TMN Contributing Writer Matthew Baldwin frequently writes about his eight-month-old son—known through the internet as “The Squirrelly”—at defective yeti. Their current favorite and wholly invented games are “Crash & Rescue,” “Gravity Goes Haywire,” “No, YOU’RE A Big Silly” and “I’m Gonna Eat Your Fingers Mrrragh!”
TMN Art Director Frederic Bonn is a Creative Director at Euro RSCG 4D and works on designing successful online user experiences. He has been married to Zoe for four years and their son Leonard is now 14 months old.
TMN Contributing Writer Kevin Guilfoile lives in the Chicago area with his wife Mo and their son Max who is 10 months old. His first novel, Cast of Shadows, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in March.
TMN: Welcome back fathers! Once again, before we get started, let’s have a moment of silence to salute and thank your partners.
OK. To get us started, what’s the biggest surprise you’ve encountered at two different age points? (E.g., if your son is 12 months now, then a surprise from when he was three months old and one from nine months). Had someone warned you about it ahead of time? Have certain relatives turned out to be greater sages than others?
Kevin Guilfoile: I wasn’t prepared for how much fun the last nine months would be. Max is totally awesome, and to his mom and me his every unconscious twitch is a new developmental plateau. But trying to identify two surprising things he’s done at different points in his short life would be like David Blaine trying to describe the two biggest surprises during his six weeks in a box over the Thames: They wouldn’t be at all interesting to you and both would most likely involve pooping.
Before I had a child I thought parents were poop-obsessed, but now I totally get it. When you have a kid a healthy poop is the equivalent of a hearty “All’s well!” from the town crier. But it gets everywhere and on everything and you learn to just shrug and wipe it off. You become completely inured to the sights and smells and texture of steaming hot crap. Show me a person who thinks it was shocking for Divine to eat feces in Pink Flamingos and I’ll show you a person who never had kids. In fact, I recently made an iMovie of Max unhooking his own diaper that would make John Waters retch.
Kevin Fanning: Early on, I thought dealing with poop was going to be a huge deal-breaker for me, but 30 seconds after he was born, he was squirting out that black tar-like substance that newborns have, and it definitely seemed like a “downhill from here” type of situation.
Matthew Baldwin: I’m an ardent evolutionist, and even studied evolutionary psychology a bit in college. So on a cognitive level I understand that instinct is a huge factor in how people behave. But you rarely see this illustrated as dramatically as it is by infants.
One day, when my son was five months old, for instance, he began reaching for food—we’d have him tucked under one arm and bring an apple to our mouth with the other, and he’d reach out an try to intercept it. Babies just start doing this when they are ready to start eating solids. It was amazing to see my kid act under the impulse of pure instinct.
We’re seeing this again right now. The twerp is eight months old and just started crawling. He’s been building up to it for weeks. I’ve never really thought of crawling as a natural step in a child’s development—I always thought it was a cheat that babies used until they can walk—but here again we’ve seen him take actions that are clearly out of his conscious control. For the last month, while lying on his belly, he would occasionally get up on his hands and knees and kind of do push-ups for a minute or so. It took us a while to figure out what he was doing, but finally we realized that he was, in essence, exercising: strengthening his muscles for crawling, and learning how to synchronize his arms and legs.
Like cicadas awakening after a 17-year sleep, these instincts lie dormant until the moment they are needed, and then put your baby through the paces. It’s breathtaking, and a bit eerie.
KG: Yeah, man, when he does something he’s never done before, like wave or say “hi.” That’s so incredible. In fact, I won’t let him play with my keys because I’m terrified that when I look away he’ll drive to Milwaukee for Summerfest.
Frederic Bonn: I cannot think of biggest surprises in terms of age points. Surprises come pretty much randomly and pretty much every day. It’s not like Leonard said, “Look Dad, I’m nine months old now and I can crawl!” The “learn crawling” part was quite long and we thought he would actually start to walk before he could crawl, and looking at him slowly discover how things work was quite amusing, as it involved a lot of frustration for not being able to lift his belly off the floor, then later, something we could easily call the “moon-crawl:” moving backward across the floor in a smooth sliding style. Note: Is a reference to Michael Jackson really appropriate in this roundtable?
