Things My Baby Daughter Taught Me

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 16th 2013.  A portion from the end of it was published as one of my columns in the Daily Press.)

Reading: “For Those Thinking of Having Children”

Our reading is one of those things that gets e-mailed from one person to another, or posted by one person to another on Facebook, until it’s not clear where it came from or who originally wrote it.  I imagine that it’s most often sent by those who are already parents to those who are not yet parents, usually with a knowing comment such as “You’ll find out this is 100% true!”

Here, then, are ten lessons for those thinking of having children.

Lesson One: Household Finances

Go to the grocery store.  Arrange to have your salary paid directly to their head office.  Go home.  Pick up the paper.  Read it for the last time.

Lesson Two: Giving (and Receiving) Advice

Find a couple who already are parents and berate them about their methods of discipline, their lack of patience, their appallingly low tolerance levels and the fact that they allow their children to run wild.  Suggest ways in which they might improve their child’s breastfeeding, sleep habits, toilet training, table manners, and overall behavior.  Enjoy it because it will be the last time in your life you will have all the answers.

Lesson Three: Night-time Schedules

Get home from work and immediately begin walking around the living room from 5pm to 10pm carrying a wet bag weighing approximately eight to twelve pounds and with a radio turned to static (or some other obnoxious sound) playing loudly.  Eat cold food with one hand for dinner.  At 10pm, put the bag gently down, set the alarm for midnight, and go to sleep.  Get up at twelve and walk around the living room again, with the bag, until 1am.  Set the alarm for 3am.  Since you can’t get back to sleep, get up at 2am, make a drink and watch an infomercial.  Go to bed at 2:45am.  Get up at 3am when the alarm goes off.  Sing songs quietly in the dark until 4am.  Get up.  Make breakfast.  Get ready for work and go to work — work hard and be productive!  Repeat these steps each night for three to five years.  Look cheerful and together.

Lesson Four: Child-Oriented Redecorating

Smear peanut butter onto the sofa and jam onto the curtains.  Hide a piece of raw chicken behind the stereo and leave it there all Summer.  Stick your fingers in the flower bed, then rub them on the clean walls.  Take your favorite book, photo album, etc., and wreck it.  Spill milk on your new pillows and cover the stains with crayons.

Lesson Five: Dressing a Small Child

Buy an octopus and a small bag made out of loose mesh.  Attempt to put the octopus into the bag so that none of the arms hang out.  Time allowed for this: all morning.

IMAG0587Lesson Six: Feeding a Small Child

Hollow out a melon and make a small hole in the side.  Suspend it from the ceiling and set it swinging.  Now get a bowl of soggy Cheerios and attempt to spoon them into the swaying melon by pretending that the spoon is an airplane.  Continue until half the Cheerios are gone.  Tip most of what’s left into your lap.  The rest, just throw into the air.

Lesson Seven: Auditory Resilience

Make a recording of Fran Drescher saying “mommy” repeatedly.  It is important to have no more than a four-second delay between each “mommy”.  An occasional crescendo to the level of a supersonic jet is required.  Play this in your car everywhere you go for the next four years.

Lesson Eight: Adult Conversations

Start talking to an adult of your choice.  Have someone else continually tug on your clothing while playing the “mommy” recording from the previous lesson.

Lesson Nine: Vehicle Maintenance

Buy a chocolate ice cream cone and put it in your car’s glove compartment.  Leave it there.  Get a dime and stick it in the CD player.  Take a family size package of chocolate cookies and mash them into the back seat.  Sprinkle Cheerios all over the floor, then smash them with your foot.  Run a garden rake along both sides of the car.

IMAG0378Lesson Ten: Grocery Shopping

Go to the local supermarket.  Take with you the closest thing you can find to a pre-school child — a full-grown goat is an excellent choice.  (If you intend to have more than one child, then definitely take more than one goat.)  Buy your week’s groceries without letting the goat out of your sight.  Pay for everything the goat eats or destroys.

Sermon: “Things My Baby Daughter Taught Me”

Today is my first Father’s Day.  A couple of years ago I had no idea I’d now be a father — it’s amazing how much life can change in just two years!  And they’ve been two years that have somehow gone by very quickly, too.

