I love my son and daughter. Before I had them, though, my only interactions with children came from other people’s kids. They were sticky and smelly and had a laundry list of rules to go with them. It seemed like a lot of work for a little Eisenhower I wouldn’t recognize in a crowd.
About a year before my wife and I were married, my old landlord asked me to watch her son while she went out. It would only be a few hours, but her instructions were daunting. She gave me a hurried list as she was darting out the door. It was so massive that I expected her to unroll a giant scroll like they do in cartoons for comedic effect.
He has dinner at 5:45. We eat only organic, so make sure he has the mashed peas. Mix them with the carrots, if he won’t eat them. Not the carrots in the fridge, the carrots in the cabinet. Don’t use the string beans. Those will make him poop. Then, he can watch the Wiggles – the one on the DVD, not the VHS. He doesn’t like the VHS. After, he can have some mashed bananas. You can sing the song, “Mashed Bananas”. We do. He likes it. Then, for bed, you put him in, close the blackout shade and sing – do you know the song “Good night, sweetheart, it’s time to go”? You do? Sing that, then close the door and wait for a minute to see if he cries. If he does, open the door and say, “Ooga booga.” He likes that. Then he should go to sleep. You got that?
That’s a lot of stuff, right? It’s enough to skew your perception on babies before you even have them. It was interactions like this that made parenthood feel like a death sentence. Who could remember all of that? Heck, who would want to remember all of that? Their kid was gross. He was covered in baby slime as I listened to her insane instructions. I practically went through a roll of paper towels and a box of baby wipes all so I could pick him up without vomiting into his playpen.
Of course, this was her kid and not mine. She liked him. His slimy and dirty face was probably invisible to her. She saw it as perfectly pristine. One day, I would have a kid of my own, though. Then I would hopefully understand. Part of me was sure I wouldn’t.
When Olivia arrived in 2008, I wasn’t ready. My mind couldn’t grasp how the hospital would allow me to hold her, much less take her home. As soon as we carried her over the threshold, she became the most fragile thing in our home and my brain was constantly concerned with all the ways I could accidentally break her.
I mean, seriously, you should see the remotes in this house. I have a slew of clickers for the cable box and, although I know how important they are to our lives, they look like Godzilla ate them and spit them back out. They are cracked in some spots and sticky from electrical tape in others. In many cases, the batteries no longer even fit inside because they’ve been bounced off the floor so many times.
Yet, they handed me a baby. I was entrusted to hold this infant whenever I was needed. Sure, they warn you not to accidentally shake your newborn. No one, though, warns you not to drop them or fall down the stairs while holding them – both concerns that sat in my head from the moment they were each born until the day that they became mobile. I wanted to look at the doctor and ask, “Are you sure I should hold her? Lady, I have four remotes and none of them have a working volume up button.”
Still, though, they gave me these little biological balls of life and wished me luck in my butterfingered endeavors. I was expected to take care of them because I was a dad now. That’s what we do.
Baby bouncing was only part of the stress. My old landlord’s disgusting kid kept sailing back into my brain. I would remember her instructions and wonder how I would ever keep up with something like that. This newborn was stressful enough. How would I track all she had to do? Who would tell me what my baby needs at what time? Could I call this old hippie mom from a decade prior to read me that list of needs for my own kid?
I knew my daughter had to be changed and fed and all that, but what about the other stuff? What about the songs and shows and, oh God, the mashed bananas! When do we feed her the mashed bananas?! AH! I can’t do this.
Well, here I am ten years later and I did do it. I did it because, unlike the sticky one that lived upstairs, these babies were mine. The intimidating list of demands I had been given during babysitting duties weren’t preset for all kids, just hers. They were observations that this parent had noticed about her own child. Now, as a father of two, I have my own.
When she was a baby, Olivia liked the theme song and dolls of Wow Wow Wubzy, but not the show itself. She didn’t like eating vegetables unless they were in baby ravioli form. Her favorite doll, nicknamed “Ratty Elmo”, was only her favorite because of his rattiness. Putting him in the washing machine earned her scorn until his fluffy fur returned to it’s matted down mess of red yarn.
Lucas loved Elmo’s World, but not the one with the kids roller skating. He hated those kids…or their skates…or both. He also enjoys potato chips, but detests pretzels. He loves two of the three Raffi videos, but not the one on Broadway where he is wearing a tie. That’s like the Anti-Raffi to him.
I wish I could go back and tell myself that it would all be OK. No parents start off on day one with one hundred percent confidence. No one knows their kid right from the start. You live, you watch, and you learn. It takes a little while, but soon enough, you have your own comically long scroll of demands for how to keep them happy. I know I do.
As for not noticing their slimy, dirty faces, I can’t really give you a solid answer to that one. I’m lucky in that respect. Other kids are gross, but amazingly, the faces of my own children have always been perfectly pristine.