“Good Baby”

As a teacher I have never been comfortable using the phrases “good girl” or “good boy”. These descriptions seem to indicate that a child is “good” when he or she complies with an adult’s wishes. The flip side is that we can then infer that the child is “bad” when not doing what an adult wants him or her to do. Semantic fussiness, I know, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way when I hear an adult tell a child she is a “good girl”.

I prefer to praise the specific behaviours that I want to encourage in children, so I aim to say things such as “wow, great work using those finger spaces today” or “thanks for listening so well at the carpet” or “good job tidying up the painting materials”. I find that children generally respond quite well to this sort of specific positive feedback, and it is not tied to their inherent worth as a human being, girl or boy (yes, yes, my equity training tells me that I must insist that gender is a social construct, but that’s a whole other blog post to come, in which the mountain of pink clothing in my daughter’s closet shall be discussed).

A woman at the community centre met Willow and asked me, as many others have asked in recent weeks, “Is she a good baby”? My answer was a resounding “Yes!! Of course she is!”

Let’s be clear: In my eyes Willow is perfect. She’s a miracle. She is my greatest teacher. She’s a joy to behold and cherish and she makes me a better person by her very existence. She makes this world a better place and I am so thankful to be blessed with her in my life when so many are denied this very joy. Of COURSE she is “good”. She is better than good… She is amazing.

The woman, like so many before her, went on with her line of questioning, unsatisfied with my answer that I have a “good” baby: “Oh, so she sleeps through the night, then?” Well, if you call a two hour stretch comprised of 45-60 minutes of actual sleep bookended by 60-75 minutes of quiet bleating noises (lovingly coined her “barnyard noises”) between feedings “sleeping through the night” then the answer is “yes”. Otherwise, like many babies her age, no, she is not sleeping for 8 hours straight. Does having a tiny tummy that needs food every few hours at night make her a “bad baby”? I certainly hope not. No more than my needing insulin and food at regular intervals makes me a “bad” adult.

I told the woman that Willow sleeps for a few hours at a time and that I am doing well with bits and pieces of sleep. The woman looked at me apologetically. “Oh… It must be so hard”, she said, shaking her head. “It’s all good”, I replied. And it IS all good. I was not just being polite. The human body is incredibly amazing. Humans can adapt to extreme situations, including sleep disruption, sleep deprivation… And we not only survive but thrive. Yes, I am often tired. Most parents of newborns are tired. BUT I chose the job of motherhood very deliberately and have been preparing for it for many years. I will happily trade sleep for the bundle of love nursing at my breast as I type this. The best part is that my new “boss” lets me nap on the job now and again, so while I lack long uninterrupted stretches of sleep I certainly get nice tiny chunks of sleep that allow my brain and body to sufficiently rest and recover.

The woman pressed on, “Well if she’s a good baby she doesn’t cry then, at least… right?” Well… She cries when I change her, she cries when I put her hat on, she cries when she is hungry, wet, gassy, hot, cold, bored, overstimulated, when the car comes to a stoplight, when the cat decides to stop purring by her ear, when the bath water stops running… But so do many other babies. Crying is how babies communicate with us and let us know what they are thinking and feeling. If I thought that crying to tell me that she needs a diaper change made her a “bad baby” then maybe I should have researched this a bit more before choosing to become a parent. I am indeed lucky that I don’t have a constantly screaming colicky baby, but even if I did… she would not be “bad”.

When Willow was sick for the first few weeks of her life she was a model “good baby” by the standards of the community centre woman as well as many others. She slept as long as we’d let her, and would have easily slept “through the night”, albeit with dire health consequences. She had to be woken and force fed with a syringe every few hours in order to stay alive. She had zero interest in eating and lacked the energy to suck at a breast or bottle. The doctors could not do an eye exam because she refused to open her eyes. She didn’t communicate by crying because she didn’t have the energy to cry. Apparently she was a “dream baby” since she was quiet and didn’t “bother” us. Heck, we didn’t even really have to change her diapers that often since she was dehydrated and not eating enough to produce an adequate amount of urine or stool…

I am so thankful for the dirty and wet diapers that demonstrate how healthy my daughter is now. I am thankful for the nighttime barnyard noises that let me know she is digesting her food. I am thankful for the screams I hear and the kick/punch combo I see when the kitten knocks a toy off the table that was being intensely stared at, as this demonstrates adequate reflexes and normal visual, auditory and brain development. I am thankful that my baby now wakes ME up when she needs food with a hearty cry, instead of me living with multiple alarms set, constantly pumping milk and preparing formula, forcing her to stay awake and forcing her to eat one mL at a time. I can laugh when an “incident” has me changing my clothes and her clothes for the fourth time in a day.

