Friday, August 24, 2007

the happiest daddy on the block

there are few events that change your life like becoming a parent. it combines the bewilderment of falling in love with the utter sense of inadequacy you might feel as a child on the first day of school. you literally lose yourself in the reality of it. the first few months of sleep deprivation bring on a physical and mental depletion that defies comparison. the experience is a trial by fire that only parents can understand.

i had thought that my many late nights of partying and bleary sunrises would prepare me for it. not so. at least then i could catch up on my sleep. there is no such opportunity with a newborn. there is no repreive from the trench warfare that comes hourly (or, if you're lucky you get a three hour break) in the form of diapers and feedings and screaming that only gets louder. i remember one particularly rough night where i was shaken awake by my frenzied wife who shouted in desperation: "how can you be sleeping through this?" the answer can only be sheer exhaustion.

i don't know what is normal in this regard. the word normal seems pretty meaningless sometimes. in any case, new parents are much more sensitive to every little cry than the seasoned veterans who can tune this stuff out. many baby books focus so much on what could be wrong that they only heighten the paranoia. for us, 'the happiest baby on the block' by dr. harvey karp was a life-saver. the idea that a newborn needs to have the constant comfort of the womb simulated as much as possible to ease the transition to the less consistant care of the outside world might seem like common sense; but the practical tools he describes make all the difference. there is a calming reflex that can be triggered by simulating the conditions of the uterus. there are five steps: swaddling, sideways, shaking, shushing, and sucking. and they work!

the swaddling took the most practice. our daughter was (and is) a little houdini. every time i was sure that i had her tied up good and tight in her little blanket, she would wriggle free one arm at a time. i had to hold her in her little cocoon and work the other steps holding her on her side while gently jiggling her back and forth and shushing in her ear. of course, the bottle and the pacifier work their own magic; but they could be refused if she was upset. in the worst moments, daddy would have to step up and do this strange ritualistic baby dance. i did have extensive experience with strange late night dance marathons.

all of this might sound very negative and daunting to any prospective parents; but the strange part is that these hard core months of indoctrination are fond memories for me. there is a sublime sense of joy and peace that overtakes you when you are snuggled together with mother and baby and you forget the clock and the pressures of everyday life. i suppose that many new fathers escape this when they go to work; and they are missing out on one of life's most profound pleasures.

i'm sure there's all sorts of psychological explanations for it like shell shock or stockholm syndrome; but these experiences are what forge a family. the closeness of that time seems womblike in its own way. my sense of self became intertwined with my wife and child. it created a real connection between us; and it has made me the happiest daddy on the block.