You might recall, that while still in the belly, but very much on the way out (whether he liked it or not) our baby wouldn’t budge. Not an inch, not a muscle. Not a bit. He stood the ground of the womb and defended his desire to remain there indefinitely, cuddled and cozy, perfectly content to ignore the flashing fluorescent lights of labor pointing not so subtly to the exit door.
After a long night, a full morning, and a medley of medical staff strategies and push positions, we all declared an end to the long slog. It was time.
And so, to help us complete the final reveal of our very first nine-month long magic trick, the doctors, nurses, and midwife escorted Amanda and me into a room prepped for surgery, plopped us down behind a curtain and … presto chango … alakazam … and abracadabra!
A baby appeared. We named him Jack.
Smiling through her surgical mask, the lead magician in charge — who happened to be a kind-hearted, jovial woman with a medical degree — lifted something up and over the threshold.
There he was, our own little snuggle muffin caked in goo and more than just a little surprised by his new surroundings.
The magical assistants applauded. Amanda and I rejoiced. Jack cried his first cry.
Upon his arrival, those first few hours brought feelings of triumph and moments of pure joy. The experience of childbirth was so unlike anything else that had ever happened to us that it barely felt real.
And yet it was.
Together for the first time, we huddled as a family of three. Jack safely and expertly nuzzling his way into the cavernous crook of Amanda’s collarbone. My arms around them both.
Text messages poured in with congratulations and well wishes. Hands were shook, and hugs were had. Forming a queue, doctors, nurses, and family one by one assured us that Jack was absolutely and without any doubts whatsoever … the most adorable baby to ever be born.
It must be true.
It was a circus of happiness. Excitement hung in the air. A new generation begun.
Many hours later, as the grande finale ran out of steam, the messages stopped pouring in. Nanas and Papas and Nonnas and Peppers and Boos and sisters and brothers and cousins and friends said their goodbyes and marched their way home.
Even the adrenaline, depleted and faded away, left us to the exhaustion and sleepiness that had been there waiting to claim our bodies all along.
That evening, after what felt like only a few passing moments of sleep, there was a knock on the door of our new room in the maternity ward. Her name was Linda.
Hi, I’m Linda.
I’ll be your nurse today.
As it turns out, exhaustion is no excuse to remain sleeping indefinitely when you have a tiny tot to feed. Not when Nurse Linda is knocking on your door with Jack safely in tow from the nursery aboard his mobile bassinet, in search of his next meal now that he was unplugged and set loose upon the outside world.
Our unbudgeable baby was now ours and ours alone. Except now, instead of Amanda’s body making all the decisions and performing all the hard work while we kicked our feet up on the couch and left behind whatever we once categorized as a ‘tough day,’ it was up to us to figure things out using our own bodies and our own brains.
And according to Nurse Linda, we were just getting started.
Nurse Linda’s Terrific (But Also Terrifying) Baby Boot Camp
If I have learned anything, anything at all about the nurses who patrol the maternity ward, it is this: they love babies. All babies. And as such, it is their sworn duty to mold new parents into the most capable of caretakers in the few short days and nights they are given to do so.
And of course, they do it with a lot of love and laughter along the way.
But still …
Our temporary barracks at the maternity ward began with a suspiciously smiling Nurse Linda and a formal introduction to the demands, schedules, and tallies of her impeccably detailed and expertly organized whiteboard.
This was our baby boot camp, and it was a very serious place to be:
“Look at the board. Here is my name. I am Nurse Linda. Later, a new nurse will replace me. But don’t worry ... I will always come back. Always.
Look at the board, Matt.
These are the tests that must be completed before Jack can be discharged. The forms to be filled out. The lactation specialist. The doctors. The midwife.
The whiteboard is law. It tells you what needs to be done. Always check the board. It will guide you.
Look at the board. Every time Jack poops, put a tally on the board. Every time he pees, you put a tally on the board. Never forget and always remember … sleep while you can.
And Matt, be a good partner. Support your partner. If she’s up, you’re up. I will be watching.”
While it seemed simple enough, it was not.
In fact, the first lesson I learned was that I had no idea what I was doing — a recurring theme in my time here on Earth. All those books I scanned, the blogs I skimmed, the classes … and yet, my mind was blank.
To comply with my new life and the person now running it, I made a practice of nodding whenever Nurse Linda spoke or instructed.
Nod to prove you are awake. Nod to prove you are paying attention. Nod even if nobody is speaking in your direction or at all. In fact, better to nod at all times, even if you find yourself alone in the room — just in case.
