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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On Fatherhood

The reason you haven’t been hearing from me for the past couple of weeks is because I became a father. Again.

Our first was born just over two years ago, and she’s a pistol. Born of two families notorious for mule-headedness, and a Taurus to boot. She is not a child that responds well to inflexible parenting. You can guide her, but if you push she pushes back. Hard. It is a trait that will serve her well in the world, which is why the Missus and I are taking pains not to quash it.

Being a first time parent is a weird thing. You don’t know any of the rules, and I mean any of them. Whatever advice your parents have to offer is likely to be useless because your kid is not going to be the same kind of kid you were.

So you read books. If you’re lucky, you find a book that was written by someone who raised your kid. If not? Well, you can always use it to prop that short leg on the coffee table.

Well, that’s not entirely fair. Most of the books out there will have some nugget of usefulness buried amongst the inaccurate generalizations and accusations of borderline abuse if you fail to follow the book to. The. Letter.

But for the most part, you’re on your own out there with a new kid and no clue what to do. Well, I have some advice for you new parents out there that should apply no matter what your kid is like.

1) First things first. As long as mother and child are safe and healthy after the birth, you did it right.

You would not believe some of the claptrap out there about birthing babies. There are, honest to goodness, people who believe that what happens during the birth determines how the child’s entire life will play out. If you get an epidural, if you don’t nurse the child within 10 minutes of birth (more on this later), if your doctor’s name is Karl with a K, these are things that will ruin your child’s entire life! And heaven help you if the kid is born breech! He’ll be destined to read magazines back to front and he’ll learn to walk before he crawls. It’s a nightmare.

Well, I’m about to shock you here: That’s all crap. Whether you have a natural birth or a planned C-section, as long as your wife and child are happy and healthy then you did it right. What matters is how the kid does while he’s in the world, not how he entered it. Sure, if the mother resents how the baby was born that can have an effect on the kid as he grows up, but that has nothing to do with the birth and everything with the mother being neurotic. So if you want to have a happy, healthy kid, don’t be neurotic!

2) You are your child’s parent. Nobody else is.

Everybody will feel compelled to offer advice, and in many cases judge you based on the choices you make. The internet is full of people who will equate any choice you make as a parent to abuse. Examples? I have many, but here are just two:

The first is the whole circumcision issue, which came up with our second child, him being a boy and all. I won’t tell you what we decided, because my boy’s wang-doodle isn’t your business, but I will say that there is a sizeable contingent of people out there that think any choice you make on this issue is abuse. You chose to circumcise? You mutilated your kid. You didn’t circumcise? Well, you just increased your kid’s chances of getting wang cancer.

Good job!

The second has to do with Breast Feeding. Let’s just say La Leche League isn’t known among non-believers as “The Milk Nazis” for nothing. Heaven help you if one of them finds out you so much as looked at a store-bought pacifier, let alone gave one to your child. If you’ve never heard the phrase “nipple confusion,” prepare yourself to become sick of it.

If you formula feed your child, don’t tell any of your hippie friends. If you’re lucky, they’ll just give you the hairy eyeball and privately accuse you of being an idiot. If you’re not lucky, they’ll lecture you about things like lipids and antibodies and corporate greed. They’ll also refer you to websites that allegedly back up these claims.

I can’t really point to a counter example in this case. Parents who formula feed tend to not be militant proselytizers about it. To my knowledge, there is no website dedicated to the wonders of Similac other than Similac’s corporate site.

Well, I’ll shock you again: If you’re kid is eating well and growing, you’re doing it right. Use breastmilk, use formula, do a combination of the two. Your responsibility is to feed the kid, not please a bunch of retired wet-nurses with hairy armpits.

I won’t get into the whole vaccination issue, because I believe that anyone who would put their kids at risk of getting polio because they think a preservative that hasn’t been used in ten years is causing an uptick in a disorder that’s occurred in the past five years is a stark raving idiot. There, I’ve used up my controversy quota for the year. In 2010, I’ll talk about texting while driving.

3) Babies cry. As new parents, it’s hard to wrap our brains around this. A newborn baby has no concept of proportion, and will cry with exactly the same intensity no matter whether he hasn’t eaten in an hour, or if he’s got his foot caught in a bear trap.