Only a couple of days before turning one, he took his first three steps, but that was unexpectedly not that impressive. But only a couple of days later he started going back and forth between the sofa and the table, laughing out loud. You could just see he was definitely thinking, “Look, I can walk, it’s pretty amazing, I can walk!” He kept doing it for half an hour, and kept laughing all that time.
KF: Actually the biggest positive surprise I’ve encountered so far was the change in my son between 10 months and 11 months, and the way it changed how I felt about him. At 10 months, he had sort of plateau-d in terms of what he could accomplish as a baby. He wasn’t super-interesting, but I loved him well enough, and enjoyed his company. Then at 11 months, he suddenly started walking and using words. He became a toddler, right before my eyes. I was like, “Holy shit, things just got really interesting.” Suddenly he became so fascinating to be around. It was like realizing that while I thought I loved him before, that was really just liking him OK, and now I REALLY loved him.
TMN: Are there ever moments, watching your kid, when you feel like your son isn’t yours? I know that sounds creepy, but to be more clear, do you ever see him sometimes as separate from you, as separate from you and his mother? As a stranger in your house?
KF: Well, pretty much every aspect of his personality is directly attributable to either his mother or me. He is super cranky in the mornings and likes beets, that’s his mother. He’s devastatingly handsome and has a lovely singing voice, that’s me. Although now that I think about it he seems to really enjoy maneuvering a broom around the kitchen floor, and that’s neither of us.
KG: I feel tethered to him all the time. When he’s with his mom and I’m out running an errand or something I have a panic attack about every five minutes that I’ve left him at the wine store or the Jiffy Lube or, Raising Arizona-style, on the roof of the car.
Wait a minute. Where is this question coming from? What does it mean that I haven’t had those feelings? Is this some sort of developmental test? Does it mean Max has CF? MS? CP? SB? Pyloric stenosis? Intestinal atresia? Hirschsprung’s disease? Turner syndrome? Sickle Cell? Clubfoot? Dysplasia? Tetralogy of Fallot? Pulmonary stenosis? What do you know, man? Tell me! What do you know!?!
FB: It is amazing just to watch him when he plays alone with his toys, looks at a book and suddenly laughs for no reason, or walks around the apartment in search of an unknown object to discover. I’m wondering what going on in his little head? What is he thinking about? How does that work?
He is not a stranger and I could not imagine him not being here. But he is definitely different from both of us, and as he is growing up, it’s really enjoyable to discover his personality revealing itself, and see him interact with other people. Leonard is a super-social person: he is always smiling to everybody, constantly trying to make eye contact in the subway, and is rarely afraid of meeting new people or try something new…all those characteristics are pretty much the opposite of my personality (as a father, you never can be really sure that your son is yours, right?).
KF: Wait, now it’s my turn: What do you know, man? Tell me! What do you know!?!
KG: The other day my wife pointed to a kid on television—he was probably about six—and she said, “Max is going to be that big one day” and my mouth dropped to the floor. Somehow, I hadn’t really thought about it that way. Before that moment, the idea that Max would someday be expressing himself in complete sentences was as plausible as the notion that the cat might one day ask me to mix him a Tanqueray and tonic.
MB: I am possibly the least attentive person I know, the kind of guy who can run out of gas because he never once notices that the needle on the gauge has sunk to E and below. So it’s always a little alarming for me to see my son go into Full Absorption Mode, where he studies a face or a scene like he’s a lil’ robot sent back in time from the future to record and categorize all aspects of life in the early 21st century. And while I recognize that all infants do this, and that it in no way guarantees that my child won’t grow up to be as absent-minded as his father, it does sort of inspire me to hope that he might someday become a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, solving crimes by noticing that a single thread on the shoulder of a suspect’s jacket could only have come the “Tapestries of the Ancient World” exhibit at the local museum.
That, and the kid can eat yams. I dunno where he got the ability to eat yams, but it didn’t come from me.
KF: Same here. But kids will also eat food off the garage floor or out of the trash if the opportunity presents itself, so clearly they’re in no danger of being headhunted for jobs at the Michelin guide.
