What If…?

Eitan goes to bed fairly consistently at some point between 6:30 and 7:30 each night. He plays hard at school and barely slows down once he gets home, so he’s usually pretty tired by the time he finishes dinner. Trudy bathes him and Shayna, reads Eitan a story, sings to him and then he falls asleep (or, if I’m home, I take care of the bedtime routine).

Shayna is slightly less reliable in that respect. It depends on the day she has had; if she hasn’t had an afternoon nap and it’s been fairly busy (which it often is), she’ll nurse and fall asleep right after Eitan. If she has napped in the afternoon, or if the day has been quieter, she may decide she wants to stay up and play longer. I can’t really blame her; that’s her only real chance to play with both of her parents without her big brother getting in the way.

Trudy and I were playing with Shayna on one such night last week after Eitan had fallen asleep. Shayna has just started taking her first tentative steps without holding on so Trudy and I were passing her back and forth and cheering whenever she managed a few steps instead of plopping back down on the floor. She was only wearing her diaper; she had been snacking on blueberries earlier and we hadn’t put on clean pajamas yet. We figured she could use the freedom and the feeling of her bare feet on the carpet to keep developing her walking skills instead of forcing her to get dressed immediately.

As Shayna made one of her trips between Trudy and me, we noticed a bump on her stomach.

It was small, a slight protrusion from the rest of her belly, about two inches above her navel. We tried lying her down to feel it but it seemed to go away when she lay on her back so we stood her back up and it reappeared. It wasn’t a pimple or a mosquito bite; it was under the skin, but it was definitely… something.

Trudy began asking me what I thought it was. “Is it just swelling? Is it something with her organs? Maybe it’s a hernia. Or maybe it’s a tumor.”

I suppressed my immediate reflex to respond as Arnold Schwarzenegger, largely because I had quickly started wondering if that was actually the case and nothing about the situation seemed funny. Against my better judgment, I started doing Google image searches for “abdominal hernia in baby,” “lump in stomach one year old baby” and “baby stomach tumor.” Trudy called the pediatrician and he said that it was probably just muscular but that we should bring Shayna into the office in the morning.

I tried to tell myself – and Trudy – that it wasn’t a tumor; it was probably nothing. Or it was probably something that could be easily corrected. In my head, though, I had moved from Kindergarten Cop to Toy Story:

In most difficult situations, especially at my job, I’m the human embodiment of Buzz Lightyear: calm, cool and collected, ready to figure out a plan and execute it. But in that moment, my brain had gone full-on Sheriff Woody.

What if it is a tumor? Okay, it’s probably not, but what if it is? And even if it’s not, even if it’s “just” a hernia or something, that’s still going to need to be repaired, right? Doesn’t that mean surgery? Shayna just turned a year last month; she can’t have surgery. But what if she needs it? Doesn’t that mean anesthesia? How can I watch my little girl get prepped for surgery? She’s going to be so scared! It can’t be a tumor. But what if it is?

And, of course, since I’m usually Buzz Lightyear, I didn’t say any of this out loud. All I said – and kept saying – to Trudy was that the doctor was probably right about it being muscular and that we would find out for sure in the morning.

Later that evening, I thought back to my mindset during Trudy’s pregnancies. I tried to remember times when I had asked what-if questions about my yet-to-be-born children but I couldn’t come up with any. This wasn’t a major shock; I tend to focus on the matter at hand in most cases and worry about what-if scenarios when they actually arise. But now I was facing a major what-if and I found myself thinking about how no one ever explains that part to expectant parents. People don’t often talk about the fact that terrible things happen to babies from time to time; that they get sick or they’re born with birth defects or genetic conditions. There are plenty of instructions for how to be a new parent, from how to change a diaper to different breastfeeding techniques to the best sleep-training methods. There are no manuals for how to hold yourself together when your child may be sick.

I’ve written before about my reactions when my kids get sick. The feeling of helplessness is the worst part; there is very little I can do in the moment to fix the problem. One thing I’ve learned is that having more information makes a significant difference. The what-if questions that send my brain into the Sheriff Woody frenzy were spurred by the fact that I didn’t know what was happening to my daughter. I didn’t know whether or not she was in pain or whether I would be able to keep her safe. Lack of information meant I couldn’t set up a plan, which meant I couldn’t find any control over the situation (which is what it means when a person is panicking).

