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Letter to a new parent

Your heart will be worn and joyous, wise and beat up, and full of sorrow and amazement.
By Meg Barnhouse
6.30.08

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newborn (Jill Lang/iStockphoto)

(Jill Lang/iStockphoto)

A friend of mine is going to have a baby, a little boy. My two boys are tall and funny and heartbreakingly themselves—and nearly gone. I feel like I know something, which is a fairly new feeling for me on the parenting front. Even though he did not ask me for any advice, here’s what I wrote to him:

I do not know why people try to scare you when you have a baby. As soon as they hear your news they go unswervingly to the horror stories. They’ve probably been scaring the baby’s mother for months now with stories of pregnancies gone wrong. If they can’t think of bad-seed kid stories, they say, “Wait until you have a teenager!” I want to tell you something a little different. Have fun is what I say. Enjoy this baby and enjoy your newly expanded heart.

The first thing that happened when my first son was born was that I fell in love so hard and fast it took my breath away. It was enough for me to sit and stare at him, smelling his head, watching his breathing, drinking in the fact of his presence on the planet. I carried him around like a delightful football everywhere I went. Any which way I carried him was fine with him, because he was as in love as I was. Plus I had milk, which made him very happy. We hung out and smooched and sang and did “baby-cize,” where I would touch his toes to his nose and count, which made him laugh.

It wasn’t all bliss, of course. There was that time he was up in the night for the fourth time, crying. Babies have no manners, and they do not care about your getting enough sleep. I remember waking my husband, telling him I had a sudden fantasy of opening the window and tossing the baby out, just to get some rest. “I’m up,” he said. “You sleep.”

Babies are fascinating, and they’re an astonishing amount of work. They get even better as they get older. They start talking, for one thing. That’s a big milestone. They ask questions, start practicing “no,” and they tell you they love you. That makes your life rich.

Another milestone was when he could climb into his own child seat, ending the lifting, bending, and buckling. He did not like that seat when he was smaller, and several times I would have to stop the car and rescue him from hanging head down into the floorboards, screaming with frustration, his ankles being the only part of him that was still in the seat. One long ride, I remember having a bag of red balloons next to me in the front seat, blowing one up, holding it so he could see it and grab for it, then letting it go screaming out the window, which made him laugh. We left a trail of deflated red balloons down Highway 17 that day. My apologies to the clean-up crew: It was red balloons or screaming insane despair. Mine and his. Is that too strongly put? No.

Getting himself dressed was another milestone, then, much later, doing his own laundry, followed by driving himself to school. Now he likes rock climbing and hard-core drumming, he’s dressing himself every day, studying to be a doctor, designing his own tattoos, loving a young woman so hard they’re talking about marriage. I still look at him and see that baby, the toddler, the skater-punk eleven year old.

Your baby will be who he is from the moment he comes into the world. He will turn out a little like you and a little like his mom and a lot like who he already is. You’re right about the child-rearing project being improvisational from the first moment. My mother told me to trust my instincts instead of books, but I did find two that were helpful. Children the Challenge, a book from the ’40s about how to avoid power struggles with your child. You say things like: “You may scream like that if you want to, and I’ll sit with you out in the car, or you may speak quietly and stay with everyone here in the restaurant,” or: “It’s time for bed now. Would you like to go right now or in about five minutes?” The other one was How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, a book about training German shepherds by the monks of New Skete. It was about how your job was to make your child/dog/whichever a pleasant companion in the world, which takes patience, consistency, and boundaries. I see shocked faces when I say that a book about dogs helped with my boys, but lots of the same things are true for humans and dogs. Instead of only correcting them when they do wrong, you try to “catch” them doing it right, and praise them for that. They like knowing who is in charge, and they’d rather it be you. I learned that from the monks.

I worried some about my sons getting hurt. I worried more about them becoming fearful. I remember letting my younger son climb up on a chair to turn on the light by himself. I watched and held my breath. What if he fell? I figured, though, that making him fearful in the world would be a more severe injury than a bruise or even a broken bone trying out something for himself.

As the boys grew, they wanted to chatter to me about their toys, their friends, their video games. They wanted to retell the movies we’d seen. It tried my patience sorely sometimes, but I would say to myself: “This is an investment in their talking to me when they are teenagers. If I don’t want great hulking teens who just grunt as they pass me in the hall, I need to listen now.” At the supper table, when they wanted to be excused to go play, I would ask them first to ask each person at the table two questions and listen to the answers. Mostly they asked, “How was your day?” and, “Tell me who you talked to today.” My oldest surprised me one night with a phone call from college to thank me for teaching him to ask questions. He said he had no problem talking to girls the way some guys at school did; girls loved that questioning and listening thing.

I used to wish my children were perfectly obedient, but now that they are grown I’m glad they have some strong-mindedness. I did not enjoy their arguing with me, but I tried to think of it as training in negotiation, which they need in the world.

When you become a parent, you have to get used to making mistakes. When you make one, it’s no big deal. Just say you’re sorry. They learn that from you. They also learn please and thank you by hearing you say please and thank you to them. I have seen people being rude to their children, then turn around and expect the children to have good manners.

Your son will make mistakes, too, as he grows, and some of those will make you cry. Being a parent is not for the faint of heart. Try to be in control of yourself rather than of him, and you’ll be okay. Love is hard on the heart. Your heart can’t remain perfect and proud, unscarred and perky. It will be worn and joyous, wise and beat up, and full of sorrow and amazement. It will tremble with the awful knowledge of how helpless you are to keep him from pain, of how closely he will watch you to see what to become and what not to become. I would rather have this heart than the one I had before the first baby.

All of this is to say you are in for quite a ride. Buckle everybody up, feel the wind in your hair, and crank up the music. Enjoy. Life has just gotten larger.


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