Transmissions From Toddlertown: The First Year
I keep trying to find poetry in this. I’m looking for words. Big words. Small words. Any words. I keep wondering what I’ll say — maybe I’ll say something about the unit of time known as a year in which it feels like not much changes. Some new television shows, some crow’s feet digging into the skin around your eye, maybe a pay bump eroded by new bills. But then you have a baby and time takes on new meaning: it collapses in on itself and big things happen in small spaces while at the same time the whole thing blows out like elastic in old underpants, time an exploding star, a year passing in blink-and-you-missed it eruption.
Maybe I’ll say something about babies and new parents. Maybe something about change. Or chaos. Or life and love and madness. Maybe poop and pee, since those are certainly themes. Can I find poetry in a smooshy diaper? (It’s best not to ask, because you can be sure I’ll try.)
I don’t know what to say.
I try to get my head around this last year and I come up empty. Not of feelings or emotions. I’m giddy! And tired. And utterly in awe. And confused. And did I mention tired? No, the emotions are all firmly in place; they have their orders and they’re sticking around. What’s missing is a sense of perspective, of any kind of clean orderly thinking — I don’t have any great revelations or insights, I don’t have a thesis or theme on which to hang my hat. When I try to think, what would I say about this past year? I’m mostly left, mouth agape, lips working soundlessly, a slight breathy squeak emerging as my only answer.
What I do have is:
A one-year-old little boy.
A beautiful, smart, dangerous, insane, giggly, smiley, assertive little boy.
Holy shit, it’s been a year.
Things move fast but feel like they’re slow.
Or maybe, things move slow but feel like they’re fast.
I still remember that night in the hospital. Baby boy screaming. Saturday Night Live muted on the television in what was to be the first of many sleepless nights. My wife pacing with the tiny human, me standing on guard, bleary-eyed and feeling useless. Eventually the nurse coming in and us asking her, “Is he sick? Angry? Did we already do something to upset him? Does he need a hug? A car? Is there a widget out of place that, were we to adjust it slightly, it would allow him to stop crying and go to bed? I think he’s broken? Did we break him or… is there a warranty department we can call?” The nurse taught us a new term — cluster feeder — and said it was all fine, no problem, no worries. And oh, good luck.
That night seems like yesterday. And it also feels like ten years ago.
It feels like yesterday that we brought him home. That he learned to smile. That he said his first “goo” and rolled over and climbed onto the couch and climbed to the top of the couch and climbed out of his crib and went from crawling to standing to walking two steps — then four — then eight — then one day decided that crawling was for suckers and walking was what all the cool babies did.
That was two months ago that he started to walk.
And it feels like yesterday. And it feels like two years ago. And it feels like a dinosaur’s epoch.
Time stretches like taffy. Collapses like a house of cards.
It was the hardest year of my life.
And the weirdest.
And the most wonderful.
All in equal measure, not warring for dominance moment by moment but somehow sharing the space of each moment — emotions normally left to act as enemies suddenly getting all chummy with one another. Arm in arm. Hand in hand. Traipsing along, la-la-la.
It’s the lack of sleep, in part. You start slashing those restful hours — a pair of scissors cutting ribbons from a piece of paper until you’re left with half of what you started with — and your normally sunny outlook turns into a piano string pulled tighter and tighter until all it does is scream and threaten to snap. It’d be one thing if you lost sleep but then got to, y’know, relax. Watch some television. Read a book. But you lose sleep and you’re expected to endure the irrational screams of a very small person, and you have to feed him and try to somehow wrestle him into a nap. Babies need love and attention and at the very early ages don’t seem all that interested in giving it back. They take, take, take, and you give, give, give, and you hit these points where it’s like, “We can just put him out in a box by the curb, right? We’ll write on the side FREE LAWNMOWER PARTS and someone will snatch it up.” Or you think, “At midnight, I’m going to quietly pack up some toiletries and underwear and I’m just going to start walking until I hit the coast.”
As parents you fight and yell and his yells jack up your yells and you wonder:
What the hell were we thinking?
And just what the hell were we thinking? We waited to have a baby until things made sense, until it was the “right time” to do so. We lined up all our ducks in perfect quacking rows, arranging our life in impeccable order. Which is a lot like setting the perfect dinner table for a guest who is a coked-up chimpanzee with a loaded handgun. It’s like building a wonderful house in the path of a tornado.
“What were we thinking? Did we make a terrible mistake? What keeps us keeping on?” — and then the tiny human reminds you why. He smiles or laughs or does something so cute you wish that he and a baby seal and a trio of puppies had a television show where they travel around the country just being totally adorable, and then your mind unfolds an infinity of good thoughts for his future — his first taste of ice cream, his first day of kindergarten, his first Prom — and once more time goes all wibbly-wobbly and the weird and wonderful parts sandbag the difficult ones and you are again reminded why you do this thing you do.
They change month to month. Week to week. Moment to moment.
That first year is a year of transitions.
