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.

*blink blink*

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.

38 comments

  • Wait until you have two….

    My daughter recently turned 12 and it never fails to amaze me how quickly the time goes by. I still remember the first words my husband ever said to her as he tenderly held her for the first time: “Boys are bad. Daddies are good.”

  • A friend of mine just found out he’s going to be a dad. I linked him this, because I think this is probably the most beautiful thing I’ve read about parenting in a long time. Happy birthday to your son :D He is too adorable for words.

  • I was a lump baby. A slug. A good baby, in other words.
    My brother was a “give me milk every hour on the hour and I’ll bite you while I’m feeding and good luck napping between feeds while I scream” baby.

    Some of the best parenting advice I ever read was to practice beforehand. For dressing the baby, practice on a live octopus. For spoon feeding, hang a watermelon with a tiny hole in it from the ceiling and try to spoon the food in while it swings erratically back and forth. For shopping with a toddler, take a goat to the supermarket. If you plan on having more than one child, take more than one goat.

    Of course my two little ones are angels. I swear.

  • This was absolutely beautiful. Honest, funny, lovely, tear-inducing–did I mention honest? Enjoy, my friend. Our own “high-needs” decidedly “non-lump” boy goes to high school next year. *gulp* “Stretches like taffy, collapses like a house of cards” indeed.

    Oh, and I sometimes “accidentally’ touch the dog’s butthole, too.

  • I love this post. In fact, I loved it so much I just went and hugged my boys, and they were all like “…the hell?”

    Wishing you all nothing but amazing years together and a lifetime of love and laughter (and fewer pet proctology moments) for B-Dub.

  • Happy Birthday little human spawn person. Your dad just made my cold heart of stone go awwww for the love of all things good in the world tell him to stop that!

    Oh and I was a good baby and by good I mean 3 drops of pee and I’d scream my head off and grew teeth at 3 weeks and chewed my mothers boob off. Okay not off but no more breast milk for me, can’t imagine why. Poor mother dearest.

  • It gets better and worse in increments for a while now, but the magical age when it all comes together is four. This is when they can potty and dress themselves, buckle their own seatbelt or carseat, get an apple from the fridge on their own without throwing everything on the ground and leaving the door open, and best of all (and last to develop, alas) you can let go of their hand for a second in or near a parking lot with a high degree of confidence that they will not run into traffic.

    Four years old. I’m telling you. That’s you light at the end of the tunnel.

  • My son is 13 months+ … it is truly an amazing, terrifying, insane time. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Happy one year to B-dub.

  • Happy Birthday, Bdub!
    And the best level-up moment is the day you realize you no longer have to buy diapers. All of a sudden, you have disposable income that isn’t going toward disposable diapers. And my daughter turns 12 soon. I still remember my first trip to the grocery store post-diapers. I made a special trip down the baby aisle just to heckle the expensive, horrible things I would never, ever buy again.

    Now all my disposable income goes toward buying her clothes. It’s more expensive, but definitely less disgusting.

  • Congrats on surviving. Because, really, that’s all parenting is. I love reading about other parents who manage to convey all of the joy of parenting without whitewashing out the really screwy and frustrating parts.

  • The early years are what I call ‘mommy time.’ The offspring is all cute and adorable and mom dresses him up and takes pictures and there’s a whole lot of, “Awwwww!” going on. Those years are exhausting and amazing, but then comes ‘daddy time.’ Daddy time is when you actually get to _do stuff_ with your descendent. Go on walks, play catch, go to amusement parks, hit the bars…. (My son is six and I’m, god help me, helping to coach his little league team, which is amazing for this old guy who was the geeky kid who never played sports. Now I’m “Coach.” How did this happen?)

    Daddy time starts, approximately, when the boy can say, “Daddy, I’m hungry!” And you can respond, “Okay, boy, let’s make you a sandwich.”

  • You forgot to consider that as you gain more experience as a parent your ability to deal with the mind-numbing assortment of situations that come with having children gets better.

    I also found that as my children reached an age of not being physically fragile (maybe 4 or 5?) I started to relax a bit and really enjoy the ride.

    As the mother of 3 boys (and 1 girl), I can tell you that ages 3 and 14 kind of suck, but the rest is pretty damn good.

    Happy Birthday, little B-Dub! And congratulations to you and Mrs. Penmonkey, too.

  • Why does every photo of this child make him look like he knows something embarrassing about you but he’s not quite ready to use it for blackmail purposes? You sir, have a handful of a son. Best wishes to you, your wife, and your dog. This boy is going to be in charge.

  • The first year is truly exhausting. But it’s the most wonderful exhaustion you’ve ever experienced. A friend told me after his child was born that now he felt more vulnerable than he ever had before because he would do anything to protect his son. Yes, there’s a fire and ice quality of emotions that a newborn brings to your world.

    My wife and I have been blessed with two beautiful, intelligent, and sweet-natured children (and despite that evidence, Wifey keeps insisting they’re really mine). It’s nice that they can now wipe their own bottoms, but I don’t resent even a micro-second the diaper duty or hours of bouncy walk in the wee hours or watching only movies with talking animals. I would do it all again.

    BTW, Chuck, that really is a cute kid. He’s definitely a keeper.

