Nora Ephron, a powerful chronicler of our human experience, wrote a compilation of things she’d wish she had known earlier in her life. One of them certainly resonates with me these days: Write everything down. In the aftermath of her passing, Frank Rich wrote a wrenching and beautiful tribute to her, in which he offered a few additions to Nora’s list. My favorite is: There is no closure. He wrote it as a friend grieving a friend, but I think it applies to our beginnings and middles as much as our ends.
Closure is the furthest thing from your mind in the first days and weeks of becoming a parent. Nearly everything about the journey to that pink and blue striped nursery hat has been about openness. By choice, albeit an imperfectly informed one, you’ve decided to open your minds, hearts and bank accounts to create this child. Every new mother has just endured the ride of her life, and the pride at what you’ve accomplished is mixed with some measure of shock at how this body that was previously very much yours has been opened to a fair amount of indignities.
We recently had two sets of dear friends welcome their first babies. Alexander Jacob (AJ) was born on August 30, and Katherine Amelia (Katie) arrived on September 11. This post is a love letter to their parents, and a humble codicil to Nora’s legendary list.
You are already doing a great job.
These tiny little nuggets of love have just emerged from what is apparently a warm and delightful place, the dreamiest bouncy castle known to mankind. That their very first experiences through the exit turnstile have been snuggling in your adoring and slightly trembling arms means they are getting exactly what they need: you, the only parents they will ever know. You have a tremendous, built-in advantage and have walked into this job with unique qualifications. Katie and AJ have been hearing your voices for months, and they can’t believe their luck at who they got as a mommy and daddy. Soon, they’ll connect that voice with a less blurry version of your face, and you will have that greatest of staring contests where each of you marvels: It’s You. In the more bewildering moments, try to remember that in the eyes of that baby returning your stare, you’re already the best parent that ever was. In some ways, it’s a low bar of course, but take comfort from it anyway.
You’ve just begun a new relationship … with fear.
You know how, for at least the last decade or two, you never really worried about whether you would arrive safely at work, get back home again, find a way to feed yourself, board a plane without having it crash, and generally be ok? Guess what: your parents still did. Even yesterday, in some part of their brain they worried. So trust me, at the moment that you are least physically and emotionally prepared to process the infinite affronts, you are about to loathe in a whole new way: people who run red lights; people who curse loudly in public; people who impose demeaning punishment on their children; big dogs that seem sort of unpredictable, and their owners who have them off leash. Also, in no particular order: sneezing; dirty bathrooms; any bathroom without a changing station; busy parking lots; e. coli; large, festival-type events featuring several of the aforementioned things; global warming; uneven pavement; BPA; balconies; glass shards; carnies…
More fundamentally, you will fear that this world can’t be trusted with its newest member. You will never, ever be able to process harm coming to a child, even in a bad made for TV movie, much less very real suffering being beamed at you from that world you no longer trust. Sooner or later you will be up at an ungodly hour for a feeding, and you will see the commercial, sob uncontrollably, and start giving to St. Jude’s. You may as well just do it now.
What could you possibly have been afraid of before now? Turns out it was all chicken shit. This is fear. The bad news is there is no escape from it. The good news is that you are in good company, and you have just redefined your citizenship in the human family. That which levels us is by definition equalizing.
Get out and stay out.
You had babies at a glorious time of year. As soon as your pediatrician gives the go-ahead, I beg you to get yourselves and that kid outside. It is one of the only antidotes to that fear, because with each excursion you are subconsciously rebuilding a bit of trust that the idiot with the big dog isn’t about to sneeze e.coli on your baby. And one day someone will sneeze on her, and she’ll be fine. (Doesn’t mean that person isn’t a complete asshole). Moreover – and I know you can’t believe this right now – your newborn is not going to provide enough sensory stimulation to counter the exhaustion, random crying jags (yours, not the baby’s), anxiety, and the creeping, guilt-inducing sense of displacement you are working hard to deny. Get out. It is just plain weird to spend that much time inside your home, the place you typically thrill to see at the end of long work days and on lazy Sunday mornings. You also need sun and oxygen and to force yourself to regroup on the personal grooming front. You won’t do it to impress your spouse, who looks as bad as you do, but for some reason you’ll put a brush through your hair for the undifferentiated public, even the dog owning idiot. Either way, you’ll feel better for it.
