5 Useless Pieces of Advice Everyone Gives to New Parents
Everyone knows that having a newborn baby is a hellish, sleep-deprived ordeal that is quickly forgotten when your baby grows into a "TV newborn" who smiles and laughs and melts your heart every time he does something, also known in the real world as a 3-month-old. Many kind people attempt to offer words of consolation to the sufferers during those first difficult months but get viciously snapped at for their efforts. Part of this is because new parents are irritable folks with half their brain functions temporarily disabled, and part of it is that these words of consolation are bad. Here I will explain how some common attempts to be helpful are in no way helpful.
Note: I keep referring to a hypothetical baby as a "he" because my baby is a "he," and that's what I automatically think of. It's not because of the patriarchy or anything.
Do you like to have sex, go to a nice restaurant, or sleep until 10 a.m.? It will be 18 years of hard time before you do it again, these people say.
How They're Trying to Help: Well-meaning people are trying to prepare you for what's ahead so you don't get taken by surprise and go into a week-long catatonic shock one day, I guess. I think there's also an element of "welcome to the club," where they want to let you know that there will be someone there to commiserate with during your future suffering, a fellow inmate who understands your unrequited yearnings for sleeping in or Michelin-starred dining. So they're trying to be nice in advance.
How It Does Not Help at All: First of all, half of these things are, like rumors of Jackie Chan's death, grossly exaggerated. At some point between your child's birth and 18th birthday, odds are that you will, at least once, find a babysitter so the two of you can have a "date night," if you know what I mean. Also, it's pretty normal for many babies to sleep 12 hours overnight at some point, and at varying ages well before 18 your child will be able to go to a restaurant with you, then later take care of himself while you go to a restaurant, and eventually work at a restaurant so he can buy you dinner at a better restaurant.
It only feels like this most of the time. Shit, wait, some of the time. Wow, it's pretty hard to take this advice!
Even when these deprivations do come true for you, it's much easier to cope with them one at a time as they crop up. You simply encounter the problem, you go, "Arrrrrgh, nnnngh, I didn't know I was going to have to deal with this, everything sucks, life sucks, I don't believe in God anymore," and then a week later you get used to it and you're like, "OK, I guess this is part of the routine now, whatever."
I know that, when I was a kid, if someone had told me that when I grew up there would be no more recess -- that when you take a break at work there is no playground to go play on -- I would have been miserable. I would have thought, "How can a human being endure doing work from 9 to 5 with no opportunities to hang upside down or play tetherball?" But today I am not the miserable wretch my younger self would have pictured. We have no monkey bars, but I enjoy taking a walk or talking to my co-workers just fine. I still hop on a swing every time I'm near a park, but I guess I'm not as hopelessly addicted to it as my younger self thought, and withdrawal in fact does not cause death.
Like Cloverfield, the preview stops you in your tracks, but the actual thing actually turns out to be pretty anticlimactic.
"Breast-Feeding Always Works if You Try Hard Enough!"
It's always this perfect.
How They're Trying to Help: Everyone accepts that breast milk is the best food for babies, but half of all new mothers quit breast-feeding after a few weeks. So naturally, helpful people want to encourage moms to not give up. Since breast-feeding is natural, it's always going to work if you try hard enough, they assume.
How It Does Not Help at All: Well, sometimes it just doesn't. Different sources estimate that anywhere from 2 to 5 percent of mothers physically cannot produce enough milk for their babies. Past that 2 to 5 percent, there's another subgroup that technically can produce enough milk if they push themselves, in the same sense that an average guy might technically be able to deadlift a log twice his body weight in an adrenalin-charged emergency. For example, if his best friend was trapped under the log in a burning building and he was willing to injure himself trying to lift it. (As Cracked readers are generally more ripped than the average person, you can substitute whatever weight would have that effect.)
A typical Cracked reader at age 5.
The time the "your body will naturally make enough milk" mantra starts sounding accusatory and discouraging is after a mom has tried everything and it's taken its toll. When I came to this point, I had been trying all sorts of things: feeding 30 minutes every two hours all day and night, taping tubes onto the nipple to sneak milk into the baby's mouth, and in between that, pumping with a human milking machine and trying every stupid herb and weird food that people suggested. The baby cried every time he was put on the boob, because he's not dumb and he knew it was mostly empty. I also cried, because my nipples were raw and blistered and bleeding and it was agony whenever he latched on.
To go back to the log analogy, this is the moment where the guy is exhausted and his body is falling apart from trying to rescue his best friend. He's got a dislocated shoulder, and every attempt is torture. He is going to keep trying because this is his best friend, just like I'm going to keep trying because it's my baby. He is probably also going to be a bit discouraged if someone just shrugs and says, "Well, that's what your muscles were made to do. It should be the most natural thing in the world," because how did that person get there and why isn't he helping? But also, that's not a real encouraging thing to say.
"Hey, man, when do you think you're going to finish up in there?"
"It's not a really big deal," that kind of talk implies. "Any jerk off the street could do it. You're probably not trying very hard."
Everybody's different, but if I was that guy, I'd be encouraged if someone shouted, "Get out of there! You're crazy!" Maybe the trapped friend goes, "Go! Save yourself! I know you did your best!" I already wanted to save my friend, but now that everyone thinks I'm nuts for doing it and it can't be done, I also feel like it would be a totally insane, heroic thing to do. I would make more endorphins and shout "PAIN IS WEAKNESS LEAVING THE BODY!" and rip that log in half.
