4/26/2003

FOURTH TRIMESTER REPORT

"Isn't she just the most adorable, precious, perfect little baby girl in the whole world?"

That is the sound of my wife falling to syrupy pieces in all shades of technicolor hallmarkia as she dotes upon our new daughter -- an inarticulate, toothless and clumsy human being about the size of a small Christmas ham whom we allow to live with us rent-free in exchange for kissing and snuggling privileges.

As the first miniature incisor threatens to break through the pink translucence of her lower gum, I am forced to consider the time that has passed: it is hard to believe that it has only been three months that she has been here, freed of the wet confines of my wife's swollen meatsack and born into an inflatable pool from Canadian Tire. Though her presence has coloured our lives in thin washes since we first learned of her existence almost one year ago, I am amazed at how quickly the living, breathing, interacting version of Baby has come to be a familiar member of our household. It feels like she has always been with us.

The time is ripe to collect my notes, and to present my Fourth Trimester Report.

In the first installment in this series I knocked up my wife; the sequel detailed her subsequent swelling, and our thoughts about the small proto-person at the centre of it all. When we left off in the third trimester report, our p'tite heroine has just been squirted into the outside world from deep within my wife via a drug-free water-birth at home. The friends and relations began to trickle away after consuming a celebratory pizza and a few cases of beer, and before we knew it my wife and I were left alone with a tiny girl we had just named Ingrid.

Though the indigo pallor of her skin had faded to a rosier complexion just few hours post partum, she still looked pretty weird. Newborns are wrinkled and slim, with disproportionately large heads, hands and feet. Their limbs are spindly and bowed from being folded into a more compact form, so, like a badly designed Transformer that appears awkward in humanoid form, newborns often look as if they would be more comfortable rolled up into some sort of small pok├ęball. Because their nervous systems are still immature, a newborn's movements can be jerky and spastic, giving some babies a faintly unreal, animatronic vibe.

Due her placid countenance, Ingrid looked a little bit like a pink version of Yoda when she was fresh, though in the coming days she quickly began to inflate, her wrinkly skin rounding and bulging as it was suffused with fat. It was like watching a slow-motion version of the Incredible Hulk transformation. As Ingrid's chins multiplied I began calling her Boss Hogg.

While not often discussed, babies, like expensive electronics, are shipped with a certain quantity of filler in order to avoid breakage in freight. Instead of having cavities stuffed with styrofoam peanuts, however, babies come filled with mucus and a noxious black bile known as meconeum. The former substance drains through the eyes, nose, ears and vagina; the latter is issued exclusively from the anus.

Within hours of her birth Ingrid had already released a prodigious quantity of slimy mucus and unbelievably sticky meconeum, but her lungs and sinuses were slow to clear, resulting in a pitiable, ragged wet sound with her every intake of breath. The midwives told us not to panic, and assured us that her respiratory system would dry out in a couple of days.

As we prepared for bed my wife fretted about Ingrid's snorty breathing, and I grew irritable and reminded her that there was nothing to worry about.

That night Ingrid slept between us in our bed. She was tired from being born, and so she slept long and deep. My wife was tired from giving birth, so she too was able to luxuriate in a relatively deep rest...

As for me, I found myself unable to sleep for more than a quarter hour at a time without rolling over to train my ear millimeters over my daughter's tiny little lips in an effort to catch the telltale sound of her continued respiration. Though armed with the knowledge that newborns tend to breathe in erratic patterns for the first few days of life, every momentary pause in her windy gurgling was an ocean of leaden doubt to me. Somewhere in there between snapping at my wife and sunrise I became convinced that Ingrid was too precious to live, and that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was stalking her, ready to snatch her away forever while I dreamed.

But in the morning she was still there, looking around with wide grey eyes and wheezing at the morning sun. "B'huh-huh," she said with a staccato stuttered groan we soon came to call her goat noise. We quickly learned that making the goat noise was Ingrid's version of crying, and it usually meant she wanted a boobie stuffed into her mouth, or to have her nethers wiped free of stinging urine. We learned, and she learned, and within just a few days we had settled into a fairly stable routine of napping, goat noise, feeding, dozing, goat noise, changing and then back to napping again.

