It used to be just the two of you. Now you have a baby, or maybe even a few kids, and the luxury of time—to frolic, talk, romance, and simply hang out—is gone, replaced by a big dose of chaos and the demands of little people who rule your home with small, adorable iron fists.
Parenthood brings changes to your relationship, changes that are at once profound, beautiful, irrevocable, and scary. These changes knock you off balance, forcing even the most secure couples to go back to the basics in figuring out how to define a new version of “we.”
In Blindsided by a Diaper, some of today’s most popular writers dare to tell what it’s really like for couples in the trenches of the parenting experience. They boldly reveal intimate aspects of their relationships, sharing the choices they’ve made, the joy and frustrations they’ve experienced, the trials and tribulations of their sex lives, the lessons they have learned, and how their lives together as parents may or may not be what they were expecting. The writers have quite literally invited you inside their bedrooms, their minds, and their lives as parents.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Part One: The Roles We Play
Being a Baby
By Nicholas Weinstock
They peer haughtily at us from bookstore shelves as we approach to beg their counsel. They loom over us in mighty stacks on our bedside tables, those tomes, those merciless manuals instructing us--it must be said--on what all walks of life have been doing for all of history without any written instruction. And yet we buy them. The baby books. We submit to their sternness, obediently dog-ear their pages, and we do so because they all teach us (despite the fervent differences in their teachings) a single lesson: Outward behavior is based on inner development. Behind the growing pains and growing assortment of child-rearing challenges is the phenomenon of actual growth. Our babies are changing in ways that are invisible to the naked eye, and it's a relief to flip pages that reveal the evolution beneath their surfaces. It's only a shame that not one of these books details the unseen developmental progress of the newborn dad.
Because the truth, new mothers, is that you've got two babies in your home. Sure, it looks like one: a single crib, one stroller in the hall and onesies in the drawer and one gurgling and burping focus to your life. But nearby is another clumsy new being struggling to evolve. Just as your child is making bodily progress amid the naps and tantrums that wouldn't necessarily suggest it, your husband is braving his way through a maze of new emotions and a tumult of conflicting feelings that generally go undiscussed. The man is being a baby, too. And only by looking at him as a baby--by examining the stages of his physical, cognitive, and linguistic development during this critical time--will you truly be able to understand him.
Of course, to the casual observer, he's busy being a dad. There he is, straight and tall, on board and on duty: changing the diapers, warming the bottles, or simply muttering encouragement at three A.M. before rolling over and returning to his REM cycle. He appears a willing partner in the chaos of caretaking that is now your life. And undoubtedly he is. But behind his heavy-lidded eyes, beneath that mussed hair, there is a secret and klutzy developmental process under way. It is a process marked by changing husbandly behaviors and the physiological developmental milestones that cause them. Let's go through them--in the tradition of best-selling baby books throughout the world--chronologically.
The Growth of the Spine
In Month Zero, we meet the husband at the first stage of his evolution. This is newborn man: naked in the world, working to belong, belonging to work, and somewhat, often secretly, adrift. He appears to have it all. Married, employed, and energized, he has a glowing future ahead of him. The next step, obviously, is to embrace that future by starting a family. But he is not quite ready. He loves you, sure. And of course he wants children. He sees the potential of a great and crowded household--he just isn't quite ready to seize it. After all, there are just a few things he intends to tick off his list before you get pregnant: big things, small things, vague and disturbingly elusive things. There are accomplishments to be accomplished, a place to be set. And there the guy falters, stuck in his ways.
The physiological reason for this behavior is simple. At this stage, the spine of the young husband has not formed. His backbone has not yet solidified, and as a result, his actions are flailing and tentative, skittish in the face of looming fatherhood and its unfathomable responsibilities and labors. Procreation, in his mind, is for when one is done with self-creation. He is happy to form another being with you as soon as he is done forming himself. And he's not quite there. He has not made enough money, accumulated enough potency, achieved a position in life comfortable enough to take a deep breath and take on more. He lacks the backbone that eventually will enable him to shoulder greater burdens. The good news, however, is that the growth of that backbone begins now.
