Five years ago this month our daughter was born and I received a crash course in parenting. I had been working with elementary-aged kids for quite a while, but my experience with infants was next to zero. One of the biggest challenges for us initially was the lack of sleep. (Go ahead and mock me for ignorance if you’re a parent.) Our daughter didn’t like being put down and had extreme difficulty sleeping alone. This presents obvious problems with parent sleep during the night, but also with daily routines. During the first week that I was home alone with her, I would put her in her crib at nap time and try to get my chores done. She would scream, I would check on her and adjust her. She screamed, I didn’t know what to do and felt like a bad parent. She screamed, I wouldn’t get anything done and she wouldn’t get a nap. For those of you without kids who think this would cause an infant to sleep better at night, think again! After a week of trying the same thing with the same results, we were both exhausted and nothing got done. The mounting fatigue and carnage in the house were changes to the external stimuli that forced a change in behavior. I started cooking, vacuuming, and doing house chores with her in a backpack. She seemed to be oblivious to the noise and movement, but the physical proximity met her needs. Lesson learned; she spent the first 6 months of life attached to me in a carrier. I remember driving to Talkeetna during her first month and gritting my teeth as she screamed for the second straight hour. Rounding a bend, I drifted and drove on the rumble strip for several seconds. Immediately she stopped crying. When I corrected my driving and the vibration stopped, she began crying again. My wife and I made eye contact, acknowledged the change in external stimuli and I drove on the rumble strip for the next 40 miles. These were both somewhat knee-jerk reactions without thought, memory, or reflection. Much of the learning during that first month would likely fall under the category of behaviorism. My behavior, the way that I acted toward my new daughter and the way I approached new challenges was directly affected by changes in the environment. I lacked the experience and context necessary to plan or reflect critically on my choices; they were a reaction to external stimuli.
As I began to develop an existing knowledge structure, I was able to reflect on details that created enjoyable experiences. When we went outside, my daughter calmed down and acted mesmerized by her surroundings. I was tired, stressed, and missing the release that comes with exercise. I decided to try bundling her up and going for progressively longer walks. This was December/January in Anchorage, so it could get brutally cold. Regardless of the temperature, she would stop crying, watch her new environment, and eventually go to sleep. With a few minor adjustments to her layering system, I was eventually able to go for 12-15 mile runs with her blissfully sleeping in the chariot. My own motivation to improve our health and quality of time together led to reflection, planning and implementation of new strategies. With the success that came from a morning routine, I established a rough schedule for our day. The structure and predictability that blossomed from thinking continually about improvement set the tone for our wonderful early years.
Part of the routine we established was reading books together in the afternoon. My wife and I are believers that literacy happens somewhat naturally through exploration with books and text. My daughter was drawn to the images contained in books and I held reading as a meaningful activity because I want to foster an environment where books and literacy are important. As we established the culture of book time, however, I realized it was much more than merely reading books. I watched my daughter’s excitement at the mere mention of book time. I felt her snuggle into me and beam at the feelings physical proximity created. My very anxious, very active daughter would cease movement, completely captivated by the story and the feeling of being held tightly. “Waz Dat!?!?” was the first sentence my daughter uttered, pointing at a bear as we read together one day. This question was the beginning of a rich dialog that helped form the person she is today. With those first books, I began to observe and interpret her body language. I constructed an understanding that reading to your kids is about so much more than literacy. It’s about building relationships, fostering love, developing social skills, talking about characters and the emotions they feel, personalizing the struggles of book friends to understand complexities of our own lives. It’s about laughing, crying, sharing, being silly, making plans for the future, and most of all it’s about chiseling out time in our busy lives to share an activity we enjoy together. This isn’t a lesson I could have learned by reading a book, listening to a lecture or participating in a conference. This learning was a contextual phenomenon that happened through repeated observation, processing, and interpretation.
My daughter is now five and the challenges don’t go away, they just evolve. Stubborn individualism would characterize my approach to learning the craft of parenting in those early years. Without a support network or friends in a similar situation, I internalized issues, bumbling my way through and eventually figuring things out on my own. Maybe it’s because the issues become increasingly complex, but we’ve begun seeking support and guidance from outside. Part of that is meeting and developing trust in other parents or our pediatrician. Part of that is participating in online communities – connectivism. When the developmental tics that started at 6 months began to look disturbingly similar to Tourette’s Syndrome, we sought answers online. I remember feeling a sense of relief that other parents were going through the same struggles and actually had advice for creating a comfortable environment to reduce episodes. I was able to take a textbook definition of something I didn’t understand and that scared the hell out of me and put it in real words and actions that could possibly help the person I so dearly loved. As we began to have reservations about putting our anxious daughter in a loud, chaotic public school system, we looked for advice from other parents and alternatives to public school within an online community of parents with similar struggles and stakes. This online network has also provided resources and activity ideas that any busy, stressed parent will appreciate. As the complexities of parent or any other job mount, it’s reaffirming to share challenges with people in a similar situation. More importantly we can leverage what we know by participating in the collective wealth of knowledge that already exists.
2 thoughts on “The Newborn Parent”
Hi Craig. Beautiful story. My boy was about a month old when I received a baby sling for a gift. Though it looked like a baby sling, it was actually the gift of a little sleep and clean dishes! I wore that baby strapped to my body for over a year. He was 9 months old before he would sleep any other way. I laughed out loud to picture you bumping down the road in blissful silence. I knew another mother who tape recorded herself vacuuming and let it play all night in the baby’s room. That worked from them, didn’t work for me. I’ve not experienced that level of extreme sleep deprivation before or since. I know that I certainly wasn’t capable at that point of a higher level of cognitive functioning than a stimulus/response/feedback loop. Picture a rat in a maze. Not glamorous perhaps, but effective none the less.
What is interesting to me is that it wasn’t that necessary. As you point out, you were able to learn and grow as a parent with no outside clues and in an exhausted state. You had to achieve a level of competence through strictly behaviorist means before you were at a place where you could really seek out connections. Until that point, what worked for someone else wasn’t going to work for you anyway, you were basically on your own. Then once a certain level of experience and competence was achieved you were able to start building those connections and flushing out your information resources. Presumably by then you were starting to get enough sleep to look critically at the sources and make rational decisions about what information you accepted or discarded based on your own needs and experiences. From the what to the why. Thanks for sharing your story.
Thanks for sharing. Great story.
Many points deeply resonate with me.
I was lucky in some ways that my parents had my youngest sister when I was 13. I learned a lot about parenting – without ever trying – from that experience. When my own first child came along, I drew on some of those experiences inevitably.
We are learning machines. When something important comes along in our life, our capacity for focus and attention is amazing. Even through utter exhaustion.
I wonder how different our approach in a more traditional family environment would be? For most of human evolution we’ve raised children with nearby extended family who share a genetic investment in our success – our natural connectivist environment. That accumulation of parenting knowledge from generation to generation over centuries is remarkable to consider – although so many raise their children today separated from those historic knowledge networks. I’m glad you’ve found a technology based surrogate – which many of us find to fill the cracks and gaps in our own lives. And in the case of Tourettes Syndrome, the modern world can put you in touch with many who’ve experienced the same – a remarkably personal and valuable community connection not available even 20 years ago.
Your parenting example is perhaps the most powerful possible and I like that you refocus the conversation on such high-stakes learning rather than the sometimes abstract world of career and scholarly pursuits.
Lastly, a funny thought for me. You and your wife were learning how to deal with this little creature, at the same time your daughter was learning how to deal with you. “These people keep putting me in this quiet lonely crib, if I cry, they fix it….hmmmm” and so on.
Thanks again for sharing.