APPLES & KUMQUATS
As we approach Emmett’s first birthday in December, we’re starting to look back at everything this year has held for us. We regularly marvel at the fact that our son even exists, as it still feels so strange sometimes to look down and see a fully formed tiny little human looking back at us. When we brought him home from the hospital, he was this helpless lump of squish, and the priority of every single day was just to avoid doing something stupid and hurting him.
These days, he has a very clear and recognizable personality. He has likes and dislikes. He has favorite books and favorite foods and budding opinions about all sorts of things. We’re starting to see little peeks of the toddler he will soon become. And while that’s exciting, it’s also a bit terrifying. Parenting is literally an exercise in being constantly surprised and hustling to adjust your approach.
One of the biggest things we’ve noticed in this first year as parents is that people have very strong feelings about their kids. I mean, that seems obvious, doesn’t it? But what I mean is that when you have an infant, you cannot escape a single conversation without people asking you about development. We’ve all heard (and endlessly echo) the phrase “every baby is different,” but the undercurrent of competition and comparison lives on regardless. And it can be incredibly stressful.
LAVENDER FIELDS FOREVER
Sleep has been a bit of a struggle for our sweet little man. The first few weeks are hard for everyone, and he did level out a bit around nine weeks old. We had a merciful little stretch between then and 16 weeks, where he woke maybe once a night to nurse and otherwise slept peacefully. But then we hit what is known as the dreaded “4 Month Sleep Regression,” and things went wildly off the rails.
He went from waking once a night to waking every two hours, all night long and only being settled by nursing. I was exhausted and grasping at every straw to try and figure out how to “fix” things. Everyone had an opinion of course, from family members to friends to strangers on the internet. They ranged from “put the baby in your bed and attach him to your breast all night if he needs that” to “put him in his own room and leave him there until he learns to put himself back to sleep.” I searched for a middle ground and struggled to find one.
As I grew increasingly exhausted, I found myself incredibly bitter about friends and family whose children just slept with no issue. If I had to hear my mother say to me one more time that she never had a moment’s trouble with me or my siblings and she simply “put you in your crib and you slept 13 hours every night,” I was likely to explode.
My brother insisted that we weren’t doing the pre-bedtime routine correctly and that we needed to make sure we were doing a bath and a lavender lotion massage to “relax” Emmett. This was the magic sauce. While that method worked beautifully for his daughter, until he was a bit older, Emmett literally screamed if we tried to bathe him after sundown. No amount of lavender tempered his rage.
Eventually, we found our way to better sleep. His naps have been great for months, but nights are trickier. Traveling can be especially hard. The pack and play we take for him on trips is much smaller than his crib and apparently rolling around like an alligator is integral to his ability to resettle himself during night wakings, so the small space results in disaster pretty often.
We found this out the hard way when we spent a week at the beach with my family, and he woke three to five times throughout the night, every single night. All this as his cousin (who is eight months older than him and should therefore technically need less sleep) slept 12 to 14 hours a night without a peep.
Emmett moved from three naps a day to two at just five months old. For reference, most kids do this around eight months. Now, he’s trying to move to just one nap a day—a feat which most children don’t tackle until they’re 13 to 15 months old. The irony of my child being “advanced” in his absolute lack of need for sleep is just too much to take sometimes.
My father—who passed away just a month after Emmet’s birth—joked with my mother during my pregnancy that he couldn’t wait to see how my brother and I developed as parents. He was certain that the sense of competition we possessed as kids would now be played out through our own children. I’d like to think we’re more mature than that, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel like he’s handily won the “my kid sleeps better” medal. I hope you’re enjoying the show, dad.
Sleep is just one of the many, many ways people love to compare their kids to yours. The fun never ends, though. Is he crawling? My child crawled out of my womb. Is he talking? My child’s first words were a complete declarative sentence. Oh, you’re still spoon-feeding him? My child has been self-feeding since six months. These moments are always followed with some mealy-mouthed qualification such as, “Don’t worry! My child is advanced after all. I’m sure yours will catch up soon.”
I know this is just the beginning of the mommy wars. And while I discuss these sorts of developmental things openly and in a non-confrontational way with my close friends, I find that even in those conversations, I am sometimes left feeling like my child is lacking. Or—shamefully I must admit—that I think theirs is. I’m working daily to remind myself that this isn’t a race. There are no winners or losers, just kids that need support and love and will do their own damn thing in their own damn time.
