Thursday, August 8, 2013

Come on, get happy

When our first child was born, my wife and I could scarcely believe that we were parents to a healthy baby boy. Actually, for a little while there we were on the verge of believing he was not so healthy because one of his newborn bloodtests came back positive for a rare, debilitating disorder, but they re-tested and found it had been a false positive, to our palpable relief. Maybe it was that initial experience (along with the little guy’s touch of jaundice), or maybe it was that plus a combination of other factors (my wife and I being each other’s second chance at marriage, our late start on having kids, the long and winding road from deciding to procreate to actually managing it, the pregnancy complications for which the OB recommended bedrest, &c.) that all made the sensation of holding our baby in our arms feel too good to be true.

All parents want their kids to be healthy and happy, and in our case we were lucky enough to have dodged a whole bunch of things we wouldn’t have been able to control, and our son was pronounced healthy at every turn past that first false alarm. So perhaps we doubled down on the happy part. We were resolute in our commitment to the little guy never knowing a moment of unhappiness, and since he bawled when we put him down (as most/all babies do) we therefore rarely (if ever) put him down. We were not conscious followers of or evangelizers for the philosophy of baby-wearing, but we practiced our own modified homegrown version of it nonetheless. It was exhausting, but still easier to bear than listening to our baby cry.

Eventually we all got over it. The little guy wanted to explore his surroundings on his own and didn’t want to be held constantly, and we were concurrently ready to let go a little, so that all worked out. At this point, one of my number one pieces of advice for new parents would be that babies do cry and there’s nothing wrong with that, and it is in fact perfectly all right to let them cry sometimes. If you can be there for them and meet their (perceived) needs the vast majority of the time, then every once in a while letting them fuss on the floor while you take care of some other pressing demand for your attention will do them no lasting harm. In fact, it will toughen you up to the sound and toughen the baby up to a reality that does not revolve around them. Win-win. I speak from learning this in a roundabout way, but there you go.

At any rate, the point being that the early going of the little guy’s life was suffused with a certain nervous tension, and keeping him constantly soothed and content was one manifestation of that. And he did not evaporate! Despite the irrational yet insistent undercurrent of “hard come, easy go” nagging in our new-parent brains that because we had wanted him so much for so long that he would disappear if we blinked, those fears were never realized. So when our daughter was born, we were once again resolute, but this time in a different direction: we would relax more. We would have faith that healthy babies do not vanish in a puff of smoke if sufficient willpower is not focused on them at all times. We would similarly have faith that her occasional crying would not lay the groundwork for her bitterly resenting her parents later in life. We would, in short, enjoy the ride a lot more the second time.

And then, of course, when the little girl was losing her birth weight and then some as a newborn at home my wife and I reminded each other not to panic, to chill and let nature take its course. So that when we went to the next regularly scheduled pediatrician’s visit, we were promptly scolded for not bringing our new baby in sooner because she had in fact lost too much weight. Suddenly we had to take aggressive corrective action to get things back on track. We did, she was fine again shortly thereafter, but it was a disorienting experience, throwing out of balance the been-there-done-that certitude we had recently summoned up.

None of which is to say that we didn’t end up enjoying the ride with our daughter, or that we didn’t enjoy it at all with her older brother. We are in fact still enjoying said rides. There were ups and downs, but in some ways those tend to obscure my memories of the kids’ babyhoods somewhat. I remember feeling anxious, or guilty, or overwhelmed (along with feeling overjoyed and grateful and delighted and any number of other things on any given day) and that makes it hard for me to remember clearly what their emotional dispositions were like. I seem to remember the little guy having a certain wary, observational attitude most of the time before he could walk and talk. My wife and I have always attached the descriptor “intense” to our daughter. How much of that is genuinely accurate, and how much is projection? I really don’t know how to answer that.

But I do know we’re on baby number three. And, as you would surely hope, we’ve arrived at a good balance point between abject terror and overconfident nonchalance. Although that may be a default position that we’ve backed into; with three kids under age five to supervise, often with no backup as only one parent is at home with them while the other one is at work, neither my wife nor I have the energy or cognitive capacity to be particularly resolute about anything one way or the other. Everything is a nice happy medium because there isn’t any other feasible choice.

But speaking of happy, man oh man does the baby seem to be the happiest kid so far. I just copped to the faulty unreliability of my own recollections, but still, I do not remember his older siblings being quite as jovial as he has proven to be. He smiles a lot, he laughs a lot, and he’s just generally pleasant. Not that the other two never giggled or grinned, it’s not night and day, simply a question of degree, but it is strikingly noticeable (and, for what it’s worth, my wife doesn’t disagree with the assessment).

As always, this could all be a perceptual illusion, or it could be due to a myriad of minor factors. This is our first child who’s never spent a moment in daycare, since we now have a full-time sitter who comes to our house. My wife and I believe (and are asking exactly no one to disabuse us of this notion, thanks) that daycare was on balance good for our two older children, building up everything from their pro-social tendencies to their immune systems, but we’ve always acknowledged that elements of it were stressful. Probably stressful for the kids, too! (Rim shot.) So maybe the baby loves being a homebody. Or maybe a certain amount of natural inclination toward a happy outlook is written into every human being’s DNA, and the baby hit the jackpot there. Or maybe his parents are legitimately happier now than we’ve ever been before, and it rubs off. Or maybe there’s no reason! Sometimes things just are the way they are, and it’s not as though a chubby five-month-old who positively beams when you make eye contact with him is an enigma that demands explication.

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