I remember the stage well. I had married Amanda eagerly, gratefully, with none of the pre-ring jitters or time-honored foot dragging generally associated with the American male. Therefore, three years later, I myself was surprised by the foot dragging that ensued. She was ready for children. I was ready--sure, heck--to start to think about someday having them as well. After all, I thought, we were both full-time writers in hectic New York City, and some degree of fiscal and logistical stability had to be achieved. Maybe when I wrote and sold my second book: then might be a more reasonable time to start supporting dependents. Or else the novel after that (yes, right, a third book: stability), particularly if it sold to other countries (ah, international stability), would provide the kind of solid foundation on which a sprawling family could be heaped. Meanwhile, Amanda was baffled. We had talked eagerly about having kids since we'd met, and for me to put on the brakes for only the most general and nervous of reasons seemed to her like unnecessary stalling. Which, naturally, it was. I was an invertebrate, languid and jellyish, unable to stand up--regardless of timing and funding--for what I wanted.
What I had no way of knowing back then was that spines grow when called for. Life does not wait for babies, or ever lavishly provide for babies: babies just appear, rarely at the precise moment that you feel most serenely well-equipped but always with the magical ability to make you think they couldn't have come at a better time. Life bends, it turns out; it doesn't break. Rather than being shattered by the arrival of a new person, a loving home is miraculously bolstered by it, as is the power and posture of the man in its middle. The crashing entrance of our daughter Savannah in May of 2000--full years before we would have enough money for Manhattan school tuition, a month before my second book was due to the publisher's, and a week before we had gotten around to packing Amanda's hospital overnight bag--was perfect. Before she got here, I didn't have the backbone to see that the improvised half life Amanda and I had cobbled together could support, indeed deserved, another person. It took the birth of Savannah to teach me to stand tall.
In Month One, the father is in the full throes of early development. His world has changed dramatically, flabbergastingly, and as a result his physical capabilities are changing as well. Month One is when the growing husband first stretches to accomplish physical feats that mere weeks ago would have been impossible. Cognitive development is still many weeks away. Object recognition, or the ability to see and value what's in front of him, remains a skill of the future, as is the linguistic ability to discuss what he thinks. This is not a time for intricate thoughts and emotions. Month One is a stage of life exclusively devoted to manual labors for the man.
I, for one, was startled by the physical demands of Month One. The Olympic skill of cradling a human being while rhythmically bending both knees and singing baritone, it turns out, was only the beginning. One-handed bottle warming. Three-hour hallway pacing. Assembling seventy-piece cribs according to cartoon instructions in Swedish. Peeing while wearing a Baby Bjorn. Amanda, to be sure, was performing impressive tricks of strength and endurance daily; the difference was that in my case, it was all I could do. Not included in the emotional connectedness of breast-feeding, not quite a member of the warm partnership of two people who had shared the same body for the past year, I had no choice but to support my fledgling family through physical labors on their periphery. Luckily, I found I wanted to. I suppose this was a primal call of nature, a deep Darwinian instinct to lift, haul, and repair. Yet it was more than that. There was the relief of actual accomplishment. There was the sense that I was learning the hands-on mechanics of caring for someone, and that--like my baby--I was doing something new and doing it better every day.
The problem was that the physical outlet proved difficult to shut off. In fact, my manly manual efforts soon replaced my husbandly efforts to relate to and listen to my wife. Amanda was grateful for the assembled cribs and warmed bottles, but when every one of her attempts to talk about her maternal concerns about Savannah prompted me to embark on a macho solo mission of walking the baby around the block sixty-five times, Amanda was--despite the help--disappointed. Sometimes, she eventually had to explain to me, she just wanted to talk. Not every late-night baby concern was a call for me to build, break, or fix something. Many, rather, were opportunities for us to work together. In fact, that just might be the fun of it. Trickier to master than my stiff-lipped willingness to lend a hand was the need, every so often, to leave my hands by my sides.
