Actually, It's Called "Bonding Leave"

When a mother takes leave from work when she's having a baby, they call it "maternity leave", but when I was filling out the paperwork, they didn't call it "paternity leave"; they called it "bonding leave". I thought that was fine, I guess, but why try to get all fancy about it?

Then the other day on the radio I heard this talk show host ranting about how there shouldn't be paternity leave, because it's a "scam". He said mothers need time to recover and heal their bodies, but fathers don't, so why should they get time off of work? The more I listened to this blowhard go on about this, the angrier I got, on account of two things.

First, I think we should be aspiring for a state of society that does expect the father to be closely involved with child rearing, and if we want to get there, we have to give importance to fathers for many of the things we normally ascribe to mothers. I think it has to start with getting parental leave just like mothers do. I think it has to continue with things like advertisements targeting fathers the same way they target mothers. Doing away with the "incompetent father" stereotype (though I guess I fit it, too, so maybe we're not there yet).

Secondly, I don't think parental leave for a father is even about the father himself. It's about helping the mother recover and about bonding with the child. I guess "bonding leave" is appropriate, huh? I think a lot goes on in that first year to establish the bond between both parents and the child. Sure, my leave has been a great vacation, too, but I'll never get to spend this vast amount of time with my son again, because I'll get home from work close to his bedtime every weekday for the rest of his life. That's a depressing thought, but it makes me appreciate this time even more. How dare anyone say this is useless?

So, if you couldn't guess, I'm on parental leave. Last year, just in time to count for our baby, Microsoft bumped up its parental leave to a flat 12 weeks for all full time employees. This is a huge amount of time, and it's been awesome. Before I left, I didn't quite know what to expect. I love my job, so I kind of thought I'd get bored pretty soon. Nope, I chop up my day into baby care time and free time, and every day just flies by. Turns out taking care of a baby requires a lot of time! Who knew? I did, but I can always be reminded again. For my free time I've of course been playing video games, but also keeping my programming skills from rotting with some side projects.

The usual routine turned into me taking the first feeding, at 8 AM, every day, then my wife and I alternate feedings for the rest of the day, so each of us gets a few hours of our own time in 2-3 hour chunks. It lets us catch up on chores or goof off or do errands or whatever. The schedule he had up until now was basically two hours of awake time followed by one and a half hours of nap, alternating through the day. Well, except for the the Big Trip.

The long trip

The Big Trip was to Australia--three weeks! We got back a few weeks ago, and I feel I ought to write some things about it before the specifics start fading from my worthless memory--that's what this blog is for, after all. The trip was mostly fun but a ton of work. I don't know if I would sign myself up to do this again under the same circumstances (namely, with a 9-month-old baby).

Flying with a baby is bad

Whenever we talk about the plane trip, people ask, "oh, were his ears uncomfortable?" Nope, they are always fine. We make sure he's either eating or sucking on his pacifier for takeoff and landing, so he keeps equalizing the pressure. The trouble is sleeping on the plane. He's not very good at sleeping in places that aren't his crib--he has to get really tired, has to basically reach his breaking point, before he'll consider sleep.

So we spent a lot of time on the flight holding him in our arms and trying to get him to sleep. He did, but somewhat fitfully and holding us prisoner the whole time. We had seats in the bulkhead row and a wall bassinet, but if we managed to safely transplant him from our arms into the bassinet, he inevitably stirred in his sleep, noticed where he was, stood up, and started crying. It seemed pretty comfortable in there. What's the problem, baby!?

So it was hard for us to sleep on the plane (as it usually is) and even harder when trying to help the baby sleep, too. On the way back we woke up at 5 AM the day of the flight and didn't get to sleep until over 24 hours later. Terrible. But that sleep, back in my own bed at home... oh man, I hadn't slept that well since the night he was born.

I thought I'd written about it before, but I can't find it, so I need to write that down real quick, because it was sleep so good I never want to forget it. During that 24+ hour labor, at some point my mother-in-law came for support and helped take care of my wife while I went home for a catnap. I remember how I slept for 6 hours like I was dead and awoke with renewed energy, then came back to the hospital. I think when my body hit the bed I laughed giddily for a minute. You know the feeling. Anyway.

