Ridiculous Thing #17: “Stimulating Activities”

When I start feeling sorry for myself about what a big shock it is becoming a parent, or going from one kid to two, I try to imagine what the first few days of life are like for a newborn. I picture it as being like going suddenly from life in an animated cartoon to 3D live-action. It’s not just that the details of your experiences change: your whole frame of reference for what exists is just exploded and replaced by something new and totally unanticipated. It must be the greatest existential crisis of human life (…though I suppose there are lots of people who tell us there’s such a thing as a similar transformation at the other end of life…). Either that, or I have watched Enchanted too many times (…though I suppose there’s lot of people who tell us there’s no such thing as watching Enchanted too many times…). Anyhow. Thinking like this was my way of trying not to be so weirded out by my brand new baby.

It’s easy to expect too much of a newborn. With The Bird, I got myself into a lather of sadness over the fact that though most babies have crying licked from the moment they emerge, none of them really smiles for at least the first month (and sometimes significantly longer). It broke my heart to think that sadness is more fundamental than happiness. (Of course, it’s not quite that simple – crying and smiling are ways of signalling, not basic feelings, so an unsmiling young baby can be perfectly content. Interesting to wonder though whether “happiness” as we would recognise it always starts out as a social interaction.) Looking at my newborns, little human burritos warm in their swaddling blankets, I found it impossible to imagine walking, talking humans ever emerging from them. The conclusion I came to, then, was that I would have to coax such humans out of these squidgy beginnings. If they were going to learn anything, I’d have to teach it to them. They’d have to be Stimulated and Inspired and Exposed To Learning Experiences. That’s the sort of sentiment that has you out doing baby groups and activities with a three-week-old baby who, frankly, can’t yet see as far as their own fingertips.

One of the franchised baby activity groups running in our area liked to spam local Facebook parenting groups with an image promising that 90% of babies who attended their sessions met developmental milestones early. Hurray, right? But babies have developmental milestones for every single damn thing. Bringing their fingers together, holding their heads up, eye contact, sleeping, cooing, rolling over, cutting teeth; the works. These milestones span such a broad range that it is near certain that your child will be later than average at some things, and earlier than average at others. Grab a control group of kids who didn’t attend this group, and I’d be astonished if nearly all of them (say, around 90%?) didn’t hit at least one milestone early (and others late). This whole problem points, for me, to the error in thinking that you have to get your baby out to groups to stimulate them: for newborn babies, simply existing is pretty darn stimulating. Developing is literally all there is for them to do. In their pre-birth cartoon world, there was no day and night, for example, so that’s a pretty mind-blowing thing to have to suss out. There were no faces (twins and more excepted), and just staring at those takes up just about all the mental processing power they have. Temperature changes; those are a big one to have to figure out. Being dry as opposed to wet. Colours. A breeze on the skin. Things having a smell. It is all new, and it is all totally unanticipated and completely dumbfounding. Whether or not someone is there singing you a rhyming song and performing makaton while you try to adjust to all this is kind of the least of your newborn concerns.

Eye contact: it happens in the end...
Eye contact: it happens in the end…

There’s a blog post on this theme that I really like, The Fourth Trimester, that sums this all up: “the first three months of a baby’s life are like a fourth trimester…If I just let him live his life like he’s still in the womb my life will become way less complicated.” There is a lot of very good sense in that post, on the implications of giving your baby that extra time to adjust, like a rehabilitating ex-con, to life on the outside. Don’t worry about creating bad habits; don’t beat yourself up about routines. Do what you gotta do to get through the days. And definitely don’t fuss about taking them out to activity groups. So, having taken that all on board, I definitely didn’t bother with groups with my second, right?

We were at Stay and Play when he was twelve days old.

So YES I have a toddler to entertain too, but in fact on the days she goes to the childminder I am still out at groups. (In fact, I am at groups being furtive in case the toddler shows up there with the childminder, and becomes infuriated that I am doing fun things without her.) That’s because life at home with a newborn is, at times, wall-climbingly claustrophobic. While you’re waiting for them to hit all those milestones, by logical inference you are stuck at home with someone who cannot roll over, coo, make eye contact, etc., let alone converse intelligently on whether Masterchef is deliberately trolling us with all these avocado recipes. So as nice as it might sound to lie around watching TV while the baby sleeps on your chest, in reality the appeal of that palls rather quickly. And that, of course, is if you have the kind of baby who is content to let you do things like watching TV. Babies like that are, in my experience, disappointingly rare. More common are babies who scream at you while you attempt fruitlessly to achieve basic household tasks. As it happens, I feel that I’ve kind of won the baby lottery this time around, in that The Bee is totally chill with comprising the entire audience for a matinee performance of Mummy Sings The Cole Porter Songbook While Scrubbing The Bathroom. The newborn Bird was not like that. The Bird considered it the height of insolence for me to indulge myself in such pursuits as attempting to eat a sandwich, use the lavatory, or do anything that didn’t involve striding purposefully while she nestled against my chest and glared out belligerently at the world. I’m trying to make this sound funny, but in reality it was soul-destroying. At home she screamed for hours, cried for reasons I could never fathom, and never slept. So we went out. Bars didn’t want us, libraries seemed somehow like a poor choice, so baby groups it was. Baby groups, you see, offer six things you’ll find essential in the postpartum period:

  1. Other adults. These serve to supply sympathy, conversation, and reminders that you have capabilities beyond the management of others’ bodily fluids.
  2. Distraction for the baby, who may be diverted sufficiently to occasionally stop yelling.
  3. Distraction for you, so that even if she in fact cries just as much as she does at home it might not make you want to claw your ears off.
  4. Rooms you are not responsible for cleaning. There’s little so maddening as being placed in front of chores that need doing, but obstructed from doing them by a baby who won’t let you (a) stand up, (b) sit down, or (c) bend over. Going out doesn’t get your housework done, but it does provide you with an hour when you don’t need to feel guilty about that.
  5. Biscuits.
  6. Kindness. At groups, people will tell you your baby is gorgeous. For a minute, you may even get to glimpse your baby through those other people’s eyes: as a small scrap of promise, not just the mad little dictator of your world.

No, my newborns did not learn to baby-sign like champs, or develop a more refined aesthetic sensibility from staring at coloured lights and unseasonal tinsel, or bud as future Mozarts through early exposure to Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush. But going out to groups is one Ridiculous postpartum Thing that I am more than happy to recommend to anyone.

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Ridiculous Thing #17: “Stimulating Activities”

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