TMN: How would you say you’re doing as a father so far? Any dumb mistakes, baby-foot-in-mouth, etc? Big lessons learned you didn’t see coming?
KG: “Boy, I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this—heh heh—roundtable, but with all the pressure of trying to come up with the answer, it hadn’t yet.”
Am I the first to make that joke? Am I? Am I? Am I?
MB: You’re the first person to make that joke and then not wisely decide to delete it before sending in your reply, yes.
KG: OK, here are three lessons I learned the hard way.
- Wipe the boy’s face before you go outside. When the weather is nice, we always take a walk after lunch. Inevitably we’ll go to the bank or the bookstore, and a female clerk will begin fawning over him. As I walk around to the front of the stroller to monitor his reaction, I discover with horror that his entire head—cheeks, nose, forehead, ears, and especially his hair—is covered in some hardened combination of carrots, turkey, bananas, and cereal. Immediately I peel this concoction off his face and am left standing in the middle of the store with what is basically a death mask of my 10-month-old son. The ladies in the bookstore, they laugh. Oh, they laugh.
- Don’t let the boy watch too much television. Has anyone else noticed that whenever four or more kids gather on Sesame Street, one of them is in a wheelchair? Is the Fix-It Shop leaking mercury or something? Maybe tomorrow’s “Spanish Word of the Day” should be abogado.
- The Diaper Champ cannot transcend the immutable laws of physics. At some point during the baby-shower registration process, you and your partner, otherwise intelligent and rational people, will become convinced that there are magical products into which you deposit a stinky diaper and deliver it to another dimension. Diaper Champ. Diaper Genie. Diaper Wormhole. Whatever the evil sales copy says, understand these are nothing more than cheap plastic cans with snap-on lids. For several nights in a row, while rocking the boy to sleep, you will sniff a pungent odor and ask your son, “Pally, did you brown a baguette?” Eventually you’ll realize the odor is coming from the gigantic bucket of three-day-old shit sitting four feet away from your face. Even zoo monkeys are smart enough to hurl their fresh feces to the other side of the cage, but somehow new parents think their child’s poop will keep just fine until garbage day in a porous bucket next to his crib. Honestly, your college degree is worthless.
FB: Baby poop when the baby is still breastfeeding, and/or not eating any solid food, does not smell that bad, but as soon as solid food comes into the equation, just forget about the Diaper Genie, and don’t believe that the “Triple-barrier odor-proof protection” of the Stage Two refill actually “works to neutralize tough diaper odors” (quotes from the Diaper Genie website)—nothing works!
MB: I have no idea how I am doing, father-wise. Being a first-time parent is like working at a company that has given you no job description, no training, and no supervisor to provide feedback, leaving you to constantly wonder if you’re going to get shitcanned at any moment. I suspect that there won’t be any real indicator as to my parenting skills until the kid is 22 and either invents cold fusion or robs a liquor store.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that, while black humor is a key coping strategy for my wife and I, it’s best to keep it in the family. It is certainly to be avoided around people who don’t have children themselves. In the early months, when we were reeling from an enormous sleep deficit, we would often joke, “Well, you know, if things get any worse we can always call 1-800-DINGO.” But, oh brother—say something like that in front of someone who doesn’t have kids and she’ll react like you’ve just shot your child with a BB gun.
FB: How could I know how I am doing as a father? I guess I’ll realize I didn’t do well if he:
- Becomes a heavy heroin addict at 12.
- Has posters of George W. Bush in his bedroom at 15.
- Calls me “loser” long after his teenage years.
- Still spends two hours a week talking about me with his analyst 40 years from now.
I have a slight tendency to worry about making sure I’m doing the right things for him (he doesn’t want to eat—should I let him throw the spoon across the room? Should I not let him do that? Will he become a spoiled little devil if I do? Etc.). So, I try to keep up with him changing and growing up, and to enjoy playing with him, talking and listening to him (the latter which currently involves sounds like “yiiiyiiiiyii aaah eueuu”) and learning not to do things too much by the book.
