My baby girl turned one year old last week. When she was born she was a tiny, mewling 5 pounds, 8 ounces. Today she’s almost 25 pounds of dancing, laughing, clapping, waving, jabbering baby. Her first word was “up!” (always delivered with an exclamation point, as in “Stand me up!”) and continues to be the word she says the most, alongside “Mama” and “pup-pup” (short for her beloved stuffed puppy).
I hate to be that boring, cliché parent marveling at how big her kid has gotten. But this past year has been almost as transformative for me as it’s been for my daughter.
Let’s rewind to 12 months ago.
The moment she entered the world, my daughter let loose a series of healthy wails—”Waah! Waah! Waah!”—just like you see in the movies. But she was five weeks early, and fluid in her lungs caused respiratory problems common to preemies. As a result, she spent the first week of her life hooked up to breathing and feeding tubes in a babywarmer in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at the hospital. My wife recovered from her surgery in a room about 100 feet away.
During that week, I’m pretty sure I left my entrails on the floor of the hospital hallway that connected their rooms. When the two most important people in your life go through a trauma together that leaves them both hooked up to machines in hospital beds, it’ll take the stuffing out of you.
I spent Etta’s first night in this world sitting by her NICU bed, staring at her. It was torture not being able to hold her; cuddling could overstimulate her and worsen her breathing problem. The nurse suggested that I lay my hands on the soles of her feet to soothe her, because it would make her feel like she was still in the womb. So I’d put my hands on the pads of her tiny feet and apply gentle pressure until her knees bent. After a few minutes she’d kick back out at me, straightening her spindly but strong little legs. Then we’d do it again.
That was the first game we ever played, at about 4am on September 19th, 2012. We still play it on her changing table today.
Once we got Etta home from the hospital, stress levels lowered. We hosted family and friends, watched YouTube videos on how to spongebathe a newborn, shopped for and assembled baby gear, and tried to take naps whenever we could.
Over those first weeks, the sheer volume of gifts, cards, meals, visits, phonecalls, tweets, Skype sessions, and well-wishes we received was off the charts. The baby brought on an unprecedented explosion of love in our life from every angle.
On Etta’s third day of life, I received this text message, the most poetic thing my oldest brother has ever said to me:
Your world has just begun a new orbit. Welcome to planetary existence. She is a beautiful Sun!
My wife had three months of family leave from her job to stay home with the baby. Before we knew it, it was almost over, and it was time to make hard decisions about childcare.
We never planned for either of us to be stay-at-home Moms. We both love our jobs and have career ambitions which conveniently align with our goal of paying the bills. My mother set an example of a working woman who loved her career for me, and I want to do the same for my daughter. We want Etta to be exposed to other children and trusted adults. We believe that “it takes a village.” Hiring a nanny or doing daycare of some sort was always the plan.
The month before my wife’s leave was up, we toured several daycares and preschools and group childcare providers—and, to our surprise, I was a wreck. This is one of the things about parenthood that’s thrown me: sometimes, emotions factor more heavily than logic. We found a school we absolutely love. My head knew she’d do well there. My heart, however, said it was all wrong. Sitting in that office, starting the enrollment paperwork, I felt like my chest was in a vice. The baby isn’t ready, I told myself. The tears were right behind my eyes. She isn’t ready.
The truth was: I wasn’t ready.
After a long talk, we decided I’d be the baby’s primary daytime caregiver when my wife went back to work. We could only pull this off because I didn’t have a traditional 9 to 5. I’d been hustling doing part-time gigs while my cofounder and I bootstrapped our company, and it looked like we’d be doing that for the foreseeable future.
So I stayed home with my daughter for the next six months. That time was so special, and yet so difficult.
Many mornings I’d wake up at 5am to record a podcast, answer email, do business calls to the East coast, and write code before my wife left for the office at 8. When she got home from work, I’d go back to it, sometimes through the night, and would often work weekends as well. If I wasn’t with the baby I was at my keyboard, which got pretty exhausting pretty fast. Eventually we hired two wonderful sitters who helped relieve the pressure, and taught me I could feel good about someone other than me or my wife caring for the baby.
I found being home taking care of my daughter extremely satisfying, educational, exhausting, and mind-numbing, depending on the moment of the day. The best parts were long naps with Etta on my chest in the recliner after her bottle. Seeing her smile for the first time. Tickling her on the changing table. Watching her react to her first taste of mango. Even learning how to deal with an explosive diaper in the middle of the grocery store, while unpleasant, felt good—because I was leveling up in my new role as Mama.
The worst days involved realizing that we’d played all Etta’s favorite games, sung all her favorite songs, read all her favorite books, and there were still four more hours before Mommy got home. When you’re an introvert whose job has always been to read, write, think, analyze, and create logical workflows with abstract data objects, caring for an infant is extra taxing. You have to turn up your nurturing instincts to 11 and turn down your intellectual life to 1. Your job is to be a full-time rocker, feeder, diaper-changer, narrator, spit-up cleaner, singer, and one-sided conversationalist. Many days I couldn’t wait to put her down for a nap so I could have a break. Then, when she did go down, I’d hover over her crib, missing her and wishing her awake.
Even though we both knew it would affect our work together, my cofounder was deeply understanding about the situation. He cheerfully rescheduled calls, patiently waited for email replies, never commented when they came at 3am, and didn’t get resentful when I had to dash out of a meeting to pay the babysitter. (Note to aspiring founders: If you’re a parent, you’ll do well if your cofounder is one, too.)
In the end, the crazy schedule, the leaning on my business partner to be supernaturally understanding, learning firsthand how difficult full-time Mamahood is, and putting off daycare was the right decision for us. Etta and I bonded in a powerful way, and I became more confident and competent as a parent.
When we did start Etta in group childcare at nine months old, it wasn’t easy, but we were all much more prepared. Despite the sniffles, coughs, and ear infections that come with playing with other babies every day, she has blossomed. In just a few months she’s become so much more social, physical, and verbal thanks to her wonderful teachers and classmates at school.
Now we’re here, at one year old.
Etta is a completely different person than she was when she was born, and so am I. She has taught me so much in her first four seasons on this planet.
I have a whole new awareness of the depth and intensity of my parents’ love for me, and everything they had to do in order to keep me alive, content, and healthy. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.) I truly get now that the best-laid plans are meaningless in the face of your own instincts about what’s right for you and your family in the moment. My perception of “the future” is no longer bounded by my own life and death, but extends to Etta’s life when I’m gone, and even her potential child’s life. I feel a new urgency to do meaningful work, and to spend time on the things that are worth it, because any time I’m not with Etta has to be time spent well enough to justify that.
If this is all the stuff my daughter’s done for me in her first year, I can’t even imagine what’s in store.
Happy birthday, baby girl.