by C.L. MAH
Published June 7, 2019
Establish a pattern of unpredictability
Parents thrive on routine, so keep them guessing. Go to sleep at 11 p.m. one evening, 6 p.m. the following evening, and 11 a.m. the next. Vary the time and length of your naps, avoiding any kind of pattern. A good nap should not exceed 17 minutes; enough to trick them into starting an errand, but not enough to finish. If Dad is watching the baby monitor, lie still, pretending to be asleep, and then thrash about violently, making choking noises. When he comes in to soothe you, immediately go limp and snore peacefully. Repeat this cycle every few minutes, timing your spasms to maximize his anxiety, especially if he is a first-time parent. Every so often, give Mom a full night of sleep to get her hopes up, then regress by waking every 90 minutes the following night. Remember: an anxious parent is an awake parent.
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On the inspiration for the piece...
Sadly, this piece was more memoir than satire. Our son, Miles, was born in February. For his first few days, he barely made a peep, but on day four, he started crying inconsolably and didn’t stop until late May. Nearly every single “joke” I wrote was something we experienced. Literally. We would spend hours rocking him to sleep, then try to gently place him in his bassinet, only for him to start screaming the moment his back hit the surface. Rinse and repeat 5-7 times daily for a hundred and fifty days. When he did take a nap, it lasted exactly seventeen minutes. Out of desperation, we dumped money into swaddles, swings, night nurses, and anti-colic bottles, none of which made any difference. At our low point, we even rented a Snoo (for those unfamiliar, a Snoo is basically a bassinet that violently shakes your baby to “sleep” and costs as much a Lexus).
Colic gradually receded by month five, and at six months, we put him through hardcore, cry-it-out sleep training. I’m happy to report that Miles is now a happy, affectionate, and decidedly less gassy ten-month-old. But what we experienced in Miles’s fourth trimester was like something out of the CIA interrogation playbook, hence the nickname we gave him: Guantanamo Baby.
On the writing/editing process...
There’s a well-known aphorism that humor is pain plus time. Humor is one way in which I cope with pain, so from very early on, I knew that I wanted to write about our experiences. When we found out that my wife was pregnant, I started writing letters to Miles (as well as this piece for McSweeney’s). With each passing week of colic, those letters became increasingly absurd.
For the first four months of his life, we basically had to wear or hold Miles to keep him from crying. Each night, I’d strap him to my chest and - because he was born in the winter and we live in Minnesota - I’d walk him on the treadmill for three or four miles until he fell asleep. In this manner, I finished reading seven books in two months (three of them about baby sleep training). But I’d also think of one-liners to include in the essay I was composing in my head and text them to myself.
It wasn’t just on the treadmill that I did this. There were countless nights at 2 a.m. when I’d cradle him in one arm, bouncing and bobbing, because he would cry if I even sat down. In my other hand, I’d text myself a quirky observation or the punchline of a joke. In this manner, I wrote most of the essay with one hand, in bite-sized text messages over the course of about three weeks. To make the piece “McSweeney’s-friendly,” I knew I needed a hook or an angle. Once the idea came to me to write it from Miles’s perspective, the entire thing took about two hours to write.
On the audience reaction...
I would not wish colic upon my worst enemy. That said, it was extremely validating to observe how this piece resonated with readers. Before Miles was born (and in the months since, too), we had friends and family members with easy babies. On social media, we “Liked” pictures of their smiling infants dressed in spotless outfits, accompanied by captions waxing poetic about the magical and joyous period of new parenthood. One friend’s baby was sleeping through the night by six weeks. Another’s baby took three-hour naps, twice a day. None had babies who screamed when placed on their backs and nursed for ninety minutes, four times a night. A good friend of ours (whose son was also a colicky infant) observed, “Parents who have easy babies just don’t understand what we’ve been through. It’s like the difference between driving a car and riding a horse.” Reading the comments on this piece was a reminder that we were not the only new parents riding a horse.
This was both reassuring and horrifying. I mean, in the evolutionary sense, why would humans continue to procreate if raising an infant was this awful? My wife has a theory that sleep deprivation is adaptive because it prevents parents from consolidating memory. We forget just how brutal raising a newborn is. Otherwise, no one in their right mind would have a second child. The mainstream narrative about infancy is delusional at best; in my piece, I was hoping to offer a more honest counter-narrative and give voice to other parents whose babies nearly broke them, too.
C.L.'s favorite humor pieces of 2019...
Every sleep training book that I read was a complete joke.
My favorite McSweeney’s pieces of 2019 were:
Memorials To Those We Lost To Parenting, by Rachel Mans McKenny. We’re among the last of our friend group to have kids, so a year ago, I would have chuckled at this, relating to the narrator. As I read it now, I feel deep empathy for the victims and impending doom about the years of parenthood ahead.
Attorney General William Barr Summarizes Famous Broadway Musicals, by Orli Matlow. My wife and I love musicals and hate William Barr. Those two impulses converged in this one glorious piece.
With respect to longer reads, I loved the short story “Belles Lettres” from Heads of the Colored People, by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. It’s written as a series of increasingly aggressive letters between two hyper-educated and overly competitive mothers, tucked into their kids’ backpacks.
Lastly, I’ve read the children’s book Hello Rhode Island with Miles approximately 3,000 times this year. It chronicles - in rhyming couplets - the adventures of a chick and a hen as they tour all of the wonders the Ocean State has to offer (it is eight pages long). The book was given to us by Miles’s uncle and aunt, who live in Narragansett and spend weekends traveling around the northeast, leaf-peeping and taking guided tours of old New England towns (sidenote: I am Chinese and Miles’s mom is white. I’ll leave it to readers to guess which side of the family these relatives are on). For whatever reason, Miles loves this book. He always sits still through the entire thing and turns the pages eagerly, as though he can’t wait to see what else there is to discover in Rhode Island. We like to joke that when he is a toddler, all of his friends will dream of going to Disneyland, but he will beg us to take him to Providence.