Father of the Year

Shortly after noon tomorrow I will have been a father for one year. Yep, Casey’s already one year old!

I can hardly believe that we’ve hit his first birthday already. Oddly, at the same time, it feels like a century ago I was in that hospital room marveling at his wrinkly hands and unpracticed cries. Most amazingly of all, we’ve made it through 365 days of parenting and still have a healthy little boy to show for it.

The last year has done more to grow me up than any of the 32 years before it. To say having a child is life changing is as much an understatement as it is a cliche, but it’s an absolute truism. There just really is nothing that compares to it, and no matter what else I’ve left to accomplish with my life, that day a year ago was most definitely the high-water mark.

These 12 months haven’t been without their ups and downs though — from a frantic trip to the hospital to diagnose a mild case of mosquitobiteosis; to a long stretch of time where my boy was producing movements at the rate of a stalled composer (about one a week); and, of course, the ever-gnawing fear that you’re doing it all wrong and he’s going to end up a delinquent by age 2.

I’m sure the next year (and every year hence) will bring with it a cornucopia of new things that will awe and confound me, but I thought I would take this milestone moment to share some of the things that being “on the job” for a year has taught me.

The birth really is just the beginning

Before my baby was born, the absolute most important moment that I could ever possibly imagine was the day he was to be born. After, however, every day was that much more amazing than the one prior.

I had put a lot of pressure on myself (and in hindsight, Maggie as well) trying to assure the apex of the pregnancy was this “perfect event”. We had a birth plan, had confirmed with the hospital that I could be present for the delivery (not all that common in Chinese hospitals), had read books and generally just stressed about the whole thing far too much. Before the little guy arrived I couldn’t imaging anything more important than the moment of his birth, but the minute after he arrived, everything was more important. I just couldn’t conceive of those things prior, and so I guess like a lot of dads-to-be, focused on that one thing.

Of course it’s important, and a day that will never be forgotten (if not for the cake-eating, toy-buying, kids screaming yearly reminder for the next 2 decades). But if you’re a soon-to-be-father that is overly stressed about the birth being the biggest, most-perfect event ever; my advice is to take a step back and realize that it really is just the beginning.

When it comes to kids, everyone is an expert

“You should eat ______,” “You shouldn’t eat _______,” “You need to establish boundaries right away,” “You should let things flow naturally,” “You should breast feed right away,” “You might not have enough milk to breastfeed and should use formula or you may starve your child,” “You should pump so dad can feed too,” “You should teach the baby to sleep alone and foster independence,” “You should co-sleep with your baby to establish trust and a bond,” “You should start feeding your baby solids by 4 months,” “You shouldn’t feed your baby solids until after 6 months,” “You should have pets,” “You should get rid of pets,” “You should get lots of bed rest,” “You should get more exercise,” “You should stay indoors for ____ amount of time,” “You should get out and get fresh air right away,” “You should use these types of toys/clothes/shoes,” “You shouldn’t use these types of toys/clothes/shoes,”

Whether it’s well-meaning doctors and nurses, friends and relatives, or the aisles and aisles of parenting books; everyone, and I mean everyone, has an opinion that they’re eager to give about being a good parent. I think the reason for this is because unlike if I were to, say, want to design a Web site, most people have some amount of experience with kids — if even just peripherally — and a good-hearted desire to share that knowledge. Plus, most can’t help but want to be a part of this incredible life-affirming moment.

For a new parent this deluge of good-intentioned advice can be overwhelming. What I’ve realized after a year of swimming through this glut of counsel is that none of it really matters all that much. I believe the reason there are so many conflicting opinions about how to properly care for a baby is simply due to the fact that babies are pretty flexible little creatures. Unless you go out of your way to neglect them; they’re going to get bigger, stronger and smarter with a relatively minimal amount of complicated effort on our part.

What this means, at least to me, is we’re free to pursue the method of child rearing that suits us best. This leads me to my next point:

Ideas over ideologies

One of the things that has really annoyed me in my immersion into the parenting literature is that there seems to be a terrible problem of ideologies infesting what should otherwise just be ideas.

Ideas are just that, small granules of knowledge that can be woven together into a flexible fabric of intelligence and understanding. Ideologies, on the other hand, carry with them a near religious fervor of adherence and the shunning of anything that conflicts with the ideologies core principles.

No matter whether I agreed with the content of the various parenting books that passed my eyes (and ears) or not, virtually every single one of them promoted their ideas as a “system” that was both better than and contrary to all other “systems.” Breastfeeding moms tend to look down on formula-feeding moms, and likewise, formula-feeding moms don’t understand how breastfeeding moms can handle the inconvenience; cry-it-outters feel no-cry methods are too passive and are doing the baby a disservice, while no-cry practitioners feel you’re emotionally scaring your baby; and so on…

Unfortunately it’s a function of the way these types of books are written. After all, you sell more books if you enlist advocates for your “method” that will not only promote your book but also try to discredit the books of others.