We were staying with my family in Australia, who are numerous and awesome. It was great seeing them again. We shuffled between three different houses, and they all accomodated us so well. In the first house, they got a portable crib for the baby, but for some reason (maybe just stress from traveling?) he did not like it much. We ended up instead using our handy traveling baby tent, the KidCo PeaPod. Not sure why he liked that more than a comfortable crib. Whatever, baby! That PeaPod was an awesome purchase, let me tell you.

Speaking of excellent purchases, one piece of check-in luggage we took was a Summer Infant Playard that a family friend gave us. We used this as a great way to set up a safe space for him anywhere we went. It gave us freedom and peace of mind, even though the baby developed quite a bit of separation anxiety right at the start of the trip and often started hollering if we put him in there and left him alone. We tried to be accomodating, but sometimes ya just gotta tough it out, mister.

One wacky thing is when we got to the house we were staying at, we took a shower (as opposed to bath) with the baby for the first time ever. He loved it! He crawled around on the floor of the tub and laughed and laughed when the water got on his face. Compared to his usual baths, this must have been a very different experience for him. Since then I've switched to only showering with him when he needs bathing. It gets him clean, gets me clean, and he really likes it.

Family and weddings

Ostensibly, the point of the trip was to go to a wedding for one of my awesome cousins, who are around my age. I say "ostensibly" because we turned it into a proper vacation aside from wedding festivities. It was an incredibly elaborate Indian wedding, more impressive than any wedding I'd ever gone to. For the adults, it was a great time, but the baby had his own opinions about it.

At baby G's age, he is happiest when he can nap every few hours. If he loses naps, at best he gets listless, at worst he has a full scale meltdown with nonstop crying. Usually it's somewhere in the middle--fussiness from overstimulation and lack of sleep. Some of the wedding activities took place in the evening. With a usual 8 PM bedtime, it's tough for him to stay up later than that. During the really awesome reception, we had various adults take turns watching him while others enjoyed the party. For the last shift, I pushed him around in a stroller for an hour while everyone was dancing upstairs. (I don't like dancing; down there with him was the perfect place for me)

Basically, for pretty much the entire trip we found ourselves trying to figure out how to finagle enough nap time for him. Family was really accomodating, letting us skip out of activities and go off in a corner or whatnot, but the baby also isn't good at sleeping on-the-go or in public, so getting him rest was stressful for both us and him.

There was a lot of Indian food throughout the trip, and he tried lots of it, even including spicy food that I like but which is too hot for my wife. His personal favorite was something called uppma, which he ate probably daily. Also popular were bananas and other fruits, since they are easy to feed to him without too much cleanup.

Drive seven hours to the zoo

We had two side trips on the main trip. A trip within a trip. Dare I say... tripception? For the first trip, just my wife and I rented a car and drove ourselves and the baby seven hours out of Sydney to a town called Dubbo to see the Western Plains Zoo. We had a cool behind-the-scenes tour arranged, and the lodgings and food were great, but since it was only a one-night package, they kind of crammed in too many activities into too short a time, so we felt a bit rushed there.

The lodgings were incredible, by the way. With the package we bought, we were in a sort of large tent basically right on the African plains exhibit, so there were giraffes and gazelles and ostriches walking right outside our doors. Our little baby slept in his tent on the floor at the foot of our bed with wild animals roaming right outside and lions roaring in the distance. He was by far the youngest person in our tour group staying with the package we bought. Nobody else had a 9-month-old.

I was nervous about that little family trip to the zoo. There were a lot of moving parts. We had to rent a car. My wife had to drive on the opposite side of the road for 10 hours total (no way I'm doing that, sorry). We had to get a car seat installed in the rental car for the baby. We had to make sure we took enough food and supplies with us to Dubbo, which we heard was a bit remote (it turned out to be a reasonably sized town with cell service and plenty of shopping and stuff).

Though we are part of a large family of relatives there and others like my parents and sister were traveling with us, the three of us are also a little family of our own, and it was important for us to carve out a portion of the large vacation just for us. A little family vacation just for ourselves. I'm glad we did.

Take a plane and a boat out to a reef

Our other side trip had me, my wife and baby, my dad, and my sister and brother-in-law fly to Gladstone and then out to Heron Island to go snorkeling and scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. It was every bit as awesome as it sounds.

