“Good Baby”. I’ve heard and read these two words repeatedly since becoming a parent. Sometimes they’re strung together, as in, “Oh, he’s such a good baby” or “Is he a good baby?" Other times, the word “good” is used in different contexts, like “good sleeper". The questions and commentary may be well-intentioned, but each time I hear them, I’m swiftly hit with a deep feeling of sadness: the opposite of a “good baby” is a “bad baby", even if that phrase remains unspoken.
Bad baby? Have you ever heard such a sad and inappropriate phrase? Is a bad baby one that doesn’t sleep? Is a bad baby one that is vocal or is less than agreeable? Is a bad baby one that makes his needs known? To think about these innocent, literally just born, humans, in such a black and white way is shocking—until you realize that this is how most things are considered in our modern life, from babies to gardens to other interests and activities. After all, a good garden is one that produces gorgeous fruit and vegetables, and maybe even looks aesthetically pleasing. A bad garden is one that’s overrun with pests or blight or drought.
What about all of the experiences and moments in between the all-too-basic words of “good” and “bad"? This is where the fun resides. It’s also where you’ll find the hard moments. It’s where growth comes from, literal and figurative. It’s where we’re challenged beyond our comfort zone and the only way we can expand our worldview and knowledge base.
Hugh’s first “Book Babies” at the local library did not go smoothly. It’s not that he wasn’t a “good baby”. Rather, he was simply himself, making his needs known, while pushing me to adapt and empathize, and to later assess the situation.
Hugh’s an outdoor loving baby. He’s also an opinionated little man. He knows what he likes and he’s vocal about his preferences. Already, at just over six months, he showers us with love, ear to ear smiles, giggles, coos, and truly rewarding interactions. He has strong emotions, as most of us do, if we hadn’t become conditioned to trample them down. This means that in addition to his award winning smile, when he’s distraught, in pain, or doesn’t like something, we, and anyone around us, know it. I’ve said repeatedly to my own parents and to Justin that I’m happy to have an opinionated, personable, fun baby. Yet Hugh’s opinions can’t always run in the happy direction; I’m not raising a mini Buddy the Elf. Instead, I have to embrace my son’s multifaceted personality, especially when moments flip from sunshine to storm clouds. I need to recognize the cries and grumbles just as much as I willingly accept the laughter and open mouth kisses.
As he’s happiest outside, I’ve joked that Hugh’s ideal day would involve hours upon hours of walking attached to us, him babbling, taking naps and eating, us singing and conversing with him. Because he was born in December, there’s no “bad weather” day for Hugh. A torrential downpour with wind gusts; 40s, cloudy, all are equal opportunities to get outside. If the sun is shining through the window, he’s not content to be inside staring at it. And yet, none of the young baby activities offered around town are outdoors—or I should clarify, none that I want to do (I’m looking you at Stroller Strides!). So, in addition to music “classes”, last week, I decided to bring him to the aforementioned Book Babies class.
At previous music classes, Hugh’s been able to mostly ignore the fact that he’s inside once the music starts—he absolutely loves nearly all kinds of music (he didn’t enjoy Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, despite its critical praise). Knowing that the indoor location of Book Babies (a quiet library) could present a problem, I arrived at the library early and took Hugh on a 30 minute walk, outward facing in his carrier. He giggled, babbled, and craned his neck to smile up at me. We arrived before the library opened, and Hugh and I stared at our reflections in the windows, with me racing up to the window and Hugh laughing and reaching for himself.
Things were off to a positive start. As we waited outside, I eyed the other parents and babies waiting. Two were in carseat strollers making absolutely no noise at all, one sucking on a bottle. One was on his mom’s hip, engaged with his surroundings, but happy to remain stationary. Doubt started to creep in: I was about to take Hugh into a library, removing him from his beloved outdoors. As one of the first to arrive, we had a few minutes to wait, with the instructor encouraging us to grab a book to enjoy with our babies. I chuckled to myself (Hugh, so far, becomes visibly agitated if I read to him, with the exception of a few favorites. Justin and I have analyzed this, and we think he might enjoy bigger books with more of a conversational tone, than small board books with single words on each page). So, I grabbed a book, plopped Hugh down, and three seconds later, hastily removed the book from Hugh’s presence, as he was attempting to knock it out of my hands. Instead, we stood by the window, admiring the outside, as the other baby-parent dyads filed in.
It’s a baby class and the room we were in was significantly louder than the rest of the library. Some babies were rolling. Some were crawling. Others were experimenting with different vocal tones. Hugh was suspicious. The next 45 minutes involved constant awareness on my part—we shifted positions, we stood, we squatted, he chewed on my sunglasses, I quietly sang to him. By the time the Book Babies ended, Hugh was upset and we drove home for food and a nap. Initial reflection deemed the entire event a disaster, my mind filling with blanket statement thoughts: Hugh hated it; Hugh was unhappy; this was so stressful.
Once he was napping and I was eating, my secondary assessments became a little more nuanced.
As I’ve written in previous posts about the intersection of parenting and gardening, Hugh is my greatest teacher. And with a full belly, I was able to tease apart exactly what had made Book Babies so stressful. It went beyond the fact that Hugh was grumbling—all babies grumble and I’d put Hugh in an environment he didn’t enjoy. Instead, despite intrinsically wanting Hugh to be himself—and loving him for that—I wanted him to be that “good baby”, to sit and coo. To smile quietly. And even, to have other parents and their babies engage with him in a positive manner. I had expectations that weren’t met, because I had created a cardboard cutout idea of my baby at this gathering, falling prey to the idea of wanting to present a “good baby” to the world.
As I take care of my garden and my child, I must continue to discard labels and expectations. There’s no such thing as a perfect garden or perfect baby. We may share and post photos of happy babies and lush gardens, but we also must remind ourselves of the reality behind these pictures. The messy parts are where growth happens. From our Book Babies experience, I was reminded that it’s my job to shepherd Hugh through experiences as his loving, nurturing guide, responding to his needs dynamically, instead of wishing for him to project his happy personality at all times.
As with Hugh, I must respond to the garden at hand, not the garden I want to have. Despite best and well-researched efforts, I still plant things that succumb to pests. I’m growing healthier starts than ever before and have a growing knowledge of successions and nutrient needs and tricks for challenging crops, like the brassica family. But just because I know when to plant kale and how to protect it, it doesn’t mean that my kale plants will actually succeed. This year’s garden has seen cabbage worm and leaf miners and slugs and pill bugs. Last year I responded to the array of pests with irritation, anxiety, and even anger.
This year, thanks to Hugh, I’m responding with curiosity, thoughtfulness, and a new vocabulary. It wasn’t a “bad” beet harvest because of the leaf miners. The front 4 x 4 raised bed isn’t a “bad” bed because literally everything I plant there succumbs to slugs and pill bugs. Instead, I’ve had a chance to research what leaf miners are, how to spot them and what to do. And that 4 x 4 raised bed? I finally learned to stop planting delicate, tasty vegetable starts in it and I turned it into a perennial flower bed. And, the best outcome of all: I did this with minimal stress and open curiosity. This is how I want to continue to parent Hugh and continue to approach my garden.