The First Six Months

Lessons from the scary first days of parenting, and a milestone of sorts.

The first six months were a hell of a time.

Everything I knew had changed. Nothing made sense. The rules changed every day, and the only constant was worry that I was about to make a devastating mistake. Even going to the grocery store was a challenge. Can I go to the store? What do I need at the store? How will I navigate through the store and get the things I need and keep everyone safe?

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

When I first became a parent, every day was fraught with new concerns, new situations where rules of engagement that were once clear to me had suddenly become completely opaque. The casual nature of things—the freedom I once had and never appreciated enough until it was gone—had disappeared, possibly never to return. The baby was always on my mind, a constant pinging on my mental radar even when they weren’t directly in my charge, a program running in the background and sucking up processing capacity at all times.

Every day was a version of that canoe riddle: I’ve got a fox, a chicken, and a sack of corn, and I’ve got to get them all safely across a river. In this version, though, the river was Class 4 rapids, the canoe had a leak in it, and the fox was screaming to be held all the time. I was full of doubt, often irrationally so. What about blueberries? I’d think, suddenly. Are blueberries safe? Can kids have blueberries? Three hours later, I’d be so deep in internet research that I’d began to question whether blueberries even existed or if I’d imagined them all along. Sleep deficit will do things to you, and I’m not sure I’ve ever fully recovered.

My firstborn is five now and has a younger sibling approaching four, and I have a much steadier footing than I did in the beginning. I still screw things up all the time, but I’ve learned to both expect and accept that, and I’ve learned the value in just being honest with a child when Daddy didn’t do a good job at something. I’ve got shortcuts and tricks and ways of defusing bombs that I didn’t five years ago; I can one-arm carry a 45-pound child backwards down a steep hill that I told them not to climb but was proud of them for getting to the top of, even if they couldn’t get back down alone.

I’ve been thinking about those early days a lot lately as we approach the six-month mark of The Uncertain Times, a period I’m surely not alone in considering to have started the night of March 11th, when Tom Hanks and Rudy Gobert teamed up to let us know that this was for real real. We’d known it was coming; we’d been talking about it conceptually for months, but that night something shifted and everything’s been in disarray since. It’s an oddly familiar feeling.

There’s a flaw in this comparison, of course; a new baby is a miracle and a gift, albeit one that on all practical and unsentimental levels sucks deeply to be around. (My self-assigned duty when speaking to new parents is to be the one person that does not tell you to “cherish this time” but rather tells you “It gets better soon, I swear.”) A pandemic is not a baby. It is a horrible thing that did not have to play out like it has and has borne a cost in both economic terms and in lives far too great for any functional society to be expected to bear.

Where I think the analogy does succeed, though, is in the fact that we are re-learning how to live. When a child is placed into your care, you are forced to re-learn how to live because a life now depends on you, and that’s starkly evident. They are soft and small and easily breakable and very hungry, and if you take your eye off of them for even a moment, something terrible can happen. They’ll make sure of it.

The life that depends on you now might not be as easy to identify. It might not be someone you love or even someone you know. It might be a stranger at the store, but the duty to another is the same. You now have to consider things that you did not have to consider before. Your perception of the world is different, the understanding of risk and responsibility and consequence more stark.

You’re tired of hearing it, and I am too. Six months in, I’m as fatigued by all of this as anyone; fatigued by thinking about it all the time, fatigued by the fact that I find myself compelled to keep writing about it to sort out my own feelings. It’s a sleep deficit all its own, with no real chance to just take a break from it all.

Parenting forced some things on me that I’m not thrilled about: a bad back, about 25 pounds around my midsection, big streaks of gray in my hair and a decades-long dent in our household finances. It also forced me to make positive changes, to start developing patience, resilience, empathy and flexibility where those did not exist before. Six months in to the process, I was barely on my way, and five years later, I’m still not there. But I’m getting better, I think.

I’ve talked a lot over the last six months about what I will do “when this is all over”, that magical moment when we can blink our eyes and pretend this was all a bad dream, crowd back into stadiums or bars or subways cars without worry. I’m coming to realize that things will never be exactly the same. Some things will return to normal, some things will not. I look forward to going back to my gym someday (I swear I do), but I’ve probably eaten at my last buffet. (That’s probably for the best.) I don’t think I’ll ever cough in public without considering the risks, and I hope I never take a well-stocked grocery store or smoothly-operating public education for granted again.

We’ve made it through the first six months, and we’re going to see things differently for a long time after.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)