How can you ever really know if you’re doing well? Twenty years from now, he will probably blame me or his mother for something we did wrong anyway, so let’s hope it won’t be too serious.
KF: I have to say, I’m doing pretty well. My son is generally happy, healthy, fun to be around, curious about the world, prefers drawing to TV and fruit to cookies, so really we’re fairly blessed. The major thing that I’m working on—something that I wished I’d been paying attention to from earlier on—is being less focused on what comes out of his mouth, and more concerned with what comes out of my mouth. I didn’t realize how often I use phrases like “Stop it!” and “Gimme!” until he started using them every day. So that was one obvious parenting ground-rule that I totally flubbed.
MB: We still curse like sailors around our kid, but we don’t worry too much about it. We reckon that, by the time our son gets to elementary school, a whole new batch of vulgarities will have entered the public vernacular, words so unbelievably filthy by today’s standards that “shit” and “fuck” will have become quaintly charming.
TMN: In our first roundtable, we talked a bit about how you and your partner share responsibilities. Since then, have you found a way to make things go more smoothly? As your son gets older, are you finding tasks that are more daddy-appropriate or mommy-appropriate?
FB: That sounds like a pretty sexist question. Task more daddy- or mommy-appropriate? Yes, of course: she does everything, and I drink a beer while reading the paper! Actually it’s more like a “I-drank-too-much-last-night-it’s-your-turn-this-morning” kind of division for tasks, and that goes both ways. On weekends we try to rotate—”You do Saturday morning, I’ll do Sunday morning”—but for some reason, it frequently ends up being my turn on the mornings I just described earlier (I should investigate why!).
My wife Zoe prepares his food way more often than I do. Not because it is more “appropriate”, just because…uhhh…I don’t know why…but she is more organized than I am—I mean way more: she prepares foods in advance and puts it in the freezer for the week. Otherwise, I would say diaper changing, bathing, feeding, playing, reading books, dancing, walking around, playing, chasing him around the apartment, laughing—all equal. But you should ask her; maybe she sees it differently.
There is one thing where we are definitely not equal: Zoe works four days a week, therefore she spends one day alone with Leonard every week, and that I’m pretty jealous of.
MB: Right after the baby was born, we had a simple formula for dividing up duties: Mama was in charge of what went into the baby, papa was in charge of what came out of the baby, and everything else fell to whoever happened to be holding the critter at the moment (or, in the case of a task that required more than one free hand, whoever wasn’t).
That worked pretty well until I returned to work. Now the division of labor is more chronological: Mama cares for the baby until I get home, then I take over and do the nighttime ritual (bottle, bath, books, bed).
As for what happens when the baby cries at night? Well, I once read an article about useful foreign words that had no English counterpart, and it mentioned some language (I forget which) that had a noun meaning “the state of two people each waiting to see if the other will volunteer to address an unpleasant situation that has recently arisen and could be handled by either but which neither wants to do.” If the English word for that was canderflabble, I’d say that my wife and I spend a good portion of our nights engaged in canderflabble.
KF: I wouldn’t say there’s any real explicit divvy-ing up of tasks, it’s more like a Vulcan mind-meld of child management. You just get really good at knowing which tasks are involved in each situation, and attending to them in a facile, drone-like manner. If you are taking your child on a long car ride, you will collect books and toys while your partner prepares snacks. If it’s bedtime, you will get the bath ready while your partner prepares the bottle and locates the teddy bear. It’s great—you just get really good at working together. Child-wrangling is a huge task, and there’s no choice but to cooperate. You become ruthlessly efficient, like the Germans.
KG: Since I’m home with Max all day while Mo is out lawyering, I feel a considerable amount of guilt about the amount of time I get to spend with him. On a good weekday, she sees him in the morning from seven to seven-thirty (when she leaves for work), and then at night from six to seven-thirty (when Max goes to bed).
So when Mo is home, I try to stay out of their way a little bit. I mean, we have plenty of whole family fun, but when Mo is home and Max is awake I try to get work or chores done and let them have as much mommy-baby bonding time as possible. The responsibilities have been divvied up more by time slot than appropriateness.
