Backseat Parenting

Being a dad for a second time is a totally different experience. When my first was born, I was a nervous wreck, barely hearing conversations around me because I was incessantly monitoring my daughter’s condition: She just coughed, was that her normal cough? Is there such a thing as a normal cough? Should I track cough frequency and chronicle it in a notebook? I have a blank page between poop colors and sneeze counts, I should totally jot this down. Wait, where’s my pen? Holy shit, I left the house without a pen? What kind of father am I? What if I have to write to her doctor? Oh my god, who allowed me to have a child, she…wait, she did it again. That wasn’t a cough, it was a grunt. Is she trying to talk? Oh my god, did she just say her first word and I dismissed it as a cough? 

And on and on and on. Everything was so new and foreign and heavy with the weight of the world. I didn’t dare look away or even slip into brief reverie for fear that a momentary lapse would result in my child falling into a culvert or accidentally boarding a bus without me. She couldn’t even walk, yet I was able to concoct imaginary scenarios of how a careless moment would decimate my existence and leave me with 50 years of telling the horror story of how my daughter was blinded by a llama or lost her leg to the escalator at Target. Those were tense days.

Ten years later, my infant girl coughs and my reaction is: She’s not blue. Cool. I’ll keep an eye on her.

Because I am more relaxed about the minute-to-minute process, I’m able to pay a lot more attention to the world around my daughter without feeling like I’m neglecting her, and I’ve discovered a delightful strain in many parents, in the same way that watching a movie a second time reveals nuances that you missed when you were busy trying to figure out the plot.

Don’t mistake this as a critique of other parents. Parenting is all-consuming, and every child is different, so I empathize with everyone’s circumstances and keep my opinions to myself. (And appreciate when others do the same.) But there’s one compulsive bit of kibitzing I see that amuses me to no end. It occurs when a child fusses or cries, and people offer unsolicited assessments of the cause. For example, a conversation might sound something like this:

(baby cries)

Parent 1: (in playful baby voice) “Uh oh. Somebody’s hungry.”

Babie’s mom:  “She just ate an hour ago. I think she’s tired.”

Parent 2:  “It sounds to me like a full diaper. Bridget gave that whine when she was wet.”

Parent 1: “I don’t know. Even if she ate an hour ago, it depends on how much she ate.”

Babie’s mom: “She ate a lot. And I changed her just before you guys arrived. I’m going to lay her down for a nap.”

Parent 2: “Make sure you check that diaper. If she ate a lot, it’s probably poop.”

These insights are always delivered with a tone of “just trying to help,” but there’s often a passive/aggressive undercurrent of certainty, and there’s the rub: Anyone who believes themselves to be right will bristle at being proved wrong, so there’s an emotional investment in the advice. The baby might have gone days without eating, but the “he needs a nap” parent is intent on having accurately called the scenario. (“Sure, he’s humoring you by drinking some of that bottle, but I bet he zonks out right after.”) Worse, when circumstances demonstrate that one parent in a group is right, they often develop the swagger of a subject matter expert, eager to demonstrate again their super-tuned baby radar . Conversely, the parent who struck-out in their assessment quietly hopes another issue arises so they can take another swing, double-or-nothing.

I expected this would be limited to parents with similar-aged babies, each trying to elbow past the others as the most competent caregiver, but it’s bigger than that. Grandparents do it, too, piping up with the confidence of proven veterans coming off the bench to show the rookies the ropes, quick to dismiss all this new-school “new age” advice about how to holistically coax a child into full bloom. “Why are you asking him what’s wrong? Babies can’t talk. Stick a bottle in his mouth and he’ll settle down.”

Of course, the advice is usually offered to a mom, and even on my first go-round, I knew better than to try to tell a mother something she doesn’t know about her own child. I’m probably batting only about .400 when it comes to predicting the hungry/tired/teething/soiled/just-plain-grumpy cause of my own child’s discomfort, so when it’s happening to someone else’s baby, I’ll let all the other experts in the room handle the diagnosis.

Though if you’re wondering what is causing the exhausted eyes, the impatient tone, or the irritable expression on another dad’s face? That one I can hit out of the park.