I am loving it, of course.  For all that I feel exhausted almost all the time, for all that I don’t get to read the newspaper anymore or that dressing Olivia really is like wrestling an octopus into a mesh bag or that our living room is now wall-to-wall toys — or that I sometimes find myself humming the obnoxious tunes that said toys play over and over again — I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Lots of people, of course, have been giving us advice of varying degrees of helpfulness.  Many of the more dire predictions concern what our lives will be like when Olivia’s a teenager, but Allison and I keep reminding ourselves that we still have another decade or so of relative sanity ahead of us.

Life, of course, is famous for failing to come with an instruction manual, and the chapter that’s the most missing is undoubtedly the one on parenting.  Oh, there are experts and classes, of course.  Allison and I dutifully attended the series of childbirth classes offered by Mary Immaculate, learning about the stages of labor, techniques for relaxation, the importance of breathing, and so on.  As it happened none of that helped, because at twenty-five weeks Olivia apparently decided she was going to sit upright for the rest of the pregnancy and was eventually delivered by scheduled Caesarian section.  Since Olivia’s head was measured in the ninety-ninth percentile, though, that was the only way she was going to come out.

Now there are some helpful resources on parenting.  For instance, I was recommended a book by pediatrician Harvey Karp called The Happiest Baby on the Block, which explains the consequences of the fact that there really ought to be a fourth trimester of pregnancy.  For those women who’ve had children and just broke out into a cold sweat at the thought of there having been a fourth trimester, I apologize!  Dr. Karp argues that there’s so much developing that newborns do during their first three months that it’s like a fourth trimester, only it takes place outside the womb.

For instance, Olivia had a mild case of hip dysplasia when she was born, given that she hit the trifecta of being Allison’s first child, being a girl, and being in the breech position for the last fifteen weeks before birth.  Thankfully it was only mild, so keeping her in two diapers and swaddling her tightly at night for the first couple of months was enough for her hip joint to finishing developing correctly.

And we saw with our own eyes how much Olivia changed outwardly during the three months after birth, too, not just growing in size but transforming from primarily reflex-driven behaviors to an emerging consciousness with more awareness and control of herself and her surroundings.  It was actually amazing to me, during those early weeks of not enough sleep and irregular meals, that it was possible to calm Olivia and get her to sleep by following Dr. Karp’s advice in regard to those newborn reflexes, particularly in terms of what Karp calls the five “S”s.

After all, before being born, the baby pretty much fills the uterus.  Being out in the open where, as one parenting blog put it, the arms and legs are free to flail around “like an octopus on meth”, well, that can be scary.  So the first “S” is swaddling.  While that helped fix her hip dysplasia, as I said, it was a struggle to maintain it as Olivia grew.  That’s because she’s on the long side and the swaddle wraps that are made with the Velcro and so on are apparently designed for babies who are shaped like miniature sumo wrestlers.  Thankfully tucking her into her cradle had much the same effect.

Another “S” is shushing, or really any white noise, that mimics the sounds made by the blood flow and other bodily functions going on around the uterus.  And the shushing can be loud.  You can apparently get an idea of what it sounds like to be in the womb by filling your bath-tub with water, turning on the taps full blast and then sticking your head under the water.  After being born, then, a baby’s world is too cold, too bright and way too quiet.  One night, when Olivia just wouldn’t settle down and go to sleep, I moved her cradle into the kitchen and started the dishwasher running.  Now we don’t have a quiet dishwasher, but that was good, because to Olivia the racket it makes was apparently the sweetest lullaby.

Then there’s the “S” of swinging, which is mimicking the rocking motion that is felt in the womb when the mother is moving around.  We had this swinging cradle for Olivia that was a life-saver for us.  We tried a few times in those first few months to transition her to her crib, but she wouldn’t sleep, even when the swaddling didn’t fall off her.  So when the motor on the swing broke, we despaired of ever sleeping again.  I think Allison actually cried.  Thankfully we survived long enough to get the replacement motor that Fisher-Price sent us, and, once it was installed and the swing was working again, there was much rejoicing.

There are, though, a number of things I’ve noticed or wondered about, some from when Allison was pregnant and many from since Olivia was born.  As I said a couple of weeks ago, being a parent and playing with Olivia and reading to her and so on means that, in a way, I’ve been doing some teaching at home, but I know I’ve learned a lot more from her than she’s learned from me.

