I’ve had a kid for a year now, therefore, I know everything there is to know about mothering babies. Haha. Ha. Hahaha.
They say that you won’t really understand parenthood until you’ve lived it. Well, they are right. Nothing could have prepared me for the seven pound tyrant that utterly demolished me as a person within hours of bringing her home. A few of my friends are pregnant, and they’ve asked me for advice. Their innocent, trusting eyes are wide with hope that I’ve got some kind of secret password that will let them into the Easy Baby Club. I’m generally a pacifist, but if there is such a password and there exists such a club, it’s best for everyone’s safety that I never find out about it. That being said, I do have a few bits of advice for people on the verge of parenthood, and I’ve compiled these nuggets into a list for your convenient reference as needed:
1. Have a written routine.
This was monumental for me, especially for the first six months or so. I literally had a list of everything I had to do each day, including things like “shower” and “eat lunch” and other basic parts of being a human. The thing is that every little task feels overwhelming when you have a tiny person screaming at you all of the time. It feels really good to look back at the end of the day and think, “You know, I fed the dog today. Twice. I’m basically unstoppable.”
The other function of a written routine is that you can add important things to it. I’m fairly organized, but all of that flew out the window when E was born. We were late, forgot appointments, missed deadlines-the whole nine yards of irresponsibility. When I started adding those appointments and other odd tasks to the list, they started getting accomplished. And then I felt like a life champion.
2. Do your research, make your decision, then block out everyone who tries to talk you out of what you’re doing.
Kid is crying? Think it’s a milk allergy? Ask your pediatrician, make a decision, and then BAM! Stop listening to everyone else.
Kid is crying? Think he’s tired? Ask a friend, make a decision and then BAM! Stop listening to everyone else.
Kid is crying? Think she needs a paci? Ask your dentist (or your husband, same difference), make a decision and then BAM! Stop listening to everyone else.
People mean well, and sometimes their advice is dead-on. But it’s really easy to start feeling guilty when some stranger breezes by and says, “Oooh, she must be hungry!” when your baby is having a meltdown. And that guilty feeling is UNACCEPTABLE.
Remember when you were pregnant? Was carrying that baby a communal effort? No? Then it’s not a community baby. Practice saying, “Thanks, I’ve got it covered,” in the mirror until it’s second nature, because if you don’t want to second and third and twelfth guess every decision you make for the next eighteen years, you’re going to have to learn to assert yourself.
3. Figure out a system of documentation.
One day, your kid will be cramming crayons into her mouth, and you’ll wax nostalgic about the good old days when she couldn’t hold her head up. But you won’t be able to remember those days clearly (thanks, sleep deprivation), so it’s wise to have some kind of record of what life was like then.
My mom gave me a one-line-a-day journal to keep up with E. It is awesome. There are a few lines assigned to each day for five years, and the idea is that you jot down something every day about your kid. I absolutely love this system. You may be the kind of person who overshares Instagram photos or likes an old-fashioned baby book. Whatever you choose, commit to it. That commitment will be hard to fulfill, but it’s worth the hassle.
4. Read to your kid.
You can run this through the filter of #1 if you want, but I’d strongly recommend adding this to your routine the minute you come home from the hospital. Reading has so many benefits for a baby’s social, mental, and emotional development. All of those things are fine and good, but I am infinitely glad that we read so much to Em because it CALMS HER DOWN. If she is going nuts, all we have to do is say, “Do you want me to read to you?” and her energy is directed toward the bookshelf. She will sit in your lap and look at books for an hour. I’m not joking. I’m not exaggerating. An entire HOUR of quiet is mine because she likes stories. She might be able to go even longer than that. We haven’t fully tested the boundaries of this phenomenon. But I am convinced that reading centers her. Another bonus is that it gives you something to do with your kid when she’s still too tiny to do anything that’s actually fun. Little babies lay around a lot, bored out of their minds. Do your kid a favor and read. You will not regret it. (Well, you may regret it a little when you can’t get, “Big A, little a, what begins with A? Aunt Annie’s alligator, A, A, A…” stuck in your head. But that’s a minor concern.)