Speaking of chores, when I was a kid, my mother took care of four kids and kept an immaculate house. I try to pick up but now that I’m home all day, my net contribution to household cleanliness is apparently negative. For the first time in our marriage we’ve had to hire a cleaning lady. Yes, not only have I quit my job, now that I’m home we’ve had to hire a woman to clean up after me. Actually, I’m happy to do my part, but apparently as a man, my understanding of “clean” is materially different from Mo’s.
KF: Yeah, we absolutely cannot keep our house clean, and said “Fuck it” pretty early on. There’s no sense in picking up the kid’s toys if he’s just going to haul them out again the next day. Which is the exact reason why I refused to clean my room when I was a kid. Man, I was born to parent.
TMN: How about some tasks that have turned out to be way more difficult than you anticipated? Or some things you’d never have expected to be so fun?
KG: I’m sore in unexpected places, “baby muscles” my wife calls them. My right shoulder feels like I’ve thrown 200 innings for the Cubs this season (this pain could be the onset of a heart attack, as well, but I’m going with the baby-lifting theory for now).
The things that are unexpectedly fun are the things that don’t sound much like fun, or wouldn’t have sounded much fun to me a year ago. I love taking long walks pushing him in a stroller, mostly because he likes them so much. He flirts with every woman and giggles and waves at every baby we see. These walks have also become the only exercise I get, the treadmill that I had once relied on for aerobic activity having been permanently archived once I realized the only time I can use it is when Max is asleep, but when Max is asleep I can’t be making that much noise. This inactivity heightens my concern about a heart attack.
MB: We haven’t vacuumed our house since 2003 for this very reason.
KG: Speaking of heart attacks, has anyone else noticed that fatherhood has turned them into a raving hypochondriac? I never worried about my health before I was a father and even went almost 10 years in my 20s and early 30s without a visit to the doctor. Now every morning I spend 15 minutes with the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide, self-diagnosing kidney stones and osteomalacia.
MB: Not so much a hypochondriac, but I have started wearing a seat belt regularly for the first time in my life. And, inexplicably, flossing.
KF: Hey me too! I floss every day now. What’s up with that? Flossing sucks.
FB: Many people may be dreaming about winning the lottery or traveling to a gorgeous destination, but my wife and I don’t need that much. We would just love to be able to sleep in one morning, just once, please, that’s not too much—both be able to stay in bed late on a rainy day and not have to worry about anything, just sleep, watch a movie, have breakfast, read a book, and much more, all in our comfy bed. We cannot really blame Leonard—he’s slept through the night since he was three months old—but he wakes up at 7-7:30, every morning!
Not having any family around is probably the most difficult thing. In the last year, we never ever had a single day just for the two of us, as a couple. (Though winning the lottery would be nice too.)
MB: Relaxing is more difficult with a child. I remember the first time we took our son on vacation, for instance. We spent our days making sure he was fed on time and always had a clean diaper and got plenty of naps—in other words, pretty much the exact same stuff we would have done at home. After about the third day it finally sunk in that, for the next 18 years, “vacation” just means “go to an exotic locale and still be a full-time parent.” I also find it hard to relax in regard to world events, now that I’m a father. Like, if someone I personally dislike were to get re-elected as president, to take a hypothetical example, I’d be less inclined to just shrug and say “oh, well” and more inclined to obsess about what kind of world my kid is going to get stuck living in.
While changing diapers will never qualify as “fun,” there was a period there when I got so good at it that I could do it in my sleep (and some night I may have). But having discovered the wonders of crawling, he now insists on being on his hands and knees at every waking moment, which means diaper-changing time has become an epic struggle between me trying to keep him on his back and baby trying to roll over onto his front. Yes, I outweigh him by about 140 pounds, but since he can devote all of his energy to squirming while I have to pin him down while also wrangling a diaper and a bottle of lotion, it’s works out to be a pretty even match-up. At times I think we should just cover the floor of our home with kitty litter and let the kid go au natural.
As for genuinely fun tasks, I always have fun giving the kid his bath. Given that I would happily go weeks without showering if my wife didn’t insist otherwise, I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy bathing a whole ‘nother person. But he has so much fun in the tub—splashing, chasing his rubber ducky, and trying to catch the soap bubbles I blow—it has rapidly become the highpoint of my day.
