Even at the best of times, I’m not the most graceful or coordinated person in the world. My efforts aren’t always pretty; my reasoning isn’t always clear; straightforward tasks occasionally confuse me. All of these are exaggerated at night.
Naturally, that’s when a lot of parenting happens, especially at the beginning. For the first several months, my daughter used to wake me up for food two or three times a night. (I tried to let my wife sleep, because she’d already done nine months of work.) She’s still alive, so I guess I fed her, but we were probably both a little relieved when we moved out of that stage of our relationship. Of course I only felt that way because I didn’t realize what was about to start; in retrospect, feeding seemed so simple.
Not long after my daughter discovered mobility, she invented a game. By that point we had moved her into a crib in her own room, and she didn’t want to be there. A part of her distress was our fault–we had created some bad sleep habits–but the rest was just normal baby insecurity. She didn’t want to be in a room by herself, so she invented a means of getting us to visit.
Her game was a bit like fetch, except that in fetch the person hopes the dog finds the stick. Instead she would throw her pacifier with such skill and ingenuity that her groggy father would have to hunt around for it, and I’m pretty sure that she was rooting against me. I started to call it the pacifier game. I would hear the clackety-rattle of her pacifier bouncing its way into hiding, and I would know that our game had begun. (At sporting events people cheer when the game starts; I never cheered.)
She had three distinct advantages, over and above the fact that I was three-quarters asleep. First, it was dark. Some book or another had counseled against turning on lights in the middle of the night, because they might wake a baby up further. I tried to be a good parent and follow that advice, but I think it must have been penned by someone who either never had children or who owned night-vision goggles. I’m pretty sure that thumping around under my daughter’s crib while she cried for her pacifier didn’t do anything to keep her sleepy.
Second, she had an uncanny arm. Considering that she sometimes acted as though the presence of her own arms surprised her, she could use them in alarming ways. She would throw her pacifier across the room, put spin on it so that it would end up under or behind obstacles, and generally arrange for it to be in one of the places that I had ruled out at first because they looked impossible. “There’s no way it could be behind that chair under a blanket.” Wrong again, silly father!
Third, her pacifier was clear. I don’t have any clue why we thought that was a good idea. In what situation might it be important for her pacifier to be hard to see? I challenge anyone to tell me that.
My wife and I eventually convinced her to sleep through the night without such shenanigans, but she was nearly a year old before she succumbed. That was when the third phase of night-time parenting began: the surreptitious diaper change.
You see, my daughter always…. There’s not a good way to put this delicately.
Even moreso than throwing a pacifier, if filling a diaper were an Olympic sport, my daughter would have overwhelmed all contenders and won gold. If there were pageants for toddlers in saggy pants rather than tiaras, my daughter could have made a fortune. I don’t keep a shotgun for scaring away potential suitors, I keep diaper stories. They’re that impressive.
Thus it became critical for us to change her diaper in the middle of the night. The trick was to do it without waking her up.
I like to think that I’m pretty good with diapers. Of my wife and I, I was the one who came into parenthood with diaper changing experience. It’s not even a task I mind; I’d rather do it than wash dishes, for example. In the middle of the night though, I became like a clown in a circus act who fails at obvious life choices. It got to the point where I would hear calliope music whenever I went to her room.
I once got her neatly back into her pajamas without replacing the dirty diaper I had removed. If I hadn’t noticed at the last minute that her pajamas didn’t seem bulky enough at the bottom, the next morning could have been rough.
I once started a change before realizing that I had neither a diaper nor baby-wipes to finish it. I can barely solve puzzles in the daytime, so I’ll let you imagine how well that story ended.
I once carefully changed her diaper without realizing that she had seized the opportunity of its momentary absence to create a puddle in her changing area. I just thought the world looked shiny until I picked her up and discovered the corresponding moist heat.
I once put her diaper on inside out. (Our brand of diapers is apparently only absorbent in one direction, for the record.) I once took off her pajamas and threw them out, just because I did the steps of the process in the wrong order. (That turned into a very confusing night.) I once entirely forgot what I was doing in her room, so I found myself holding a baby and didn’t know why.
I only woke my daughter about half the time however. I have skills; what can I say?
I sometimes joke that God says from heaven, “Not enough people are awake to appreciate the beautiful work I do at night.” Then he sends babies and the problem is solved. I admit that I tended to appreciate his work grudgingly, but there are some things that I’m glad I didn’t miss.
For example, my daughter has always been as good at sleeping in cute ways as she has been at giving me complicated nighttime tasks. I remember all the different ways I’ve seen her curled or stretched, and all the different ways she’s stuck her body parts in the air, and it amazes me how much she managed to express her personality even while asleep.
And of course she gave me so many entirely precious looks. I know that eventually I’m going to stop being the primary man in her life, and long before then she’ll probably realize that I can’t solve every problem and make everything better. I’m glad that, for at least a little while, I was and could.
Sure I might have liked it all better had it happened during the day time, but in a few years, while I may still joke about the exhaustion, I won’t really remember it. I’ll always remember the little special moments that exhaustion bought me, though.