Lessons Learned in Baby’s First Year
In big moments I am at my least articulate, because so many ideas flow into my head at once. Sorting through them is a chore, and I stumble around. This is my seventh attempt at writing this piece. The big moment is my daughter’s first birthday, which coincides with my first year as a father. I have learned a lot in this year, and have ideas about how we can navigate Kalia’s development from waterborne alien to full-fledged Earthling. When we announced Kalia’s impending arrival, books seemed to fly into our apartment. They were full of advice about how I had to treat Sara as she carried the baby and alerted me to every possible thing that could go wrong during pregnancy, birth and Kalia’s first few months. I shut the books and breathed. I never reopened them. I thought, Not long ago, these books didn’t exist. Yet somehow here I am, the product of thousands of people going about their business before Child Inc. took over. I had a calm pregnancy as the dad-to-be.
And a calm birth experience. We chose not to medicalize Kalia’s birth. We had two ultrasounds to confirm the pregnancy, one day apart. The first technician misread the photograph and labeled part of Sara’s colon as a potential tumor. We spent five hours crying and delirious, happy for the pregnancy and terrified for what came next. Luckily, the next lab tech walked us through and showed us where the first went wrong. We were in the clear, and we steered clear of the hospital, which would be there for us if the incredibly normal act of childbirth became abnormal down the road.
We chose to use midwives and stage the birth in our apartment. We had frequent personal and group visits to discuss general topics in pregnancy, to have time-tested holistic exams, and to be given the option of medical tests. We turned each one down, trusting that what would be would be. “You didn’t do X? You opted against Z?” people would ask. Nothing indicated a problem, so we chose not to look for one.
Sara and I trained in hypnosis cues to help alleviate some of the stress and pain of the birthing process, and she reports that they significantly helped her during the final 13 hours of pregnancy. Kalia was born in our apartment bedroom with two midwives, a midwifery student, and me helping Sara bring her into this world (or back into it, if she’s an old soul). So we’re clear here, Sara did the heavy lifting.
When Kalia arrived completely, we watched in awe as she grasped her way toward Sara’s breast. Innate intelligence, for who had the chance to teach her that? We didn’t know she was a girl for about five minutes, and Sara nestled with her for a while. Then the midwives performed a thorough physical exam and gave us the stats about length and weight. I held an old-timey scale that suspended our baby in the air. It was pretty cool. Then back she went to Sara for more bonding. No slapping her on the butt. No bright fluorescent lights. No bracelets. No stealing her away.
All this felt like a victory. We went against the grain and it went well. We didn’t treat pregnancy like a disease that needed fixing. It was what it has always been: a natural process. If there had been a complication, we would have dealt with it. But unlike many in this country, due to the influence of books, media, TV and movies—all basically part of Child Inc.—we did not enter birth full of fear. It was lovely.
Once Kalia was born, I opened some new books so I could understand what to look for in her development. A new obsession was born. Is she moving her eyes? Does she smile? Why hasn’t she smiled yet? Let’s break out the black-and-white patterns! Tummy time! Skinto- skin time! Let’s read!
All the things we were supposed to be doing with our newborns were taking time away from getting to know this baby, learning about her. Again, I thought, There were no books thousands of years ago, but babies functioned just fine. In the Amazon, they don’t have black-and-white patterns. Yet somehow they keep having babies who lead their societies. Away with the books!
I decided we would learn together—her as baby, me as stay-at-home dad. One week, she taught me a valuable lesson that will reverberate in all decisions we make in her development, for it helped me shake the mainstream mindset.
It was early in my journey alone with Kalia during the day. She was about 5 months old, since Sara had four months of maternity leave prior to our arrangement. We’d been given a ton of children’s books, so I sat her on my lap and began to read, using my best sing-song voice while pointing to the brightly colored pictures.
Gotta read! At least one book a day! I was still under the influence of Child Inc. I persevered.
She squirmed and screamed.
I read louder. Held her a little closer. Pointed at the pictures more enthusiastically.
Squirm. Scream. SCREAM! Cry.
But we’re supposed to do this! I read some more. She screamed some more.
I started to cry. She cried.
I looked at her. “This isn’t working, Kalia,” I said. “Why won’t you just sit still?”
I put Kalia on her mat and she lay there calmly. Next day, Child Inc. took hold again. Gotta have a pattern in my day. She has to nap at this time. Before the nap I give a bath. Before the bath I read a book.
Squirm. Scream. Cry. Repeat.
Come the third day, I was questioning my ability to be a parent and was tired of the at-home dad arrangement. I picked Kalia up to read a book. She assessed the situation and found that it offended her sensibilities. In her own way, she told me that. Exasperated, I put the book down and held her. She nuzzled me. At some point later, I awoke in the rocker with a sleeping baby in my arms. That wasn’t bad. Screw Child Inc.!
In the seven months since, I all but forgot we had books, and Kalia used them solely as chew toys. Quite the physical being, she rolled, crawled and walked in rapid succession. She loves figuring out the function of her toys. So, instead of paying attention to Child Inc., I went in the direction the baby was leading me. She has great wisdom and is in the process of learning to communicate it to us. We cavorted on the floor. I played music for her—no Child Inc. kiddie tunes here. She has expressed preferences for Save Ferris’s version of “Come On, Eileen,” Jimmy Sturr’s “Pennsylvania Polka,” Beck’s “Loser,” and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. I’ve learned she has a great sense of rhythm. She dances. We didn’t teach that.
In all that time, I didn’t crack a binding or turn a page.
Two weeks ago, I sat at the computer as Kalia played on the floor. She was slapping a small whisk on a pan as though she were cooking. We’ve never brought her to the stove and showed her how to do that, either. At my legs, an imploring tug. “Pick me up,” she indicated. In her left hand (a hand she uses a lot) was a book. I picked her up. She opened it and let out a shriek of glee. I read to her.
That was interesting, I thought. She threw the book to the floor and climbed from my lap. She returned with another book. And another. And another. I didn’t force reading onto Kalia. She chose it.
While we guide our children to help them adapt to this world, I believe we have an obligation to pick up on their cues about what works best for them. Too often we peg them for futures that might be more of the parental generation living out lost dreams and former aspirations. To answer some of the questions I’ve received in this first year:
I don’t know what sport, if any, she will play. Or what instrument, if any.
I can’t tell you if she’ll even want to go to college, nor what type of educational modality we will pick (unschooling sounds kind of cool, but I’m doing my research).
Maybe the boys will be knocking down our door, but she might be falling for a girl. Or both.
Based on my experiences, I’d rather she not act, but if it’s something she likes, we’ll see what happens. In the meantime, let’s let her get to age 2 before deciding on the Ivy League and wedding plans.
Ultimately, as we mark this 367th day of Kalia’s life, I’m happy we brought her into our family the way we intended. I’m happy we’ve not imposed Child Inc. on her for much of a year. I’m happy she has only worn her moccasins a couple times and had a barefooted summer. And I’m happy that she smiles and seems content herself.
May the joy of learning bubble up from within and may we keep riding this wave. It is her life, after all. And we’re celebrating a year of it!