Parental leave (or why I haven’t posted in 3 months)

Baby bottle

I don’t have much time to write this.

I’m sitting here on my computer in silence. But I know that any minute now, I could be whisked away by the cries of my 2-month-old daughter, Ayana. I’m on parental leave, and let me tell you, it’s given me a whole new respect for the word “parent”.

Before going on leave, one of my friends (a father of 3) told me that it’s not a vacation, it’s just a different kind of work. Oh, how true that is. I’ve been soaked on vomit, urine and poop; I’ve been driven out of bed at 2:30 in the morning; I’ve washed sheets and clothes countless times; I’ve broken down because she just won’t stop crying and I don’t know what to do. I’d say my cozy 9-5 office job is easier than this.

But at the end of it all, when I look at my daughter’s face and hear her trying to babble or see a growing smile creep across her cheeks, it’s all worth it.

New parents

When it comes to becoming a parent, my Dad once told me this: you’re suddenly given the most important job in the world, and there’s no manual or anything that comes with it.

I learned very quickly that you can read all the books you want on how to be a parent, but when that baby comes out and is in your hands your life changes in a way that no book can prepare you for. As a new parent, everything is part instinct, part trial-and-error.

Before my daughter was born, I had little-to-no experience with babies. I didn’t even change my first diaper until my daughter. People and co-workers would tell me stories of sleepless nights and diapers and crying. It’s like I was going into a battle zone, and was listening to veterans recount their stories of the Great Diaper Rash or the Battle of Bed Time. As a creature of habit, I worried that all of this chaos would break me. But, surprisingly, it didn’t. It’s like Nike: you just do it.

That’s not to say it was easy. The first night we brought Ayana home, she just wouldn’t stop crying no matter how much I consoled her or held her or rocked her and I just broke down. I didn’t know what to do. Thankfully, my wife is way more experienced with babies than I, and so she knew what to do. She took Ayana, fed her, and gave me a pep talk to cheer me up and told me I was doing ok. In fact, for the next week or so, it seemed like she was giving me a pep talk almost nightly.

I can’t say that being a good parent requires 2 people. But it definitely helps. When you have a baby who is relying on you and your spouse, you kind of have no choice but to find a way to make it work. Having someone there who you can ask, “is this normal?” and who can pick you up when you’re down is invaluable. As the second half of the Mother-Father combo team, my wife has been fantastic at calming both Ayana and me down when things get frantic, and I thank God for having her with me.

A baby really is a test of a marriage. A lot of that test comes from seeing how well you’re a team player. Sometimes, you gotta take that crying, screaming baby and rock her and sing to her no matter how useless it may seem, just so your spouse can get a little bit of extra sleep. It’s a test of how well you put others before yourself. Yes, your baby is dependent on you for survival, but your spouse is also looking to you to help them keep their sanity.

Trial and error

As I said above, half of being a parent is trial and error. And half of that is going through trials and learning from your errors. Over time, you learn and adapt to your baby’s attitudes and patterns of behavior. One of the coolest things for me was when I learned her different cries—a hungry cry is different from a fussy cry, and so on.

With Ayana, we learned that she loves motion. So if she’s upset or acting fussy, the first thing we do is pick her up and walk her around. She also enjoys whistling and humming. Thankfully, I have about 29 years of catchy video game tunes in my memory that I can access (she particularly enjoys songs from The Legend of Zelda). But even still, her comforts are constantly changing. At first, we could put her in a bassinet (which was really just a plastic IKEA tub that we lined with blankets) and rock her and that would calm her down. Now she prefers being carried around with her face looking forward so she can look at things. Slowly we’re beginning to see a personality emerge from her. For the first month it was mostly just eating and crying and pooping and sleeping. Now there’s times when she’s actively observing and learning to engage with the world around her.

If there’s one thing I learned it’s that with babies, you have to be flexible. You can have your schedule and make your plans, sure, but at any moment baby could decide it’s time to fuss or curl out a ripe load in the diaper. Not only that, but your ideas about how you’re going to raise your baby or interact with them may have to change (a classic example is strictly breastfeeding vs using formula sometimes vs using formula all the time). Just as babies are constantly learning about their world, so too are you constantly learning about your baby and what it means to be a parent.

My advice to new parents (whether you ask for it or not)

I’ll cut straight to it: no amount of reading or parenting advice (whether you ask for it or not) will prepare you for being a parent. It’s emotionally and physically taxing. You lose sleep—4 straight hours a night is considered a victory—and your child becomes your alarm clock. When one of my co-workers asked me “On a scale of 1 to 10, what’s it like being a parent?” and before I could answer, he added, “And there’s only one right answer.” At that time, as a new, sleep-deprived father, I would have said an 8 maximum, and even then that would have been stretching it. But you grow into it. You figure things out, and your instincts kick in.

You get used to the crying. You get used to lost sleep. You get used to the way your life changes. It takes time, but it gets better.

And I’ll also say this: when it comes to baby stuff—toys, clothes, cribs, accessories—simpler is better. That $800 oak veneer crib might match the decor of your bedroom nicely, but when your kid barely wants to sleep in it, or constantly soils the mattress, IKEA (or even pre-owned) might just be the way to go. Also, a lot of baby things seem to be designed to make you feel like a bad parent if you don’t buy it. Like, if your baby isn’t sitting in front of this super sensory development table with brain developing guitar tunes and vegan, non-GMO plastic toys, your baby is going to grow up stupid. They won’t.

The one thing I would say “go nuts” on is books. You’ve probably heard this already, but it’s never too early to read to your child. Pick up a bucket full of books from second-hand stores or Kijiji.

Weird things will happen to you when you become a parent. You get more protective. Randomly, you become emotional. You go from “I can’t do this” to “I got this” like a pendulum. But you’ll have these little moments, whether it’s a smile across your child’s face or the first time they fall asleep in your arms, that make it all worth it.

Full-time work

When I went on parental leave, I knew it wouldn’t be months of chilling and relaxing. Instead, it’s months of babysitting and working around the house. Every day is a full-time work of serving your family. And what little bit of time you get to yourself, you try and maximize it as much as possible.

With winter coming in, there’s few things that can test you like being holed up in a house for months with a crying, screaming, pooping baby while it’s snowing outside. But I’m enjoying the ride.

And now I have to go; my daughter is waking up.

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