Here, for instance, is something my baby daughter taught me even before she was born, as we were getting ready for her arrival.  There it is, in fact: we use some weird euphemisms, like “arrival”, to talk about birth.  It makes it sound like we expect babies to show up on a baggage claim carousel at the airport.  Or we talk about a child “coming into this world”.  That would imply that the womb is in another dimension, outside the Universe, and the birth canal is some sort of hyperspace portal.  When all of us so readily use bizarre language like that in everyday conversation, I guess it’s not surprising that politicians keep creating bizarre legislation to control women’s bodies.  Maybe they think trans-dimensional aliens might use women’s “hyperspace portals” to invade the Earth otherwise.

484106Then there’s something Allison had told me about, having had more recent baby experience than me with all of the younger cousins on her side of the family, but I don’t think I believed her until I saw it with my own eyes.  And that’s what Allison calls “gas face”.  Yes, apparently babies, a month or two old, will smile, quite serenely, while passing gas.  Now when she was older Olivia would smile when she saw us — and I have to tell you, nothing else has ever made me feel as good as peeking my head around the door of her bedroom in the morning and seeing her, when she sees me, breaking into a big smile — and then, when she was a little older than that, she started smiling when she saw the cats.  Apparently it took her a while to figure out that cats are not just mobile furniture.  But before any of that, there was “gas face”, so I have to wonder what that implies for actual smiles.  Perhaps there’s something back in our hominid evolution where smiling meant “I’m so happy to see you that it feels as good as when I pass gas.”

Here’s another thing my baby daughter taught me.  It’s very hard to spoon-feed someone, particularly if they’re reluctant to open their mouth, without opening your own mouth.  This need not be a conscious attempt to invoke mimicry, either.  My mother-in-law pointed it out, in fact, back in the early weeks of feeding Olivia puréed vegetables, that both Allison and I were opening our own mouths each and every time we offered her a spoonful of food.

Then there’s the fact that while babies certainly do learn by mimicry, they seem to learn an awful lot by figuring things out by themselves or by doing them instinctively.

For instance, we quickly realized how much of a difference it made to Olivia being able to fall asleep if she had a pacifier in her mouth.  (Dr. Karp’s fifth “S” for calming babies stands for sucking, either a pacifier or a thumb.)  But often, being on the verge of falling asleep, her mouth would relax and the pacifier would fall out, at which she’d quickly wake back up, meaning we’d have to restart the whole process over again.  Soon after being born she only managed to get her thumb in her mouth by accident, and when another random arm movement took her thumb back out of her mouth, she’d actually get upset, as if someone else had played a trick on her.  When she was a few months older, she did figure out how to get her fingers in her mouth, at which point she spent a lot of time with her face, her bib and her clothes saturated with drool.  I’m glad we have a high-efficiency, front-loading washing machine!  Finally, thanks to a pacifier that she discovered let her put her thumb inside it while it was in her mouth, she figured it out.  That was a glorious day!  We can’t claim credit for any of that, of course; we’d just seen that brand of pacifier mentioned on a parenting blog.  But once Olivia knew how to suck her thumb, she could help herself go to sleep, or go back to sleep if she woke up during the night.  Someday, of course, we’re going to have to wean her off her thumb, or else be prepared to pay a lot of orthodontist’s bills when she’s older.

Then there’s a more recent example of this that continues to stun me.  One day, playing with Olivia and in something of a silly mood, I made a burbling sound by moving my finger across my lips.  Well, she copied me!  Allison did it, too, and Olivia copied her as well!  Mostly she just made the same sound, while moving her hand across her mouth, though since then she’s refined her technique and she does actually swipe her thumb across her lips.  That’s not what stunned me.  What stunned me was when she started clicking her tongue.  She figured out how to do that all by herself.  And doing it first, she got us to copy her by doing it, too.  I’m still amazed at that.

Something else my baby daughter taught me is that there’s no such thing as average.