Heron Island doesn't feel touristy. It smells like bird poop. A lot. You can tell it's the kind of place where people go because they have assigned the highest priority to having amazing snorkeling and diving, above all other considerations. The food was expensive and mediocre. The lodgings were sufficient and convenient, borderline comfortable--I've stayed in nicer motels. But you can walk five minutes out to the beach and nearly step on huge rays in the shallows, then snorkel for another five minutes and see a bunch of sharks and crazy fish.

My dad is a bird enthusiast moreso than an aquatic person, and, if you could tell from the name of the place, there was good birdwatching, so he graciously watched the baby, fed him, and took him for walks while my wife and I went out on our snorkeling trips and our introductory scuba dive (which was great). Probably the most memorable snorkeling trip we took was early in the morning before the tide receded, out to a large shipwreck, around it, and back. I love shipwrecks and other ruined structures, and you could almost swim right into the shipwreck. It was really cool.

The baby did really well on this trip. In a way, this was more relaxing than most of the other parts of the vacation, because we were mostly on our own schedule. You might also say we were on island time, and you'd be right. It was also during this trip that he learned how to push himself into a standing position by using low furniture as a prop. O boy.

Climbing up the Opera House

We had one free day between side trips and wedding festivities, so my wife and I bought train tickets and took the baby into downtown Sydney for a day of walking around. In a stroke of genius, we took both the ErgoBaby (baby carrier, like a backpack) and the stroller. The baby actually falls asleep pretty well in the carrier, and if we got tired of carrying him, we could put him in the stroller.

We went to a neighborhood called Barangaroo. We had heard it was somewhat recently developed and had a lot of good food. We did see a lot of restaurants... but they were all closed for a long weekend or something! What?? Finally we found a place that was open, a little ramen shop, and had some delicious ramen. The baby experienced ramen noodles for the first time and was highly entertained by the sensation of trying to cram a noodle in his mouth.

We eventually made our way to Circular Quay, which overlooks the famous Sydney Opera House. We walked over to the Opera House itself and discovered that it is made up of three or four barnacles. They're definitely barnacles, or maybe clams, if you want. We walked around some, then caught the train back home. It was a fun day with no trip plan, just to ourselves.

All about compromises

The number one thing I got better at during this trip, when it came to child care, was compromising. At home we have a great setup and access to all the supplies we could need. Right from the start, we obviously couldn't take everything we would want with us, so at every step of the way we had to think of what we needed and what we could substitute.

We got really good at figuring out just what we needed to take with us when going on any outing and putting it in my backpack. I want you to know just how much we thought about this stuff, and I want to be able to read this someday and look back on how potentially excessive we were, so here's what we took:

Always take a diaper bag:

  • Several diapers, in case you'll be out for hours and he poops multiple times
  • Wipes, in case he poops. Also super useful for cleaning his face after eating if there's no sink around!
  • A&D lotion for diaper rash protection
  • A changing mat, in case you have to change him at the zoo on just some random rock
  • Diaper disposal bags, in case you have to change him in the woods and carry his poopy diaper for hours

And we always had an emergency bag:

  • Change of clothes, because babies are stupidly messy
  • A bunch of bibs, because babies drool on everything, just all the dang time
  • A few toys, some of his favorites. Turns out this wasn't as important. The baby was reaching the stage in his life where you could hand him basically any object that he wasn't very familiar with, and he'd coo at it and turn it over and over in his hands for ages. Baby toys are a scam.
  • Pacifiers. We never ever wanted to be without pacifiers. Sometimes, when he's just melting down hardcore, that's the thing that helps him center himself.
  • His sleepy-time stuffed animals. He rubs them on his face and ears when going to sleep. It helps... a lot. If we needed to get him to sleep, they were invaluable.

And finally, his feeding supplies, because babies have to eat every few hours.

  • Feeding bibs, which are different than the bibs above. Feeding bibs are plastic and have pockets to catch food. They're not too comfortable either, so we only use them at mealtime.
  • Bottles of formula in an insulated lunchbox with a freezer pack, if we're going to be out for a long time.
  • Sippy cups for drinking formula. Multiple of them, in case we can't get to a sink to rinse it out after he's done eating. We don't want to reuse them between feedings without a rinse because they'll accumulate bacteria quickly on the residual formula left after a feeding.
  • Puree pouches, in case we can't manage to find real food for him wherever we eat.
  • Baby spoons, in case we can't get spoons small enough to feed him with wherever we're eating (like at a restaurant).
  • His water sippy cup, just for water, so it doesn't have to be rinsed as much

Funny side story about those puree pouches: at the beginning of the trip, we didn't feed the pouches straight to him; we put them into a little cup or squeezed them straight onto a spoon and spoon-fed him. A few days before the end of the trip, on a whim I tried squeezing one straight into his mouth and oh boy, he sucked it right down with no problem. I can't believe we weren't doing that right from the start. Sheesh.