Sleep while you can. But never fall asleep while holding the baby. Look at the board. Eat. Hydrate. Attempt personal hygiene between feedings.
When the baby poops … add a tally to the board. When the baby pees … add a tally to the board.
When you poop … don’t add a tally to anything.
No stranger to being in charge, Nurse Linda packed our basic training regimen with a variety of cruel and invasive sleep deprivation experiments, parental survival training classes, and a long series of never-ending physical and mental drills that would poke holes in our equilibrium and explore our capacity for self-preservation — I even had my own cot.
Day and night, our threesome remained sequestered within the four walls of the maternity ward room learning the ins and outs of effective breastfeeding positions, textbook latching methods, and detailed instructions for safely securing the mother-baby milk-transfer process.
It was there in that room, hunched over the adjustable overbed tray table, that I practiced (over and over and over) assembling and disassembling the components of the breast pump and its many essential accessories.
Nurse Linda at my side, blowing her whistle to signal another round, timing me with her stopwatch in the middle of the night, with the lights off, with crying babies and visiting guests to distract me. Over and over and over and once more ... until I got it right, dammit.
Until I could do it in my sleep.
Ever hear of colostrum? Me neither. Grab Jack’s toes if he falls asleep while feeding. Rub Amanda’s feet. Stay awake. Look at the board. What’s next?
Throughout our ongoing exhaustion, we were taught and tested on a range of operational procedures and systems: traditional diaper changing tactics, the execution of proper wiping techniques, established methods and best practices for swaddling.
Not to mention complex stratagems and contemporary theories for dressing Jack in his eight-button, standard issue hospital onesie and indoor baby hat without hurting his delicate frame.
We scrubbed, shampooed, and burped. We wiped, washed, and cuddled.
Our new daily grind slowly became routine. Nods of approval were earned. The barracks remained tidy and neat. We were surviving.
And Amanda was doing great. Incredible actually.
Her superhuman will to recover quickly from major surgery simply because it was ‘an inconvenience’ was inspiring and very much in character. But post-surgery recovery was not easy. It was difficult to move, rise, walk, eat, sleep, shower, think and everything else that falls under the category of routine human tasks.
Let alone feed a baby.
Not only was Amanda the only one capable of producing food and nourishment for little Jack, but as newbie parents, we soon learned that meant she would be feeding him every two to three hours. It seemed impossible.
And what’s worse, the clock starts at the beginning of each feeding — leaving precious little time for anything else in between, other than passing out and maybe stuffing some food down while you can.
It was an intense and rigorous schedule. We learned to eat while sleeping. To sleep at the drop of a hat or a dime. To live our lives one nap at a time.
To aid her in every and any way possible, Nurse Linda dubbed me ‘the runner’ — a support specialist whose duty it was to perform the commands of the officer in charge.
Whether it be morning, noon or night, I was responsible for transferring Jack from the bassinet to Amanda for all feedings. I would engineer and arrange expertly folded and positioned pillows around their bodies to support them as they bonded and transferred nutrients from one to the other. I would wait at the ready, at her beck and call.
And rub the feet. Always rub the feet.
I would run to and from the snack room and back a million times and then some to fill-up enormous water bottles, collect mountains of ice chips, and create experimental concoctions of juices containing mixtures of cranberry and apple and grape. The runner runs. Round and round and round.
And so I did.
Wash the pumping tools in warm water and soap.
Clean and maintain the room in an orderly fashion.
Order the food from the cafeteria.
Rub the feet. Rub the shoulders. Rub the neck. Keep rubbing.
Order the pizza. Order the salads. Order the chocolate cake.
The feedings kept on coming, an endless stream of needs announced by the nurses’ bugle call relaying the signal that yet again it was time already.
Morning, noon, and night it went. A marathon sprint.
Our life had become a carefully constructed and sometimes chaotic ballet of constant movement around the room — with Amanda and Jack at the center.
Patterns formed. Duties fulfilled only to be begun again. A dance of intricate necessities to the tune of Nurse Linda and her flourishing conductors wand instructing my movements and responsibilities, either in person or through a voice that had burrowed itself deep inside my head.
We were becoming a unit. Amanda, the fearless leader, learning to call the shots. Pointing. Directing. Feeding. Recovering. Showering. Eating. Walking. Hosting. In short, doing all the hard work. Oh yeah. And also ...
Falling in love.
In the middle of it all was this wonderful bundle of joy we were learning to keep alive. Jack, a wrinkly little man, sometimes resembling a turtle, fragile but sturdy, curious but still frightened … the beginning of our next adventure and living the very first days of his own.
