When I had a baby nine months ago, my mother volunteered to watch her three mornings a week while I worked. As a result, I've been hanging out with my mom more often than I have in many years. Actually, the last time I saw my mother this often, I was a kid myself, and I was pretty much done with being in her house and pretty much certain that I'd figured her out and diagnosed every single one of her shortcomings. I sometimes felt a little smug about this. I am sure I was sometimes obnoxious.
Since becoming a mother myself, my perspective has been thrown around a lot. It's like being upside down. It's like being higher up. Watching my mother with my daughter, I've learned the trick of singing songs with hand gestures. I've gotten better at making up silly games. And I've learned some big, critical lessons that have come to form the foundation of my own newborn journey into motherhood:
1. This too shall pass/savor the moment.
For the first four months of her life, my baby cried. She cried every day, for most of the day. It was astounding, actually, how much she could cry. The pediatrician called it colic. I called it really, really hard. Sometimes I called it unfair. I felt like my baby would never stop crying. Like maybe she'd still be crying on her way to college. I couldn't imagine an end. My mother told me it would end. She promised. She told me stories and stories about me as a baby, and how I was just the same way. I was sensitive. My daughter, too, was sensitive. It's a good thing, she said. Look how artistic you are! Oh no, I said, my baby will also be really bad at math. Her father, the math guy, will be so sad. We laughed. My mother wouldn't let me forget -- this is all a stage, a phase. It is always a stage, a phase. It is always on its way to ending, and the next thing is always about to start. Even before I had any perspective about this, my mother told me. She reminded me to savor the tininess of my baby's fingernails and the helplessness of her little body, because these things would shift and change, along with the constant crying, and one day she wouldn't cry all the time, and she wouldn't be so tiny and helpless, either. She was right. Along the way, I learned to appreciate the phase we are in right this second a little more.
2. Talk to them like they understand/ don't expect them to understand everything.
Sometimes when I'm alone with my baby, I forget to talk to her. Sometimes I interact with her the way I used to interact with my cat. Occasionally, I give her an awkward pat on the head. My mother, meanwhile, has the ability to talk to babies as though they're about to say something clever and thoughtful back, instead of just "babaBA!" At first, I thought this was a little silly, possibly pointless, but I began to notice that my baby actually understands. She knows where the fan is. I'm very impressed by this. I wondered how she'd figured it out, until I heard my mom saying, for what was obviously the thousandth time, "Look, there's the fan! The fan spins around and around!" As much as they remind me of pets at times, babies are getting smarter every day, and they understand so much more than they can communicate. Still, there is a fragile balance between explaining the world and not expecting a child to act older than they should. My baby knows where the fan is, but she can't just stop crying when I tell her that it's not a big deal that she hit herself with a toy. Using language at an attuned, compassionate, informed level with a baby or child is an important skill. I'm definitely not there yet, but I'm working on it. At least I know that it's a thing. Thanks, Mom.
3. It's OK to be inconvenienced by your baby.
"We'll see... we're just trying it for now," I used to say, downplaying my decisions to breastfeed for as long as my baby wanted to and let her sleep in my bed, self-conscious about being weird. (I tend to lean towards parenting choices that other people perceive as inconvenient or think will "spoil" a baby.) I get the sense that I'm expected to fit my baby into my already-complete adult life, instead of letting myself be shifted and challenged and reworked around her. My mom tells me that it's OK to be reworked. Being challenged is an opportunity for growth, she says. And babies aren't supposed to be easy, they're supposed to be learning.
This is of course not to say that if your baby sleeps in a crib your life hasn't been changed. That might not be your particular battle. Some inconveniently weird or just inconvenient choices feel right, others don't. That's how parenting goes. But my mom, who rearranged her busy life and work schedule in order to play pattycake in my apartment for hours on end, has shown me that I should never be ashamed of choosing the inconvenient option when it feels right for my baby. It isn't a personal failing, it's a willingness to spend some extra energy on my daughter.
4. Babies are real people, too.
This may seem painfully obvious, but actually, I think I sometimes need to be reminded. Like I said before, with the cat stuff, it's surprisingly easy to forget that your drooling, patchy-haired, speechless, uncoordinated, rude, wildly inconvenient baby is actually a small human. My mom reminds me all the time, through the way she treats my daughter, and through our conversations about parenting. How you interact with your baby matters. Not like they're going to remember that you left them sitting in that poop diaper for an extra half hour or whatever, not that they're going to resent you at 17 because of the unfairness of not getting to smear sweet potato on the wall at ten months. But how you treat them now sets the foundation for how you will continue to parent later, when they can be trusted alone with a sweet potato. It sets a foundation for how they will feel about the world. It is relevant. Your love is valuable. When you interact lovingly with your baby, you are teaching a real person that the world is a good, safe place. Even when they give you a blank stare back and then try to steal your phone to hit the buttons.
5. This is an amazing miracle.
In a cynical world, where it can feel important to be "cool" about being a mom, and downplay the startling enormousness of this life change with a casual, "Ugh, baby poop!" shrug, my earnest mother reminds me regularly that I am incredibly lucky to have this fat, grumpy, perfect baby in my life. She lets me feel sorry for myself, too, when I need to complain about how hard it is to wake up in the middle of the night or deal with my screaming daughter in the car. But she checks my privilege a lot, too, pointing out that it is actually amazing to watch this tiny real person grow and transform. I crack a joke, I brush it off, I shrug and mention NoseFrida the Snotsucker. But I believe her. Sometimes I am bowled over by how absurd and remarkable and thrillingly normal being a new mother is. My mother teaches me all the time that being a mom is a special, meaningful thing to be. I am so thankful for that. I am so damn thankful.