Is it hard to be a new mother? Absolutely. Do I resent my baby or my role as a mommy? Not a chance. Would I consider my child to be a “bad” baby, even if she never slept and screamed around the clock? Nope. She’d still be a perfect and cherished gift… no less wanted, no less loved. You don’t wait this long for a miracle and then ask to send it back.

Willow Bean, you are loved beyond measure. Always remember that.

Xoxo love,
Mombie

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Ted Talk on Parenting Angst

Regardless of our parenting “styles”, parents can all agree that we want our children to be “happy”… but is this too lofty and abstract a goal for parents? Is this vague goal at the root of anxiety, self-doubt and criticism among parents of all persuasions? Is this what fuels the sales of millions of best-selling parenting books? My sister (the proudest Auntie in the whole world) just shared this inspiring Ted talk with me. Maybe we need to cut ourselves some slack and, like the speaker, simply promise to try our best not to hurt our kids (parenting via The Hippocratic Oath) and focus on the basics instead of making ourselves entirely responsible for their happiness and self-esteem.

Jennifer Senior Ted Talk

Unwanted Advice for New Parents

I often feel mildly exhausted after being out and about socializing with Willow or having guests visit. Yesterday we had two groups of visitors in the afternoon and I did NOT feel tired or run down afterward, despite dealing with a projectile vomiting incident just before the first group showed up.

These visits were neither incredibly short nor boring. The last group even included two curious, active, cutie patootie little boys. So, as a closeted quasi-introvert who was pretty isolated for almost four months before a sudden rush of visitors in the last few weeks, why was I not tired after the stimulation of two sets of visitors?

I’ve been mulling it over during some marathon nursing sessions (one of the blessings of a “grazer” is the gift of time to rest, reflect, meditate and write) and I think I understand now. I was NOT emotionally drained by an onslaught of well-intentioned but unwelcome advice. Even though three of the adult visitors are teachers, three have biological children and one has step-children, not a single one of them told me how my parenting was lacking in some way, or how their parenting choices would better suit my child. I was not told how to force her to sleep for longer periods or how to nurse more efficiently. I was not given pointers on how to help my child stop from fussing when she decided to make her barnyard noises while enjoying a cuddle. I was not told that my baby “must be teething” (yes she is a miracle baby, but I’ve never met a five week old who is cutting teeth), or given home remedies to address her baby acne. I was not told to “sleep when the baby sleeps” or any number of things that people seem almost hard-wired to say to new mothers in this culture. I was not told what or how to feed my child or which brand of cloth diapers I “should” have purchased (or that I should not be using cloth diapers). I was not given a play by play of the foods I should or should not have consumed in the last 24 hours which may have led to the aforementioned projectile vomiting incident (which shall henceforth be referred to as “the incident”). I was not told what sorts of exercises I should do to “get my body back” (apparently I’ve lost it somewhere?!?). I was not chastised for how frequently or infrequently I held Willow, or how much daily household noise I allowed her to experience. In short, we just visited. We talked, we caught up, and nobody felt the need to rescue my child from my inexperience by teaching me how to be a good mother. Kind of awesome.

I often hear the phrase “babies should come with an instruction manual” being bandied about. I would argue that there ARE instruction manuals. There are, in fact, altogether too many instruction manuals. There is no shortage of advice for new parents, whether it is from well-meaning strangers in the grocery store, friends, relatives, doctors, lactation consultants, etc. I’ve read dozens of books on infant and child growth and emotional and social development, parenting, sleep, breastfeeding, etc. I read internet articles every day on “the next best thing” in parenting trends. Much of the advice is contradictory: Co-sleeping decreases SIDS risk. Co-sleeping increases SIDS risk. Vaccinate. Don’t vaccinate. Pick up your child the moment she whimpers or else she will become a sociopath. Let your child “cry it out” or else she will become a sociopath. Feed on demand. Feed on a strict schedule. Expose your child to household noise during daytime naps. Keep the house silent during daytime naps. Use a pacifier. Don’t use a pacifier. Swaddle. Don’t swaddle. Eat peanuts whilst nursing or else your baby will have allergies. Avoid peanuts whilst nursing or else your baby will have allergies. You get the drift.

When I started my teaching career I had two wonderful associate teachers who told me that I had great instincts. They bolstered my confidence and taught me to trust my instincts. They allowed me to make mistakes and learn from them. They modelled life long learning while showing me that it was possible to intentionally “pick and choose” ideas that resonated with them from a variety of programs and sources and apply them as needed to each unique child and group of children. The Ministry of Education or school boards may dictate the use of a specific reading or writing program or a style of teaching mathematics in any given year, but the good teachers take the best of each new approach that is presented as “THE way” and find and use what works for the human beings in their rooms.