So the baby graduates beyond the pleasure of getting physical to the deeper and lifelong pleasure of partnership.
The Dawn of Mobility
Month Six is an exciting stage in the development of the father. With the backbone intact and strong, and having mastered both manual tasks and their relinquishment, the man now becomes mobile. Gradually he learns to navigate the new landscape of his changed world: moving back and forth between mandatory activities, hustling off and hurrying back. Emboldened to leave the comfortable chaos of mother and child, he begins to wander once more--and to take baby steps toward the kind of independent masculine life he may have led, or aspired to, before. But these wobbly first steps often end in a crash. Such is the challenge, and the key developmental hurdle, of walking away.
Upon the arrival of our daughter, I got a steady job in an office--which provided both health insurance (the good news) and a reason that every day I had to leave home (the bad). This departure was excruciating at first; still, it was apparently how things were done, according to the hackneyed American tradition of the briefcase-wielding husband trudging off to work. I took some comfort in that old-fashioned blueprint for life, in that musty and corny tradition. I got used to it. But leaving the house for other reasons--for hobbies, for the hell of it, for get-togethers with goofball friends--was more confusing. I was mobile now, leaving home on a regular basis, but did that mean I could play basketball with the gang, as in the old days? And should I play one pickup game or four? I used to go fishing, which I now deemed categorically out of the question. But was it? Until when? I said no, as a matter of policy, to social invitations. But shouldn't I at some point see friends? Amanda was encouraging, but also confusing. She pushed me to keep my friendships alive, but plainly missed my help during the long evenings I wasn't there. I began not to believe her tired words of encouragement. I canceled all plans and was quietly disappointed that I had to. After all, the last thing I wanted to be, even briefly, was the kind of absent new father for whom a cold beer with a buddy took precedence over a warm diaper at home. But while Amanda appreciated the compromise, she also sensed that it was just that--a compromise--and the fact that I was silently yearning for greater freedom pissed her off.
I had learned to walk away from our baby girl and the full-time job of caring for her, but running back and forth between my old life and her new life proved harder still.
The truth, I gradually learned, is that you can do it all. Well, let me be clear: not all of it all, but rather a careful and timely selection of it all. What I came to understand after those staggering first six months of parenthood is that a guy doesn't have to quit every one of his previous habits and pursuits when he becomes a father. He simply must, like Noah selecting animals, choose the two he would like to survive. That's right: two. And keep in mind, work counts as one. For me, the second pursuit has rotated. Basketball fit the bill for a while, and now, perhaps temporarily, it's been replaced by softball. Poker, before the baby, was a growing obsession, as was painting, but they simply didn't make the cut. Two is the number, according to my years of painful research, when it comes to a husband's independent activities. And the discovery of this magic number came as a profound relief. I began to have fun outside the house, and to have the sort of balanced life--a life of friends and family, of unimportant extracurriculars and deep domestic satisfaction--that fills your days, fills your heart, and fills your wife with pleasure at your pleasure.
Learning to walk away was one thing. Choosing where to go was more difficult. Yet, then and now, the constant and the deepest comfort by far was and is the flooding pleasure of coming home.
The Communication Breakthrough
With the arrival of Month Twelve, we at last see the ability of the growing father to communicate. His physical development has been impressive: He has become both mobile and cognitively capable of deciding where to go; and now, for the first time, he can talk about it, too. Actual conversations become possible between husband and wife: candid admissions and genuine exchanges in place of the harried dumbness of the past year. He forms sentences of his own volition. He asks questions that resonate and make sense. The man is leaving the babyish stage of mute apprenticeship and inarticulate effort and, for the first time, seeing and speaking of things with perspective. This marks the end of the babyhood of your husband--and, more important, the beginning of his talking about the growth process himself.