Now, as a good parent, you have all the bear traps locked up in a closet with your rifles and blowguns, so you know that he hasn’t gotten caught in a bear trap. That means he hasn’t eaten in an hour. Don’t panic. Feed him. If it takes you a few minutes to prepare to feed him, that’s okay. The baby doesn’t know it’s okay, but it’s okay.

Also, if you think your newborn is loud, give him a year to develop his lungs. Infants are not loud. Toddlers are loud. You might not realize that until you’ve had both at the same time, but it’s the truth.

Oh, and a side note: People without kids will think you are a bad parent if your kid cries in public. I’d lay odds that you were among them before you had kids. They are not idiots, merely ignorant. If your kid cries in public, do not panic because of what other people might think.

This is especially true if you’re a father all alone in a Walmart with a one-year-old in full tantrum mode while your wife goes to get a shopping cart. Chances are good that at least one of the onlookers has already dialed 911 into their cell phones and fully prepared to call in an amber alert.

Not that this ever happened to me or anything.

You can mitigate this by not panicking, and by having your wife leave the diaper bag with you when she goes to the cart corral. Kidnappers don’t wear oversized purses with half-empty baby bottles sticking out of them. But if she took the diaper bag with her, remember that you are the dad, and anyone who doesn’t think so can go jump in a lake.

4) Old people at Target will give you advice on child rearing. Some of it will be useful. Some of it less so.

Among the useful advice “You can’t overfeed them.” This is sage advice that came down from a great-grandmotherly type person who we encountered at, you guessed it, Target. We had fed her an amount that we thought was appropriate for her age, but she was still fussing. The old lady came up to us, very nicely, and said “Oh just feed her! You can’t overfeed a baby.” So we fed her, and sure enough she calmed right down. Guess what: Babies are like real people. They only eat as much as they’re hungry for.

Some of the less useful advice is of the “Oh, kids need germs” variety. This typically comes from men who have kids that are grown and out of the house, and don’t remember what it’s like to deal with a sick baby. I think it has something to do with hazing new parents. “I suffered, so you now must suffer.” Well, if you want to clean your kid’s hands after he touched the garbage can outside the Walmart, you go ahead and clean them. I recommend Sani-wipes, which are alcohol wipes that are designed to be used on little hands.

5) TV is not the devil, but the wiggles are his harbingers. People who call themselves experts like the say that TV makes kids fat and stupid. The way I see it, the only problem with a kid watching some TV is the kind of programming parents make them watch. Heck, if I started to watch Barney or, heaven help us, the BooBahs every day, I’d be fat and stupid too. But there is plenty of quality programming out there that will engage your child and not make her fat or stupid.

My daughter watches a fair amount of TV. Probably more than she should. But here’s the thing, she’s engaged by the programs we show her, and she learns things from them. For example, she loves the They Might Be Giants educational DVDs, and I’m pretty convinced that she learned to count from watching “Here Come the 123s.” She’s two, not super verbal, but can count to six. Just don’t ask her to do it, because she won’t. As I said, stubborn parents and a Taurus to boot. This is not a child who performs on cue.

I should add that she doesn’t just sit on her diapered rear end and watch the screen passively. She plays with her toys, dances when music she likes comes on and sings along with the lyrics she knows (Hearing her sing “Go for G” from “Here Come the ABCs” will make your heart melt.). She also laughs when something funny happens, which is such a joyful sound that I can’t see the arguments for why we should deny her it.

Another helpful thing in our situation is that we don’t have cable or rabbit ears. Just a DVD player. That means no commercials, and we can mix up what she’s watching from day to day. It also means that we have a portable DVD player for the car, which is an invention that makes me want to kiss whoever invented it full on the mouth.

This is not to say you should use your TV as a live-in babysitter. That would be wrong. But if you sit with your kids and watch TV with them, and if your kids seem legitimately engaged by what they’re seeing, then I don’t see a problem.

And that will do it for this week’s post. I’m traveling on business this week, so there might not be a blog post waiting for you next Wednesday. I’ll try to write something extra awesome for the following week.