KF: The hardest thing for me is that I work full-time, so it’s just a constantly depressing thing to always be imagining how much I’m missing for those hours every week when we’re not together. And that feeds into the even larger difficult thing, which is the decision to have another kid or not.
I thought I would have that decided one way or another by now. I love my son so much, so I sometimes think: Man, two of these guys running around the house would be AWESOME. But on the other hand, I already feel like my son’s not getting enough time with me—would that feeling be exacerbated with another kid?
But as far as things I’d never expected to be so fun, just the whole thing, man. Even the worst day ever has something memorably worthwhile about it.
TMN: Finally, and in light of what Kevin just mentioned, here is the big question: how has fatherhood so far affected your thoughts on having even more children? Do you think you have enough time and energy for your son to have siblings?
MB: Before baby: “I want one kid.” After baby: “Yup, one sounds about right.”
When I told experienced parents we only intended to have one child, many said we could never do it. “You’ll enjoy fatherhood so much that you’ll want more than one,” they told me. Actually, though, I’m finding the opposite to be true: I love the little twerp so much that I want to devote myself to him and him alone.
Yes, I’m already romanticizing the day when he was brand-spankin’ new. And, in my crazier moments, I find myself wishing I could go through it all again. But then I remember that the only reason I can romanticize it is because I can’t remember more than 90 minutes of the first six months on account of sleep depravation, and quickly come back to my senses.
FB: Two questions come up (well, two of the many different things to consider):
- Do we want our child having no brothers or sisters to play with, growing up lonely between his two parents? No, my wife and I definitely want more kids. If so, then,
- Do we want to get back to sleepless nights, Diaper Genies (actually no, as I agree with Kevin’s point about their inefficiency), staying home again without enjoying bars or sleeping in (and you know how much I miss those), knowing that we are just getting out of it, or should we wait a few more years and really spend the time to enjoy our son and consider it much later?
One of my sisters told me once that a famous psychoanalyst says kids ideally should be at least seven years apart—I can’t remember exactly why, but I think it had to do with your paying enough attention to your kid for him not to turn out a depressed-sociopath-loser, and I think she agreed on that (I don’t know why: she has two kids two years apart). Waiting several years would mean that Leonard and his brother or sister wouldn’t really play together, but it would also mean that, as a teen, Leonard wouldn’t call him/her a “loser” and ask him/her to walk 20 feet away from him on the way to school (which the above-mentioned sister did to me). As far as going through the early days all over again, I think I would rather do it soon. So basically, we’re planning on having another baby pretty soon. And a third one? Well, let’s not do TOO much planning…We’ll see.
KG: The most frightening thing about a second baby for us is that Max has been so terrific. He is the most easy-going guy, he sleeps really well, has been healthy so far—not even catching our hacking, dripping, pussing colds. Anyway, Mo and I were both raised to believe that when something good happens, God will punish you for it. Our second child will almost certainly grow up to be a stripper/cannibal who invents airborne cancer.
KF: Same for us. My mom is always like, “Your son is so good. Your next one is going to be a monster. When are you having another one?”
KG: As for time and energy, when it comes to something as important as child-rearing, I think we all rise to the occasion. As the demands on us increase we dig deep down inside ourselves for the extra something we need to pull through. With a second child, I suspect that “extra something” will be a “Ukrainian nanny.”
Probably a long succession of nannies, as child number two will no doubt be killing them off one at a time with his Big Wheel.
KF: Like I said, there are just a lot of ins, a lot of outs. We actually just found out that my brother has a rare genetic disorder, which means I have to get tested for it, and so will my son. Which is just huge—if it turns out that I have it, does it mean we definitely shouldn’t have any more kids? That just seems completely unfair, and makes me actively want another.
Years ago I met a cab driver who had nine kids, and his position was basically that every kid increases the amount of love in your family. And in my few lucid moments, when my son isn’t screaming on the kitchen floor because I won’t let him put a Ginsu knife into the electrical outlet, I think: OK maybe that guy was on to something.