Talking to not talking. Laying to rolling to crawling to walking to oh shit he’s running (and sweet mercy can this kid run — often into the hardest object into the room). Liquids to liquidy-solids to solids to sharp teeth to holy-crap-I-think-he-just-gnawed-the-cabinet. He hates books and thinks they’re food or objects for throwing until the day comes when he starts bringing you books, one after the other, for him to read. He crawls in your lap and stares at you expectantly and may the gods help you if you don’t start reading double-quick because by gosh and by golly, baby wants a story.
So many transitions.
One day he can’t see you, then one day he can. Babies move from this internal locus of solipsism (I am the only thing in this universe) to realizing that more exists beyond the borders of their eyes and fingertips (I am just one part of this place and OOOOH PUPPY).
Every day a new experience.
Today he got a balloon. Yesterday he had some pizza. Soon he’ll have cake and, c’mon, cake. He walks. He runs. He jumps. He dances. He knows where his ear is, where my nose is. He says “Mom, Dad, dog, door, yes, turtle, book.” Not all at once of course, for that is the cheat code that destroys the universe.
It’s an endless series of firsts, one tumbling after the next.
But the biggest transition is from take-take-take to give-give-give.
He gives. He tries to make us laugh. He gives kisses. He gives hugs.
When he sees you, he squeals and runs toward you to grab your legs and squeeze them tight.
He takes love. But now he gives it, too.
It melts even my crunchy dry ice heart, it does.
You play this game with yourself, and this game is not the “fun” kind of game so much as it is the kind of game where you see if you can beat yourself about the head and neck with a club made of delusion.
The game is this:
You say, “It’ll get easier when _________.” And you fill in the blank with some foolish dipshit milestone, some magical pivot point where things are supposed to turn suddenly and get easier. You say, ahh, soon as he starts eating solid food? Easier. Soon as he can walk? Easier. Soon as he can entertain himself? Easier.
Ah, self-deception. Sure, he eats solid food, but then he learns to splurt it into your hair. Sure, he starts to walk, but then he learns to run into hard objects. (The other day, he literally stopped in the middle of the hallway, paused, turned his body toward the wall, and ran straight into it. Then cried for five minutes.) Sure, he can entertain himself now, and one of the things that entertains him is opening drawers and accidentally slamming his fingers in them. Or trying to touch the dog’s tail which often means miscalculating and reaching for the dog’s butthole. Or trying to eat pieces of mulch he finds on the floor.
As one thing gets easier, another thing gets harder. It’s like leveling up in a video game — you hit your level, ding! — and you get new powers and new toys but at the same time you have to fight a harder class of creatures and it’s not easier or harder so much as it is different. Which, at the least, keeps things interesting.
Oh, I’m not kidding when I say he’s active.
Some babies are lump babies.
Some are not content with such lumpishness.
We sometimes wish we had a lump, but it was not to be.
When only his head had popped out of the womb he was already looking around, bright eyed and curious. Probably wondering what he could grab and break. A trend that continued. You think babyproofing works? Good luck with that. This kid rips those babyproof plug covers right out of the wall. We can’t get them out with our adult gorilla fingers, but this little ninja flings them away like they’re nothing at all.
Here’s the secret, though.
After that first year, things do get easier. That’s the milestone that matters. That’s when the game is played and the game is won — if only for a short time, at least. Because by the time the tot is a year, things start to make more sense. Everybody’s getting more sleep. Routines are fairly well dug in. He’s more fun. More talkative. He appreciates things — like, actually seems to appreciate them.
Maybe it’s not that they get easier. Maybe it’s just that they make more sense. Maybe it’s that you come out of the storm and find peace even though your life has been tossed ass-over-shoulders by the human hurricane and tottering tornado known as a “baby. ” The dark clouds have passed and you can comfortably start to rearrange the pieces without worrying about getting smooshed by a flying bovine.
I know it’s temporary. I know as we level up with each year he’ll gain new tricks just as we gain new tricks and sometimes the battles will get easier and sometimes they’ll get harder. I am assured, in fact, that when he one day becomes a teenager we will find ourselves living with some grumpy emo hell-beast who will revert once more to the take-take-take of his infant predecessor. But that’s okay. We have time.
Hardest, weirdest, and most wonderful year.
Time blows up, blows out, implodes, goes sideways.
From order to chaos and back to order. At least, a little bit of order.
From taker to giver, from loved to giving love.
It’s been an awesome year in the truest sense of the word. Just as he’s different than from when he emerged into this world, I’m different from when he emerged. I’m more confident and driven and happier and, well, a lot more tired (and I probably get twice the sleep that my wife gets). Everything has changed and it has changed for the better. As Jonathan Coulton sings, “You ruined everything — in the nicest way.”
Happy birthday, Baby B-Dub.
I love you, your mother loves you.
You’re the best thing that ever happened to us. I am happier every day because of you.
Now please stop trying to touch the dog’s butthole.