What to Expect When You're Expecting

Special to Tribune Newspapers

My son will be born any day now.

My belly, naturally, has reached the remarkable size whereby it solicits comments -- advice, usually -- from strangers.

First, the warm, knowing smiles. Next, "Do you know what you're having?" And then, the floodgates open.

I actually love getting unsolicited parenting instruction from random passersby. People are so much more interesting than parenting books. They don't approach child-rearing like a science project, and you can read the love in their eyes as plainly as words on a page. And since my first child is a girl, I'm eager for any and all wisdom on raising this little boy.

"Hold off on the video games as long as you can."

"Teach him to mow the lawn."

"Brace yourself: Boys are never still." (Neither are girls -- at least my particular 3 1/2 -year-old one, but I'll prepare for double the exhaustion.)

I'm committing these nuggets to memory, hoping they'll rescue me in my inevitable moments of befuddlement -- and knowing, of course, they won't begin to tackle the mountain of questions that lies ahead.

I relished advice when I was expecting my daughter -- sought it out from strangers, read it in manuals, solicited it from friends. And yet, 48 hours into her little life, when the hospital allowed us to bundle her up, stuff her in a car seat and drive her home, terror set in.

The nurses peppered us with instructions. Don't wipe too hard when you're changing her. Her skin is like Kleenex. Clip her fingernails. Write down her feeding schedule and every time she poops.

But they couldn't help me answer the larger questions that loomed. Like, why do I look the same, more or less, as I did when I arrived here to deliver her? Why do I look in the mirror and see the person I used to be? I'm not that person anymore. I don't even remember her. And I need to know why that's not being reflected in some tangible way.

Maybe, I wanted to suggest to them, you could repurpose one of those yellow Baby On Board signs people hang in their cars? Baby On Brain. I could wear it around my neck. Or perhaps you should stick me in a car seat. Or a full-body cast?

I have never felt more vulnerable. As if my skin were like Kleenex. I ached, from the labor, obviously, but also for this new baby whom I suddenly loved in a way I couldn't imagine existing before. I was petrified. I was ecstatic.

Now that the stakes -- and the questions -- are about to double, I'm back to gathering advice, brushing up on when to introduce rice cereal, how to treat colic, the pros and cons of the pacifier.

But it all seems a tad quaint, inadequate, almost, after you've lived through the real thing. Sleep training, you start thinking? Are they kidding with this? I survived the first day of preschool. I've done roseola, hand, foot and mouth disease (twice) and rotavirus. I rode a school bus full of 3- and 4-year-olds up the Kennedy Expressway, destined for Chuck E. Cheese's, with the bus driver blasting Beyonce -- and that was the relaxing part of the field trip. I'm supposed to fret over getting an infant to sleep?

Still, I find the advice soothing. Like a placebo -- inadequate, but comforting nonetheless.

And the best advice, I found, came when I was least expecting it. Not from a stranger, or a friend or a book. Two years after my daughter was born, I was playing with her in our living room. I picked her up by her arms and started to swing her around in a circle. "Be careful with me," she squealed.

Be careful with me. What she meant, most likely, was don't drop me. Or don't slam my legs into that couch over there with all your crazy spinning and singing. But it was also the best advice a parent could ever receive -- or give. The words I've been trying to form since the day we left the hospital.

It's what I should have told those maternity nurses. It's what all the manuals and blogs and friends and well-meaning strangers are really telling me, when you strip away the warnings and the platitudes and the funny anecdotes and boil it all down to one, enduring message.

Be careful with him.


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