I have read a zillion books on pedagogy and attended countless workshops and courses. I have presented at workshops and spoken on panels about teaching. In the end there is no one set program or one right way to be a teacher, just as there is no one right way to be a parent. Good teachers observe and listen more than we engage in “teacher talk”. We allow children to be our teachers. We differentiate based on the needs of the children in our care, including providing thoughtful and meaningful feedback. We use our observations and assessments to inform our lessons and interactions with our kids. Similarly, successful parents do not just read the hottest “how to parent” book on the New York Bestsellers list or take a parenting course and instantly become super moms or super dads by following a strict program. They follow their instincts and speak and act from a place of love. They unapologetically do what is right for their child and their entire family, even if it didn’t work for the neighbour’s kid. They make mistakes along the way, and they humbly learn from them without anyone pointing out their foibles or saying “I told you so”.

One of the sweetest things Willow’s honorary Grandmother, a retired teacher, said to me in the postpartum period was: “You were a natural teacher. I think you are just a natural mother, too”. I will never forget that beautiful comment and the way it made my heart soar with pride and gratitude after a week during which I had been beaten down repeatedly with well-intentioned “advice” about my sick baby from seemingly every person I encountered.

Thank you to those of you who can love me, love my husband, and love my daughter just as we are, without trying to change us or trying to force us to fit into your idea of what a functional family should look like. Thank you for letting us make and learn from our own mistakes. Thank you for not rushing in to save us from ourselves, and for recognizing that maybe, just maybe… we actually don’t need to be saved after all.

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“Fussy Baby”

“I believe that the fussy period exists in order to change deeply ingrained lifestyle habits… even after the miracle of a new birth, many parents and families would revert back to their previous schedules and activities within a few weeks if the new baby would only remain quiet and peaceful… It’s an intense learning curve that forces parents to establish new routines and develop new dynamics that include this new individual. ” –Dr. Alan Greene, Pediatrician

Doc Greene, you have hit the nail on the head. My new boss is teaching me how to be a better parent and a better person. She is an expert on mindfulness and continually forces me to stay in or come back to the moment. My old life involved set routines, extreme multi-tasking, efficiency, speedy performance and constant anxiety about preparing for the “next thing”. While my preparedness and multi-tasking habits have helped me to be a good mom in some ways (e.g. My diaper bag is ALWAYS packed and we never miss a doctor’s appointment), they have also made me resistant to just “go with the flow” as a parent, a skill that is essential for success. My high achiever personality makes not completing tasks in one sitting, and putting “important” things on hold to meet more pressing demands (often related to bodily fluids) hard to do. I am shifting priorities and making a conscious effort to follow my daughter’s cues and needs instead of forcing her to fit into my established routines. We are creating new routines together that are respectful of and meet the needs of ALL of the members of our family. We are creating our new normal.

I do not judge parents who use a pacifier, and I completely understand why parents feel the need to use this tool to help calm a fussy baby, especially when no other soothing techniques are working with a colicky baby or one who is just not able to settle for hours on end. As of now I don’t feel the need to use a pacifier, as I am lucky to not have a child who is screaming for hours on end without reason and without me having any other ways of soothing her. I feel that using a pacifier at this point would deny me the chance to find out what is making my child “tick” and might prevent me from meeting some otherwise easy-to-meet needs. Although it might be tempting to just “put a plug in the wailing baby” in the middle of the night when I am trying to sleep, I know that I truly am blessed to have a child who generally lets me know when she needs something via fairly typical and predictable cues. It’s taken awhile to get to know her and to observe and analyze her cues, but we are establishing a system and I am learning to watch and listen to her to find out what she needs. She is a good teacher, and I am a willing student.

Willow has some pretty straightforward cues. She shows me that she is hungry when she roots — moving her head back and forth, searching for a nipple, curling the corners of her tongue, bleating quietly and quickly escalating to sucking on her clothing or hands and crying forcefully and screaming if I miss her initial signs. She pulls her feet up to her chest and cries when she is gassy and needs a tummy/back rub. She cries and kicks when she is unimpressed with the state of her diaper or is ready to fill her diaper. She turns her head away from an object or person when she is overstimulated. She yawns, her eyes stop focusing and roll back, and she starts nodding her head when she is tired. She used to scream every time I put her on her back after nursing until we realized she was suffering from acid reflux. Now we keep her upright after nursing for about 30 minutes and elevate the head of her sleeping surfaces so that she is no longer in pain. Once in awhile she cries for absolutely no apparent reason and there is nothing we can do can “fix” it… then she generally throws up and all is well.

