When my sister had her second child, my mother joked that she’d given birth at the perfect time — giving us a newborn to play with just as the eldest developed beyond the “cute baby” stage. She obviously didn’t mean it, but I still thought it was a pretty naff thing to say — until I was confronted with a baby of our own.
Babies are constantly and rapidly developing, usually along a surprisingly predictable cycle with periodic “leaps” not unlike a software upgrade release schedule. It’s tempting to treat them as amendments to simple logic boxes: if the baby is in condition foo and I respond with input bar then he will happily produce output baz, and I will be a Good Parent. Of course the rules will vary with each “leap”, but there are rules, so as long as I remember to study, they should be easy enough to follow. Right?
Well, no, obviously. But it’s true enough that knowing the “rules” for a spherical baby in a vacuum can make a great starting point for learning what your real life baby needs, when combined with close observation and patience. And so we scrutinised and memorised his every movement and built a list of inputs and outputs from a combination of medical advice and trail and error. When he makes this noise and moves his head against your chest it means he’s hungry, unless he also kicks out his legs, in which case it means he wants to go to sleep, unless he immediately follows it with that noise and blows bubbles, which means he wants to play but needs help distracting him from the pain of teething, unless …
And then a leap occurs and the rules change. But those “rules” are actually the wants and needs of a growing baby, fundamental changes to the personality of a tiny human we very much want to get to know. The bold, inquisitive explorer who poked his head towards every strange corner of the world and peered dimly ahead in hopes of divining what was out there can now clearly see the terrifyingly large and busy world, and he now seeks the comfort and safety of hiding in our arms. As we leap through more and more fundamental personality shifts, I can’t help but miss the versions of him that we’ve left behind.
I am beginning to feel that to be a parent, or otherwise closely associated with a newborn, is to pass repeatedly through phases of confusion, reaffirmation, comfort, and loss. Every few weeks we meet our baby anew, and we mourn the one we had just started to understand. I don’t want to replace him with a younger model, and I certainly don’t want to arrest his development, but I do grieve for the baby I had known, and I don’t know how to feel about that.
With each leap our baby becomes more complex, more expressive, more himself. That is undeniably a Good Thing. It may well be the single coolest thing about being a parent. But I also quite liked knowing the exact places to tickle him for the biggest smiles; the perfect way to hold him while rocking him to sleep; exactly how much milk to set aside of an afternoon.
I can’t help but wish we had a little more time to get to know each version of him before the next upgrade comes along.