Self-Care and Parents of Small Children: The Good, the Bad, and the Sleep Deprived

“How long can this wait?” I ask.  Before answering, she turns off the glaring, operatory light hanging over my face.  Mint rinse lingers on my tongue.

“It can’t. If the infection spreads in your jaw, it can create an abscess,” she responds. Her furrowed brows and stern eyes leave no room for negotiation.

I tighten my grip on the plastic covers of the chair arms, muscles still tense from the metal probes banging against my teeth.  Later, I Google “abscessed tooth.”  I don’t encourage you to do the same, unless you enjoy dental nightmares.

“What are my options?”

“You need a root canal to clean out the infection.  It’s grown for the last six to nine months in your tooth.”  She shows me the x-ray image of my mouth to pinpoint the exact location of the infection.  My untrained eye notices nothing unusual, but she assures me the unfriendly bacteria
exists.

I sigh and agree to come back the next week.

Why did I wait over a year to go to the dentist? Considering my history of dental problems it was a poor decision, and the infection in my tooth could have been disastrous.  I cannot play the lack of dental insurance card,  because we have adequate coverage. There is no valid excuse for my lack of self-care.  Actually, there is one excuse.

“You know how it’s easy to ignore your self to focus on caring for your child,” a friend recently said over coffee.  I nodded in solidarity with her struggle.   Yes, I have the root canal to prove it, I thought.

The more I thought about her comment, the more I reflected on the wide gap between the care I provide for Henry, my eighteen-month-old son, and my own standards of self-care.  I approach his daily routine with an intensity I would never focus on myself.  My kid eats well, yet I eat like an animal.  My kid sleeps like a champion, yet I walk the earth like a zombie. My idea of self-care involves the Wendy’s drive-thru on the way home from the playground, or retreating to the bathtub to watch Netflix in the dark.  Please don’t ask me the last time I entered the doors of a gym.

For parents of small children, self-care proves elusive.   We struggle to shower and finish meals, much less find time to care for our own needs.  We relinquished the hope of regular sleep a long time ago.  Friendly warning:  if you mention the topic of self-care to a parent of a small child, you will probably receive an annoyed facial expression.  We are too sleep-deprived for your lectures.

Henry is my best excuse for avoiding the dentist.  The year I ignored my dental issues I was consumed with changing diapers, filling bottles, and begging him to sleep at 3a.m.  Caring for him justifies my neglect, right?  Actually, it doesn’t.  Deep down inside I know using him as an excuse is a cop out.  As much as I want to believe it was noble to neglect myself to meet his needs, my conscious tells me I am not doing anyone a favor with this approach.

I find myself asking what is more beneficial:  a parent who intensely focuses on their child’s routine, habits, and actions, while neglecting themselves, or a parent who gives adequate care and offers a model of self-care for their child to observe.  I believe the latter is the wise investment.

The way we model self-care will teach our children how to care for themselves.  When they are young we can focus intensely on their diets and behavior while neglecting self-care, but eventually they will grow aware of how we care for ourselves and take their cues from our habits.  Putting all of my energy into maintaining unreasonable standards, while neglecting my self, is modeling behavior I don’t want my child to see.  I want him to witness someone who values themselves enough to care for themselves, especially in the most vital ways.

What will my child see?  This is the question bouncing around in my head.

The scary part is how closely our children are watching. Henry is eighteen months old and already in tune with how much time – too much time – I spend using technology.  The way I see him mimicking me using a smartphone amuses and terrifies me.  He watches me down enough coffee to float a battleship, then pretends to make his own coffee and drink it.

I hope to spend my time around Henry with more mindfulness.  Parenting perfection is not my goal and my words are not intended to promote guilt; rather, my aim is at remaining conscious that parenting is a relationship, not a one way street.  My child is a mirror reflecting back to me the areas of my self in need of improvement.  I do my part by not ignoring the mirror’s reflection.