As I talked about in last month’s column, Emmett is a very physical baby. I was sort of shocked when that truth became evident, as I am (clearly) a very verbal person and I somehow expected that he would inherit that trait from me. He does verbalize, don’t get me wrong. He said “mama” at about five months old but then proceeded to take a brief hiatus from caring about words. He spent the intervening months mastering crawling and pulling up on things. No time to worry about communication; there are new skills to perfect!
At about 8.5 months, he began “cruising” by holding onto furniture. Everyone who saw him insisted he’d be walking in no time. This initially struck me with a sense of pride. MY son was going to walk so early. Look how amazing he is. Then it dawned on me that I do not want him to walk yet. My house is full of potential baby death traps and I’m still recovering from months of crappy sleep. I am not bringing my A-game to life right now and the last thing I need is an incredibly mischievous baby who can actually run away from me.
But here we sit, on the dawn of 11 months, and he isn’t walking. We haven’t forced the issue (he doesn’t have a walker toy or anything of that nature and we don’t “practice” walking with him). We’re letting him move at his own pace and while I’m 100% sure he has the physical capabilities to walk right now, I’m going to let him find his own courage to do so.
He is babbling like mad and has added “dada” and “dog” to his repertoire of words. It seems like walking has taken a back seat to communicating. But the nagging voice in the back of my head says if I just pushed a little, he’d be walking tomorrow. But why do I care? Why do I feel the need to say “my son walked at 10 months old”? Maybe I still feel like he needs to make up for what others think he lacks in other areas.
A SERIOUS MAN
No one has blatantly said anything negative to me about my son. OK, that’s a lie. I’ve had some random old ladies in grocery stores tell me that he’s too small for his age and that he should be getting formula (subtext: breastfeeding is gross; you’re starving your baby; only fat babies are acceptable or cute). But other than that, people mostly don’t come out and say negative things about infants. But don’t fool yourself: they think them.
The largest hurdle I’ve had to cross as a mother is worrying about my son’s happiness—and not just if he’s happy, but if other people think he is. He was a very fussy baby for the first few months. I don’t know if he really qualified as colicky, but he seemed pretty reasonably pissed off during most of his waking hours for what felt like a long, long time. I get it; adjusting to life on the outside has to be hard. I can’t fault him for a rocky start. But I also can’t say that I didn’t wonder more than once if he would ever be happy with anything.
There are no winners or losers, just kids that need support and love and will do their own damn thing in their own damn time.
To this day, I feel insufficient in some ways when we’re in public. While he does open up with increased exposure, he is not usually an initially smiley baby. He makes you work for it, that’s for sure. I have friends whose babies are like tiny little balls of glorious sunshine. They giggle and smile and it’s as if their worlds are composed only of soft clouds and unicorns. I love them. I love loving on them. But every time I’m around them (or kids like them) I wonder if I did something wrong.
Emmett is not an unhappy baby. With his dad and me, he is incredibly playful. He makes dinosaur noises and laughs at his own farts. He dances to music and says “yum” after every bite of food. He is literally the joy of our lives. But he often doesn’t show that side readily to others. And I don’t know why I care (again), but I do. I want people to see how amazing he is, but most often he refuses to smile and instead looks around at everyone as if he’s silently judging them.
People joke about how “serious” he is, and I scramble to tell them all about the things he does when he’s alone with us or with others he knows well. They hit me with “every baby is different” or “I’m sure he’ll open up more as he gets older.” And 99% of the time, I think it’s motivated by kindness and understanding. But every now and then, I encounter a parent with a kid who is shooting megawatt pageant smiles to everyone in the room, and I think to myself that they must feel at least a small sense of smug superiority.
At the end of the day, I have discovered that comparing children is literally the stupidest thing you can do as a parent. But it is also a very natural thing. I fight the impulse on a daily basis to look at other kids and place Emmett on some continuum in regards to them, to worry that something I have or haven’t done has resulted in what he can or cannot do.
My goal these days is to remind myself that he doesn’t owe anything to anyone. He doesn’t have to smile if he doesn’t want to. It doesn’t make him a bad baby if he doesn’t. There is no such thing as a “bad” baby. So I’m going to stop apologizing for what others might see as his weaknesses. My job is simply to be there for him every step of the way, cheering him on and helping him up when he stumbles. He is his own person (increasingly more so every day) and he is walking his own path.
firstname.lastname@example.org | illustrations VICTORIA ALLEN