Thursday, June 10, 2010

My 10-week-old teacher

I'm back from the various abysses that had consumed me!

As I mentioned here before, last week I stayed with my sister and brother-in-law and their 10-week-old daughter, my only niece, She of the Smoochably Chubby Cheeks.

I have what I had thought is a non-negligible amount of childcare experience: I started babysitting for a couple of local families when I was 11 years old (and got certified in a Red Cross Babysitter course. I earned a little lapel pin in the shape of a teddy bear for that class). I later worked for three summers as a camp counselor, wrangling groups of Girl Scouts in steamy Southern Ohio weather. I was trusted enough to teach archery, even - though the arrow points weren't all that sharp.

It might be fair to point out that I haven't done much childcare since I was about 17 years old - 10 years ago. I still think of myself as a high-energy person, but after last week I think I understand better why one of my co-workers insists (in jest... I think) that teenagers should be the surrogate mothers for the whole population, because they have the energy to manage babies.

People, a 10-week-old child is exhausting.

My niece is going through a bit of a fussy phase, and I had to remind myself many times that she has DOUBLED IN SIZE in two months, from a 5.4 pound newborn to a 10-pound, 4 ounce baby. I can't imagine what it must feel like for one's body to be doing that much growing and changing that rapidly - probably pretty uncomfortable, right? Of course. Hence the crying.

She's usually just fine if she's being held while someone is walking or bouncing or patting her back while talking to her. She's in the best mood if someone is doing all of that at the same time, she just ate, and her diaper is clean. This is all simple enough, but to do this routine for HOURS is tiring fairly quickly.

Her cuteness is a double-edged sword. One afternoon, when she'd just woken up from a nap (taken, like many naps that week, on me), I was playing with sunlight and shadows to entertain her. She can see contrasts now - dark colors catch her gaze, and she looks mesmerized. So I was moving my face into and out of the sunlight that streamed through the window. She quietly watched, rapt, while this happened, and then after a few moments of this she looked me in the eyes and smiled a broad, toothless smile. A look of pure joy.

Which made me cry.

Yes, it was Friday afternoon - the end of a long week of night shifts and diaper changes - but I think even if I wasn't tired I would have been touched by her smile. She's just beautiful: chubby cheeks (did I mention those already?), big blue eyes, button nose. When people compliment my sister on her beautiful baby, they're not being polite - she's quite lovely.

Which is why, when she's in the troes of a red-faced, clenched-fist, bloodcurdling screaming crying jag, it is deeply upsetting, but not in the way I expected.

My not-yet-in-love-with-this-baby self thought that her crying would be annoying because it's loud and I like my quiet, or it's in the middle of night and I like my sleep. She'd be an inconvenience when she cried. Once I spent some time with the kid, though, her moments of upset were disturbing on a completely different level, one that's hard to explain. She's done nothing wrong, she's an innocent babe, and she's suffering. I just want her to be happy - and I realized at some point that wanting her to be happy didn't have much at all to do with wanting ME to be happy. I found myself willingly changing pooey diapers because she tends to make a satisfied coo when her bum is clean and dry and newly be-diapered. The coo is cute, but it's also correct.

Does that make sense?

When she's smiling away it's like a corner of the universe is in proper order.

I think that's getting at it.

Children should be safe and clean and warm and loved - and they should know it. It's frustrating to be faced with a wee baby who can't know this yet: dozens of people love her immensely. Her parents are crazy about her. She's wanted and protected, but she'll only know this with time and the patience of all the adults around her.

When I described that smiling moment in the sunshine to another one of my co-workers, who is herself a mother, she said, "and that's the second you could have slayed any dragon, right?"

That about sums it up. I'd stop a train for that kid.

I thought I was being a bit histrionic, but fortunately Pioneer Woman helped me feel less crazy when she posted about her nephew recently here. A similar sentiment - she's not my baby, but at this point she's not not my baby. Sort of.

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