Over time the whiteboard tallies showed a little boy who could both pee and poop plenty. And one by one the tests were crossed off with success. The birth certificate filled out. The forms completed.
A perfect little bundle indeed.
Goodbye Nurse Linda, Goodbye Baby Boot Camp
During our time at baby boot camp, I survived, somewhat surprisingly, on a series of daily egg salad sandwiches from the hospital cafeteria. Those sandwiches were my lifeline, a reliable feast in a vast desert of underwhelming selections and unhealthy assortments of fast food and subpar soups.
When learning to keep a baby alive and well, one cannot rely on soggy pizza nor an endless supply of molten lava chocolate cake. One can only eat so many salads.
As the days passed by, our new status as parental unit in charge of things began to set it in for real. Confidence levels increased. Abilities had begun to form and develop. In short, we started to feel like we might even be capable of doing this raising a baby thing all by ourselves.
Amanda was up and walking the halls. One step at a time. Slow and steady. Jack by her side, pushed along in his mobile bassinet by his Daddy. A family of three. Their first leisurely stroll. Sure, it was disheveled and done in hospital issued nightgowns, but a stroll it still was.
Around in circles we went, doing our best to navigate the ward without accidentally setting off the baby tracking alarms installed to shoo away any attempts at baby thievery.
Although, we certainly set it off at least once, maybe twice. Only to quickly scurry away.
Soon enough, I no longer felt completely terrified by the act of holding a small, tiny little peanut man in my arms — an act I had been avoiding my entire adult life.
After only a few short days Nurse Linda had made sure I was a professionally trained baby holder. Swaying Jack this way and that, calming him but mostly myself with the comforting rhythms of the back and forth.
Throughout our training, the Nanas and Papas and Nonnas and Peppers and Boos and sisters and brothers and cousins and friends were ushered in and out of the room to stay and keep us company. To hold Jack and say ‘hello’ and ‘welcome to this world.’ To fall in love themselves and sit with us as they spoke and we watched through our tired faces.
Once feared, Nurse Linda was now looked upon with affection for her passion and care for both Amanda and Jack, and with gratitude for her lessons. Another unit prepared. She had done her sworn duty, once again.
And then one day … it was time for us to go. We had graduated.
Boot camp had come to its natural conclusion, and our support team decided that we were very much capable of keeping a baby alive and well, with love and tenderness, and only the occasional series of expletives, profanities, and naughty words to blow off some steam and recalibrate our sanity.
And also, the insurance was done covering our days surrounded by professionals and living just a hop, skip, and a jump away from a very handy nursery right down the hall. There would be no more pressing a button to have someone whisk young Jack while we took another nap.
We were getting kicked out.
A Brief Panic-Inducing Misplacement of a Car and a Car Seat
After a four-day intensive boot camp, after all the grueling training courses and late-night and early-morning feeding fire drills, we were tired. And still a little scared. But finally ready to return home with the knowledge that we knew enough to get ourselves started, enough to keep Jack happy and fed.
We were ready for clean sheets, fresh clothes, and our own refrigerated foods and home-cooked meals. It was time to not only show Jack his new place but to expand my diet once again beyond the nourishment provided by the delectable five-star egg salad sandwiches I had come to love so much.
My compliments to the chef.
One by one the nurses and midwives and specialists said their goodbyes and good lucks. Neither Nurse Linda nor our threesome shed any tears, it wouldn’t have been proper. Our unit was shipping out in tip-top shape, and that was just the way she wanted it.
Another job well done. Another family on their way. And another one waiting somewhere, ready for the molding to begin.
Jack was ready too. We could tell. After all the peeing and pooping and feeding and crying and sleeping within the close quarters of the maternity ward room, he was looking forward to finally sleeping in his own crib (or whatever swing or chair he would approve of) in his own home.
As the hours of our discharge day passed, the forms were signed, the appointments scheduled, last minute instructions deployed, and well wishes dispersed. Cheeks were pinched, and emergency snuggles were had by all. There was just one final task. One last duty to be performed.
As the runner, the husband, the father, it was up to me to fetch the car seat so we could strap Jack in and hit the road.
There was just one problem. The car seat was in the car. And the car was parked in the parking garage. And the parking garage was not a place I had visited for several days. Even still, I was pretty sure I could remember where I had left it, roughly at least.
It couldn’t be that hard to find a car. Our car. Could it?
Turns out, it can. And it was.
Sleep deprived and disheveled, I left Amanda and Jack alone in the room, now clean and empty, our bags packed, the two of them sitting together as I promised them a car seat and a return trip to the city and our apartment.
I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.
