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“I’m worried about them.” My daughter was visiting her sister, who had just delivered her second child. “I don’t think any of them slept for more than an hour the whole time I was there.”

There’s really no excuse for the zing of pure joy I felt at these words.  I’m a grownup. A grandmother. Someone who should really be a better person by now. It’s not that I can’t appreciate what they’re going through. Heck, there was an entire decade when my own kids kept me from sleeping. (At least I think so, although frankly, most of the eighties and large chunks of the nineties are still kind of a blur.) I just wonder if there is some special form of schadenfreude that applies when you become a grandparent…

[image credit: Fallen Princess series by photographer Dina Goldstein]

Being a parent has never been easy, but at least it used to be less complicated. In prehistoric times, the CaveDad had three main tasks:

  1. Bring home the mastodon.
  2. Boil water while CaveMom gave birth. (This had nothing to do with the birth, but since the father had to first invent fire, it kept him out from underfoot.)
  3. Defend his family from sabertooth tigers, evil spirits, and all those CaveTeenagers who began hanging around when his daughter stopped walking on her knuckles.

Eons passed, but there were only two real changes in the father’s role. He had to wear a tie, and he had to pay to get rid of his children. (At first this was called a dowry, and was paid in goats and chickens. Eventually, however, it became known as college tuition, and was paid in second mortgages.)

Then came the 1970s and fathers began to question their traditional role. “Why do women get to be supportive, nurturing, and live longer, while men get heart disease and male-pattern balding? And what DO they do with all that boiling water?”

But the mothers were ready for them. They invented natural childbirth classes. In these classes, fathers were taught to concentrate on a focal point, breathe “Hee, hee, hee, HOOO!” with their partners, and generally keep themselves occupied while their wives got on with the five stages of labor and delivery:

  • Stage 1. Doctor: “We will now have every medical employee in a three-state radius and a few passers-by acquire VERY personal firsthand knowledge of your wife’s anatomy. Father: “Hee, hee, hee, HOOO!
  • Stage 2. Father: “But honey, we agreed earlier to avoid use of pain medication. Why don’t you hee, hee, hee, HOOO! with me? [NOTE: Stage 2 is actually the shortest stage because it is followed IMMEDIATELY by Stage 3.]
  • Stage 3. Father: “Honey, where did you learn words like that, and will you ever tell me what some of them mean?”
  • Stage 4. Father: carefully positions the camera to record for posterity the precious moment when his wife turns to him and murmurs, “If you’re filming this, I’m going to kill you. Lots.”
  • Stage 5. Bonding: in the old days, only the mother had to bond. The father passed out cigars and got drunk.

In my mother’s day, bonding was easier because she got to stay in the hospital for a few weeks. When she was pregnant with one of my eight younger siblings, she would point out the hospitals with the wistful nostalgia other people would display when showing treasured vacation photos.

Hospitals used to bring babies to their mothers for feeding—which, in the 1950s was a synonym for bonding—but otherwise handled everything. Fathers viewed their babies through the nursery window. My mother says they would bring the babies to their mothers with the girls swaddled in pink blankets and the boys in blue ones, and the mothers were instructed never to unwrap their infants.

She told me about her friends, Russell and Yvonne. In the hospital, Yvonne would say, “He looks like my father,” while Russell would insist, “He looks like Winston Churchill.” Finally came the day when the proud parents were to take Junior home. For the first time, Yvonne unwrapped her blue-clad bundle—to discover the wrong name on the baby’s ID bracelet.

Russell arrived to find a hysterical Yvonne crying that someone else had taken her baby. He spotted another couple leaving with an infant, and ran down the hall yelling for them to bring back that baby. When a doctor tried to interfere, a modern father would have wasted precious time communicating, relating, and empathizing. Russell decked him.

Everything was straightened out at last, with the discovery that because of a mixup in bed assignments, Yvonne had indeed been feeding the wrong infant for two weeks. All would have ended well except for two things. Their real baby turned out to be the Churchill look-alike, and the next time Yvonne had a baby, the hospital ran out of pink blankets. When they brought her daughter wrapped in blue, Yvonne want ballistic: “They’re doing it again!” Russell was worried, but game. “Who do I have to hit this time?”

Of course, now modern parents take their baby home about a minute after the birth. But when my children were born, they were still giving us a few days of hospital stay. At the birth of our first child, we thought parenting would be easy because in the hospital all she did was sleep. We couldn’t understand why the pediatrician laughed so hard she had to leave the room, just because we asked her, “What time should we wake up the baby in the mornings?”

This was, as far as I can remember, the last time my daughter slept through the night until age five, when she altered her sleep patterns in order to miss the school bus on a regular basis.

As a modern father, my husband wanted to bond with the baby. At first he would get up with me when I nursed her. I would bond with her receiving end, and hand her to him to take care of the shipping end. But he soon found all that bonding too exhausting and decided he could bond just as well without getting out of the bed. Or opening his eyes. “We must have bonded a lot last night, he would say. “I’m really tired this morning.”

I knew I couldn’t kill him because I didn’t have the energy to hide the body. So, at last, I would find a good use for that breathing I was supposed to be doing back in Stage 2. “Hee, hee, hee, HOOO!” And several of the words from Stage 3.

This hilarious photo series by the brilliant Danielle Guenther says it all. No, seriously. You’ve got to look here, especially at the 3-year-update to this photo.


I just have to share one of the BEST comments ever! THANK YOU to fabulous reader Linda, who wrote,

Yesterday I was rereading your book on when life begins while eating at a local restaurant that I go to a lot. Apparently , laughing out loud wasn’t common there. I had a line of waitresses who had to know what I was laughing at. I’d read it, they’d start laughing, and then would come back for more when I’d start laughing again. I had one woman sit at the table next to me. So she could hear the details. The waitress wants me to bring the book back the next time I eat there. Hmmm…I’ve never had to “read for my supper” before. I may have to stop bringing your books along.