A few days after finding out that I was going to be a father, I bought a stack of parenting books. I’m the kind of guy who actually reads the instructions before putting something together, because I don’t want to have to do it twice. By reading these books, I figured I’d know more about parenting than any guy on the planet, even before the baby was born.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. I did enjoy reading about the different stages of development in the womb and tracking my unborn son’s growth. But as far as learning anything useful – well, it was like going straight from basic training to the D-Day scene at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. You can read and plan all you want, but once that kid is born it’s a kind of chaos that nothing can fully prepare you for.
For example, no amount of reading can prepare you for the sheer volume and pitch of a baby’s cry. That’s something that needs to be experienced in the dark at four in the morning to be fully appreciated. Nobody told me how many times a day a baby can poop or how difficult it is to change an angry, squirming baby. I certainly wasn’t warned that a tiny little boy is armed with a tiny little penis that will shoot a powerful stream of pee clear across the room, unless it’s deflected by your face. I’d have remembered that little tidbit.
I don’t remember reading anything about the stress of transporting our little package home from the hospital. That was the most nerve-wracking two-mile drive of my life. Well, I say two miles, but it was probably more like five because I took every side road possible to avoid traffic. I never really thought about how dangerous traffic can be until I drove my son home. I was practically on the sidewalk, trying to stay away from cars in the opposite lane. Until that day, I’d never driven ten miles an hour under the speed limit.
I’m not saying that parenting books won’t teach you anything. Some are quite informative. My wife learned a lot from “So That’s What They’re For”, a book about breastfeeding. But seeing as how I don’t have lactating breasts, the book wasn’t of much use to me. In fact, I’m sad to say, it contradicted everything I’d always believed breasts were for. I was lucky, because my wife already had a son from a previous relationship and is a natural at parenting. She was very loving and nurturing and born for motherhood. She also worked for years in the medical field, which helped a great deal. Every cry, every fever, I was ready to rush the baby to the hospital. My wife just told me to relax, all babies get sick. She stayed calm and cool and seemed to know exactly what to do in every situation. I still worried, of course, but without my wife it would have been sheer panic.
I’m pleased to say that both my son and I made it through his infancy relatively unscathed. He’s almost ten years old now and it honestly feels like just yesterday that we were taking him home for the first time. Even now, I smile when I see an expectant father reading a book on parenting. I want to say something, but I know better. Like the rest of us, he’ll just have to figure it out the hard way.
Gary Sprague is a freelance writer living in Maine with his wife and two sons. His fiction and non-fiction has appeared in several publications, including the Raleigh Review and Grown and Flown. Follow him on Facebook , Twitter, and his Blog.