I said those words.
They came out of my mouth.
I was certainly not back in fifteen minutes.
Firmly believing that this final act would be nothing more than a very standard car retrieval, I grabbed as many bags as I could, slipping them over my arms, generously draping both sides with the heavy luggage, gear, and personal belongings we packed up that morning.
Besides, I was more worried about installing Jack into the car seat.
Would I know how to correctly put him in? Would he fit? What if the nurses didn’t like the way I did it? Would they make me practice before they let us go? That’s a lot of pressure.
And then, what about putting the car seat in the actual car? What would that be like? Is there a safety inspection team that monitors the process? To make sure Jack is indeed in good hands? Safe? Secure? Well-parented?
As I waddled and wobbled my way over to the first in a long series of elevators, it was immediately clear that I had overestimated my own strength and ability to carry so many bags such a long way.
My poor arms already buckling against the weight. The bags flailing left and right, leaving me to play the part of an unsteady anchor swaying in the wind like a lunatic as I apologized to the strangers I stumbled into.
To make matters worse, the parking garage was located at the far end of an intricate maze consisting of long hallways, tiny elevators, and winding staircases. It was a course designed to quickly eliminate the weak minded and faint of heart, to discourage those who didn’t commit hours to memorizing the passage back from the maternity ward.
The journey was a lot like playing the beloved childhood board game “Chutes and Ladders” — this time in real life. The obvious absence of ladders and the overabundance of chutes made it difficult to maintain my confidence as I navigated onward, or what I thought was onward.
Wrong turns meant backtracking and attempting course corrections in real time and on the fly. Mistakes were made, sending me in circles as I chased my own tail and swore at my own blunders and miscalculations.
Where do I go?
At times the directional signage was unbearably unclear and more than a little absurd.
Unbearably Unclear and More Than a Little Absurd Signage
Go to the yellow wing of the hospital and take the eastern elevator to the third floor. There you will meet a bearded man wearing a charcoal colored overcoat and bowler hat with a pet rabbit name Sneakers. He (the rabbit) will challenge you to complete a series of ancient riddles in Yiddish that must be answered correctly before moving on to the northwestern corridor where you will then engage in battle with a small but fearsome pack of squirrels trained in the martial arts and who are known for not taking prisoners. And yes, they will be armed with nunchucks.
If you are still alive, which you probably won’t be, take whatever bags you have left and proceed to the southern gate. There you may ride the purple elevator down eight floors to the rope swing and fire pit course. If you are so lucky to survive, please do not forget to pay your parking ticket, and beware of the alligator — he has not been fed in quite some time.
Thankfully, by mustering all my physical gifts and mental prowess, I managed to survive the ordeal, even despite a terrible fear of riddles and a few close calls during my battle with the squirrels.
Unfortunately, the alligator did get my left pinky — he was just too quick. I will miss that finger very much.
Once I made it safely (and mostly in one piece) to the hospital parking garage, it turned out that the worst obstacle by far was still ahead. Upon my arrival at where I thought X would very much mark the spot, all I saw was a big … fat … empty … space.
Our reliable used 2012 black forest pearl Toyota RAV4 was nowhere to be seen. And it was there, after defying impossible odds merely to locate the parking garage, holding a silly amount of baggage, my body perspiring and my clothes soggy, that I began to panic.
The car is gone.
The car contains the car seat.
The baby needs a car seat to go home.
The car seat is gone.
How could this happen?
I knew, from past experiences and self-made oopsies in which I have faced equally disturbing, shocking, and seemingly impossible situations, that remaining calm and applying practical decision-making skills wouldn’t help me in the least.
Instead, I chose to let the panic in.
Heck, I was already sweating profusely, my heart beating too many times per minute, and still running on the fumes of Nurse Linda’s sleep deprivation experiments — I was clearly due for a good panic attack or at least some medium-level crying alone in a corner somewhere.
There along the wall where I parked was a sign that said ‘Valet Parking Only.’ How could I have missed that? A large print painted in yellow. Of course … I had been towed.
Our beloved chariot was roasting away in the August heat somewhere, most likely abandoned and lost in the forgotten fields of an expensive charge-by-the-minute tow lot. Probably sitting next to a faded metallic red Geo Tracker with no windows and an ancient pair of bygone Toyota Camrys, each with over 200,000 miles and long ago picked apart for scraps.
How could this have happened? Things were going so well. And now, I just wanted a latte and to go home. To eat a pizza with egg salad sandwiches on top and maybe some Cheetos. And most of all, to not be wandering around a town I did not know in search of a tow lot I did not want to visit.