5. Take help from other people if they offer it. If they don’t offer, ask.
Someone wants to rock your kid? Hand over the baby and go shower. Someone wants to bring you food? Accept graciously. Someone wants to watch the baby while you go to Target alone? Try not to cry when you thank them. Supermom is dumb. Help is awesome.
Some people want to help, but don’t know how, so they don’t offer to avoid feeling awkward or seeming intrusive. If someone is lingering around your house and you need something, ask them for assistance. Most people are happy to oblige.
Note: This is especially true for men. Some dads need a little direction when it comes to the baby. Watch your husband interact with the child. If he seems to enjoy a particular task, ask if he would like that to be their thing. For instance, my husband always gives E a bath at night. He rocks at it, and she loves it, and I basically run laps around the living room, fist-pumping in victory. (Another note: Being alone feels like victory when you’re a mom, especially if you’re introverted.)
Bonus: Babies grow.
There were many minutes, hours, and days when E was really tiny and I despaired her inability to do anything capable or interesting. Until we hit the 4-5 month mark, things were really, really hard. But it gets better. Look at my virtual eyes. IT GETS BETTER. Hang in there. If your baby’s a decent kid, he or she will throw you a bone of cuteness every now and then. Take breaks, take walks, take showers, take chocolate. Take what you need to take. Babies get bigger. Amen.
I married the Tom Brady of festive. Benjamin has been known to casually wear elf hats while making serious conversation. He can quote The Grinch without blinking and throws around Christmas adages in a deadpan monotone that testifies to the seriousness with which he approaches all merry-making. I’m fairly certain that a statistically significant percentage of his blood is made up of eggnog.
I, too, came into our marriage with a Christmas heritage that would make these people look subdued. Christmas meant jumping josie with my grandpa, a made up term for two-stepping to “My Mom and Santa Claus” while I stood on his shoes. Christmas meant stuffing chicken dressing into my cheeks until they ached with happiness. It meant unexpected gifts, like the time my parents gave me a pinata for no discernible reason. Oh, and may we not forget the church play. It was no mere nativity, but rather a three hour production of The Gospel According to Scrooge, replete with authentic Victorian costumes, fireworks, and a Marley whose memory haunts me to this day. This production is still performed annually, and I’ve heard that they recently added a Rapture scene in which the saved pop out of their graves to rush Jesus, who is waiting in the balcony, naturally. Needless to say, a few liberties were taken with the original Dickens story. I was a schoolgirl, a camel, a beggar, and a dancer in this play, and I still remember it happily when I smell paint fumes and melted glitter, because that is the exact smell of Christmas.
Other people may plunk out a couple of Christmas songs on the piano and exchange socks every December. But not us. When it comes to Yuletide mirth, Ben and I are unstoppable.
We are passing on these bold and unapologetic traditions to our daughter, who is embracing them in innovative brilliance. We sang “Away in a Manger” last night, and that girl clapped to her own beat. We’ll be adjusting the tune to accommodate her swinging hands. We plan to wrap her in Christmas lights and photograph her before the season is over. On Christmas morning, we will shove gifts in front of her, objects of wonder that she had not even known existed before she came down the stairs. I will eat my socks if she doesn’t get a cavity from all of the candy canes we will force on her.
Our house is full of candles and bright lights, which is why we will also have to do as our parents did, and take our child to Christmas. Because real Christmas can’t happen here, not in this house that is well lit and warm, this house full of people who read books and laugh over dinner and love each other. Those who live here know King Jesus well, and stumble toward honoring Him. In our house, the Savior has been born for quite some time. We will celebrate his birth, but we will also be sure to go somewhere we can witness it.
Christmas doesn’t happen inside cozy inns or palatial suburban homes. It begins in obscurity, in nighttime, in the dark. Sometimes it means taking snacks to hospital waiting rooms. Sometimes it means rocking your child to sleep for the eleventh time that night. Sometimes it means buying shoes for kids whose parents are imprisoned. Sometimes it means smiling when you don’t feel like it and forgiving people who aren’t sorry. Sometimes it means arranging poinsettias on tombstones, staring death in the face and, without blinking, cursing the shadows with joy, with hope. Sometimes it means pushing back against evil by putting your hands down.