5 Dumbest Places I Took My Child

The first year of Henry’s life I took him to ridiculous places.  My desperation for contact with the outside world overpowered my common sense.  I craved entertainment beyond Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Sesame Street.  I desired a meal beyond two slices of wheat bread with deli meat.  I fantasized about adult conversation in trendy coffee shops.

If you are the parent of a small child, I understand how it feels when the walls start closing in at home, because I have felt the same way.  You cling to any reason available to get out of the house.  This past week, I reflected on the crazy places I took my son and compiled a short list of my dumbest choices.  In hindsight, I choose to laugh at them because I believe it’s necessary for parents to retain our sanity.  My hope is you will share a laugh or possibly identify with my experiences.

Below are the five dumbest places I took my infant son:

1.  Department of Motor Vehicles

I blame sleep deprivation and vehicle registration for my decision to take Henry to the Chicago DMV.  We stood in line for a thousand hours. Henry was strapped to my chest in the Moby wrap with no place to roam.  He spit breast milk on the woman behind me and played his favorite game, which consists of repeatedly shoving his hands in my mouth.  I ran out of milk.  He screamed.  Everyone in line probably wished to push us out the doors.  When I reached the front of the line, I was informed one of my identification documents was insufficient, which made the trip a complete loss.  If I owned a Flux Capacitor, I would install it in my Subaru and go back in time to the morning I made the decision to travel to the DMV, and slap myself in the face.

2.  Art Institute of Chicago

My friend, Jason, invited me to view a special exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago. His membership allows him to take a friend for free.  Generously, he asked me to join him, probably expecting me to say no since I was caring for Henry on weekdays.  Desperate for a taste of culture, I accepteIMG_4542d his offer.  Henry lasted ten minutes in the special exhibit before I had to remove him to the lobby.  The museum provided an opportunity for him to practice his echo and balance against the stone columns.  In another exhibit, I sat him on the floor for a minute to admire the centerpiece.  Of course, he crawled to the trip wire in front of another painting and yanked, prompting the security to enter the exhibit.  I do not plan to enter a museum for several years.

3.  Pretentious coffee shop

I confess that I am coffee snob.  My wife finds it obnoxious, but it’s my thing.  Intelligentsia, one of the finest coffee shops in the country, claims Chicago as its home.  Their hand-poured coffee costs four to five dollars a serving, which makes it a special treat.  I love it, and decided one winter day I must drink a cup.  I entered the shop with Henry strapped to my chest not bothered by the hipsters and suits who turned to stare at me.  My order, the Guatemalan brew, was served on a wooden tray with a sturdy ceramic cup and glass carafe.  Henry spent the entire time attempting to dip his fingers in the steaming java.  Drinking the coffee proved to be impossible because every time I raised it towards my mouth Henry swatted at it.  I managed to drink a third of my cup before abandoning the effort.  In the end, I paid five dollars to play a game of keep away with Henry for half an hour.

4.  Macy’s dressing room

Summertime arrived and my cargo shorts unraveled to the point they were no longer acceptable in public, at least to my wife’s standards.  Henry and I boarded the red line train and traveled to Macy’s in downtown Chicago.  The gigantic store features multiple floors including one dedicated solely to men’s clothing.  We rode the escalator to the men’s floor and discovered a rack of shorts on sale.  Jackpot!  After I pulled a few pairs of shorts from the rack, we made our way to the dressing room.  I sat Henry on the floor with a few toys from the diaper bag.  He crawled underneath the stall to the neighboring stall and escaped to the hallway, which made things tricky for me while I was stripped down to my boxer shorts.  After corralling him, he picked the straight pins off the floor from previous customers and stuck them in his mouth.  It was a disaster, but I did purchase new shorts.

5.  Verizon Wireless

My iPhone broke leaving me unplugged from the world.  I could no longer stand the malfunctioning phone, so I took Henry to the Verizon store.  He hit the ground running and lapped the iPhone display enough to complete a half-marathon before proceeding to trash the case shelf.  I was eighth on the waiting list.  Thankfully, the wise manager understood the potential for destruction and bumped us up quickly to see a representative.  He averted destruction.  God bless his soul.

