What 2019 taught me

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The new year offers time for reflection and, this year in particular, I’ve found myself re-riding the ups and downs of the rollercoaster that was 2019.

This was Jackson’s first full year of life but it also felt new to me as well, as every single day of the first full 12 months as a parent held an entirely novel experience, memories I couldn’t have dreamed of and lessons I couldn’t have anticipated.   

Here are just a few of the things 2019 has shown me:

1. I never knew the meaning of multi-tasking.

I always fancied myself a great multi-tasker, juggling demanding full-time jobs with freelance gigs and more. But I never know how integral these skills would be for parenting.

Since day one of Jackson’s arrival, Ashlee and I have found ourselves being pulled in tons of different directions, sometimes quite literally: I recently was walking both the dog and baby — with the dog pulling me to sniff something to the left, Jackson’s stroller drifting to the right and me in the middle, trying to hold a very disruptive phone call with my mom through my headphones. While I always envisioned “multitasking” as a ubiquitous resume plug, I think I underestimated the mental and emotional effort that goes into juggling so many attention-grabbers at once, and the toll this work can take. That recognition has me wishing it was socially acceptable to list “Parent” as an occupation on a CV — as the focus, mental fortitude and ability to prioritize tasks and quickly triage situations that it takes to parent are all skills all employers should be competing to have in their talent pools.

2. Being tired doesn’t end when he starts sleeping through the night.

I used to cringe when people would brag that their baby slept through the night as soon as they brought them home from the hospital, knowing Ashlee and I would be trading off every other hour that night when Jackson arose. He finally settled into a pattern around 5 months old, and we breathed a much-needed sigh of relief.

After months of sleep deprivation, getting a good six or seven unbroken hours of sleep was truly life-changing. But I quickly saw that, as he was easing into a sleep routine, he was growing in other ways. The more mobile Jackson got, the more physical and mental focus it took to keep him safe — moving furniture out of his way as he crawled everywhere exploring, and racing him to slam closed baby gates when he got onto two feet. As he’s developed mentally, we’ve had to shift from keeping him protected to keeping him entertained. “Playing with a toddler” may sound like a low-impact activity, but spending a solid four hours after a full day of work moving from toy to book to song to toy to household-item-that-doubles-as-a-toy (his attention shifts about every two minutes) is mentally exhausting, and — coupled with balancing mealtimes, household chores and other daily duties — can leave you just as wiped out as a night of broken sleep.

3. One “stage” isn’t better than the next.

Earlier this year, I wondered which stage of Jackson’s babyhood would be my favorite, viewing his development along the lines of his clothing sizes: Newborn, 0-3 months, 3-6 months, etc. In hindsight, the lines between each of these stages are extremely blurry, and each brings with it both joys and challenges.

When Jackson was just a few months old, we were able to snuggle with him to our hearts’ content — now, it’s hard to get him stationary for more than a few seconds before he zooms off to his next adventure. But back then, we were projecting all our love and affection on this little guy who couldn’t do too much more than blink back at us. It may be nearly impossible to pin Jackson down for cuddles now, but when we say the word “hug,” he lights up and runs into our arms, which is just as fulfilling as those early moments of affection with him.

4. Milestones aren’t moments.

We have a baby book for Jackson that tracks all of the big moments of his first year — and we found the slots for “firsts” to be a little limiting, as many of these highly anticipated accomplishments don’t occur in a second, but rather are gradual developments.

He took his very first step this past summer. But it was one foot forward on one night and then flat on his face. We wondered, does that count? A few days later, it was three steps … and then down! And then a few days after that, he got up to eight, and so on. The same has gone with other developments, like speaking. This fall, we started noticing the “da” he proclaims at pretty much any object or person he’s curious about seemed to have an “sh” sound after it whenever he pointed at our dog, Cassie. Was he saying his own version of her name? Whenever we hear him muttering the sound “ma,” we get excited thinking he’s finally catching on to our names — or is he just playing with sounds?

Only time will tell. On some level, I think we expected these milestones to be these momentous “grab-the-camera” occasions, but in reality, they’re much slower rather than sudden. Before he could walk, he had to learn to steady himself and the motion of putting one foot in front of the other. And before he can start spewing words, he has to learn sounds and meanings. So baby book, be damned!

5. Teaching is continuous.

A few months ago, I was wondering aloud to Jackson where his cup of water was, and he tottered over to the cup hidden under one of his toys and held it out to me. Hmmm … I thought it was a fluke so, a bit later, experimented again with the word “cup” and, sure enough, he walked over and grabbed it. Almost every day since, we’ve stumbled upon a new word or phrase he knows (just last night, I was bemoaning how I forgot to “close the door,” and he went and slammed the front door shut—how convenient!). This shift is the development of his “receptive language”—babies’ ability to understand the meaning of words — that precedes “expressive language,” or when they start actually speaking words. While it’s always fun to impress family and friends with what we believe are his genius abilities, it’s also reinforced that we’re Jackson’s first teachers.

I’ve always understood that, as parents, we’re tasked with shaping his young life — from his values to his interests to his physical health — but seeing him excitedly learning the words whose meanings we started taking for granted decades ago visibly illustrates the impact we can have, both positively and negatively. That’s simultaneously inspiring and intimidating. We make fools of ourselves pointing to different objects and saying their name 50 times in a row, knowing that he’s absorbing it. But we also have to curb our own language — I have a penchant for a few choice curse words and am working hard to reduce their frequency in my everyday vocabulary. But even the inflection with which we speak, how we express frustration or anger, the body language we use, or the animated stories we tell about the highs and lows of our days … he’s listening to it all and learning from it.

I am eagerly — albeit nervously — awaiting all that we have to learn in 2020. For, of all the lessons we absorbed in 2019 about raising our son, perhaps the most valuable, and humbling, is that we still have so very much to learn.