THE OTHER PARENT
Last weekend I attended a DONA (Doulas of North America) workshop in Yonkers, NY. The workshop ran all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday and was approximately 30 minutes from my home. There was nowhere for a babysitter to go with the baby so Justin, my husband, took Friday off from work and spent the weekend as the primary caretaker.
My daughter, Hallie, is currently 8 months old and in all that time, she has never been alone with her father for an entire day. Sure, they go for walks and hang out together but it is always for short periods of time. The one time they spent an entire day together, my husband brought the baby to visit his parents. There was no such safety net this weekend.
I left detailed instructions for Friday. Nap times, general feeding times, music and sign language classes. The day was structured and busy. Hallie was a superstar most of the day. She napped at the appropriate times, ate according to the schedule and was generally very easy-going. Then at 6:45pm, Hallie had a breakdown. She cried, she screamed and she was otherwise inconsolable. When I got home Friday evening, Justin was pacing back and forth in Hallie’s room trying to lull her to sleep in his arms. Scattered around the room were a pacifier (she has never liked them), a bottle of expressed milk, teething toys, a favorite blanket and Sophie the Giraffe. Clearly, Justin had used every tool at his disposal without success. I picked up the baby and she instantly put her head on my chest, her thumb in her mouth and fell asleep.
Anxious to avoid a repeat performance, Justin invited his parents to spend the day with him and the baby on Saturday. Again, the day went by without incident, but around bath time, Hallie began to cry and was inconsolable. At around this time, I happened to call and check in and could hear Hallie crying in the background. The frustration in Justin’s voice came clearly through the phone.
“I did everything you said and she won’t stop crying,” he complained.
“I am not sure what to tell you,” I retorted. “She never does this for me. Generally bath time is the best part of the day.”
Justin hung up the phone and I drove just a little faster in order to get back. When I walked in the apartment, Hallie was wide awake and relaxing in her grandmother’s arms. Justin had taken the dogs for a walk and was not home. He mentioned that he felt defeated because he was unable to calm the baby and had passed her off to his mother and taken a walk to clear his head.
I reassured Justin that knowing when to walk away from a crying baby was as important a skill as being able to calm the baby. When a caretaker gets frustrated about not being able to calm the baby, they often tense and inadvertently make things worse than they were before. He again expressed frustration that my instructions did not work for him.
The next morning was the last day of the workshop and Justin’s parents had left the night before. There was no schedule as there had been on Friday and no support as there had been on Saturday. It would just be Hallie and her Daddy all day. I admit to being a little nervous.
I called several times to check in on Justin and kept getting voice mail. Part of me hoped that they were out enjoying the unseasonable weather and part of me wondered if the crying was drowning out the ringing phone. I finally got in touch around 6:30pm. I heard the unmistakable sound of a baby’s giggle in the background.
“Sorry,” Justin was out of breath when he answered. “We are in the middle of a game of peek-a-boo and I can’t talk right now.”
When I arrived home, the baby was fed, bathed and ready for bed. Both father and daughter was making faces at each other and laughing. They barely glanced at me as I walked in the door.
When I asked Justin about how his day had gone, he excitedly told me about the long walk he had taken with the baby and the dogs, the nap on the bed he had taken with the baby in his arms and the dinner they had shared. What was different? It turns out that not having a schedule or someone else there to tell him how to care for the baby had freed him up to do things his own way. Nap time happened because Justin was snuggling Hallie on the bed and both fell asleep. Dinner for Hallie were just bites of Justin’s delivery from the local diner and she was awake at 7:30 because, “she did not seem sleepy” to him.
When Justin had the flexibility to read the baby’s cues, he really was able to get to know her. She responded by being happy and adjusting to the new routine with ease. It was precisely the same was I developed the original schedule: I wrote down what had organically developed for me.
This weekend was a good reminder that it is okay to parent differently. Schedules and routines are fine as long as they work. Don’t be afraid to try new things or mix it up once in a while. And, if you are having fun, the rewards can be endless. In Justin’s case, Hallie rewarded him on Sunday with her first word.
I picked up Hallie and asked her if she had a nice day. She just pointed at Justin, grinned and said, “Dada.”