Bean Eatin’ Machine

The Bean Eatin’ Machine slams his palms on the plastic high chair tray. His large, blue eyes scan the ceramic bowl in my hand for the next serving.  He moans.  He kicks.  He shakes his head side-to-side. I stop to answer a text message.  He screams and launches sweet potato to the floor.

I scramble to supply black beans to his small palms, so he can shove them into his mouth causing his cheeks to protrude.  Bean after bean, he chews, swallows, and extends his right arm to call for more.  I deliver beans until he tilts his head back and appears on the verge of explosion.  Pieces of black bean skin cover his face.

Henry, aka The Bean Eatin’ Machine, gobbles black beans, white beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, lima beans, navy beans, and black-eyed peas.  The only bean he turns down are Garbanzo beans.

He devours beans on the airplane.  He devours beans on the subway.  He devours beans on the bus.  He devours beans in the park.  He devours beans on the busy streets.  He devours beans at the doctor.  Henry devours the beans on my plate at restaurants.  The boy risks transforming into a bean.

For Henry, breakfast, lunch, and dinner are opportunities to inhale beans, which led me to wonder how a one-year-old stomach holds so many beans.  Turns out, it can’t.  Following bean consumption, the changing table is a dangerous place to operate.  Since you probably desire to retain your previous meal, I will withhold diaper details, but know cleaning his rear requires fearless precision.

Don’t get me wrong.  Henry’s bean obsession pleases me.  Despite the toxic diapers, I remind myself we are fortunate the child eats well.  The option to use beans as a back-up plan when other food fails makes our lives easier.  A Ziploc bag full of beans travels with us wherever we go.

When the bean extravaganza unfolded in our home, I decided to visit the local Whole Foods to find new beans to rotate into Henry’s diet.  Prior to Henry’s bean obsession, I associated beans with gross, processed canned foods.  I have eaten too many beanie weenies. Yet, in the store I noticed beans on display from all over the world, including odd ones like Mung beans, Extra Large Fava beans, Giant Peruvian Lima Beans, and colorful Anasazi beans.  The uncooked, organic beans revealed the potential of exploring the legume world.

After my bean conversion in Whole Foods, my inner nerd made it a habit to frequent the Wikipedia bean article.  Did you know there are thousands of varieties of beans?  More importantly, did you know that soaking beans before cooking removes the sugar molecule that causes flatulence?  My new cookbook, Bean by Bean, informed me beans are “the single most concentrated source of plant-based protein in the world.”  It’s hard to argue against “the musical fruit.”

One of my goal’s for this year involves serving Henry every bean available in the store.  I have not shared this plan with my wife, because I know she will probably suggest I am taking things too far.  I don’t know why she would say that.  It’s not like I have an obsessive personality or anything.

Whether it is beans, baby wraps or something more serious, I am changing and growing as he changes and grows.  The first seventeen months of Henry’s life has opened me to the reality parenthood will transform me in big and small ways. Like any other relationship of depth, it involves two people influencing one another in subtle and obvious ways.  I am Henry’s teacher and he is mine.

As a first-time parent, it excites me to think about the ways my child will challenge me to expand my horizons.  Who knows what the future holds?  I’m guessing more beans.

Wrap Daddy

I feel like a cat tangled in Christmas lights, and judging by the raised corners of my wife’s mouth, I need more practice.

Despite my messy effort to tie the Moby wrap, Cara lifts Henry, our newborn son, and slips one of his legs through the band of cloth hanging from my left shoulder, and does the same with my other shoulder.  Strapped to my chest in the soft band of orange cloth, Henry fusses and nuzzles his nose into my breastbone.  I kiss him on his delicious scalp.

“I’m either the coolest or weirdest dad on the planet,” I say.

Without Cara around the house in the daytime, I rely on YouTube for guidance.  I enter “Moby wrap” into the search box.  I hit play.  A young woman appears on screen with a beaming smile, and skillfully wraps the long band of cloth around her torso while giving instructions.  When she finishes, the wrap rests on her body like a fine piece of art.  I hit play again.  I follow her lead this time, but the end result is not promising.  My wrap does not look fit to carry a frozen turkey, much less an infant. I hit play again.

