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Parenting: Everybody Has A Plan

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I titled this blog entry in honor of that great philosopher and statesman of our age "Iron" Mike Tyson. In addition to having been one of the most fearsome fighters of all time, he was also a strategist on par with Alexander The Great. I make these claims based on something Tyson stated before his fight with, if memory serves, (and it might not) Tony Tubbs. Tyson -- who had mowed down opponent after opponent like a thresher does wheat -- was told that Tubbs had a "plan" to defeat him.

Tyson's response? "Everybody has a plan, before they get hit."

Ladies and gentlemen, what a wonderful primer for parenthood!

After all, who among us was not an expert in child raising ... before we had one? Who did not tut-tut at those over-protective parents chauffeuring their progeny house to house to go trick-or-treating? ("In my day," we all said, "kids had to earn their candy!")

Who among us did not pass silent or not-so-silent judgment on the parents of the child who would not keep it down in the restaurant, on the plane, at the movies? Who did not hear about babies who refuse to sleep, bottle feed or crawl and simply wonder what the hell is wrong with these parents? They are so busy tending to their careers, over-parenting, letting nannies do it all, you name it, that they are simply not there for their kids when they need it most! Who didn't think these things before they had kids? I sure did.

I knew I would never be like that. I knew I would let my kids run wild in the streets and be free! I knew I wouldn't let my kid watch TV, eat bad food and ruin other people's meals, all at the same time in some cases. I knew this because I had seen what these other people had done that was so wrong, it was obvious to me, I had a plan.

And then I got hit.

But not just hit, staggered, blitzed, knocked out, only to struggle back up and get knocked out once more.

Suddenly my plans weren't going quite so swell. Suddenly I was in the unwanted position of being the recipient of other people's disapproval, tacit or otherwise.

It all started, fittingly, when my daughter Stella was born and, as I have exhaustively documented in my blog, WOULD NOT SLEEP.

This couldn't be! We had plans! Better still we had books that promised to cure everything that ails a colicky, upset, non-sleeping baby. One book you might know is called "The Happiest Baby On The Block." We made it our bible. Alas, it did not make little Stella into the happiest baby on the block.

The writer of "THBOB" is Dr. Harvey Karp, who seems like a thoroughly kind and decent soul. After two months of no sleep we were ready to admit our ignorance and surrender to his proven methods. After all, he wrote, if you do what he says a well-rested, happy, lovely baby is the inevitable result. It is unquestionable, it is science.

He advised us to first swaddle Stella every night before bed. We tried. First we tried with one swaddling blanket, but she would restlessly wriggle out of it in about 30 seconds. Oh, we must have purchased the wrong swaddler, so I bought another. This one was much better, it took her about five minutes to get out of it. We bought another, this one was the best of all, and cost the most by far. She'd be in it 10 minutes before we'd first see one foot pop out, then an arm.

But we believed, so we swaddled on. Stella would fight every step, but we knew what was best for her so we would doggedly keep at it, about five times a night, all night. Thank god we swaddled her so much, or else we would never have gotten some sleep. Oh wait, we didn't, because Stella would break free and cry again, and again. Then we would swaddle her again and again, in a never ending cycle of misery.

Karp also advised us that we were holding Stella wrong. So we started to hold her right, according to him, and sooth her with certain sounds that we had been too ignorant to intuit. We did this, and it worked about as well as the swaddling.

Rinse, lather, repeat, I think you get the picture.

We bought more books, each one knew the secret for how to get our child, any child, to rest. But if they all had the answer, I wondered, why were there so many different books? Hmmm, I preferred not to think such things as I checked out at Barnes and Noble.

All the while concerned friends and family would try to help us. Everyone had a hot tip on how this whole "baby" thing should work. Except my mother. I begged her for answers, and got none, other than to drive my colicky, fussy, at times sadness-inducing child (I cannot lie) around in our car, because sometimes it worked on my older brother when he was colicky. Drive my wailing kid around Brooklyn at 3:00 a.m., right.

Many of our friends had babies that were easier than ours. What, I wondered, did we screw up so bad to deserve this? And what did they do so rght? Why, I asked in vain, why do their babies sleep the sleep of angels, when mine does not and, shudder, NEVER WILL! Why are they better parents, and, by extension better people? I had no answers, but some of our friends tried to provide them anyway. What secrets did they know that we did not? I would ask them, only to get the title of yet another book.

Over time we developed a strict routine before bed so Stella would know to get ready for sleepy-time. It never worked. As I have written about before, we tried a white noise machine called a Sleep Sheep to bring her into dreamland. It failed. We had a mobile that played soothing music, it too was useless.

This went on, and on, much like my description of these events, for a very long time.

Finally, about eight months ago, something started to change. I am knocking wood very hard right now, even as I write this, by the way. We would do Stella's bedtime routine, and I would hold her on my shoulder and she would cry and then, usually, go to sleep. Sometimes most of the night, even.

Then I moved on. I would hold her on my shoulder and then ease into our rocking chair. Over time she would allow herself to get rocked to sleep this way. During the first year of her life she would cry if I even got near the rocker, so this was progress.

Then we moved on some more. I would sit in the rocker, and she would fall asleep after I'd sing to her for 20 minutes and easily transfer her into the crib. Then it took 10 minutes, then 5, and so on.

Now I take her, put her onto my shoulder, and sit in the rocker for literally 10 seconds before she wriggles a little and points to her crib. I then put her in the crib, she rolls over, and, boom, she's out. This last stage has been the default for about the last six months at least, and she has learned to mostly sleep through the night.

What happened? Did we suddenly become better parents, all knowing and wise? I don't think so.

What about our friends and peers? Suddenly many of them have seen their perfect sleepers start to have real trouble, just as Stella goes in the other direction. Other people we know with easy children soon felt emboldened enough to have a second one. In many cases the new kid is, you guessed it, a troubled sleeper.

Did these people all of a sudden become bad parents? Of course not.

What I have started to believe is that with babies there is much in the way of leading a horse to water, but not being able to make them drink, breastfeed, sleep, crawl, talk, you name it.

You wouldn't know it to read all those parenting books. They imply that there is an ideal time-frame for all these milestones, and if you just follow their method, and do it by the -- or in this case their -- book you will inevitably succeed, your child will thrive, and in 22 years everyone will have a good laugh about this stuff as she graduates from Harvard.

I am here to say such hard and fast rules are useless. If your child is not ready to sleep, for example, such books make you feel like something is either wrong with you or your baby. I am here to tell you this is bunk. If your child is not ready to sleep through the night there is nothing on god's green earth that will change that. Yes, you can set up a nice environment to make sleep more inviting, but you cannot force kids to sleep, or hit any milestone, until they are damn well ready.

You'll never read this in a book of course, unless some day, I guess, I write a book. Why is this? Because there is no money in it. We all want to believe there is a secret sauce to parenting, a tip we just haven't figured out yet that will change everything we want changed. But you can't trouble shoot a kid.

In other words, at every age our children have an awful lot to say about their lives.

Like I said, nowadays Stella sleeps like a champ. My wife Randi and I both realize this could change tomorrow. Again, would we have all of a sudden become terrible parents if this came to pass? Wait, don't answer that!

Our kid is an individual, somewhere within the spectrum of all life, but in her own unique frequency within this spectrum. Do I believe we can guide her and shape this frequency to align it more with ours? Of course. We just can't plan on it.

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