On the third day of her life my wife took Ingrid to the mall. Next, we took her to a restaurant. We carted her around in the backseat of the car while we did chores, and tried to line-up her naps so that we could watch a movie here and there. (I even had time to grab the occasional cheeseburger.) We started to wonder what all the fuss was about. Why had all those hysterical people been warning us that our lives would violently implode when the baby came?

Our handy books set us straight: "normal" newborns could be expected to cry anywhere from two to six hours out of twenty-four, we read. The authors warned us to expect difficult feedings, trouble latching to the breast, and screeching refusals to go to bed...

Cry-ing? I poked Ingrid experimentally, to see if I could make her cry. "B'huh-huh," she said. Then she went down for her nap.

In the first few weeks after Ingrid was born, many people took perverse delight in delivering dour omens inspired by anecdotes about babies who had been very well behaved for the first month of life, only to become caterwauling hellions immediately thereafter. When Ingrid was two months old these prophets of doom switched gears, suggesting that it would instead be the ten week mark that would surely hail the advent of the endless screaming and decaying cooperation that was surely our due as new parents.

...As Ingrid progressed smoothly into her third month of life the dire warnings took new form: now we are assured that it is our next child that will make good on their threats. I can't wait.

(To tell the whole truth, I don't put much stock in the opinings of these self-satisfied fans of parental schadenfreude: they seem to me to be labouring under the false impression that life is fair, and that therefore the scales of justice that brought us such a peaceful, joyous babe must inexorably swing back into balance to deliver to us the torrent of stress and frayed nerves we have so undeservingly escaped.)

At any rate, Ingrid did not go on to cry. Instead, each passing week brought new depths to her perceptions and personality. Where in the first week her wandering, Wonder-like gaze would settle on nothing but human faces, the second and third weeks brought an obsession with edges of sharp contrast (like where our chesterfield meets the wall), sets of parallel lines (like our venetian blinds) and radial shapes (like our ceiling fans, for whom Ingrid has developed a lasting fixation). With patient fascination she watched our mouths while we spoke, her own tongue working randomly in imitation. ("B'huh-huh," she would say, when she felt emphasis was required.) In the second month Ingrid's goat noise fell into disuse as she focused more on back and forth conversations of cooing with me or my wife. "Whorrrrrrl," Ingrid would initiate, and then we would echo it back, much to her delight. Then she would kick off another round with a fresh sing-song drone: "Whorrrrrrrl."

Equal gains have been made physically. Ingrid moved quickly from being a passive piece of luggage to an active participant in her world, straining to sit-up, to crane her head around for a better view, to lock her fat little knees and try to stand...

In the first week after birth she lost weight, like all babies, feeding on colostrum (an immunologically and hormonally important elixir short on fat that precedes the actual milk) from my wife's breasts, which were still ramping up to full production. Thus began a slow ballet between my daughter's colon and my wife's bosom: week by week a mother's milk changes to complement the maturing system it is sustaining, and week by the week the evolving community of microorganisms in Ingrid's intestines reaches a new plateau of balance. For the first few days Ingrid shat numerous watery yellow blossoms of poo per day, and then she dropped to one mustardy deposit per week. Ingrid is currently on a poo upswing, leaving increasingly stinky treasures in her diapers twice every two or three days.

Diapers, of course, are not what they used to be. There are numerous upshots to be experienced from the amazing advanced textiles breakthroughs of the past few decades. For instance, diapers are softer and thinner than ever, and sport re-fastening edge-tapes, so that you can check a diaper's contents without commiting yourself to changing it. On the other hand, it is now much more challenging than it was in the past to figure out whether or not a diaper is actually "wet" -- the space-age ultra-synthetics from which the diapers are made absorb and confine wetness in such a supernaturally thorough fashion that you begin wishing your kid did piss blue dye like on the commercials, because the stain would at least give you something to look for.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention at this point that one of Ingrid's favourite things in the world is to have her diaper removed. She grins and giggles, kicks her chubby little legs and waves her arms in glee. We sing to her about being a "naked bum girl" and tickle her flailing paws. It is the unflagging charm of this ritual that allowed my wife and I to maintain a good humour while wiping foul smelling yellow paste out of the baby's fat-folds at four o'clock in the morning during the early weeks.

