An open letter to my brother and his wife, who are expecting their first baby—a boy!!!—this fall.
Dear Timmy and Sammy,
As I know you know, our family could not be more thrilled about the prospect of having an infant in the Carter clan again. We’ve been doling out advice about strollers and birth plans like there’s no tomorrow; although it is probably really annoying, you are taking it with great grace. (Just this morning, I sent you an article about circumcision. I imagine there are huge disadvantages to having a sister like me.)
It isn’t that we think you need advice—clearly you two are extremely intelligent and compassionate people, with great judgement and solid intuition. Just the same, I can’t seem to help myself from offering you a near-constant stream of tips. Please forgive me.
People keep asking me what advice I’m giving you, so I thought I’d actually give it some thought and write it down. Here are the three things I think are most important in the first year of a baby’s life.
1) Take care of your own happiness first
Take the advice of the airlines and put on your own oxygen masks first; remember that should you become faint from lack of oxygen, you won’t be much good to anyone at all.
When you take care of your own happiness, you dramatically increase the quality of your parenting and the happiness of your baby. Children imitate their parents’ emotions as early as six days old; it is one of the primary ways that they learn and grow. And because research shows that people’s emotions tend to converge—we become more similar emotionally the more we are together—it follows that the happier you are, the happier your baby will be.
There are two critical places that this take-care-of-yourself business goes amiss for new parents: in the romance department, and with sleep. New parents are famously tired, trying to care for a baby that wakes them up to be fed every few hours or so. We joke with them about the bags under their eyes and their delirious, far-away gazes, but this is actually no laughing matter.
“Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies,” says Dr. Michael J. Twery, a sleep specialist at the National Institutes of Health. Sleep affects our heart and other major organs, like our lungs and kidneys. It impacts our appetite and metabolism and therefore how much we weigh. It determines our health by tweaking our immune function. Sleep influences how sensitive we are to pain. Lack of sleep slows our reaction times. And as anyone who has ever pulled an all-nighter knows, sleep has a dramatic impact on our mood. Lack of sleep increases the probability of postpartum depression and anxiety.
We cannot be truly happy or healthy if we are exhausted. New babies get about 16 hours of sleep; you’ll need to get horizontal yourself for at least half of that time. Make a specific plan now (it will increase the odds that you will follow through) for how you’ll enable yourself to get the deep sleep you need. (Hint: Schedule at least five 90-minute blocks of sleep for every 24 hour period. This will be harder than it sounds. Let me know how I can help.)
Second, little is more important for your happiness than your relationship with each other, but many relationships suffer when a very demanding new family member takes over. If you’ve relied on connecting with each other by, say, going on vacations and out to romantic dinners, by lounging around in bed on Sunday mornings with the paper, by doing the no-pants-dance consistently, and by going on long, peaceful hikes on Saturday afternoons…well, then, you’ll have to find new ways to connect, because it may well be a decade (or two) before you can get back to those habits.
How will you connect with each other when the new baby comes? How will you nurture your relationship? Make time for a weekly date-night you can count on. (I’ll baby-sit!) Add a gratitude ritual that you can do at the end of your day, even if you are exhausted. Make a pact to put your relationship first, as it will be a critical factor for the health and happiness of your baby.
2) Whenever possible, hold your baby (knowing it isn’t always possible!)
As your house fills up with plastic bucket-like devices in which to deposit your little guy—strollers and carseats and bouncy-things—remember that babies have historically had physical contact with their mothers nearly 24 hours a day. Only in the last few hundred years have industrialized societies begun to separate babies physically from their parents for so much time.
Babies tend to cry when they are separated from their parents; they usually stop crying when reunited. This may seem like the science of the blazingly obvious, but when Fiona and Molly were infants and they’d start to cry, I’d often try moving them from one bouncy seat or swing to another. I wish I’d realized that there are neurological benefits for the baby that come from being held. I didn’t know that infants cry less in uber-nurturing societies—where parents respond more quickly to their baby’s crying, where they let them nurse frequently, and where they have lots of physical contact with their infants throughout the day and night.
Caveat: When tips 1 and 2 conflict, tip 1 wins. When you’re feeling exhausted and burned out from endlessly carrying, rocking, swaddling, shushing, and cooing to your little bundle of joy, give yourself permission to take a break.
The main point here is that you shouldn’t feel compelled to rein in your nurturing impulses—you can’t spoil a baby with too much love and affection. But you should also heed your impulses to take a rest, give yourself a break, and recharge.
(3) Don’t worry if you aren’t perfect
Shoot to be good-enough parents. Perfectionism is a particular form of unhappiness; it is a life driven by the fear of not being enough. The best parents allow themselves, perhaps with some humor, to be messy, mistake-making parents who love life and their children with an open heart.
I made a lot of mistakes when my kids were babies, both large and small. I clearly didn’t nurture my romantic relationship with my husband enough. And once, I dropped Fiona on her head. Another time, Molly got bit by a dog at a park—which, guilt-stricken, I found a way to blame myself for (even though I wasn’t there).
I used to worry a lot that the mistakes I was making would have repercussions that would last the rest of my children’s lives. But the thing is, no matter how hard we try, we all make a ton of mistakes. Here’s the good news: My kids have turned out fine, and yours will, too!
I think the most important thing that I’ve learned over the last decade is that if you take care of your own happiness and are engaged in the needs of your baby—which I know that you will!—everyone turns out to be joyful and successful in their own way.
Lots of love,
(Soon to be Aunt!!!) Christy