This story actually has a happy-ish ending. We found out that the bump is, in fact, a hernia that will need to be repaired surgically but not for another year or two. The main thing is that Shayna doesn’t seem to be in pain, so we just have to monitor her in the meantime to make sure nothing changes.1 The key was finding out more about the diagnosis. Once Trudy and I knew what we were facing and what to expect, we were able to calm those what-if questions, put our parenting helmets back on (instead of our sheriff hats) and return our focus to keeping Shayna happy and helping her grow.

 


1. It also means I can think about that Kindergarten Cop line and this clip from Friends without feeling guilty.↩

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A Letter to My Unborn Child

Dear… umm… Baby (I guess),

Well, that was an awkward start. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to write there, as I’m sure you could tell. We have names picked out for you but we’re saving them for when we actually get to meet you. It also would have been just as awkward for me to write Dear Boy Name/Girl Name. I even considered writing Dear PTBNL, the acronym that Major League Baseball uses for a Player To Be Named Later, but it’s unwieldy and most people probably wouldn’t have recognized it right away anyway.1 In any event, I just went with Baby. That’s what you are, at this point anyway, so that’s what seems to fit the best.

I’m writing because there are a few things you should know before you actually are born. You’ll figure out most of the really important things on your own, like who I am, who your mother is and who your older brother, Eitan, is. We’ll be pretty easy to identify: your mom and I will be the ones holding you, feeding you, changing you and just taking care of you in general. Don’t worry if we look like zombies; we’re going to be a little short on sleep for a little while as we get used to having you around (and you get used to being around) but we know what we’re doing with you, for the most part. We went through it with your brother so we’ve already worked out a lot of the kinks. I know it took me some time to get the hang of changing diapers with your brother but I assume it’s like riding a bike – you never really forget. It may take me a time or five to refresh my memory but I’ll get there. And your mom was a pro from day one, so you’re in really good hands with her.

Eitan, as I mentioned, is your brother. He’ll be the much smaller person that you see on a regular basis. Most of the time he’s going to want to talk with you, play with you and help us with taking care of you. He’s a great kid; he loves having fun and helping others and he’s so excited to meet you. In fact, here’s what he told your mom just yesterday:

“Mommy, when the baby comes home, I’m going to sit on the rocker and you can put my lunch on the feet thing and then you can bring me the baby and I’ll hold her and I can rock her in the rocking chair.

It’s a girl. I know that.

I just wanted you to know that now.”

I don’t know if he’s right about you being a girl, but I do know he can’t wait for you to join our family. He may have some trouble here and there because your mom and I can’t give him 100% of our attention anymore, but you don’t have to worry abou that; he’ll figure things out.

The attention thing is actually the biggest reason why I wanted to write to you. I haven’t had many opportunities to really connect with you so far. Before Eitan was born, your mom and I could lie in bed on Saturday mornings and we could talk to him while he was in your mom’s belly. We played music for him, told him about our plans for him and talked about what we thought he would grow up to be.2

And with you, I haven’t quite felt the same connection.

A big reason is that I’m working so often so that your mom can stay home with you and your brother, so I’m not around to be able to take a minute and talk to you. But I want you to know that I’ll be taking some time off after you are born so you and I can get to know each other a bit. Research shows that spending time together after a child’s birth is just as important for the parents than for the baby, which is something I didn’t take enough advantage of when Eitan was born. I won’t be making that mistake again. I know my time will be split between you and Eitan but I want you to know that I’m going to try my absolute hardest to build as strong a relationship with you as I’ve built with Eitan.

I’m not perfect, by any means. I’m going to make mistakes at times and there will be points where you’re going to think to yourself, “Ugh, how did I get stuck with this guy?” But whenever that happens, I just want you to remember that, no matter how I mess up, I’m doing my best and I’ll figure things out. Your mom and your brother have been fantastic teachers for me and I’m sure you’re going to follow right in their footsteps.

The most important thing is that I’m always going to do my best to protect you, care for you and love you. I can’t wait to teach you all of the things I’ve learned about relationships, sports and life, in general, and I can’t wait to learn new lessons from you as we grow together. I know I’m biased, but I’m pretty confident in saying that you’re coming into a great family.