At around three weeks she went through a growth spurt that had her nursing for 30 minutes every hour and screaming when she wasn’t eating. At times during that short period, nothing I could do could console her, including diapering, feeding, swaddling, rocking, shushing, sucking, music, white noise, subdued lighting, infant massage, bathing, warming up or cooling down, bicycling legs, rubbing tummy or back, etc… sometimes all of the tricks in the book don’t work and we just need to know that a baby needs to cry and go through a bit of a hard time while her body adjusts to some pretty massive changes. I doubt that a pacifier would have worked, but I hadn’t even thought of it then. Thankfully I had read books that prepared me for this growth spurt time and feeding frequency time, and I did not lose my mind. I repeated to myself “this too shall pass” and “all is well and all shall be well and all things shall be well”… and eventually it did pass, and all was truly well. I know from the same books that we are due for another growth spurt in a few days, and I am mentally preparing for one or two loooong nights ahead. Knowing that it is coming and what is happening at the time makes it way easier to cope with. Knowing that it is not related to something that I am doing or not doing as a parent makes it a lot easier to live through.

Growing is hard work. It can often be painful for the person growing and for those around her. Yes, I am speaking not only of Willow’s growth but of my own. There have been and will be tears for both of us as we both change, learn and grow. And that’s okay.

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Little Teacher

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My five week old daughter is my greatest teacher. She taught me about patience and perseverance while we waited over five years for her to make her way to us. She taught me that life is most certainly not to be taken for granted. She taught me that my capacity for love is greater than I could ever have imagined. She taught me to slow down and to take care of myself… to set priorities and stick to them. To set boundaries, even when they were difficult to set and people may have been offended or disappointed. To ask questions and to advocate even if it meant confronting authority figures. To place health and life above money and power. To let go of the roles and responsibilities that had fuelled my need to be needed but were robbing my marriage and health of vital energy at a time when I needed all the energy I could get. She taught me how to really respect my body, including how to eat, move and rest in ways that allowed me to heal and to help her grow. She taught me that I needed to work with my body instead of against it in order for her to survive. She taught me that I could love myself more than I ever imagined, and that I could love my husband more deeply than I ever thought possible. She gave my husband a chance to really shine as an equal partner and to hone his skills as a caretaker and nurturer, months before he’d change his first diaper.

She taught me to let go and let God (and all of the helpers along the way). I gave up being the manager of the universe and the world did not stop turning. In fact, others were empowered and given opportunities to lead and to serve. The world became a better place… people around me blossomed. I learned to trust others and to release responsibility… And when things were not done “my way” I learned to release my high standards and unreasonable expectations.

She continues to teach me that I can’t schedule every detail of our lives and that I am truly not in charge. I frequently start to forget this lesson, and she makes sure that I am firmly and lovingly reminded when I regress.

I am looking forward to continuing to learn from my little teacher. These are the toughest courses I have ever been enrolled in, and ones that are changing me in a way that no University education could… I am humbled and amazed.

Thank you for the lessons, Sweet Girl.

“Hold The Baby”

I’ve realized that many people I meet want to “hold the baby” (including complete strangers) and most people think they are doing a new mother a huge favour by doing so. In fact, I have had no shortage of random women offer to “hold the baby”, including strangers at stores and at the doctor’s office. I’ve even had people come to my home unannounced (who never visited pre-baby) with the explicit goal of helping me out by holding my infant.

Very rarely do you find someone who truly wants to hold a screaming, crying or otherwise fussy baby for more than a few minutes. There are a few in this world and they are angels sent from heaven above. They are also generally related to the baby or closely bonded to one of the parents… With a few exceptions who tend to be the type to volunteer to be baby cuddlers in the nurseries of churches or hospitals. For the record: Mothers around the world love you. Don’t ever change.

If a baby is fussing he or she is no longer fun for most people to cuddle. People are begging to hold the quietly content freshly changed and fed baby who is ready to go down for a nap. Except that holding her when she is ready to sleep IS NOT USEFUL. When you are holding the baby and she is sleeping in your arms instead of being in her crib, instead of mommy taking a nap or getting laundry folded or getting cooking or cleaning done, mommy is now serving you food and tea and entertaining you because you can’t get up since you are “holding the baby”. You know, the baby who totally does not need to be held right now because she is dry, her belly is full, she has been soothed and she is sleeping.

