Reflections on becoming a parent

For my partner and I, the past 10 months have been happily saturated with talks, thoughts, and plans about our upcoming life change - having a kid! Now, after feeling like the day would never come, it’s already in the past and we are fully neck deep in this whole parenting thing.

We spent so much time putting together the nursery, taking care to pick out the right crib and wall color. We sat through all the appointments and scans. We excitedly planned our little one’s entire future, listing all the trips we’ll definitely take and activities they’ll of course excel in (all-star soccer player, first chair in the concert band, winner of the science fair, Shark Tank participant, reading 2 grade levels ahead, etc. etc.).

We also naively shrugged off all the “warnings” from friends who were already parents about just how big of an undertaking the first few weeks (and, the next 18+ years) can be.

The first few weeks of parenthood is exactly how people describe it, but you don’t really get it until it’s actually happening. When folks would say “no sleep”, I didn’t realize that - at least for the first few days - that was literally no sleep. Our hours of sleep at night have gotten slightly better after the first few days, but it’s still severely lacking. Even with perfect sleep, everything would be overwhelming - each day is a new set of lessons, each routine you think you’ve nailed down changes underneath your feet - so the noctural behavior is an impish multiplier. Exhaustion has taken on a whole new meaning.

We’ve felt extremely lucky with how things have gone so far. The first few weeks have an incredibly rewarding challenge. There is nothing else like it. We’ve marveled at seeing our child increasingly recognize the world around it, each day understanding a bit more than the previous day. Every moment has been new and wonderful and demanding and captiving all at once in different degrees. Each day reveals something new for us to tackle, learn from, and apply going forward.

It’s only been a few weeks, but there have been a couple common sense principles that have helped us navigate this new world:

  • It’s a big and scary world
  • With sleep, anything is possible
  • Take care of the small stuff immediately
  • Patience is a virtue
  • Minimize the variables

It’s a big and scary world

There’s really nothing to prepare you for:

  1. the overwhelming sense of responsibility that hits you
  2. the absolute understanding that this is truly the only one-way door in life

In the fog-of-war that is the week post-birth, I wrote this to a friend that checked in on us:

There’s a moment too, in some random act - maybe realizing you need to coordinate with your partner on if you can step away to simply fo to the bathroom or grab some food, or you notice something odd in how they’re moving their head, and the entire weight of this child’s life comes crashing down on you. You knew in theory that your light would be exhaustively altered by this child, but when ou’re faced with the reality in the moment that this is complete and comprehensive, that there is no vacation policy or coffee breaks, you spiral for a little bit. After a day or two your brain works through it, but it’s an Atlas-like realization. It makes you really appreciate having a partner to go through this with and help shoulder the load together, and you get a blank check of sypathy for all situations more complex than your current one.

The challenge of the journey so far has been the sweetest that I’ve ever experienced. Everything now feels so natural and just clicked into place. You will rise to the occasion. But, the initial shock from the transition of theoretical to concrete parenthood hits like a polar plunge.

Preparation is so key - don’t leave anything for when the birth comes. We had an ill-timed bathroom reno that needed to be done, and it still needed some painting and cleanup after the baby came. It sucked to have those few hours each day to finish the project and not be just focusing on my child or learning how to be a parent. So, don’t start any projects that aren’t guaranteed to be completed before the birth.

But, all the suppliers we’ve needed - bassinet, stroller, floor mar, both short-sleeve and long-sleeve onsies, velcro swaddles & sleep sacks, diapers, wet wipes (get so many wet wipes), changing table, pads for the changing table, saline drops, spit up cloths, etc. - it’s been so, so nice having all those ready to go. Having needed supplies at the ready provided a much-needed level of stability during the chaos of the first few weeks.