There is also a new world of possibilities you can grasp right now, for a limited time. You may have noticed that AJ and Katie sleep all day long, and that they don’t weigh very much yet. Make haste for the hottest new restaurant in town, because they have a table for you at 5:15 p.m., and the car seat will fit right next to you on that plush banquette. But Caro, you say, what if he wakes up? What if he cries? Surely you aren’t telling me to be that kid-toting ambience wrecker I’ve been cursing lo these 38 years! Like I said, you’ve got a limited window. An infant’s cry is about as shrill as the coo of a turtle dove, particularly amidst the din of a restaurant. Devan hit up Hank’s Oyster Bar at the age of three weeks, and we only lifted her out of her car seat to show her off a bit to the waiter.
On that note, you should show that baby off. The way people respond may feel off-putting at first, because the three of you have been happy shut-ins for a while. You certainly don’t need to let anyone touch him, but 99% of people are just happy to breathe in the sight of a joyful new presence. They’ll be especially happy to meet parents like you, because babies born to smart and thoughtful people who have their act together are sort of like carbon offsets. This planet needs Katie and AJ, for countless reasons, but one is that while you’ve been waiting for the ideal alignment of professional stability, financial security, and emotional maturity, a whole bunch of morons have cut to the chase and procreated willy-nilly. We can’t lose that battle, and so for all the other wonderful things they will offer to this world, AJ and Katie also offset….let’s see…how about those twins Charlie Sheen had with the crackhead. I think their names are Bob and Bob.
Embrace the Shitstorm.
You will not believe how much of your time, money and energy is about to be consumed by poop. On an intellectual level, you know that all those little expulsions mean that AJ and Katie are healthy and growing. They are doing just what they should. That doesn’t mean it’s any easier to watch that pile of adorable onesies and embroidered burp cloths become covered in crap, often to the point of being irredeemable. I remember my horror when I finally got to break in my silk (?!) Petunia Picklebottom diaper bag and realized I’d be depositing wet and putrid items into it, day in and day out.
Some five years into parenthood, I still hate some of the sheer grubbiness of it. Just a few weeks ago, there was a purple popsicle situation that sent Amit into orbit. But looking back on the infant days, I also realize that all that poop flying around was serving another purpose: slowly but surely, we were having to loosen our grip on the wheel of our previously tidy lives.
By the time Kian came along, we thought we were pretty battle-tested on the poop front, but these kids sometimes find a way to up their game. This boy’s butt sphincters were just mighty, and he loved to eat, and this led to some outrageously horrible outcomes. In what has come to be known as the Cafe Divan Incident, Amit and I had Kian out with us for brunch when he was about 6 months old. Detecting the familiar smell from the stroller, I looked down at him and thought I could see – yep, oh sweet Jesus – shit that had blown all the way up to his neck, just below his hairline. I don’t know how Amit ended up being the one, but he hoisted Kian and headed down to the basement level restroom. Twenty, thirty minutes must have passed before they emerged, and I will never forget the sight of the two of them coming up the stairs. Amit had a full trash bag in one hand, our son – naked, but for a new diaper – in his other arm, and a look of shell shock worthy of a WWII movie. For all that we throw the phrase around, you never really think you will witness shit hitting a fan.
We thought of that story the other day and laughed til our stomachs hurt. Like much else in life, you can’t always see at the time that this day is going to be the one you’ll remember. It was just another day where sweet Kian was doing just what he should. But in giving in to the astonishing and unending mess, so were we.
H, S, B and C: We love you guys.