I recently missed a full week of my daughter’s day-to-day life. For a dad who initially was lamenting the time missed by a simple trip to the grocery store, this was a big deal. When I saw how much Maddie had changed in a week’s time, it became an even bigger deal.
My absence was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up–and had actually asked for. My employer was organizing a pilgrimage to Rome1 and I had snagged a spot as the digital media maven who would document the online version of the pilgrimage for interested parties who couldn’t join us.2 Unfortunately, this also meant leaving my 3.5-month-old daughter for a full week. She and my wife would travel down to my in-laws’ house while I would travel to the Eternal City.
My trip was incredible. It was my first experience of Europe and my first religious pilgrimage. My inner Catholic nerd was completely blown away by larger-than-life basilicas, holy relics, two Pope Francis spottings and much more.
But when I got home, there was an even greater marvel to behold: Madeline had evolved. I had gotten glimpses of this in some of our brief FaceTime catch-up calls from Rome, but seeing her in person was like meeting a new baby. In just a week’s absence and now nearly four months into her life, Maddie has become a full-fledged miniature person. She started grabbing her feet. She started rolling halfway over on to her side. She started tracking objects and faces with her eyes. She advanced in her ability to imitate smiles, laughter, cooing and talking. She gets distracted by loud noises. She looks at people when they start talking.
After months of one-sided interactions that yielded nothing more than the occasional gas-induced smile, it’s a wonderful feeling to see her exhibit emotions beyond despair and to watch her interact with the world more and more every day.3
All that said, she’s still very much a new baby. Our nighttime routine for the past two months or so goes like this:
- Around 7 p.m., she’s been really fussy and is clearly tired. We should probably try to put her to bed. That’s when a lot of babies tend to go to sleep for the night, right?
- We wrap her in her super-swaddle to stave off any Houdini-like shenanigans with her arms that will lead her fingers to find her face and wake her up.
- Theresa feeds her one last time for about 20 minutes and then rocks her gently for about 15 minutes to ensure that she is solidly asleep.
- She transfers her to the rock ’n play in her room as gently as possible and creeps back out to the living room—attempting to avoid the creaks in the wood floor like Indiana Jones leaving a forbidden temple.
From here, the story can change, but it always ends the same way: After an unpredictable amount of (too short) time, Maddie wakes up and starts yelling. We wait a few moments to see if she will soothe herself back to sleep, but this is a pipe dream. For all her development, she has yet to learn the art of self-soothing.
At this point, I will run back to her room—floor creaks be damned—and swiftly pick her up out of the cradle before the screaming reaches a wide-awake critical mass. Thus begins our post-feeding formula for getting her to sleep. We hold her out in front of us, head cradled in one hand and body stretched along the length of our arm, and walk laps around the cradle in her room, chanting a mystical incantation of “Madeline…Madeline…Madeline…” and rhythmically patting her backside, as the endless roar of rain sounds emanate from the white noise machine.
We are usually unable to pass Go without her yelping first becoming more intense or descending into an all-out rage. When this happens, you just have to play through the pain and maintain your rhythmic dance. Even in the face of adversity–like when she somehow breaks free of her swaddle in front of your eyes while you’re holding her–you must reswaddle, take a deep breath and persevere. She will eventually start to come back down to earth and, depending on how worked up she was, drift back to sleep. We can gradually dispense with the “Madelines” and then the laps around the room and then the butt-patting. But don’t you dare put her down yet. Experienced baby whisperers4 will be able to make an educated guess about the proper length of time when a deeper sleep has been achieved. At this point, you can attempt the drop-off—a maneuver not unlike Tom Cruise famously breaking into that white room in the first Mission Impossible movie and lowering himself down via cable. I tend to first set her feet and body down into the cradle, followed by her enormous head. I usually leave my hands around her until I’m sure the drop-off has been a success, then I withdraw and sneak quietly out of the room.
On good nights, we have to do this once or twice more. On bad nights, we have to do this again and again and again. On the upside, the sometimes four-hour process of getting her to sleep is usually rewarded with a full night’s sleep of six or seven hours. I must have said this out loud one too many times, however, as she seems to be seriously regressing in her sleep patterns this week—being just as difficult to put to sleep initially, but then waking up once almost every two hours.
When she wakes up inconsolable in the middle of the night, she is nearly unrecognizable from the joyful babe we experience during the day. Maddie gives away smiles like it’s going out of style now, especially cheerful when she first wakes up and frequently greeting us with a smile in the morning that says, “I don’t know what happened last night, but don’t hold me responsible.”
I often catch her staring expectantly and smiling at whoever is talking in her line of sight, waiting for them to look back at her and reciprocate. She also will just randomly smile to herself when she’s looking around at the world. Her smile is one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, and when she’s cooing at me and looking deep into my eyes, I become teary-eyed putty in her saliva-covered hands.
I would give anything to know what is going on in her mind. What are human thoughts before we have the words to express them? In those moments when we play with her and she laughs or when we talk to her and she looks like she is struggling to talk back, I’d love to know what she is thinking or feeling. Similarly, I wonder what she is trying to accomplish from moment-to-moment in her pre-language life.
Whether it’s trying to jam both fists into her mouth at the same time, folding herself in half to bring her feet up to her face, or grabbing my hand and pulling it toward her mouth to feast on my index finger like a corn cob, Madeline is a blur of activity these days—and she seems very intent on accomplishing…something.
A friend told me soon after Maddie’s birth that it only gets more fun as your child gets older, and so far that has been my experience. Over Thanksgiving, I was able to hold a relative’s weeks’ old baby and was reminded of the serenity and simplicity of that experience–which I had already begun to forget about. While that is wonderful in its own right, I am loving the daily adventure of watching Maddie discover the world, even when the world is really just her toes.
Now she’s just a couple days away from the four-month mark and on the verge of fully rolling over. I get home from work and wonder what will be different today. Suffice to say, I can’t afford to miss another week!