Paradoxically, sometimes telling people it's OK to quit is exactly what they need to not quit, because you're also telling them you're impressed by what they've done already and that continuing to try would be going above and beyond. I personally started my turnaround when I accepted that it would be OK if I failed. We actually bought a Costco-size can of formula. Somehow it brought me peace. Then I went back at it with a vengeance, and I fed that damn baby nothing but breast milk until the six-month mark, exactly like the God damn books say.
A lot of people want to avoid any kind of negative talk about breast-feeding because they think it'll make people quit faster, but when you're in the midst of the horror show that is a bad breast-feeding situation, what you really need to keep going is people willing to believe you're giving it 110 percent and you've paid more than your dues, not wondering why you're being so whiny about something anyone can do.
"Babies Can't Get Bored!"
This baby is watching The English Patient.
If you've ever done an Internet search for why your baby is bored, you'll find that experts constantly insist that babies can't get bored.
How They're Trying to Help: I'm not really sure what the end goal of this "babies can't get bored" conspiracy is, unless there is a group of people determined to bore babies to death. I guess one motivation is that people are afraid you're going to put your baby in front of the TV if they admit he might be bored.
How It Does Not Help at All: If a baby cannot be bored, then whenever he gets tired of whatever he is doing, something else must be the problem. Maybe he doesn't like being left alone. Maybe he needs a nap. Maybe he is concerned about rising income inequality in this country. You try to address all these things, but none of them help because he is frickin bored.
"I have to disagree, Mom; I feel unemployment is a far more telling indicator than the Dow's performance."
I am not demanding that I be allowed to put him in front of the TV. I could take him on a walk. I could give him another toy to play with. I could call the dog over and order him to act stupid. I could sing a song. I'm pretty sure these are good things for babies, and I'm pretty sure a lot of parents will give them a try if you allow the possibility that the baby might be bored. Not every parent is just champing at the bit to put on Dora the Explorer the moment you give them the slightest opportunity, forcing you to lie to them to keep them in line.
Not only does it not help, it can hurt. If I take my baby to someone's house and I believe he can't get bored, why shouldn't I just drop him in a cardboard box and give him a pacifier instead of taking him around to watch people and look at the different rooms? Babies can get bored, and you should help them out by interacting with them and letting them look at different real-world things. Is that so hard to say? Are we so scared of TV that we have to oversimplify this?
"Breast-Fed Babies Never Overeat!"
Must be a bottle-fed baby.
How They're Trying to Help: I don't know about this one; I guess they heard it somewhere and are trying to take away one more worry that a breast-feeding mom has.
How It Does Not Help at All: I guess it doesn't exactly hurt for most people, because most babies don't overeat? Where this gets ridiculous is when they turn it into a rule that no babies can possibly overeat. My baby sure as hell overeats. Maybe they mean he doesn't digest more food than he needs, and that was certainly true, because he would finish whatever container you gave him (breast or bottle), and then he would vomit up the excess. Does he need 5 ounces? He'll happily eat 8 and then spit up 3 over the next couple of hours. I don't know, maybe he thought it would be rude not to finish what he was given?
When he gets older I guess he'll politely eat his host's crappy dinner and discreetly vomit it behind a plant.
For some babies, that much spitting up is a medical problem, either standard acid reflux or something called GERD, which sounds like something you have to tell your kid not to call other kids. But not mine. He was what they call a "happy spitter," which sounds kind of dirty, but just means that even though he throws up left and right, it doesn't bring up acid that burns his throat and makes him cry. He'll just toss his cookies while playing or watching you sing to him and continue as if nothing happened. It also means the doctors just shrug their shoulders at you and can do nothing.
What this comes out to is that for a long time I could not just pop up in the morning and let him drink as much boob as he wanted or else we would have a barf party. The experts claimed that this would never be a problem, but my furniture claims otherwise.
"It'll Get Much Better After Three Months!"
How They're Trying to Help: Some people call the first three months of a baby's life "the fourth trimester," as they act more like disgruntled evicted fetuses trying to get back inside than like the happy human babies we see in movies and ads. It's horrible. Obviously people want to help by telling you there's a light at the end of the tunnel -- by about 3 months, the baby will stop crying several hours a day for no reason and will start smiling and making other human-like interactions.
How It Does Not Help at All: This is like saying "You're only going to be waterboarded for 96 more hours." If you're nearly suicidal at two weeks, getting literally no more than two hours of sleep at a time, the baby crying inconsolably for at least 15 minutes every time you try to change his diaper or rock him to sleep or feed him or do anything (if your baby has "colic" this comes out to more than three hours of crying a day), two-plus months sounds like an eternity.
"WAAAAH WAAAAH, YOU PUT A HAT ON ME, IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD, WAAAAH."
From your helpful friends' point of view, they are reassuring you that it will only be 2.5 more months. From the harried parents' point of view, they are being told that this will not end for at least 2.5 more months. "Enjoy this time, they grow up so fast," is also a cruel, cruel thing to say at this point, although it makes perfect sense to me now with my kid at 8 months. I used to stare shell-shocked into my friends' eyes as they came to visit and wail, "THEY GROW UP SO SLOWLY," like a doomed ghost.
So this puts the friends in a tough spot. Facts are facts; they can't very well lie and say it will end any sooner. So what's a better alternative? Maybe some comfort along the lines of "one day at a time" that directs your gaze away from the infinitely distant horizon, or even better, my favorite phrase of all, "Would you like me to come by and hold the baby for a few hours so you can get a nap?" I would be willing to give that person anything I had, even my firstborn child ... no wait, especially my firstborn child.