“women’s work” timecard #3

Oatmeal, it is so yummy!
Oatmeal, not gross or runny!
Oatmeal, it sticks to the spoon —
We eat it at midnight, we eat it at noon!


The “midnight” part is poetry, of course. But it is shortly after noon and we are eating oatmeal and singing a song. Gerber makes an instant oatmeal you can mix with breast milk, and Henry is perfectly willing to eat occasional spoonsful of it, between bouts of his main activity: fiddling with the webbed strap of his high chair. He also practices his ninja skills, striking out with perfect agility to snatch the spoon on its way to his mouth. The spoon thus intercepted and its contents inspected (by fingers if necessary), he seems content to let the spoon deliver its cargo, though later on less and less oatmeal ends up in the mouth; the fingers get greedy.

We eat oatmeal and listen to the old PBS Civil War documentary. It’s a hard thing to listen to Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife, written to his wife one week before he died in combat, while you are alone, in the heart of your domesticity, feeding a small child. Ballou wrote to his “very dear Sarah”:

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed.

It is hard not to weep, hearing those words, if you are any kind of man at all. How much harder when you volunteered to put yourself in the way of war’s violence and returned home to find yourself whole and still mostly sane and finally blessed with a lifelong companion and a son. How much more so when you find yourself unable to let go, unable to let the military pass from your life at the moment when it’s time to finish your term of service and your wife has a high-paying job and you could just stay home and see your son grow up to honorable manhood. Ballou went off to war and died. I went off to war and found the whole thing fairly annoying. I’m guessing Ballou, had he survived, would not have re-enlisted in the Reserve to stave off feeling like a bored, sluggish househusband. Time changes everything — even war.


But that’s not what I started off to write about. I wanted to tell you what a terrible dad I am. Here is a story about it.

Last Friday, the bear and I had the car, and we were waiting for Elana at a Panda Express near the airport. (She was going to return a rental car.) To alleviate his boredom, I got Henry out of the car seat and let him stand in the foot well of the back seat, between my feet. Elana called about something minor, and while we were chatting, Henry discovered the bottle of power steering fluid we keep in the little net flap on the back of the driver’s seat. He had it in his hands for a total of maybe three seconds, and managed to get the cap in his mouth for perhaps a whole second, before I took it away from him. I hung up with my wife and, you know… freaked the fuck out.

Except I didn’t. Not really. I examined the bottle. The cap was closed and didn’t seem to be coated in anything. The bottle itself was slightly sticky, though.

The baby looked fine, if startled.

I put him back in his seat and drove to the rental car pavilion.

Elana got in, and I told her what had happened. Predictably, she, you know… freaked the fuck out.

Except she didn’t, either. We just had a slightly nervous conversation about the right thing to do in this sort of situation.

“Do you think you call poison control?” she asked.

“Do YOU think you call poison control?” I countered.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want to?”

“Okay.”

Elana dialed poison control and spoke to a nice young man named Darren who, for whatever reason, knew off the top of his head that “power steering fluid is basically just a hydrocarbon in water, so obviously he can’t really poison himself with that.” What you wanted to look for, said Darren, were any signs that he had aspirated the fluid. The cap was still on the bottle, so we felt it was a safe guess he hadn’t.

Darren took our son’s first name and Elana’s as well, in case we needed to call back, but there were no last names or addresses or anything. Darren wants you to feel you can trust him. Poison Control isn’t here to blame you — they’re here to solve problems.


I wish I could tell you this was an isolated incident, but it’s not. Earlier this week, I put the baby on the futon in order to get something done in the kitchen, and he took a nosedive off the futon onto the tile floor, resulting in a weird moaning noise I’d never heard him make before and a bloody mouth.

And just today I was putting him in his car seat when his mom suggested he might want to nurse. And so I didn’t bother to fully buckle him in — just shut the door and went around to the other side of the car — by which time he had already stood up and tried to leap off the car seat. Fortunately, he didn’t get far, because he picked the wrong side. Just ended up with his head wedged between the car seat and the door handle.


