What the Authors of Parenting Books Would Say to You if Their Publishers Would Let Them
The nurses at Your Hospital will not trim your baby’s fingernails.
The nurses will not trim them and yes—yes—your baby has fingernails. But not in the way that you or I think of fingernails: your baby has Talons. Your baby will rip the flesh off his very bones with his tiny little alien hands if you do not hide them from day in those white kimono-style shirts with the fold-over mitten cuffs, which you will hate because they make your baby look like an institutionalized mental patient in a straight jacket, but what choice do you have?
The nurses will not trim them and this will surprise you because you chose to have your baby in a Proper Hospital—a Proper Hospital!—because you have done your homework and you know that if anything went wrong, you would want to be in a Proper Hospital instead of squatting over a blue plastic painter’s dropcloth on your kitchen floor or floating in a kiddie pool in your living room with your dogs bearing witness to your every primal groan. You came to a Proper Hospital because you believe in Western Medicine and you want your baby to be Healthy and Whole and so you give yourself over to the doctors and nurses and anesthesiologists and their heart monitors and their IV drips and their epidurals and you dutifully shout down that nagging voice in the back of your head that wonders if you perhaps should have asked someone about a midwife or a doula or a shaman.
Instead of trimming your baby’s fingernails, the nurses at Your Hospital will tell you to try cutting them when he is asleep and then they will discharge you because your baby is 48 hours old and you are clearly ready to take him home because you have a properly installed, rearward-facing infant seat in your car. Because you have read the directions. Because your car has the LATCH system and you know how to use it and so they will all assume that you are Competent.
But you are not Competent.
You are the farthest thing from Competent. You are a Pretender. You didn’t even have a bag packed for your trip to the Proper Hospital because your baby wasn’t due for another two weeks but then your water broke at 11:15 at night and so you brought 3 different matching sets of pajamas for yourself and makeup that you will never wear again (because honestly, you have a baby) and all you brought for the baby was one little gown to bring him home in. Except that in your haste to pack that makeup that you will never wear again, you will not bring a newborn gown. In your haste you will bring a 0–3 month gown, which does not sound large because the sizing starts with zero, but which might as well be a pillowcase or a burlap sack or a Northface sleeping bag good for 40 below for all that it fits your baby because your baby is Tiny.
It’s true! You will not believe this because by the time you deliver, you will be the size of a small planet pulling lesser objects into your orbit and so you will think that surely, he will be huge. But your baby is the smallest thing you have ever seen. Your baby makes your cats look like mountain lions, makes your arm look like something out of Gulliver’s Travels, and these nurses—these Unbelievably Corporate Beings moving in and out of your hospital room like shift workers at a plant, hooking things up to you and unhooking them and taking measurements and poking you with needles and thermometers at all hours of the day or the night because this is a Hospital and they need to get those test results before the doctor comes in at 7AM and they don’t really care if you are trying to sleep—these nurses expect you to take this Tiny Baby and care for it and raise it up to be a surgeon or a whitewater rafting guide or a stone mason or something so big that the very idea of it all might crush his Tiny frame.
And when you say that you do not want to have him circumcised, the hospital staff all nod knowingly like “oh, it’s one of those parents” and they bombard you with statistics and facts about infection in a thinly veiled attempt to get you to change your mind without seeming like they want you to change your mind. But you will never change your mind. You could not even bring yourself to declaw your cats, so why on earth would you ever make a decision to snip off a part of your baby’s most sensitive thing? And so you take him home after he is 48 hours old and the best part about leaving the hospital is leaving the whispers about your baby’s perfectly intact penis and you will remind yourself of this, occasionally, at 2AM and again at 4AM and again at 6AM when you are changing his diaper or feeding him or changing his diaper again, because even though you are so tired you would not recognize sleep if it snuck up behind you and kissed you, your baby is Whole.