Who could complain?

We are hosts to a smiling, chuckling, wide-eyed cherub. My wife is extra sleepy, and her nipples are kind of sore, but our lives have not been turned upsidown. Many men have anxiously asked me, "Did it change your life?" or "Do you have a whole new sense of perspective?" or "Have you found your priorities radically changed?"

They seem faintly disappointed when I say, "Not really, no."

Contrary to what many (single) men seem to believe, having a baby doesn't grow you up for free. Moreover, having a baby doesn't grant your life or your trials automatic meaning. Certainly, having a baby doesn't castrate your childhood from under you in a harsh rite of forced passage.

A baby is seldom a total surprise. You often have a good five to seven months of lead-in time in order to re-arrange your intergenerational perspective or sense of priorities and responsibilities. If some aspect of early parenthood causes your world-view undue shock, it can only be due to faulty prep-work. (Read books, listen to your elders, observe parents and babies in the wild. It's not so hard to catch on.) My wife believes that what shocks most people is the curtailment of their ability to be self-centred, and I guess I can imagine what that might feel like if, for some fool-ass reason, that was the sort of thing you could honestly say blindsided you.

Myself, I'm happy as a clam. I adore my new family. I delight in my perfect daughter, and my ever beautiful dairy-dispensing bride. And yes, I have taken to carrying her picture around in my wallet. Also, I shamelessly spatter the web with our baby's sparkling digital likeness.

Despite my general antipathy toward pushy strangers I find myself happy to introduce my smallest friend to anyone who asks, and am boastful of her progress against the developmental benchmarks. I notice the long, deep stares of the childless women on the high side of thirty, and the appreciative lingering looks of mothers and seniors with grown-up children of their own. Like anyone who holds her, I bask in the attention Ingrid draws. Uncharacteristically, I answer even stupid questions congenially. For example, when people ask whether our little pink-clad baby is a girl, I seldom reply, "No, a boy -- we're raising him gay."

(We do not dress our daughter in pink because she's a girl. We dress her in pink because that's what everyone buys as gifts for her because she's a girl. Everything my wife and I have personally bought has been decidedly unpink.)

Good fortune abounds: the various levels of semi-socialist government between our doorstep and Ottawa have combined to award us quite a nice bit of polly every month to thank us for manufacturing a new citizen. And, thanks to the miracle of breastfeeding-safe birth control, mommy and daddy can frolic in an adult way without worrying unduly about inviting anybody else into the picture prematurely.

As parents we are caretakers more than mentors at this point, but bound to our peers by virtue of the fact that, like them, our imaginations now flex new muscles in their idle moments, dreaming of the myriad ways our precious jewels can be maimed and mutilated, cracked, broken and lost, dismembered and ruined, stolen from us and from their future lives. Like my mother and my father, and like my wife's mother and father, we now have that morbid scenario-spinning engine locked in our minds, forever describing to us the ways in which we might fail to protect our charges. (My wife and I were surprised to learn that we had both been envisioning the horrifying results of dropping Ingrid in the same way: seeing her skull crack open like a ripe melon, important fluids splattering and gushing out in a heartbeat, erasing her.) We are now card-carrying members of the child-related anxiety club.

We are still a world away from being concerned with television and internet content filtering, toilet training, drawing on walls, fibbing, throwing food from highchairs, bed-wetting, and endless chains of "but why?"-linked interrogations...

Events to date have been but a warm-up exercise. One day she will pronounce proud defiance to trivial requests, lie to us about a boy she's seeing, drop university courses for the wrong reasons, trip and fall, scrape her knee, break her arm on the monkey bars, be moved by music, speak her first word, tell us she loves us, have her first period, tell us she hates us, ask us for guidance, demand our repentance, click a mouse, drive a car, change her own password, dress herself, do something stupid to her hair, be mean to her little brother or sister, try to hide a hangover, pee her pants laughing, and complain about piano lessons. (She'll live forever and have every experience, right?)

A life without our baby would seem so empty now.

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