The Ugly


The Ugly about having a baby isn’t ugly by default. It’s more a look at the potential for ugly to happen. It’s an old joke that you need a license to drive a car, but not to have a baby. Despite how tired this conceit has become for comedy, it remains fairly astonishing. Other than having a modern medical system (though the U.S. does not stack up super well in global infant mortality rates), there’s almost no preparation needed in the U.S. for individuals who are looking to have a baby. There are certain resources available, but these are all voluntary. If you wanted to have a baby without having any notion at all as to what’s required to raise a child, you can. No problem. Babies aren’t even terribly expensive to have, with medical insurance.

Janelle’s policy (pricing may have been lower for us since she has Kaiser insurance and we delivered at a Kaiser hospital) left us paying only $250 for a 5 day stint in the hospital. Cheap as hell for the price of a whole new baby. So there’s not even much of an fiscal impact for having a baby. Granted there’s one for raising a child… but that again assumes you’re out to do it right.

Most egregious to me is the fact that mothers are released from hospitals into the world with their new babies without so much as a second glance from our medical institutions. Sure, there are plenty of follow-ups for the child, but as long as a mother isn’t bleeding profusely or unable to feed her child properly, there’s basically no focus placed on the parents. Janelle could be suffering from a crippling case of postpartum depression and the only person who would be able to diagnose her would be me, because it’s just not something hospitals or pediatricians check on. Compare this to the U.K. where mid-wifes will visit new mothers for a period of around a week after their baby is born. They will check in daily to answer questions and calm fears. They transition parents into parenthood. By contrast, we blow them out of the goddam airlock.

The impression everyone has of babies is that they are tricky, but manageable. After all, we were all babies. We turned out okay. Even people we’re pretty sure aren’t qualified to wash cars manage to have babies and raise them. No problem! Incorrect. In addition to the time constraints surrounding babies (which I will devote an entire post to breaking down), there is the fact that babies simply do not conform to any system you may have set out for them.

Both the Baby Whisperer and Happiest Baby on the Block (both books with information I found very useful, don’t get me wrong) present baby care as something that, if contained within the systems they present, is simple and quick. Simple observation and adherence to particular practices will spell hassle-free child-rearing. For the Baby Whisperer, as long as you keep your child on a relatively structured schedule where feeding, activity and sleep happen in the same general blocks of time each day you will always know why you baby is upset, based on what time of day he cries. Is it during the sleeping block? He’s tired. The eating block? He’s hungry. Simple. For Happiest Baby, the notion is that by performing simple functions (swaddling, shushing, swinging, etc.) you can recreate a womb-like environment and calm a crying baby in moments. Easy as pie!

Each of these books are both totally correct and dangerously incorrect.

Caring for Joshua during the day is usually very easy. At night, however, it gets hard. He cries without reason and at times without means for consolation. He is a newborn. This is what newborns do (another post on this coming up as well). I presumed that I had educated myself about babies and how to handle them. I was employing all the tricks these experts presented me with, and they weren’t working. What was left for me in my sleep-addled mind was that I was simply incapable of consoling my child properly. I looked at Janelle, both of us with red-rimmed eyes, and announced that it was pretty clear to me that I was not good at this… that I had been so sure that I would be a super dad and here I was unable to figure out why my baby couldn’t stop crying. I had come into the arrival of my son raring and ready to go, filled with knowledge and hopes for heroic, epic-level parenting. Now that I am in the trenches I realize that there’s no way to come out of parenting without getting dirty. It’s why there exists such a global fraternity among parents. We have all been hazed.

It has taken a couple of rough-ish nights (after all, he’s not a colicky baby… at least not yet) and some pep talks from my Mother to really get it into my brain that sometimes I will be unable to help Joshua despite my best, totally valid parenting efforts. There are times where he will want to cry. He will defy all systems and methods presented to assist him. He’s a newborn. This is what newborns do.

This is the greatest failing of childcare preparation here in the States (in the world? I don’t know. I imagine it’s not much different anywhere). Babies are now presented as a closed system that can be “hacked” for lack of a more graceful term. We have figured out all the curves babies can throw us. Babies can be understood and their crying can be fixed. A parent who is handling things correctly is a parent who is the master of their child’s wails. Our available education tells us this. Spending days in a hospital surrounded by nurses who care for literally thousands of babies and wield them effortlessly and unflinchingly tells us this. We are shot out into the world alone but for whatever support system we have cobbled together believing this.

I will tell this to you now. You child will not start out easy. Your baby will cry and wail and that wail will pierce your mind at times and tell you that you are a failure. But as long as you are trying to learn why your baby is crying, you will never be a failure as a parent. When you stop caring, then we can review that statement. Your baby will be difficult and your baby will sometimes be nothing like what the books describe and nothing like your baby is like 99% of the rest of the time. Your baby will be difficult, and this will not be your fault. Keep trying different methods. Hunt to find what you baby likes, however outlandish. Do not try and adhere to timelines. There’s no pit crew waiting to see how quickly you can get that baby down. It takes the time that it takes, and that is not your fault. Remember that.

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  1. #1 by Eric on June 14, 2010 - 10:52 AM

    Though I don’t see a child in my near future, I find these posts fascinating nonetheless. Your time and experience with both Janelle and the baby are certainly very interesting and a wonderful window into the world of new parenting.

    This will probably be quite trite, but the last few posts reminded me of a quote I’ve always liked from the movie ‘Donnie Darko’. It’s the scene where Donnie and Gretchen come up with the Infant Memory Generator. The idea is to create these calming and beautiful images for babies so they can develop into happier, better people.

    Prof. Ken Monnitoff ponders their project and quips back with this: “And did you stop and think that maybe infants need darkness? That maybe darkness is part of their natural environment?” That always struck me as an incredibly well positioned statement, both for the character, and in general.

    I think as humans, there exists a natural tendency to assume that we can figure out all of life’s problems. And that the seemingly neurotic behavior of a baby is one such problem. One that we can simply “solve.” The quote above addresses this assumption by postulating that perhaps it’s not something to be figured out and “fixed.” Sure, tending to a baby in every way is part of parenting, but like you’ve mentioned, sometimes there’s just no way to stop certain behaviors or actions. It’s just a baby being a baby.

    And maybe, just maybe, well… it’s supposed to be that way.

  2. #2 by Jessica on June 14, 2010 - 6:09 PM

    Welcome to the club. It’s not always glamorous and there are certainly tears shed – from both baby, and parent alike, but it’s a part of the journey, I think. You come out a bit bruised, but the fog lifts, and things get better. I maintain that the first four weeks are the hardest, but I’m comforted knowing they get better. I think the upset and the hard times end up showing you how just how very much you love that baby. You would do anything to make him feel better.

    I think parents are drawn to other parents because you know they’ve been through it. We all have little tricks that worked for us – sharing those tricks can be great, but at the end of the day, just like your wise Mother has told you, sometimes there is just nothing you can do. Sometimes he will cry. Sometimes you will cry.

    You guys are amazing parents. You need only moments to see it. I hope you both know that!

  3. #3 by mscarpel on June 14, 2010 - 6:16 PM

    @Eric
    You are correct. Babies do need some of the bad stuff. I’m reading a book on neurological development of kids up to age 5 and the trauma of a vaginal birth, for example, is good for a kid. The compression and knocking around they get releases all sorts of hormones that stimulate neural development. So… C-Sections might seem easy and quick and maybe less traumatic… but they’re not better.

(will not be published)