My feeling is that my child is much better served if I stay flexible, unbiased and give myself that much more opportunity to cherry-pick the best ideas from all the ideologies. As examples:

  1. For several months Casey slept in his crib, but when this became overly disruptive to Maggie and I getting enough sleep to function, he started co-sleeping with us and it has been great since. However, we recognize that he’ll need to migrate back to his own bed soon, and so will likely be attempting some sleep training that will undoubtedly result in a whole lot of tears before it’s all done.
  2. Likewise, Maggie has always (and continues to) breastfed Casey. When we started solids we avoided rice powder mixes and pre-processed bottled food and instead made all our own baby food (it’s surprisingly easy to do). When we didn’t have time to make the food or if we were travelling, we simply used bottled food and rice powder. Now he eats mostly all solids (pretty much just whatever we’re eating, unless it’s a Vindaloo curry or something) but we still occasionally supplement the “饭” part of his meal with iron-enriched rice powder instead of plain white rice.

Basically we’ve taken ideas from two different “camps” and applied them to our situation, and I think Casey, Maggie and I are all the better for it. The only two things that I’m strict about maintaining are (1) that he receives proper nutrition, and (2) that he receive an endless supply of love and affection. I think everything else is mostly cosmetic.

Some parenting books I’ve enjoyed

I’ve depended heavily on the recommendations of others for what books were worth reading. To pass this information on, here are a few of the books I feel contain decent or helpful information. Read my point above about cherry-picking ideas though, as I don’t feel any one of these books offers a “complete” parenting solution, but rather only give access to ideas and practical examples that helped me learn about this complicated gig I’d signed on for.

Love and Logic Magic for Early Childhood: This book was recommended by my step-sister-in-law (and mother of twins!). I recently finished this book, and it offers up some good advice mostly related to effective discipline. It is a bit overrun with self-selling wording and definitely falls into the “ideology” category that I mentioned above. However, I think its principles of teaching children to understand consequence through action rather than words is worth navigating the books downsides for.

Geek Dad: I got this book as a gift from our friends Ric and Gin and it’s awesome. It’s a collection of (geeky) activities a parent (though, obviously, marketed towards fathers) can do with their child, based on the Wired blog of the same name. Casey’s still too young for me to put the book to use, but I can’t wait! Some examples: “Windup Toy Finger Painting,” “Pirate Cartography,” “Light-up Duct Tape Wallet,” and “Exploding Drink Practical Joke.”

Sleeping Through the Night: Another recommended by my step-sister-in-law, this book is a fantastic source of information on how babies sleep and how you can help get them doing it for longer stretches of time. As mentioned, my wife and I are currently co-sleeping with Casey. However, now that he’s starting to flail and turn in his sleep and ends up taking over about 50% of our bed, coupled with his new habit of waking up around 6am and chatting to himself for an hour or so, we’ll be turning to this book soon to help the transition to his own bed.

The Breastfeeding Answer Book: Put out by the La Leche League, this book is called the “Breast Feeding Bible” for a reason. Maggie relied on it more than me, but it gave her loads of insight and answers to virtually everything to do with breastfeeding. We were quite fortunate to have a local chapter of La Leche League in Suzhou, especially considering how much formula feeding is pushed on new mothers here (and how unsafe that can be in China).

The Baby Book: I’m not sure how this one ended up in our hands, but it’s a great (and massive) resource on raising a baby. Written by two of the Dr. Sears dynasty, everything is slanted towards “Attachment Parenting“, but again please refer to my note above about ideas over ideologies.

The Expectant Father: This book was a loaner from Ric (mentioned above) when Maggie was still preggers and it did a fantastic job of putting my mind at ease and preparing me for the insanity to come. It runs the gambit of information from being prepared for the dash to the hospital to handling the spectrum of emotions that you encounter as an expectant dad. The author, Armin A. Brott, has more books that tackle other periods of parenting and I’m hoping to get my hands on them eventually.

Brain Rules for Baby: I just started this book (the audio book actually, via Audible.com) and so far am really liking it. Essentially it talks about how our brains form and work and what as parents we can do to assure we foster our child’s mind. The author, John Medina, is a scientist and that comes through in the book in all the right ways. He doesn’t present vague theories or possibilities, he only presents things that are backed by tested scientific evidence. Despite being written by a scientist, the book is light-hearted and jovial and not at all weighed down by the somewhat heavy material being shared.

I’m sure there were other books along the way that I’m now forgetting, but those were the biggies that helped us along. Really though the best advice came from asking other parents lots and lots of questions, as well as a huge healthy dose of common sense.

Year Number Two, here we come

I really can’t wait for all the things to come over the next year — first solo steps, first real words, and just a bunch of other great stuff that we can expect in year two.

Something no one really told me, but I’d bet I’m not the only dad that felt this way, is that for the first few months or so Casey was a total bore! I love the little guy, truly more than I’ve ever loved anything, but he had the action and excitement of a spud on a hot day. He just basically laid around, barely interacted with the world and was generally just content to have us take care of everything. Of course I understood is was completely normal, but I was also a new dad — I had been anticipating this moment for a long long time and I was eager to get out and start playing catch or building Lego castles with the little guy.

After reminding myself of a need for patience and to soak in all these early moments as best I could, I started to see changes in Casey as he began to interact with the things around him. Now, at 1 year, he’s this charismatic and engaging little dude that’s just adorable to be around. He shoots a smile at you when you wink at him, he laughs at the ladies in the park and he squeals with joyful fear when you jump out and startle him in his walker. He’s a riot!

I know that this next year is likely to see just as many, if not more, stressful events as the year previous. However, the joy I get from being a dad seems almost exponential in its increment. So, Happy Birthday son. Oh, and May the 4th be with you!

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  1. Pingback: Casey’s 1st Birthday | Ryan McLaughlin

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