I grew up in a New York City apartment with five siblings, four of them younger. By ten years old, I was changing diapers, heating bottles, running baths and wiping spit-up from the walls and my hair. So, I have been intimate with the down-and-dirty of infant care for a long, long time. As a result, I am not intimidated by infants, nor am I impressed. The fact of babies is, of course, remarkable and pure grace. No doubt, it affects me to my core. But the mechanics of the package — their impossibly tiny, fragile limbs; their pained expressions and inexplicable, relentless crying jags; leaking diapers and projectile vomiting; their general helplessness – those things don’t rattle me.
When I became a dad, however, while I was prepared for the ‘business’ of fatherhood, the experience was brand new. Now I was in love with a baby, and everything really was a big deal. I could watch that child for hours, even as she slept. I couldn’t wait for her to wake up. I wanted to talk to her, bounce her on my knee, take her to restaurants, travel, and show her off to friends and relatives. And I did. I figured that exposing her to my wonderfully exciting world would help to socialize her, and she might become one of those impressively precocious, comfortable-with-adults kids that steal everyone’s attention at cocktail parties. So, of course it only made sense that my baby’s nap schedule should be adjusted to my work hours so I could enjoy quality time interacting with her.
I bought my baby fantabulous toys made of vibrant colored plastics that I knew she would love once she learned to sit up and got that hand-eye thing working. These toys moved, talked, asked questions and gave answers. I also loaded up on very cool videos made by companies with names like ‘Baby Genius’ and ‘Toddler Titans’. I was careful to read the descriptions and only chose titles that were educational. I wasn’t going to expose my baby to crap.
My favorite purchase was a battery-operated 3-speed swing, an ingenious piece of mechanical child care equipment. I had seen these things in action. If your infant is crying and inconsolable, if it’s nap time, or if you just want a mental health break, you strap the kid in and set the thing on auto-pilot. Within seconds, the baby calms down. Soon, she gets that 10,000-yard, no-one’s-home stare. Eventually, the eyes roll back, the shades come down, and she’s dead to the world. Magnificent!
I meant well. I had a lot of expectations (and fantasies) about my once and future relationship with my infant daughter and how I would manage it. Ultimately, I just wanted to be a good dad – active, fun, available, nurturing. I also wanted interaction and some reciprocal signals that she was as thrilled and adoring of me as I was of her. When she was tiny and lacked the neck strength to do anything but stare at the ceiling, that meant getting in her face with stuffed animals or a whirly-jig to elicit a smile (I know — gas…). Propping her up seemed like a good idea, too – much easier to see her dad do silly dances – though her head usually sagged to one side at an impossible, really ugly angle. If she was bored (yes, I assumed an infant could be bored), I would sit her in my lap and flap her arms or lift them high above her head (“soooooo big….”).
It was around this period in my daughter’s infancy that my wife met infant expert Magda Gerber. I did not become a convert overnight. But after an initial struggle, then a period of tacit compliance to avoid domestic strife, I began to see the innate logic of Magda’s philosophy and insight.
I got in the habit of announcing my intentions before handling my daughter. Our house was gradually cleared of DayGlo plastic and battery powered toys. (My daughter found other objects to fascinate over.) Oral pacifiers were trashed. (She located her thumb and learned to fill her sucking needs herself.) I did not put her in high places she couldn’t reach by herself, most especially (and painfully) playground swings.
And she was happy. Happy staring at the sky without a stuffed animal flying through her limited field of vision; happy manipulating a wooden block rather than building a skyscraper; happy to have me nearby observing rather than controlling her world with my own ideas of fun.
Over time, it dawned on me that real quality time with my daughter meant quality for her, not entertainment for me. I began expressing my love by practicing the selfless art of observation, sitting for hours simply watching and being available. The big ‘ah-ha’ was realizing that my presence was enough. I really wasn’t needed for much else, and by restraining my instinct to massage and control the moment, I was doing my daughter the greatest service of all – respecting her.
As a new father, I believed my job was to prepare my daughter in body and spirit for the big bad world. So, I followed my instincts – not always a good idea — which meant inserting myself into her world of playtime and daydreaming, doing for her what she could not do for herself. Or, more precisely, what she had not yet figured out for herself. Big difference. By interfering, I was virtually robbing her of the experiences of discovery and success — not the smartest way to encourage self-confidence in a child.
So, I have come to believe that the very best any of us can do to love our kids is to nurture their instincts so they grow comfortable and confident in the world. But ‘nurturing’ is not as aggressively pro-active as I once thought. Actually, it is more akin to facilitating, allowing our perfect babies to develop through their own processes of discovery. In my case, this meant learning to butt out. And, to my utter amazement and great satisfaction, my daughter (and then her siblings) managed beautifully throughout their infancies and have continued to flourish — physically, mentally, emotionally – developing natural poise and confidence I could never have engineered. Or nurtured.
Ultimately, I learned to trust my babies and even coined my own adage: “Never turn down the opportunity to shut up, sit on your hands and observe.” I think Magda would approve.