So we got pretty good about making sure we had all this stuff with us. We kept it organized and mostly packed and ready to go at all times. But yeah, there were times we also forgot some thing or another and had to scramble to make do with something else. We got good at pushing the baby around and around in the stroller to get him to sleep or at least sedated. We just gave up on our usual nap scheduling on many occasions and just said, "he's going to have to deal with it, and we're going to have to handle him as well as we can".

Before we left, I'd taken him out by myself only a few times. Not necessarily because I was worried about doing it, but it just seemed inconvenient. Now I feel like I'm mentally prepared to take him basically anywhere and handle anything that comes our way. Both my wife and I feel like we kind of leveled up as parents on this trip.

Now that we're back

I still have three weeks of parental leave left. I've been relaxing pretty hard since we got back; the trip was the really big event we were planning for. The baby is now almost 11 months old, and his schedule has changed again since we got back. We're starting to eliminate one of his naps. That's a big deal, because he'll now have a stretch of four and a half hours awake every day (from 12:30 to 5 PM). I think he's ready, too. Every single day in the middle of his 5-6:30 nap, he wakes up at 6 PM like clockwork. I think he's getting more naps than he needs and wakes up restless.

When he's awake, I like to give him as much time just free-crawling throughout the house, even though it can be a bit of a pain, because he wants to get into all kinds of stuff. At the same time, we're teaching him the meaning of "no!". Rather, we say "uh uh! Don't play with cables; they're dangerous". If he ignores us, we say "uh oh! Looks like you need to go somewhere else and play with something else!" Crazily enough, it's actually starting to take. Now he often hears the warning and pauses in his tracks before we have to sweep him away. It's like magic. I can't believe it works ever, let alone fairly reliably.

So every morning after feeding him breakfast, I plop him on the floor while I clean up the kitchen. I hand him different kitchen utensils or whatever else is lying around, and he crawls around and explores the house. In our living room we have some little baby activity tables that he loves to use to practice standing up. He'll stand at the activity table and spin the little toy wheels mounted on it and get all excited about being on his own two feet.

Wheels, man... he's going through some kind of phase where he loves anything that spins. He does this hilarious little flicking motion with his fingers to spin wheels on toys. He sat there and played with the wheels on the stroller for an hour straight, I swear. It cracks me up to watch. Less hilariously, it's also the same motion he uses to flick food off of his highchair tray when he's decided he's had enough.

Speaking of food, he eats all kinds of stuff these days: scrambled eggs, green beans, squash, bananas, chili, cut up PBJ sandwiches, oatmeal, pasta, cottage cheese, greek yogurt. We went out to chinese dumplings once in Australia and once the other day, and he chowed down on xiao long bao like a champ. Thankfully it's not too hard to feed him.

Some meals, though, he just doesn't feel like eating what we give him. We usually give him a couple choices, but sometimes instead of eating, he'll look at his food funny and make weird-yet-cute growling noises at it. He might touch it but drop it, or just flick it away. In these cases we don't tend to give him other choices. The consequence of choosing not to eat any of the food you're offered is that you miss a meal. Sorry, guy! We're confident he won't starve himself. Plus, he's still getting formula for now, and that's packed with the nutrients he needs.

He has six teeth (four on top, two on bottom) pretty well out, so he's gotten better at chewing his food rather than cramming it way into his mouth and gumming it around and not swallowing it. This sudden array of teeth brought with it teeth grinding. Sometimes we hear the little *crrk crrk crrk* of him grinding those little teeth together. It must feel good, or at least interesting.

He's started making more faces lately. He scrunches up his little nose and grins when he's happy. He breathes real fast through his mouth when he's excited. At every stage of his life so far I feel like I can see glimpses of what his face is going to change to next. He's at that point again, and I can tell you now: it's still super cute!

The next major development for him is probably walking. He's reliably pulling himself up to a standing position with the use of furniture and walls, and his balance has gotten better. He's well on his way to making his way wherever he wants to go. I bet the next time I write he'll be full-on walking.


Unknown said...

Love this blog!

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