  • I am laughing out loud at your statement:

    “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.”

    Because it is so, so true. My son just turned three months old this past Friday, and I keep telling myself it will be easier when he sleeps longer. Even though I know this is a lie. Parenting seems to be about actively lying to yourself for as long as possible.

    You’re so right about the lack of sleep. It would be one thing if you could lounge on the couch after four hours of sleep broken up into one hour increments, but no. No. You have to deal with the crying baby, who’s perfectly FINE with sleeping 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there. I stay at home with him, and the day just blends together in one long cycle of awake-eat-burp-diaper-sleep. Over and over.

    But the lie–that when he sleep longer it will get better–keeps me sane. Gives me something to work towards, even though I know that as the sleep thing gets better, something else gets harder. People tell me right now that I am lucky. Lucky because when I set him down, he stays there.

    Thanks for the awesome posts. It’s nice to read them and see what I have in my future.

    Also, someday you have to blog about how you write with the baby in the house. Seriously. I know I need to find time here and there, and I do, but still. Trying to write at home with the baby while running on 4 hours of sleep feels like another lie I’ve told myself.

    Happy birthday B-dub!

  • Ah, all so true. A terrible shock: incalculable joy. Congratulations on surviving the year intact and raising an awesome book-devouring wall-smashing heart-knotting mini human.

  • Ah no Chuck, you missed a perfect opportynity! If you just put something like “Buy Blackbirds to keep this baby fed and healthy” we’d all buy it. Granted, yes you pulled the baby card before on us (you sweet twisted fool you!), it just never gets old. Well, until your baby gets old.

  • Congrats, Chuck, Ben is an adorable kid! Brings back some great and not so great memories for me. The first year marked a milestone for us when we actually started to catch up on our sleep and everything made more sense. We had no idea how exhausted we were until we started getting to sleep for more than two hours at a pop.

    Is your wife starting to feel like “he is not a baby anymore and why don’t we do it again?” yet?

    The funny thing about the time dialation is that next thing you know you are unpacking them in their college dorm and wondering where the time all went. You have the right perspective on this fatherhood thing, enjoy the ride!

  • My son turns one in July, so I’ve enjoyed reading your baby posts because I can relate… plus, you’re a couple of steps ahead of me, so your words are a nice heads-up as to what is coming (and a warning to batten down the hatches).

  • I read this and immediately sent it to my brother-in-law who has three kids intensely active kids under seven. I think he’ll appreciate the honesty. *grin*

    Congrats on getting through a year! And he’s adorable.

  • Amazing post, Chuck. Happy birthday to your son… No one warns you – maybe no one CAN warn you — how impossible it is to describe the intensity of the love you feel for your child.

    For me , having a baby was like open heart surgery. I took a great big chunk of my heart out of my chest – still beating — and set it loose on the world.

    And then, I did it again. (Mine turned 20 two weeks ago, his brother is 17.)

    I don’t know if it gets easier. I think we simply adjust.

  • My boys are ages 19 and 11, and the type that inspired everyone in the supermarket to comment, without fail, “You really have your hands full.” Every syllable you wrote is true. And truly crafted.

  • What a lil cutie! My guy is 18 months now. Where does the time go? Now he climbs on furniture, empties cabinets of contents, eats weird things off the floor, tries to pull the dog’s tail, smacks his older sister, etc. I want to buy him a little jean jacket with an anarchy symbol on it.

  • Aww! What a great post. Made my heart melt. And brought back the memories of bringing my son home and being utterly terrified. What to do and how to do it. Mine’s turning 13 in august. And the child whose foot was no bigger than my thumb when he was born, now wears the same size shoes as I do. And going through teenage angst early. But I wouldn’t trade him for anything else in the world.

    Happy birthday to Baby B-dub.

  • Happy birthday to your little boy, Chuck. We have two boys, 8 and 6, and I am convinced that once the second one was born, time and space speeded up until I felt like I was trapped in some mad road runner cartoon. Now I wonder what the hell did I do with my time before they came along? Children are the most amazing experience the world can offer. Great post, thanks.

  • “Babyproof” can really be a good laugh.

    With my first one I was very anxious and I tried to secure the whole house. Useless.

    I glued a rigid plastic catch to the fridge door because I feared of a curious baby boy locked inside, frozen to death. And what did he do? He simply CHEWED it off! Took some time though, but it worked out.

    There is no such thing like security when you have children. Forget it.

  • Parenting is an amazing thing. My daughter was a lump baby, and sometimes I think she’s spent her whole life doing things at a pace I can just about handle. She never was a screamer, she loved to sleep, she still loves books and ponies and TV and playing quietly.
    I never realized how good I had it until I started babysitting my nephew.
    He’s a happy, smiling, unable to sit still even for an instant whirlwind who REFUSES to be contained, REFUSES to be left out of sight for even an instant, and MUST DISCOVER the MOST lethal object in the room faster than you think he can move.
    And he does it all with this perfectly charming grin, and big brown eyes that melt your heart.
    He and bdub would have SUCH fun. Their birthdays are only a few weeks apart. :) I feel so much sympathy. Enjoy your little whirlwind! At least he loves books!
    Liz

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