Everyone will tell you to sleep when the baby sleeps, and the baby does sleep, but you don’t sleep. You will never sleep again. You are terrified to sleep even one minute because what if in that minute he should Expire? How could you possibly sleep, when there is this Impossibly Small Being sleeping in the same room in a bassinet that, until you brought him home, also seemed Impossibly Small but now that you see him there, shrimped up in his funny little swaddle sack in the Very Middle of the little mattress, you know that it is Gigantic. Instead, you lie awake flat on your back (because you can once again lie flat on your back) and wait for him to make noise and when he does not make noise, you shine the blue light from your cell phone’s display screen onto him and wait for his impossibly small chest to rise and fall, rise and fall, because that way you can be sure he is alive. You have read about SIDS. You have read about babies who simply forget to breathe—they forget!—because breathing is not something they have to do in the womb. Breathing is something you do for them. But you cannot breathe for your baby anymore and so you lie awake flat on your back and listen and wait for him to Expire and wonder what it will be like, when your baby forgets to breathe, because nothing so Impossibly Small could possibly survive more than a few days. You wonder what people will say to you. You wonder how you will feel and you let the tears slip silently down the sides of your cheeks and into your ears because you do not want to wake your partner, who will tell you that you are being ridiculous. That people have been having babies for hundreds of years. Outside. In caves. In the middle of deserts. In the backs of taxi cabs. Your partner will tell you that your baby is Healthy and Whole and sleeping like a champ because that is what babies do, and you will hear this and nod and wish, wish, wish that you could just tuck your baby back safely inside you and breathe for him again.
Everything is too far away: the bassinet, the baby swing, the baby-wearing wrap they sold you at the attachment parenting store that presses him tightly against your chest. You cannot get him close enough to you and you contemplate this often while he breastfeeds because of course you are breastfeeding. Only monsters who want their babies to grow a third eye do anything other than breastfeed, or so they tell you in all of those Classes and all of those Consultations with the lactation clinic, but they do not tell you that there will be breastmilk on everything you own. There will be breastmilk on t-shirts, on pajama pants, on socks, on the couch, on the chair, on bedsheets, dishtowels, bath towels, the cats, the carpet, the hand-smocked infant gown that your aunt sent for the baby to wear even though the only thing the baby ever wears is a diaper and a white kimono-style shirt that makes him look like a mental patient because, really, what is the point of putting him in anything else when it will only end up covered in breastmilk? They do not tell you that as your baby nurses from one breast, tucked close into your side in that football hold that the lactation consultant showed you, your other breast will weep. Your other breast so desperately wants to suckle that little foreign thing gulping at your side that it could coat whole continents with the stickiness of your lactation. Once, you will try just leaving your bra off altogether, but by the end of the nursing session you and your baby will be so covered that his shirt will be soaked through and you must then give him a bath.
You will have no idea how to bathe him. The nurses at the Proper Fucking Hospital will not show you how to do this before you leave because why would they show you anything useful? They are too busy refusing to cut his fingernails and hooking and unhooking things and making you watch Horrible Videos on Shaken Baby Syndrome and sign release forms stating that you understand Shaken Baby Syndrome—how Shaken Baby Syndrome might happen—to teach you anything that might be useful.
You have never wanted to understand how Shaken Baby Syndrome might happen.
You have never wanted to know what they all meant when they told you that sometimes you would just need to lay the baby down in his crib and Walk Away because the crib was a safer place than your arms. This would not happen to you. This only happens to other people or people with unfit caregivers who get drunk on cough syrup. But then your partner will have to go away to that conference for work and leave you there, alone, with this mewling, suckling thing just barely six weeks old, this thing that will only let you rest for two hours at a time and that will not stop crying that night—will not stop at all, not even when you bundle him into the car at half-past midnight and drive him to the mall and back twice and then rock him constantly for what feels like an eternity and you suddenly realize that you are not singing him a lullaby, you are shouting a lullaby at him and you are not just holding him close but you are clutching him so tightly that what if maybe he is crying because of you. And the thought of it scares you so badly that you swaddle him up despite his thrashing and screaming and you lay him carefully in the Very Middle of his bassinet and you walk away. You shut the bathroom door and climb into your shower and run the water as hot as you can stand it and you sit at the bottom of the tub with your arms wrapped around your knees and you sob. You sob. You sob so violently that your ribs might crack or your heart might crack and you stay there, sobbing, until the hot water runs out and then you will dry yourself and realize that the house is silent.
Panic will make you slow. You will drag each step to the bedroom, and you will wonder what everyone will say when they hear that your baby has Expired, but he is round-faced and peaceful, breathing his deliberate little breaths. And you collapse onto the bed beside his bassinet and sink into oblivion for a time until he wakes you, whimpering and grunting in his sleep and twisting in his swaddle the way he does when he has wet himself and does not want to be awake and you know all of this upon waking, before you even open your sand-filled eyes, because he is your baby and of course you know his little sounds. His small sadnesses. His discomforts. Of course you know and so you will smooth your fingers across his forehead and slip his little paci into his guppy mouth and as he calms and as you reach for a clean diaper you will say, “There, there. Hush, now, sweet boy. Momma can fix this. Momma will fix this. Momma is here.”