I was about to sit down and write this column when the paper arrived with my colleague's column on psychological tips for new parents. It was perfect timing as I just spent 3 weeks "on vacation" in a three bedroom "in vivo laboratory" consisting of we grandparents, the two parents on parental leave for the duration of our visit and more, a very busy gifted 4-year-old big sister and a tiny, very hungry newborn.
I not only survived but I thrived in this oasis that, given the situation was so calm and relaxing, I felt it merited intensive study. You see, I once specialized in infant psychology, and have written a column and lectured on, "When baby makes three" but these past weeks were a wonderful reminder of just how special this time can be with a new baby. We literally saw daily changes in this precious little bundle as she went from arriving almost fetal-like to having grown into a one-month-old who could track our face and voice, express her opinions- loudly on a wide variety of subjects, charm her big sister for long periods of time and more. How quickly we were brought back into the world of sleep, poop, nurse and cry but what was additionally very special was to witness the way our own children parented. They were amazing. This is in many ways a very different world than it once was, post-covid and compared to when we had our children. "Siri" and "Alexa" enter conversations almost as family members, giving reminders, playing lullabies, timing feedings and more. Groceries and just about everything else too can be ordered on the spot and arrive at the door in as little as 15 minutes.
While our children were beyond exhausted, it appeared that the general "house rules'" they adopted even before child number two arrived stood them in good stead for this major disruption in their lives. Here are a few observations.
- While rules are super important, it is even more crucial to follow them. This is important not only for the big people who are role models but definitely for the little ones as well. Big sister was given instructions as to where and how she could hold the baby and just where on the baby she could touch her safely. They lovingly told her all that she could do, and how the baby would enjoy it, and explained gently what would and would not be okay for the baby in terms of food or touch.
- Consistency and love are the two critical ingredients that work together to promote a sense of calm. For example, it's a given that bedtime for the oldest is by 7:30 and this includes a good night story, some prayers, a chat and more. Breakfast (with a choice of healthy options) is followed by minimally assisted dressing, teeth brushing, sunscreen, shoes and masking up prior to day camp. Arrival home meant the mask was hung up (at eye level), shoes were removed, hands got washed and once she completed these tasks, she was rewarded with delicious family time while sharing excitedly her stories about her day.
- Everything in the apartment has a home. There is a place for the 4-year old's toys, (which she herself puts away, mostly by herself, every day) the endless "stuff" that goes along with a tiny baby and always, no matter how exhausted people were, before bedtime, they spent 5 minutes to ensure the apartment was in order. Surfaces were cleared of clutter that accrued during the day, the table and counters were sprayed and wiped, boxes were broken down, and garbage was bagged. "Chewy", their robot vacuum cleaned the general dust overnight and everyone awoke to a sense of orderliness in which to start the day.
- The apartment is relatively quiet, despite loud air conditioning and street noise. This is not because there is a baby as no one attempts to lower their voice. Cell phones, however, are always on vibrate so there are no annoying pings and bings. While adults were on their phones, it was not excessive. Television is not just left "on in the background". If videos are watched, they are educational, and an adult is often sitting close by.
- No one seems to yell. If the 4-year-old does something wrong, they discipline quickly and with consistency. In general, things are patiently explained in terms of what was done, what is the expected behavior and when there were temper tantrums, appropriate choices of action were offered. The message was simple, clear and unified between parents. One day she insisted on going for a walk in very warm outdoor temperatures, with not a cloud in the sky, wearing her rain books and coat, carrying an umbrella. They knew how to pick their battles, give in on the small stuff and maintain a sense of humor.
- Mealtime was seen as a special opportunity to attempt to eat together. As difficult as this can be with a newborn, in general meals had a nice sense of flow. Everyone cooperated getting the food on the table, helping with preparation and cleanup. The meal train concept, with friends offering to bring meals, or a choice of "dining in from restaurants" was very helpful and friends in the know enjoyed participating. There was enjoyable conversation, and everyone happily participated, even if someone was rocking or feeding the baby at the same time. Meals were remarkably healthy and child friendly. At times when the baby was being nursed, big sister would sit on the couch next to Mom and feed her dolly as well.
- There was a general feeling of good will that permeated throughout the apartment. If one made coffee, they offered the other. "What would you like?" "How can I help, do you want to take a nap, you're so tired?" were frequently murmured between the couple which was lovely to hear and not a given, with the stress they were under. People generally got up to help, and even big sister helped with setting the table, entertaining, cleaning and more.
- While we grandparents made certain to try and keep a good balance of helping out but not taking over or being in the way, we also got out to ensure the parents had private family time. Parents and baby tried to get out for a short daily walk and one evening they even managed a short date while we babysat.
Having a new baby is both exciting and challenging. No matter how prepared you think you are, these are times when your life will feel out of control. The difficult moments will pass although it is hard to believe that such a tiny baby could rule your life. Between feeding, soothing, hormonal changes and exhaustion, you may find the early months a blur. Schedule in some essential "me" time as a priority. Make time to be together as a couple as this creates the foundation for a strong family. Set your priorities, have realistic expectations, and allow others to help out. If your friend comes for a two hour visit, saying "kick me out when you want me to leave", let them know how exhausted you are and that you are only up to a 20 minute visit this week. New parents are beyond tired and while some new moms are comfortable nursing in front of others, many initially are not.
Finally, remember to take it one day or even one hour at a time. It does get easier. If you are having trouble coping, make sure that you get help. Otherwise, enjoy your little treasures as before you know it, you'll wonder how those years flew by so quickly.