Through his first year, Henry spends a good portion of the day in the wrap.   I wear him to prepare dinner.  I wear him on the subway.  I wear him to the doctor’s office.  I wear him to walk the dog.  I wear him to the grocery store.  I wear him to the DMV.  I wear him to the art museum.  We nap together with him on my chest.

When Henry learns to eat solid food we visit the brand-new Whole Foods in our neighborhood.  The floors, walls, and fixtures sparkle in the florescent light.  We walk by perfectly arranged organic fruit, fancy cheese displays, and an elaborate smoothie bar.  The blender buzzes behind the counter.  Freshly baked bread fills the air.

We know samples are plentiful in the afternoons, so we strike.  The wrap allows us to navigate quickly through the store, maximizing our sampling potential. I pick up a sample, bite it in-half, and feed it to him in the wrap.  We share black cherries, pineapple, fine cheese, tortilla chips, bite-size pizza, and hummus.  Henry demands more cherries.  We eat a shameful amount.  At any moment, I’m certain a manager will ask us to leave.  If so, it will be worth it.

Walking down the sidewalks of Chicago with Henry strapped to my chest, I receive facial expressions ranging from joy to disgust. I didn’t expect the wrap to become a projection screen for other’s parenting views. Men mostly stare with bewildered faces.  “Now, that’s the image of a man,” one teenage boy whispers to the girl by his side.  Another scruffy bearded man in his twenties, possibly deranged, standing on a busy street corner, points and roars.  The neighborhood policeman who leans against the wall of the 7-11 stops me to inquire.  “The first time I saw you wearing ‘this thing’ I thought you were Middle-Eastern.”  An odd thing to hear for a pale, blue-eyed male with a Southern accent.

Women are mostly impressed with the wrap.  “Did you tie it yourself,” they ask?  “Yes, I watched the Youtube video 1,000 times,” I respond.  Waiting in line at O’Hare Airport, a young woman with a fashionable short hair style approaches me to discuss the wrap.  For ten minutes, she tells me about her experience with the wrap and how she proudly avoided a stroller with her children.  She speaks like we are members of a special “babywearing” club.  Before moving on, she nods as if we are part of a movement.  I nod back.

I do not wear the wrap to make a statement.  However, my inner rebel chooses to embrace it as a countercultural symbol.  In my own way, it is my resistance to the macho culture that permeates our society.  It is my stand against the narrow masculinity that equates maleness solely with toughness, self-reliance, and aggressive behavior.  It is my rejection of the posturing required “to be a man.”  I am already a man.

Yet, I must also admit my progressive approach to parenting is tested by the baby wrap.  No matter how liberated I consider myself, I still worry about how others will perceive my masculinity.  For someone who values equality in parenting roles, this might sound silly, but going against the grain of a hyper-masculine culture, such as ours, is not easy.  Old messages are deeply imbedded in all of us.

The old messages say to me:  You look like a girl.  You look weak.  You look like a pansy.  You deserve your man card revoked.  I try to ignore them, but they never go away, only fade into the background.

It’s hard to say at what point I became one with the wrap, but it did not take long to transform into a daily habit.  I can adjust it based on his weight and the demands of the day, which, in my mind, means I have reached a Jedi Knight level in the “baby wearing” world.  I’m considering making my own YouTube video.

Now at 17 months old, I dread the day he no longer fits in the wrap. I will miss his body pressed against mine, arms pulling and tugging on my face, and feet kicking against my sides.  It will feel like the beginning of the slow independence he will undoubtedly claim day by day.

This past week, I placed him in the wrap for a long walk through the park.  Half-way through our walk my shoulders started aching because the thin, cotton wrap no longer bears the weight load well.  The days of the wrap are coming to a close.  A growing boy needs more room to operate, so I will treasure the moments left.  I will wear him until I must stop.