With sleep, anything is possible

The nights oscillate - some we work the graveyard shift, others we’ve managed a few spurts of consistent sleep. When we get any sembelence of shut-eye, we feel on top of the world. There’s an extra gear that we have during the day, and the typically frustrating times of extensive crying or not being able to follow our set routine are handled much more gracefully. There’s been a big push around better sleep routines over the past couple years, and now I understand why.

Take care of the small stuff immediately

Parental duties are constant, and it will be hard to get a sustained period of time to run errands like the old days. The 2-minute rule really applies here. I was always someone who batches errands all at once, but it required a block of time to do those errands which just simply isn’t available anymore.

It’s pretty straightforward. Do things immediately as they come up. Dirty dishes go straight in the dishwasher or are cleaned by hand in the sink. Collect laundry (there will be a many small items like spit-up clothes, onesies that get directly, bassinet sheets, etc. that require cleaning each day) and do it in the morning. Put clothes away as soon as they’re. Schedule pediatric appointments and put them in your calendar right away. Messes are dealt with immediately. Take out the trash as soon as it’s full. Get ahead of filling humidifiers, organizing supplies for the upcoming night, prepping food, etc. when you do get some longer periods of “downtime”.

It’s nice to exist in as much of a clean, structured environment as possible while everything else in life feels upended.

Patience is a virtue

pa·tience /ˈpāSH(ə)ns/ noun the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.

There are two forms of patience that have emerged.

The first is easy to imagine: staying cool and collected, proceeding methodically with the task at hand, when sleep-deprived, operating in low-light, on a screaming, crying, and fidgety subject that is incredibly sensitive to any sensation. Patience is learned, and it becomes quickly understood that any internal frustration just interferes with a thing that must be done. Changing a diaper or putting on a onesie cannot be avoided, so handling it with grace and cheerfulness (easier said than done in some situations) makes it a much better experience for everyone involved.

Second, there is the more abstract patience-with-self. This is a completely new phenomenom in the sense that someone is utterly dependent on you growing and learning and achieving a level of competence.

It has been a long time since I have felt the utter hopelessness that came with the first time changing a diaper. It was the first few hours of being a dad, and I questioned the basic premise that I could even be a dad in any capacity. Thankfully, that was the low point. Since then, generations of instincts have slowly conspired to turn me into a better caretaker.

Everything will come in time. I have evidence - within the first day or two, there were two different pictures snapped of me 12 hours apart. Both show me nominally doing the same thing of holding my newborn. In the first, I’m tense & clearly uncomfortable, clenching my teeth and all; it looks like I’m carrying something radioactive. In the second, my body is relaxed and nearly carefree, and I’ve got this huge smile on my face. 12 hours! That’s how quickly it all changed. That transition has given me confidence over this whole experience that I will learn what I need to learn, and I can’t expect myself to be an expert from the jump.

Minimize the variables

In extremely simple terms, not unlike a [Tamagotchi](, there is really one main communication channel for child to parent1. The vocal cry of a newborn is not a warning but an alarm; something is already wrong or past the threshold of comfort, and it is up to you to figure out what. There are really only a few main options to check through, and I’ve found it helpful to work through this list and eliminate choice by choice to narrow it down. If you reach the end of the list, you’re in uncharted territory - good luck! You’ll likely find something to add and prioritize within the list.

  1. Environment - is it too cold, is there a loud noise, etc.?
  2. Diaper - does it need to be changed?
  3. Food - when is the last time they ate? are they mimicking feeding motions?
  4. Comfort - are they being held? is there a reaction change when they are picked up or held? Are they hiccuping, burping, or making any sound?

There will definitely be things added to this list over time. We’re in the early stages of just figuring it out. So far, however, applying the scientific method has helped us quickly detect and resolve situations as they come up.

  1. This is a gross oversimplification, as there are a million little signals that you begin to detect patterns against that can help inform you what’s going on. Are their eyes open or closed? Are they moving their mouth in a certain way? When is the last time they ate or needed a change? Each permutation is a little fingerprint that maps to an outcome, although the hard part is that that mapping is constantly changing.