But it was a Friday afternoon and the day was passing us quickly by. I had to solve this pronto and get back to my recovering from major surgery wife and tiny little newborn.
As I raced to find help, bracing the bags against my body and pondering if I would ever not be sweating at some point soon, I wondered if tow lots were even open on Friday evenings. Or weekends.
Would I have to buy a new car seat? A new car to put it in?
While bumping into my thoughts, each one produced by whatever the dumbest part of my brain is called ... each one less intelligent than the one before … I ran into a woman with a red shirt.
To my dumb luck, that red shirt had words on it. And those words said ‘Parking Garage Attendant.’
Are you a parking garage attendant?
(Silence and confusion) … Yes.
Can you help me?
I was actually just going home.
Here’s the situation.
I don’t remember her name, although I should have tattooed it somewhere on the surface of my body in honor of her heroic effort to help a desperate stranger in need of car location assistance.
Not only did she NOT think I was crazy (or maybe she did and kept it to herself), she took charge of the situation immediately. Without hesitation, she led me straight to the nearby valet parking station while expressing her utmost sympathy and telling me that everything would be just fine.
I’m pretty sure we don’t even tow cars here, sir.
It was reassuring to hear those words, but until I actually laid eyes on the shimmering gleam of the black forest pearl, I would remain inconsolable.
The woman, speaking to the staff operating the valet rotary in front of yet another entrance and area of the hospital I had never seen before, explained my situation and pointed to me — the sweaty man with too many bags and a frenzied look about him.
Let me see your keys.
Here you go.
Without explaining, one of the men took my keys and started running at breakneck speed.
He was as fast as the wind … faster even. From our vantage point on the ground, myself, the kind woman, and the rest of the valet crew watched as the man ran up each of the parking garage levels — with an open style layout, the garage was both indoors and outdoors, allowing us to see him running from about the neck up, a single head moving at warp speed behind the concrete walls.
As he ran, he clicked the alarm button on the keychain over and over, revealing within minutes that not just any 2012 black forest pearl Toyota RAV4 was in the parking garage, but that it was ours!
As he pulled our car into the valet parking station area just a few minutes later, I could feel the anxiety drain from every corner of my body, replaced with relief and thankfulness for these good people. Not only was the car not towed, nor lost, it had simply been misplaced and was very much available for a newly minted family of three’s return trip home!
To show my thanks, I tipped the kind woman and said ‘holy crap, I’m an idiot’ at least a dozen times. I tipped the man who ran like a bat out of hell. I tipped the valet crew. I tipped random patients leaving for the day as they exited the revolving door. I tipped the landscapers trimming the hedges and tending to the mulch beds nearby.
And finally, I placed all those ridiculous bags down in the trunk of the car, my arms falling to the ground like floppy, useless spaghetti noodles.
So … You’re Letting Us Take this Baby Home? By Ourselves?
Unperturbed and only slightly aware that I was gone for a bit longer than I had promised, Amanda and Jack were sitting together in their chair exactly where I had left them, cuddled and cozy, somehow managing to survive just fine without me.
And as it turns out, the battalion of nurses, doctors, security guards, hospital executives, and representatives from the local government I assumed would be attending the first car seat strap in ceremony as delegates of the fictional hospital safety inspection team … was not actually a real thing that happens.
It was just us.
I strapped Jack in as he looked up at me with his enormous eyes resting peacefully within his tiny face, somewhat perplexed by this strange seat I was wriggling his little body into.
And … that was about it.
Expecting a few more hoops to jump through, perhaps a last-minute surprise quiz administered by Nurse Linda and reviewed by a panel of judges, it felt odd to just pick up the car seat and walk out.
But that’s precisely what happened.
Four months and some change later, Amanda and I often find ourselves with our jaws dropped in astonishment, staring at this perfectly wonderful little man we created and whom she grew from the size of a poppy seed to an eggplant to a watermelon right there in her belly.
It’s quite unbelievable to believe that you could possibly be responsible for such a thing.
And yet, we did that.
On and on Jack grows, already sporting two fantastic chins, ten itty-bitty toes, a beautiful bald head, and a belly full of milk. His head, by the way, is enormous, his hands strong, his smile delightful, and his neck still hidden from sight — the doctor has assured us there will be a neck, eventually.
We drove home that afternoon, with lattes in hand to keep our blood moving and our eyelids afloat. Amanda in the back seat making sure Jack was OK and there to hold his hand as he cried for the first time in his life over frustrating traffic patterns.
We were a family of three, set loose in the wild for the very first time … together and left alone to ourselves at last.