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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Tough Love... a phrase that has some new meaning for me now. I've always really considered tough love as meaning roughly "I know this sucks, but it's for your own good," but there's a different angle to it that took me by surprise a few days ago.

Amelia was about three weeks early. Although she was born during the official "full term" window, most of the doctors and nurses at the hospital considered her a borderline case. For example, she has a slight bit of jaundice, slightly low birth weight, and started off with slightly low blood sugar, but none of these things are uncommon in babies her age. Basically, they were OK with us going home after 24 hours, but only on the condition that we made sure to do things by the book for the first week or so: routinely record all of our observations, do regular temperature and jaundice checks, and follow a strict feeding schedule.

That last one has proven to be pretty difficult. Not because we have trouble actually feeding her, mind you, but rather because Amelia is a zen sleeping master. Seriously. I mean, I thought I was capable of falling asleep anywhere and staying that way, but she has truly humbled me. Seriously.

Let me give you an example: when we took her in for her first well-baby visit at our clinic, the pediatrician (who was awesome, by the way) felt that her jaundice needed a closer look. The way doctors do this is by taking a blood sample and doing some fancy science on it. Unfortunately for the baby, they need 400 milliliters of it. And the only way to do this is to punch a little hole in her skin and squeeze the stuff out of them. This squeezing process needs to go on for as long as five minutes, depending on how willing the baby is to bleed. When they needed to do a similar test at the hospital, all I could think about were Aztec sacrifice rituals! (OK, that's pretty dramatic, but you get the point.) Anyway, this kind of thing hurts just to watch. It really should go without saying that babies do not like these procedures. DO NOT WANT. Well, when it was her turn, Amelia slept through the entire thing. Seriously! And it lasted a long time, too! The nurse was squeezing her foot for over four and a half minutes (I timed it). The only reactions she got out of our daughter were a couple of kicks and an indignant scowl. Seriously! (Have I said "seriously" enough?)

So, as you can imagine, it can be really hard to wake her up for her regular feedings, which need to happen every two hours. Rarely, it's OK for one or two to be as far apart as four. But if we let her, Amelia will sleep as much as a teenage boy, so we pretty much have to wake her up ourselves every time. At first, we'd try to gently coax her awake, and if we failed, we let her sleep some more and try again in 10 to 30 minutes. By her third morning, however, she had been asleep for eight continuous hours, and we were therefore well past our feeding window. Getting nervous, we decided to phone into our clinic for some advise. The physician on call wasn't too worried, but she said we definitely needed to get her awake and feeding. In her words, "you really have to be a bit nasty."

"A bit nasty" ended up being way more than I was prepared for. We tried a lot of different things before we got her up, and by the time she was awake she was justifiably pissed the hell off. We tried holding ice cubes to her feet and underarms. We dripped cold water on her forehead and on her chest. I (gently) slapped a damp washcloth against her face. We made loud noises. We stomped the ground around her. None of this was working, and we arrived at a painful realization that the reason it wasn't working was because we were still following our instincts and trying to keep her safe and comfortable. So, we finally kicked it up a notch.

Research that I'm too lazy to Google and provide links to shows that when babies are left alone (especially on hard surfaces), their stress mechanism flies into hyperdrive. They'll start kicking and screaming, trying desperately to attract sympathy and attention. This response, it is surmised, evolved for a very simple reason: babies who are left alone in this manner (presumably on some rock in a cave somewhere) are going to die. They are going to starve, or they are going to be eaten. Maybe something worse, I dunno. Anyway, the stress is so palpable that it actually results in physical pain. Obviously, modern babies (especially those in the Biddlecom household) are in no such grave danger, but this is a pretty low-level reflex.