Christmas is for young people who are terrified. It is for couples facing vicious rumors and unplanned pregnancies. It is for mothers whose babies were ripped from their arms by a ruthless, heartless despot, for sisters with no baby brothers, for fathers who will grieve their sons forever. It is for the uncertain, for the poor, for the weak. It is for the elderly who have spent their entire lives on a promise yet to be fulfilled. It is for people who work outside. It is for those who live in wealth and abundance, a call to leave their homes and travel toward the brightest light. It is for a family in fear, a country in captivity, a world in mourning. It is for a people in waiting, in longing, in hope against hope for a Savior.
When Jesus was born, most of the world missed it. Thousands and thousands of people went on as usual. Christmas, the real Christmas, the Messiah, Emmanuel, shows up in the dark. Go to Christmas. Quickly and quietly travel to unfamiliar places. Find people who are hostile to strangers, who ignore those in need. Surround yourself with dirt and angels. Find that cold stable, full of animals, and bring light. Bear Jesus to that place, as Mary did. Redeem it, however you can.
I want to tell you a story that is a year old, one of which you already know the ending, but not the beginning. But it is the beginning that makes the ending so marvelous.
One year ago, I was late to our annual evening of parent-teacher conferences at school. I was late because the shirt I had planned to wear seemed to form an arrow directing everyone’s attention to my newly ousted belly button, so I spent a good thirty minutes throwing maternity clothes around my room and saying mean things about Eve.
But by the time I left the conferences three hours later, I was in a fantastic mood. All of my students that year were repeats, and I spent most of my time with their parents talking about my forthcoming baby and giving advice on writing college application essays. Every single meeting was pleasant and and full of good wishes. I drove home in my little SUV, constantly checking the rearview mirror to see the new carseat we had just installed. When I pulled to a stop to yield for oncoming traffic before turning right onto the highway, I noticed that some drivers seemed to be coming faster than normal. Then I remembered the horrid leg cramps I had suffered the night before, and stretched my calves, pushing my brake down hard.
And it’s a good thing I did that, because a car slammed into my bumper that very second.
At this point, my behavior stopped making sense. My mind kept saying, “PREGNANT. BABY. HOSPITAL. NOW.” Because of this mental clogging, I did some strange things, the first of which was to step out of the vehicle, at nine months pregnant, in the dark, on a busy highway, and proceed to check out the damage on my car. My hope was to confirm that the damage was minimal (or at least not threatening to my ability to operate the vehicle), wave the offending driver on, and drive myself to the ER, where I would allow myself the nervous breakdown that was right on the edge of my tear ducts.
As I was having these thoughts, the other driver emerged from the car and announced that he would not have hit me had he known I was with a child. He continued to yell this kind but bizarre claim at me while I dialed Ben, who was 45 minutes away, then my dear friend Jayne, who was two minutes away. She agreed to come to me, and she is responsible for every logical choice I made for the rest of the evening.
Several Good Samaritans rolled their windows down and offered to call ambulances. I noticed a funny smell, but I didn’t want to interrupt the PREGNANT. BABY. HOSPITAL. NOW. mantra long enough to place it. The guy who hit me asked if there was damage to my car, then asked if I was going to call the police. More people rolled down their windows, offering cell phones and concern. Jayne arrived and gently guided me back into my car, much to the relief of the drivers in the oncoming traffic, I am sure. A L&D nurse, or a merciful angel, stopped to give me a Capri Sun and talk me out of impending hysteria. I put my head down on the steering wheel and willed the baby to kick, to move, to do anything but the very thing she never did but was trying out then, which was being still.
Ben called, eager to hear me talk until he arrived. I had nothing to say except the words playing over and again in my head: PREGNANT. BABY. HOSPITAL. NOW. The offending driver tapped my window and offered me a scrap of paper with a phone number. He suggested I proceed to the hospital and get back with him about the damage to my car. Realizing the phone number could be completely false, I took it. If the damage was five cents or five hundred zillion dollars, it didn’t matter because PREGNANT. BABY. HOSPITAL. NOW. I thanked him.