I am a terrible dad. For whatever reason, I seem unable to shake a fairly lackadaisical attitude about safety. I’m not kidding about this, either — I think those helicopter parents are onto something, because I have no idea how this kid is going to make to toddlerhood, let alone adolescence, with me watching out for him. With my back turned. And the radio on.

But what really freaks me out is not when I fail as his guardian. It’s when I don’t fail, and yet he’s still in peril.


So far I haven’t worried too much about him hitting developmental benchmarks. Some things — like standing with help — he’s done ridiculously early. Other things he’s done about on time, and still others he’s done late for his birth age but about on time for his gestational age. But he never actually missed a benchmark — until now.

Now he’s over nine months old, and while his gross and fine motor skills and emotional development remain as on-target as ever, he’s edging into being noticeably late in his language development. Around 6 months, according to any number of developmental charts, he ought to have started babbling or repeating syllables. All right, so he was nearly two months preemie — so let’s say his adjusted age is 7 months and change. Still, it’s odd that he still communicates largely through comically exaggerated facial expressions and grunts and still hasn’t moved much past vowels. When he does practice consonants, he seems not to realize that he can pair them with vowels.

His mom and I sit with him sometimes, trying to spark the leap in him. “Ma ma ma ma ma,” we’ll say.

“Mmmmmm,” he says, in imitation or in bemusement.

Some of this is surely the needless concern of two hyperverbal parents worried that their son might never read Shakespeare in the original Klingon. But my sister, who was also a preemie, ended up with lifelong learning disabilities. Like someone who learned English as a foreign language, she still converses largely in memorized social dialogue and finds it tiring to generate original phrases. And it’s startling to me that, if Henry also turns out to have LDs — with the attendant years of special ed and social isolation — all of that might have been mapped out for him before I ever had a chance to be a parent to him. His genes and his luck put it all together, and even if I really step up my dad game and keep him safe from bloody lips and power steering fluid, much of his life will be determined by things I couldn’t see and didn’t even think to shield him from.


But maybe all of that worry will amount to nothing, and he will turn into the babblingest little guy you ever saw. (Very likely this, too, will have nothing to do with me.) So in the meantime, please enjoy this video of a baby eating a green bean.

(Maybe he will be a drummer. You don’t have to talk for that.)

UPDATE: Elana pointed out that readers might not be able to tell from the above that the futon he went nose-diving from is lying on the floor. He only fell about six inches.

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3 responses to ““women’s work” timecard #3

  1. Oh honey,
    don’t listen to Sullivan Ballou. It is nearly unbearable if you are a feeling person at all.
    As for H falling down, etc. We don’t want them to, but they do. The power steering fluid is a little scarier, but you were there. You are a space head a lot of the time and watching a baby will challenge that. You will just have to get over the Dad thing which is, “I tried to mow the lawn, but he wouldn’t stay on the sidewalk/porch/driveway.” When you watch kids, you do that and anything else is just pure grace.
    As for the talking/babbling. . . boys are sometimes much slower, but ask your pediatrician. Not babbling was the first thing that worried me about J.

    love, love, love the green bean video. And sure, he can be a drummer in a very successful rock band or a tympanist in the symphony.

  2. Here’s the part of Sullivan Ballou’s letter that always gets me:

    But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .

    And you don’t need the military to verify your worth.
    Really.

  3. Seth my dear, you don’t even want to hear about any of the potentially disasterous things that happened to Elana and James when they were babies! Believe me, because I don’t even want to remember them! It goes with the territory – you learn as the baby grows and gains more skill and mobility – about what to move higher, to cover or eliminate, about when you can let him loose and to what degree. And you’re a wonderful dad! Just wonderful. Being the stay at home parent can be pretty challenging, especially when it gets little societal recognition (or has that changed in the US?), but really, I think it’s probably about the most important thing you’ll ever do in terms of providing actual lifelong benefit to Henry and yourselves. Hang in there dear and have fun with it!

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