Make no mistakes. I understand the desire to cuddle a cute little ball of warm pink baby. But please, let’s be honest about our intentions and stop the charade of “helping the mother”. I’m happy to indulge and give you baby cuddle time if you want it. I’m happy to have friends and family visit with the intention of getting baby cuddle time in. Cuddling babies is good for the soul. However, let’s not pretend that you are doing me a favour by holding my perfectly content sleeping infant and then passing her to me as soon as she starts to make any noises or movements. By the way… that grunting and squirming would not be an issue if she were in her crib. She would push out a good fart in a few minutes and go right back to sleep. But since you’ve panicked, started shouting across the room that the baby needs her mommy and must be hungry (she just finished eating 5 minutes ago), or have a dirty diaper (she was just changed… and trust me when I say I can smell baby poop from across the room), and you’ve started frantically rocking her so hard that she’s woken up out of her light sleep, and thrust her in my arms, she is now fully awake and truly needs to be soothed. Well, thanks so much for “holding the baby” and allowing me to take care of you while you did so. You have no idea how helpful that was. What would I do without you?

There are a few scenarios in which I, indeed, wish someone would offer to hold the baby:

Scenario one: I am out somewhere without a safe place to put the baby down and need to use the restroom. Yes, I could bring her in with me, but it would be nice to have a trusted person hold the baby so that I can have both hands free to pee and wash my hands.

Scenario two: the baby is fussing (yes, I have checked her diaper, fed her, checked if she is too hot or cold etc) and I would love to have two hands free to eat my dinner. Yes, it would be great if you could hold her and try to soothe her for a few minutes. Unfortunately, most people don’t want to hold a crying baby for the 5-10 minutes it takes me to test my blood sugar, inject my insulin, take my pills and wolf down a plate of food. The average is about two minutes before most people break. The few people who can deal with the ear piercing screams for the entire time are truly appreciated.

Scenario three: the baby has just puked, peed, and pooped on me at the same time (This is not a “what if” scenario. It happens about twice per week). I have spit up in my hair and down my back. I have urine and feces dripping off of my shirt. This is an awesome time to offer to hold the baby (perhaps while wearing some manner of protective gear yourself) so that I can quickly strip down and take a shower. Unfortunately, only a few very special people are up for this task.

Here is my secret: I love to hold my baby. I love to hold her when she is content and when she is screeching at the top of her lungs. I only have a short window to enjoy this stage of development. Before we know it she will not want or need to be held in our arms. I only get to do this baby thing once in my life, and I am enjoying every moment, even the times during which I am covered in vomit, urine and feces. You see, holding this miracle baby is not a chore or a bother that I need to be rescued from. It is a privilege denied to many, and I realize just how blessed I am to have this experience. All of it.

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3 Weeks 1 Day… And counting…

Today you are three weeks and one day old. Right now you are blissfully asleep on my left shoulder as I write this on an iPhone. I could be doing dishes but that would mean waking you, and I would much rather sit here with you in your post-nursing reverie, smelling your head, kissing you gently, cuddling you…

You are the answer to my prayers, little Willow Bean. You are my heart’s desire and I am so thankful every day to look down and see that this is all real. It’s not a dream. Our miracle baby has finally come after years and years of waiting. You taught me about patience, self care, and perseverance in the wait, and you brought Daddy and I closer together.

I was the happiest pregnant woman on earth. When I was so sick I could not eat I knew that it meant the pregnancy hormones were high and that you were here to stay. When I spent ten weeks on bedrest I celebrated every week knowing that it was one week longer we bought for you to grow and develop inside me where you were safe. When I finally gained enough weight that my belly popped out so that others could see at six months I was ecstatic because now I finally looked pregnant!! My body was working the way it should and I was so thankful. You helped me to trust my body again and to love myself and develop my strength as a woman.

What a blissful day it was when you were born. Empowering for me… It helped to heal some wounds. You are such a wanted and loved child. Every baby should experience being born to a momma who is laughing as she is pushing, singing during labour and as the baby is being delivered, and crying tears of joy upon feeling the fuzzy head of her newborn emerging into this world. I rocked on a yoga ball. I sat on a birthing stool. Daddy rubbed my back and held my hand. The nurses helped me when I was throwing up and my blood sugars kept crashing. Theresa the doula kept me hydrated and encouraged and made me feel strong. Dr. S made sure you got out quickly and safely when your heart rate and my temperature went crazy. We made it. Together. You and I are forever bonded by this magical experience of pregnancy and birth. You are the greatest gift I could ever receive.

One day you will be too big to fit on my shoulder. One day the last place you will want to be is on Daddy’s lap. But until that day comes, I will cherish every moment so that I can savour the sweetness of it and store it in my heart.

I love you, my miracle rainbow baby.
Xoxo love,
Mommy

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