Ben, who was still on the phone with me, told me to ask the guy to step away, then to roll my window up. I followed through, because the only person I trusted without explanation at this point was my baby’s father. And then Ben said, “Amanda, that guy is wasted. You need to call the police.”
And then my mantra of fragments was interrupted with a complete sentence: I am nine months pregnant, and I am the victim of a drunk driving accident, and my baby hasn’t moved for twenty minutes.
And time seemed to turn on that thought.
I hand the phone to Jayne, who calls 911, and we wait. And I beg God to wake the baby up, to remind her that karate practice always starts at 8:00 pm. Nothing. The policeman taps on my window to see if I’m okay, and I explain that I’m pregnant and just want to go to the hospital to check on my baby.
Mr. Drunk Driver is approaching again. Now that I can identify that smell, it is nauseating. I wave him on, and, to his credit, he keeps walking, albeit at a crooked pace. Another cop arrives, and Jayne, God bless her, jumps out of the car, points to me, and talks. The other cop approaches and takes my info. As I’m returning my license to my wallet, Jayne points to the guy behind us. “That guy is drunk. Are you going to do anything about it?” The cop assures us that he will, and as we pull out, I see the other driver exhaling into a breathalyzer.
We are in the car and moving. I am texting my mom and my friend Hannah. I am begging them to pray, binding them in promises to say my child’s name in front of Jesus.
We are in the hospital. We are lost. I am making jokes about my sense of direction, punching elevator buttons, ignoring the time, ignoring what is happening, hoping that my leveled blood pressure will cue the baby into thinking that things are normal and that she can resume the cartwheeling she had practiced all day. Nothing. Jayne and I find our way. I think of my mom when I approach Labor and Delivery. I remember how calm she always was when she had to handle one of our crises. I say, like my mom would, “Hi. I am registered at this hospital, and I was just in a car accident. I would like to find out if my baby is injured.” I don’t say, “Or worse,” but I think it.
And then, my kid elbows me, just below my belly button, where the imaginary arrow pointed hours before.
I don’t know just how Mr. Drunk Driver will play into the good tapestry of my life, as Jesus promised all things, including drunk drivers, would. I have some ideas, but I am sure that God’s goodness will overwhelm my pathetic attempts to turn it all to holiness and joy. I do know a few things, though: Every night, when I thank God for my baby and all of the funny and wonderful things she does, I remember that night. Sometimes I wonder why God let that man drink so much and get behind the wheel of a car and scare my sanity into fragility and weakness. But mostly, I don’t think of him. More often, I think of dear Jayne, and remember how she parked her car in the only available space and then ran a mile down the shoulder of the highway to make sure that I was okay. I remember the thumping of the baby’s heartbeat once we got her to be still enough for the monitor, and how the nurse laughed and said, “That wreck wasn’t even a blip on her radar,” before she offered me some ice. I remember thinking that the folks in Kentucky were so kind to roll their windows down and check on a lady in distress on the side of the highway, then laughing when I realized that they were probably worried that I would have the baby right there in the glare of their headlights. I remember that Ben, smelling like sawdust and varnish because he had been working on the baby’s furniture, helped me pull my hair up, which is hard to do when you are hooked up to machines. I remember Hannah texting me that she and James had stopped what they were doing to pray. I remember my mom being my mom, checking in with me once every few minutes, reassuring me. I remember that the next morning, at the baby shower with my co-workers, we thanked God for life, both the creation and preservation.
I remember kindness. I remember love. I remember good things. Good things! In the middle of some of the most hellish, infernal moments of my life, I remember the kindness of friends and strangers. And those are moments redeemed. People, this is what the gospel means. It is true and good and vivid and happening. In the worst moments, God reaches down and makes things funny and beautiful and true and new and full of grace.
May we all look for ways to be agents of such a gospel. May we live looking for someone desperate, someone helpless, someone wrecked. May we move them to safety, remind them to breathe, and help them start toward home.