Oh, there are common developmental milestones that typically happen in certain windows of age after birth, but even the best pediatrician can only make general predictions.  Allison and I had heard a pretty widespread opinion, for instance, that when babies start making pre-verbal sounds, “də də də” comes before “mə mə mə”.  Well, Olivia’s been making “mə” sounds for ages.  I don’t think she’s ever connected it with a way of calling or referring to Allison, and she’s never said anything that sounds like “mama”, and for that matter there were occasional periods of a week or two where she’d stop saying “mə mə mə” and instead every sound would be screeched as by an angry pterodactyl.  Then she discovered “bə” sounds.  Allison and I agree that the first actual word Olivia spoke is “baby”.  We have a video of her, crawling through the grass in my mother-in-law’s back-yard, clearly saying “baby” to herself, over and over again.  That was probably because, during our visit to her that week, my mother-in-law kept using the word “baby” whenever she saw Olivia — or, for that matter, whenever she saw the puppy they’d just brought home.  I’m pleased to report, though, that just in the last couple of weeks, Olivia has started making “də” sounds.  Perhaps she knew that Father’s Day was coming.

There’s much more that I could talk about this morning, and I know there will always be more I learn with every passing week and month and year.  I’ll end, though, with something that seems particularly appropriate for inclusion in a sermon, for consideration by a religious community, and that’s what my baby daughter has taught me about morality.

Morality, after all, is something that is of concern to every religion.  Every religion ought to help its adherents distinguish between good behavior that is to be encouraged and bad behavior that is to be discouraged.  Religions that have a holy book or a great leader have a relatively easy time of identifying their moral center, in that it’s whatever the book or the leader says it is.  There’s still the problem of interpretation, which keeps the priests and the scribes employed for generations, but in principle it’s straightforward.

Unitarian Universalism has neither a holy book nor a great leader, though.  Rather, every book can be holy, if holiness can be found amongst its words.  And every person can be someone who inspires, supports, guides, comforts and counsels others, given aptitude and/or training.  So, on the basis of how other religions do it, it’s not uncommon to hear expressed doubts about the moral center of Unitarian Universalism when it’s not given to us by some specially designated source.

IMAG0270Well, our own Unitarian Universalist versions of priests and scribes have been hard at work on this for a long time, usually constructing elaborate systems involving evolutionary biology and categorical imperatives and other complex psycho-social theories.  But my almost-eleven-month-old has convinced me that it may well be a whole lot simpler than that.

After all, when Olivia eats her food without dribbling it down her face and over her clothes, when she lets go of the cell ‘phone charger wire and stops trying to chew on the little plug on the end, when she lies still on the changing pad and lets me not only put a clean diaper on her but, more importantly, dispose of the old one without any of its contents escaping, then I find myself, quite without thinking about it, praising her for “being good”.

In other words, when she behaves according to my expectations of her behavior, when she does what I want or simply does what’s convenient for me, that, really, is what it means to me for her to be good.  Perhaps understanding morality doesn’t need highbrow ideas or elaborate psychological or sociological concepts.  Perhaps it just needs the recognition that when we are in relationship with one another, then we have certain expectations of one another, and when those expectations are met, then that’s good, and when they’re not, then that’s bad.

And that’s great news for Unitarian Universalism, a religion that is based on the truth that we are most human when we are in right relationship with one another and with the world around us, a religion that trusts that revelation is not sealed and that we can always learn better and deeper and more loving ways to be in relationship with one another.

I know I’m going to need to remember that as Olivia grows up.  It’s something I know I need to do a better job of remembering in my marriage with Allison, in my rôle as the son of my parents, and in my ministering to all of you.  After all, there’s no instruction manual for any of this.  We figure it out as we go along, and each of us tries to remember that we are human and each of us tries to remember that the other person is human, too, and we accept that we’re going to make mistakes and when we do, we try to own those mistakes so that we can at least learn something from them.  And we are all one another’s teachers, from the elder with the wisdom of years of hard-won life experiences to, well, a child who isn’t even a year old and who has only a one-word vocabulary and who sometimes screeches like an angry pterodactyl.

May we always be open to whatever life has to teach us, whoever the teacher may be.


  1. […] sort of teaching at home, though I think I learn more from Olivia than she’s picking up from me, something I’ll talk about in a couple of weeks’ time.  In any case, I particularly treasure those opportunities I do have to lead classes or offer […]

  2. […] June 16th: “Things My Baby Daughter Taught Me” […]

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