Many years ago, a client told me about how she and her partner had felt about caring for their baby in the middle of the night: “Everytime he woke up and needed a diaper change we behaved as though a GOD had landed, and we both had to get up to worship him and cater to him.” After a few weeks of this, they decided they were “over-staffing the diaper changes” and did not need both parents to get up each time.
Many new parents in the baby groups I facilitate have told me that they don’t know what to DO with the baby, when, after a few weeks, the baby starts to stay awake for longer stretches and seems to be looking for something to happen. The parents say they don’t know what to do to “entertain” or “stimulate” the baby. The braver ones confess that they find it boring, to talk to a small baby and rattle toys in the air.
It makes me think of the difference between a house-guest and a room-mate.
When a friend or family-member comes to stay at my house for a few days, or even a week or two, I tend to focus on them. I cook special meals. I make them cups of tea. I might take a few days off work to spend with them or make sure I come home early from work. If they go off to their room for a nap, I might relax and go do the dishes, but when they come out of their room, I feel I should give them my attention, and offer them a drink.
Once someone has lived with me for several weeks, though, they become a room-mate. We might plan to have dinner together, but I don’t have to rush home from work. I can do the dishes while they sit in the kitchen drinking their tea. We might even sit in the living room together reading the paper, and be quietly companionable.
You might feel about you new baby as though they are a very special houseguest at first. But that’s not sustainable for more than a few weeks. Eventually, you have to acknowledge that your baby is your long-term room-mate, who’s going to stick around for the next 18-25 years!
Of course, you should give your baby attention.
You should talk to your baby, and play little tickle games, and rattle toys, and read books, and sing songs. But it’s also ok to hang out in the living room together sometimes, and read your book, or answer your email, or listen to a podcast while baby kicks and rolls around on the floor and looks at the ceiling or out the window. You will look over once in a while and check in with baby, make sure baby know you are still there, still available. But you don’t have to stare into your baby’s eyes every minute of the time they are awake!
Remember that your baby did not come here to “play.” You baby’s goal is to learn to be like you! So you can help your baby by showing them what a happy busy grown-up looks like. Let your baby see you doing chores. Fold the laundry on the floor while the baby lies next to you. Put your baby in the bouncy-chair to watch you while you empty the dish-washer, or vacuum. When your baby can sit in the highchair, put them in there to watch you do the dishes or peel the carrots.
I hope your life is not only made up of chores though!
Let your baby watch you doing things that make you happy. Dance around the living room, do some yoga. A friend of mine decided to learn the banjo during her mat-leave. Her son loved listening to her play. An artist I know used to paint big colourful canvases with her baby watching, fascinated, from the baby seat.
But you also want your baby to learn to kick back and chill out. So model that behaviour. Go lie on a blanket under a tree with your baby and just be peaceful.