We were out walking Zachary in his stroller this afternoon when a woman we ran into — herself a parent by adoption — gave us some good advice: “Don’t follow the advice in parenting magazines.” My wife and I laughed in agreement, and I added, “Or the advice in parenting books.” It’s not the first time someone has gifted us with this particular piece of meta-wisdom, this one-hand-clapping of zen no-advice. Back in July, before we’d even left the hospital, a wise nurse (and they’re all wise, I believe fervently), assured us we’d be hit left and right by people eager to share their parenting wisdom. “Don’t listen to them,” the nurse said. “Use your common sense.”
All this is by way of saying that I have some advice of my own to share, based on our experiences raising Z so far, but you are welcome to ignore it. I have no idea if these are universal principles; they’re just what I’ve doped out so far as a father to an eight-month-old boy whose development seems day by day to increase on a logarithmic scale, an accelerating trajectory whose skybound momentum is by turns exhilarating and terrifying.
A day before his six-month birthday, Z began crawling. It was a makeshift and ungainly thing, this crawl, a neuromuscular kludge in which, belly-down, he basically pulled himself around using only his arms. We called it the army crawl. Since then he’s graduated to a more classical four-point configuration, hands and knees in a busy scramble (and a neat trick where he tucks a leg under and tripods into a buddha sit).
Regardless of his mode of locomotion, the instant effect of the crawl was to convert Z into a free agent, newly untethered and agential, and in the same moment remap our house into a space of vectors and targets, reachable spots and desirable destinations. In short, our little boy now exists at the center of a constantly shifting circle of possibility, forcing us to adopt his perspective a la the cybernetic visual overlay of the Terminator: we look to see where he might go, where he is going right now, and move to intercept him. He exists in a radius of opportunity, and we exist in an overlapping Venn diagram of protective, even prophylatic parental anxiety, meeting him in a quantum space of superpositions, half-realized outcomes, probabalistic perils. A similar principle compels us, when sitting him at a table, to instantly sweep all graspable objects out of reach. Countering our countermeasures, he swings his stuffed green bean in wide arcs of influence, extending his zone of collision. The radii keep shifting, his hopeful, ours horrified, and in this way our home becomes a battlefield: not a real one, but the simulated space of a tabletop wargame.
As a result, the reset was invented. Resets involve picking Z up and putting him down somewhere else — nothing more, nothing less — a gentle interruptive teleportation that (so far) he fortunately seems to experience as a kind of game rather than as what it really is, a thwarting of his will. Using resets, I have successfully washed a sinkful of dishes while Z two-points and four-points across the kitchen floor. He’s headed for the cat-food dishes: reset. He’s pulling himself up on the stairs: reset. He’s about to topple the Cuisinart mixing bowl: reset. The reset is my strategic response to his tactics of the radius, and so far it’s working. As Z’s speed and range increase, all bets are off, a further way in which life as a parent has shifted us inexorably into the realm of the projective and hypothetical. (So much of our talk about Z is about what’s going to happen next, rather than what’s happening right now; it would be nice to live in the moment, but our responsibilities won’t let us.)
When Daylight Savings Time kicked in a couple of weeks ago and we set our clocks ahead by an hour, all hell broke loose in Z’s bedtime schedule; what had been a predictable ritual taking us from bath to crib became a contest of wills, the baby monitor bringing us his unhappy cries as we collapsed onto the couch to eat dinner and watch TV, taking us back upstairs to the nursery to pat his butt until he dropped off, only to wake again minutes later. Complacently, we had believed ourselves to be doing pretty well with the sleep thing, and this new wrinkle in Z’s behavior — which we experienced as a kind of un-behavior, a randomizing of his actions that was scary precisely because we lacked a pattern to deal with it — made both K and me worry that, in fact, we didn’t know what we were doing after all. Imagine our relief when we learned about the eight-month sleep regression (which can also kick in at nine months and ten months): as his brain blossoms and skill sets swell, he’s simply got so much going on inside him that he can’t relax in the old way. Of course I am aware that this is a positive spin on a worrisome situation, hence seductive in its reasoning, but I’ll take it — because the truth is, there’s nothing more exciting than witnessing the small explosions of Z’s mind and body churning toward complexity like an internal-combustion engine, and as someone whose own childhood was marked by an overheated imagination and corresponding difficulty getting a good night’s sleep, I think I know where Z is coming from. Or at least where I want him to be coming from.
And that’s the other kind of regression that’s happening here, taking place across all the phenomena I’m writing about: radii and resets are themselves forms of blissful regression for my wife and me, as we try to intuit the world inside our youngster and respond to it compassionately, intelligently, cautiously, caringly. Raising a child, I’m finding, is also an act of re-engaging with the child in oneself, imagining yourself into his skin and senses, building a foundation of empathy with an emergent network of nerves and impulses that builds itself, second by second, minute by minute, day by day, week by week, year by year, into a person.