shredded by the dog, a tube of diaper-rash cream missing its cap, a onesie covered in a questionable substance and one sock. Recently, while Ashlee was changing the baby’s diaper, she left him uncovered for a moment and off he went — spraying pee in her face, somehow on his own face, the walls, his clothes, his blankets and our couch. The arms of our couch are now routinely draped in dirty bibs and burp cloths, Jackson’s activity mat takes up residence on our coffee table and there’s a steady line of half-filled bottles crowding our kitchen counters waiting their turn to be washed. Prior to Aug. 7, all of this would have made my eye twitch. But today, mess is just par for the course.
In the beginning, we both tried keeping up with the dishes and making sure the hyperactive dog got the same number of walks she used to, but we’ve had to be intentional about pausing and realizing things aren’t going to be the same now. The dishes will get done and the dog can amuse herself; if we have five minutes of peace and quiet, we’ve started training ourselves to acknowledge that it should be spent doing something enjoyable.
‘Breast is best’
Among the decisions facing new mothers is breast or bottle. We had been warned by some mom friends that the “breast is best” advocates can be a bit harsh, which we already observed in doing some research in online forums. While there’s no doubt about the benefits of breastmilk, we took a wait-and-see approach.
At the hospital, we consulted with lactation specialists, who coached us through different positions and tips to help the baby “latch,” which, as Ashlee can attest, is certainly no easy feat. After hours of trying that led to Jackson, and Ashlee, crying, we opted to give him some of the formula that came pre-stocked in our baby cart (empty it when you leave, folks — you’ll thank yourself later when you get your hospital bill!) One lactation consultant not-so-subtly cautioned us that the baby should only get breastmilk, calling formula “sabotage.” However, it often takes several days for a new mom’s milk to come in and, with a 5-pound baby, we weren’t comfortable just relying on the fat stores the consultants said Jackson could survive off of until then, so we supplemented with formula.
Ashlee used a breast pump to speed up the process and, after many unsuccessful attempts to latch at home, made the decision to abandon traditional breastfeeding to exclusively pump and bottlefeed with the breastmilk. For six weeks, she pumped every two hours, and every four at night, which was harrowing for her. She said avoiding the stress of his not latching made it worth it; plus, as a same-sex couple used to doing things equitably, that we could both feed him was a plus.
There’s a lot of guilt and pressure surrounding breastfeeding and, for new parents — especially moms who’ve just given birth and may be experiencing a rollercoaster ride of hormones — the pressure is the last thing that’s needed. What is productive, we found, is ignoring the noise and trusting ourselves.
‘Trial and error’
A number of people warned us that finding out what works for your newborn is a true case of trial and error, and we couldn’t agree more — a reality that did help us feel slightly more confident as we have progressed through this process. Babies unfortunately don’t come with manuals, so knowing that other parents often don’t have the foggiest idea what in the actual hell they’re doing, gave us a level of comfort and the motivation to try out different approaches.
For instance, we’ve changed up our sleeping patterns more times than I can count. First, we split the evening into shifts, taking him to another part of the house so one of us could sleep for a couple of hours. Then, we transferred Jackson to our room and alternated getting up each time he cried to feed him. Lately, we’ve been getting up, taking him to his room and trying to rock him back to sleep before offering to feed him in an attempt to start easing him into sleeping through the night. (For anyone keeping score, he did his very first full night of sleep on Halloween! Alas, it was a one-time thing … ) Next will come moving him to his crib, which we’ve heard can be a tedious step filled with fits and starts.
Feeding has also been a merry-go-round of different options. After the breastmilk, we moved to a name brand (which we’d gotten scores of free samples for in the mail). Long nights of Jackson grunting, trying to pass gas, prompted us to move to a “gentle” version of that same product. With no improvement, it was on to prune juice to help him go to the bathroom. That made things worse, so the prune juice was out and the gas drops were in — as was a store-brand formula from a bulk wholesaler because formula is not cheap! Sometimes after we feed him, we hold him upright as long as we can to help with the acid reflux he has while other times he seems to appreciate lying on his side.
We’ve even had to experiment with diapers. Jackson unfortunately can’t tell us when it’s time to move up to the next size in diapers, so we’ve had to play it by ear and have learned to look for the tell-tale pee spots on his clothes (we learned that one the hard way when our own clothes kept getting soaked from him sitting on our laps). However, he’s growing so fast that we accumulated a massive stock of unopened diapers from our baby shower — fortunately we learned that Target and other stores let you exchange unopened diapers for a different size. Score!
Once daycare started in late October, our routine became even more laden with trial-and-error approaches. Daycare asks for advanced supplies of formulas, diapers and wipes. In the days leading up to his start date, we were trying to track his diaper usage and calculate how many ounces of formula he was averaging before scrapping that meticulous approach and getting all of his goods in bulk.
At first, we were excited to dress him in cute outfits each day, but lost socks and ruined outfits quickly showed us that was naïve, so it’s onesies and pants with footies on them for him now.
We’ve had to experiment each day with his feeding times to ensure we’re not dropping off a screaming, hungry baby, and have also gone back and forth about whether waking him from his post-daycare nap will help with overnight sleeping or not. (Jury’s still out on that one.)
As much as we’re figuring things out, we try to remind ourselves that Jackson is, too. He’s only been on this earth for just over three months, so he’s finding his way as well — learning by trial and error that if he cries at a certain octave, he gets picked up; if he spits out his pacifier, he may not get it back and if he smiles at his parents, we’ll melt and smile back.
Meanwhile, all we can do is bumble along behind him and enjoy the ride.