It’s funny the first time.
You’ve wiped and dried your baby and applied a soothing tea-tree oil spritz to their undercarriage. You say something cute like “there you go, nice and clean, little pudding”, as you unfold a crisp nappy. Baby wriggles and kicks off the towel you’ve placed over them in case they pee, and they pee.
If baby is a boy then pee is on you, on the wall, somehow in his ear. He looks very confused and very adorable. You laugh and your partner laughs and you clean up together, smiling and chirpy, like in a commercial for detergent.
You try again. Wipe, dry, spritz. “Nice and clean, darling pumpkin”. You put on a nappy and you’re especially happy with this one; not too tight or loose, a good seal around the groin and hips. You click together the last button of their onesie.
They smirk at you and lay waste to your handiwork. All good comedy routines have a callback.
‘What a joker’, we’d say in Australia.
The joke gets old. You stand at 3.07am with pee on your shirt and the floor and the just-washed changing mat, looking at him with a less-than-loving gaze. He is not an innocent cherub. He is calculating. He is Chaos, destroyer of all that is clean and predictable. He is timing his spits and shits and fusses at perfectly annoying intervals.
‘Do you love me now?’ he asks.
Ask me later.
Much of early parenthood has the flavour of a biblical or Greek test of character. Some god has designed this trial just for you and your particular weaknesses, to stretch you to your worst. They are watching on with a bucket of popcorn Up There, waiting to taunt you when you finally break.
We enter parenthood with a notion of the parent we’d like to be, and that notion—like all self-conceptions not tempered by the everyday—takes the form of a pristine, total list: loving, generous, patient, reliable, giving.
A good enough answer, but now the child is here and reality asks better questions—Can you love when you’re punch-drunk tired? Can you scrape your emotional barrel to give to your partner when their barrel is even emptier? Can you be patient when you haven’t gotten any work done for days, exercised or eaten well for weeks, are worried about a real or phantom lifetime scarcity of money and time, have just reheated for the third time a cup of tea in the microwave but then baby screams and your partner doesn’t budge even though it’s probably, definitely their turn?
There is great solace in understanding that nobody can be virtuous of mind and deed one hundred times in a row. This solace helps me vibe with the reality winning some and losing some, and it reminds me to heed little kindnesses, pleasures and resiliences. Being a good parent, like being good, is about tinkering—a craft more than a philosophy or grand plan.
And of course it’s not as dire as all that. The desperate 3.07am moments fleet just like the rest. The testing is wholesome and satisfying: we’re winning most and losing few, we find ourselves again and again equal to our trials.
My darling pudding trickster is changed and swaddled. I prop myself in bed and rest him on my chest—my heartbeat tends to calm him. He falls asleep immediately. In the divine quiet, by the soothing green glow of our hedgehog-shaped night-light, I watch him, triumphant.