For a year, there seemed to be no room for that. There was no time for my theories and queries about our evolving relationship as parents, no call for holding forth on life's (at least our life's) larger questions. Amanda was way ahead of me on this front. For her, part of living through that frenetic first year of parenthood was talking about it all the while: expressing worry, hazarding predictions, evaluating past decisions--not necessarily with any grand wisdom, but with the instinct to bring it all up. I, meanwhile, treated her talk more or less like the garbled squawking of a baby monitor: worthy of attention, even action, but generally a one-way conversation that required no articulate response.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. How do the “roles” that the two of you assume now that you are parents affect your relationship, your perspective of your partner and your view of yourself?
2. Is the division of labor between you and your partner what you expected?
3. In Elisha Cooper's Breastlessness he quips, “Women have breasts. Men don’t. All the trouble starts there.” Do you think parenthood “equality” is inherently not possible or do you think we can truly define our roles as we desire?
4. In what ways has having a child or children brought you closer together as a couple?
5. What is the biggest source of conflict between the two of you since becoming parents? The toughest stumbling block that you have encountered?
6. Has having children made you view each other differently? Do you relate to Beth Levine’s remark in Who Is That Guy?: “With one ferocious push of my womb, I no longer new my heart’s twin.”
7. How has your communication changed? Are you “harried with children” and struggling to connect? Which of the essays most closely resembles your communication with your partner now that you’re parents?
8. Do you catch yourself being … gulp… a nag?
9. Do you feel understood by your partner? Do you think you know and understand your partners concerns, fears and dreams now that he/she is a parent?
10. What’s your take on Susan Maushart’s statement: “Having a baby, I am convinced, doesn’t really change a couple for better or for worse. It simply makes you more of who you are. Peeling you back like a piece of fruit and showing how all the sections fit, and where the bruises are.”
11. In Lisa Earl McLeod’s Not Perfect but Lovin’ Him Anyway, she reveals something she read that hit her like a ton of bricks. “Apparently there are two primary factors that determine whether a marriage will improve or worsen after a baby. The first is the husband’s ability to put his own needs aside and support his wife in her new all-encompassing role. And the second is the wife’s ability to forget about the baby now and again and pay attention to the man.” How are the two of you faring in that department?
12. Have you talked about your dreams together lately? For 1 year, 5 years…10? Have those dreams changed now that you are parents? Are your dreams and aspirations in sync with one another?
13. How do you get around the inevitable time crunch of being a parent to focus on yourself? On your relationship?
14. Let’s talk sex…Which of the essays most closely resembles your sexual attitude lately?
15. Do you ever catch yourself letting intimacy with your kids replace intimacy with your partner?
16. How do you and your partners sexual expectations differ now that you’re parents?
17. What do you do to try to keep the romance alive?
18. What have you learned about your partner now that he/she is a parent? What have you learned about yourself?
19. What do you like the most about being parents together?
20. What do you miss about your pre-kids life together? How do you feel about this statement in Mike Finkel’s Welcome to the Babyhouse … “From the day we graduated high school until the day we had a child, my wife and I both felt as though our horizons were continuously expanding. Now we recognize that they’ve abruptly narrowed.”
21. In Our Life in Vermont, Dan Elish fantasizes about his future family life. Although the reality ends up being much different than the fantasy he says, “Speaking for myself, if I had known when I was single how rewarding it might be, I might have fantasized about that.” How does your fantasy and real family life compare and how do you feel about any disparity that may exist?
22. In Enemy at the Baby Gate, Lisa Unger concludes that she was prepared for everything BUT the love. How prepared were you as a couple heading into parenthood? Can you really be prepared? And has “the love” been what you expected?
23. Susan Cheever reflects, in The Dropped Ball, that “there were a thousand reasons to put my children before my marriage.” Are you doing that? Are you taking measures to ensure that ten years from you now you won’t regret dropping the ball?
24. Which of the Blindsided by a Diaper essays spoke most directly to you and why?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If the usual parenting books leave you feeling like you're lacking in parenting skills, then this book is a must buy. The usual patronising advice has been discarded in favor of real life stories from both mothers and fathers. These peeks into parents personal lives are both funny and sad but all of them are up-front and honest.