We can’t wait to meet you.

Love,

Daddy

 


1. Your uncles, I’m sure, protested immediately that they recognized it.
2. For one thing, we thought he was going to be a girl, so things changed a bit when he was born.

No Better Feeling

I got to hold a baby the other day.

I don’t just mean a young child. Eitan is three and a half and still gets referred to as “the baby” sometimes. That’s not what I mean. I mean a baby, barely a week and a half old on the day when I met him. He was a floppy mush of skin and hair with the tiniest little mouth that seemed to open twice as wide when he needed to yawn. His father brought him into the room, holding the baby in his forearm in a perfect football grip, and gently laid him into my arms.

I laughed and said, “Jesus, I forgot how small they are when they’re born.”

Eitan the toddler was a giant compared to this little being, probably twice as tall and three times the weight. My arms usually start to ache after carrying Eitan for five or ten minutes so holding the baby was a snap, but I found myself feeling nervous. The baby might have been small, at least compared with Eitan, but I could feel the overwhelming weight of the responsibilities that all parents feel when their children are born. Eitan can control his movements; he can run and jump and put his hands out to break his fall if he trips. This tiny little human, though, was completely helpless. I don’t mind admitting that I was somewhat relieved that he woke up a bit and started crying because it meant that I could return him to his father.

His father is young, but looked like he’d been playing the role for years. He was confident as he picked up his son from my arms, leaned back and put the baby on his chest. The baby, surely sensing his father’s warmth and hearing his heartbeat, fell back to sleep almost immediately. My God, this kid is a natural, I thought. The slightest bit of jealousy I felt at the ease with which he had been able to calm his son was drowned out immediately by my pride at having played a role, however minor, in helping a child step up and become a man when he needed to.

The baby’s father and I had spoken before about the different feelings that parents experience, whether they are new to parenting or seasoned veterans. He told me that he loves his son and that he wants to give him the best life possible, but that he does not know how. He said that he does not feel like he has the resources or the knowledge to be a good father. “What can I offer him?” he asked. I explained to him that every parent thinks about the quality of life that they can provide for their children and that the truth is that most of it doesn’t matter. I told him that he could learn to change diapers and to feed the baby a bottle and to do all of the other little things that go into caring for a baby. The key was that he needed to love his son, no matter what, and that the rest would work itself out.

I pointed at the baby on his chest, now snoozing contentedly. “He knows that you love him,” I said. “You’re here with him, talking to him, spending time with him. He can feel your love coming through whenever he’s with you.” The baby’s father gave a noncommittal shrug. “You picked him up and he fell back to sleep immediately. He can feel every bit of positive energy you’re sending his way. You can do this. It’s going to be hard a lot of the time and there are going to be times when you’re going to want to throw your son out the window, if not jump out yourself. But the greatest thing about being a dad is that it helps you see strength that you never knew you had. You just have to be open to it.”

He seemed satisfied with my short soliloquy, though still somewhat unconvinced. I couldn’t blame him, of course. Becoming a parent is a hard adjustment for everyone, no matter the age, gender or ethnicity. I had just turned 29 when Eitan was born. I had a steady job, a wife, a place to live and a master’s degree and still, I struggled as much as anyone. I made mistakes and I got frustrated and angry and dejected.

But then things changed. 

I started learning from my mistakes. I started figuring out techniques and shortcuts, like soaking every bottle of milk in the sink at the same time rather than washing each one individually and standing out of the line of fire when changing Eitan’s diaper. I stopped beating myself up every time things went wrong and I started believing that I could do everything that Eitan needed from me. My confidence grew and I kept getting better. I adapted to Eitan and he adapted to me.

The other thing I told the baby’s father – the thing I would say to any new parent – was that parenting is a process. It’s a matter of constantly shifting tactics to figure out what works and adjusting when things don’t go according to plan. It’s getting used to the idea that just when you think you’ve figured things out, your kid grows or stands up or starts eating real food or does something else new that throws you off and makes you learn all over again.

He said to me, “That sounds really annoying.”

“It is,” I said with a laugh. Then I added, “But even so, moments like these, with your son sleeping on your chest? There’s no better feeling in the world.”

He glanced down at his son, sleeping softly. And he smiled.