A Brief Guide to Some of the Challenges That Don't Appear in Parenting Books

To start with, parenting is one of the most exciting, fun, and rewarding things I've done with my life so far. It is also the most challenging. There are many wonderful books and articles in the world about parenting, and if you're thinking of procreating, you should consult several, along with the the stored experience of everyone you know who's done it before.

However, there are some moments in parenting that don't get talked about much.

Part One -- Ickiness

Babies ooze, drip, puke, poop, and otherwise excrete an unending stream of substances, which come in amazing variety of consistencies, colors, and aromas. You will become intimate with more icky stuff than you could possibly imagine. Perhaps you remember a scene from childhood when a grown-up dealt with something unimaginably gross without batting an eye, and you wondered how anyone could possibly do that. (My personal recollection is of a time when the toilet was stopped up, and heading for overflowing. I hollered for Mom. She stepped into the room, took one look at the situation, and plunged her hand in, pulling out a huge wad of paper and ... stuff just in time to stop it from running all over the floor.) Once you are a parent, you will understand how they can do it. You will too.

A quick note on vocabulary: As a new family, you should pick a word for excrement and try to stick with it. If you use a bunch of euphemisms, it will make potty-training that much harder. Pick a word that you're comfortable saying -- you'll be saying it a lot for the next few years.

To be fair, it starts easily enough. Wet diapers, a bit of spitting up. Spit up is just milk with a little stomach juice mixed in, and there's rarely very much of it. Of course, there will be the times when you're dressed in something decent, headed somewhere important, and they spew on your shoulder without warning. At least once, this will happen and you won't notice until later, when you're out in public with a big white spot on your shirt.

If your baby is breastfed, their poop will be thin, yellowish (about the color and thickness of mustard), and really won't smell very bad. (I have no experience with formula-fed babies, but I'm told theirs smells a bit worse.) If you use disposable diapers, you'll hardly interact with it anyway, before the Diaper Genie whisks it away.

Eventually, things will get more interesting. There will be a time when the little bundle of joy poops about half their body weight out at once. Okay, it won't really be that much, but it looks like it as it oozes out of their diaper, all over their outfit and everything else in arm's reach. This will most likely happen when you're out and about and the best place you can find to change them is the passenger seat of the car.

Then they'll start eating solid food, and you'll discover that what comes out looks pretty much like what went in. Carrots in the evening, orange poop by morning. Don't freak out at the bright red bowel movement -- it's just the beets. This will continue for months -- a truly fascinating array of colors and textures. This is also when it starts getting smelly.

Toilet learning (that's the new PC term -- "training" is a bit demeaning, they say.) means that the end is in sight. It also, however, means that there is no longer a diaper defending your rugs, furniture, and person from your darling's bodily functions. On the day you realize they haven't had an accident for a week, you'll be tempted to celebrate, but by then you will know better than to tempt fate like that.

Finally, picture the following. The baby's two or so, and has a low fever. She's been fussy and clingy for a couple hours, and you have her curled up in your lap, rocking and soothing her. She's quiet for a second, and you notice something warm. and wet. and sour. Yup, you know it -- when you look down, you're wearing her supper. Remember those little bits of spit-up? This isn't it. This is two quarts of half-digested spaghetti, and it's headed for the upholstery. You have three seconds to spring out of the chair (without spilling any), dash to the bathroom, and begin cleaning up. Without acting grossed out. Don't forget to keep speaking in a calm, soothing voice, since the baby's become rather upset by this whole turn of events, and you need to reassure her that everything's okay. (Okay, so this one is a thinly disguised personal anecdote. It is however, also backed up by a survey that reveals that 3 of the 4 co-workers with children I asked have also been vomited on.)

Part Two -- Personal Space

There is actually less to be said here, since parenting books do generally address this topic, to some extent. In fact, I believe that every parenting book is required to have a section on dealing with your own needs, and that section is required to address, in some way, the question "will we ever have enough time to ourselves to have sex again?" (Generally, the answer is something along the lines of "Well, someday, yes. Probably. Maybe.")

But the books don't really explore all the implications of the fact that babies and toddlers have no sense of privacy or personal space. Here are just a couple.

Once your kid starts walking and talking, you will have company in the bathroom. Now, this probably bothers some people more than others, but I can't imagine anyone is really comfortable with the question "what are you doing now?" repeated 20 times while they're on the toilet. You may try to keep them out, but then, of course, you risk giving them the idea that their bodies are bad, or dirty, or something to be ashamed of. Plus, from their perspective, you're in there with them when they go, so why shouldn't they be in there with you? Just be glad if they don't offer to help you wipe.

And finally, there's the really personal. While it may be annoying to have your personal space encroached on, it's nothing compared to the damage they can do to your private parts. Eventually, they will learn that they can hurt you and, hopefully, try not to, but in the meantime, as they're crawling, climbing, standing, and jumping in your lap, you're sure to take a couple hits. (Okay, that one's pretty much male oriented, but based on the yelps my wife occasionally lets out, I don't think being elbowed in the breast is much fun either.) You know you've arrived at adulthood when you find yourself actually saying "Honey, please don't step on Daddy's penis."

Let me close with one more anecdote. Often, when I get home at the end of the day, my daughter meets me at the door. It's a wonderful feeling to have her open the door for me and throw herself at me in a big hug as I step inside. But I'll always remember the day that, for some reason, she led with her head, which connected quite solidly. If you haven't ever been headbutted in the groin, you'll just have to imagine. As I'm gasping for air, trying not to faint on top of her, she looks up and asks "What's the matter daddy? Aren't you happy to see me?"

Yes, sweetie, of course I am.

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