So, after we had been trying to wake her up with the afore-mentioned discomforts for about 20 minutes, we decided that we should stop talking to her. Stop making noises of any kind, actually. I continued to hold the ice near her feet and we went dead silent. That did the trick, to say the least. In about half a minute, she went from dismissively annoyed to full-on panic. There were five of us there (myself, Sammy, Grandma and Grandpa Biddlecom, and Noelle), and all of us were shocked at how upset Amelia had become. What was worse (yeah, worse) was that experience had already shown us that if we stopped right then, she'd get comfy again, dose off, and we'd have to start all over. So we had to wait some more (I don't know how long, it felt like an eternity) and make sure she was good and terrified before passing her over to Mommy for some soothing feeding time. The good news, at least, is that breast feeding is the polar opposite of leaving a baby alone. Once they're with Mommy, and their attention is focused on each other, all's right with the world. Amelia calmed down almost immediately and it was as if the whole thing had never happened.

I think it's pretty clear that as far as the baby is concerned, none of this is really a big deal. We got her awake and fed, and she clearly has no memory of the nastiness. She still feels safe with Mommy and Daddy, and she's even started smiling at us. (It could, of course, just be bad gas, but I'm perfectly happy to call it a smile, thankyouverymuch!) The "tough" part of this love wasn't really Amelia's. It was ours. I really am not exaggerating when I say that waking her up this way was one of the hardest things I've ever had to to do. In retrospect, it all sounds kind of trivial, but the instinct to protect your child and make everything perfect for her is powerful. It was an intellectual and emotional battle for me to keep at it. The only way I managed is that I was pretty worried about her not getting enough to eat (you know, starving).

This all has a very happy ending, of course. Amelia is now fine, and we're having to wake her ourselves less and less frequently. Each time we need to, it's easier to do. You'd be surprised at how quickly you learn to innovate as a parent. And, now that Sammy's milk has started to come in, Amelia's a lot more eager to feed. For the first time, she woke us up for a feeding session. (That's why the time-stamp on this post is so early, by the way. I never expected that I'd be relieved to be woken up at 3am by a stressed out, crying baby.)

Still, I've come out of the experience with a renewed sense of awe for the sacrifices parents make. This particular instance was, by all measures, pretty trivial. It was resolved quickly, without a lot of effort, and with no lasting trauma. But it was still really hard to do. Anybody who's been serious about wanting to start a family has heard the chestnut about being a child's parent first, and friend second. It never occurred to me how heart-wrenching that imperitive could be. I can't even imagine how hard it is for parents who have to deal with serious behavioral problems, and I have a new sympathy for those whose kids are a little messed up just because they never got the tough love concept down.

But, this is just life's mechanism for preparing us to handle such difficulties. Little challenges right off the bat help us build character that I hope will come to bear when I've really got to be tough with Amelia. (Oh good grief, did I just say "build character!?" I don't want to be that much of a cliche'... yet!) Although this little thing shocked me pretty bad, it's helped make me confident that I'll be able to deal when I need to.

So we emerged from the experience happier than we went into it, and I think that's a very reassuring thing. Still, I had no idea how tough "tough love" could really be.



  1. What a great narrative from you (and Sam below)...u two musta had really great parents :P Chuck and Clara can't wait till May arrives. I'm jealous of Barry and Debbie and Tommy getting back out there before we do. Imagine Tommy an uncle! Anyways, you guys are pretty much naturals at the mom and pop thing - it was impressive...also, I'm glad Mark forgave me for calling him a torturer - my humor never ceases to amaze me :P, :P, :P

  2. Wait until you have to start forcing her to go back to her own bed....

    And whaddya mean Chuck? Debbie's steaming at seeing those pics of you two holding her while we are sitting here on the other side of the country. (Don't show me those! *pout* LOL)

  3. ...oh, and thanks to Noelle for letting the grandparents suck up every minute of available "hold Amelia" time. We also didn't have to share it with Aaron, as he was butt deep in homework!

  4. Sorry Barry - I admit we did feel a little guilty. Would it be wrong to photoshop a picture of Debbie on one of them :P

  5. LOL. I don't think it would quite be the same :)

  6. Yeah, probably not Barry. Man, be ready for your heart to melt when you hold her the first time!