It seems impossible that my niece is going to have a baby. She is 20 years old, which is about the same age as my favorite pair of Levis. I remember when she was born. We all crowded around the crib and agreed that she looked exactly like my sister, which she did. The next thing I knew she was waving a magic wand in a dance recital, and not long after that she was getting her driver’s license and writing tragic poems about teenage angst in her high school English class.
Now she’s having a baby, a girl she’s naming Betty that is due to arrive in about a week, give or take, and I have just this one question, addressed to no one in particular: Where did 20 years go? Why is the distance between the ages of 7 and 27 so very, very much longer than the distance between 27 and 47?
In keeping with the age, I have been following progress reports on her pregnancy — and the various moods that go with it — on her MySpace page. We have chimed in from time to time with chipper comments on her message board, where her friends congregate daily to see what is new. They offer help if she needs any, worry if she doesn’t answer the phone promptly, and gush over newly posted pictures of her belly, pushing out and filling her brightly colored cotton shirt so fully that it looks like some exotic new planet.
Oh, it will be a new world, all right. The world she has inhabited is about to go away for good, replaced by a completely foreign world in which she must learn the language, laws, and customs while trying to survive in it at the same time. One minute she seems to know this, the next she seems completely unaware of just how profound this change is going to be.
On the other hand, how could she be prepared? How could anyone? How could I? How could you? You can read all the books you can find, watch all the instructional videos, subscribe to all the magazines, write down every syllable of advice that experienced mothers give you, and still be utterly bewildered the first time your newborn gets a sudden fever, or can’t get to sleep no matter what you try.
You’ve done everything you are supposed to do, everything right by the book, everything you were told, and yet there you are, at 3 a.m., driving the back roads listening to the Eagles’ greatest hits, just hoping your baby will finally go to sleep in her car seat.
Nope, it’s not another tequila sunrise, but that won’t make it any easier in three hours when she wakes you up again, just as you are finally getting some desperately needed sleep. Welcome to the Hotel California. ‘You can check in anytime you like, but you can never leave.’
Although my brother is younger than I am, he and his wife had kids before we did, so he gave me some free advice to help me prepare at least in some measure for what was coming.
“It is overwhelming in every way,” he said. “Sometimes it’s overwhelming in a great way, and sometimes it’s overwhelming in a not so great way.”
I don’t know if that really qualifies as advice, but it is a fundamental truth about becoming a parent that any new parent needs to recognize and, if possible, embrace. It is learning to live in constant fear that you are doing something profoundly, irrevocably wrong, and that even if you don’t do anything wrong, terrible things can still happen at any time. It is learning the real meaning of patience, and balance, and resolve. These are just words among other words until you have a new baby in your home, when they suddenly and forcefully take on a much more profound meaning than you could have ever realized. You only thought of yourself as a patient, balanced, and resolute person. You were nothing of the sort. Now you’ll learn. You’d better.
You will also learn the meaning of love the first time you see and hold your baby, the first time the baby holds your finger, the first time she smiles. You are going to have a year of firsts — everything will be marked, noted, photographed. It really is a new planet after all, and you are discovering all of its countries day by day, recording every one.
It is overwhelming in every way.
So my niece is having a baby. I guess I should write something else on her MySpace page, while she still has time to look at it. I should tell her that this is it, the adventure of a lifetime. I should tell her to savor every minute of it, even the tougher moments. She is not going to believe how quickly 20 years can go by. Also, no matter how many diapers she got at her baby shower, she is going to need more. Lots more. Bon voyage!