It was a bit like stepping back in time--me, cradling a sweet-smelling, whimpering newborn in my arms, humming softly and swaying, trying to lull him into sleep.
But this one wasn't mine. He was wearing a blue sleeper, after all. . . . I produce only girls. And he wasn't buying the ticket to dreamland I used to peddle to my own.
This was my nephew--the first child of my little brother and his wife. And since I am "the closest thing to a grandmother" the baby has--as my brother keeps reminding me--I traveled to New Haven, Conn., to welcome him to our family and to the world.
And while I was there, I watched his parents embark on a journey that will teach them more than Yale and Harvard ever did and grant them something more precious than those Ivy League degrees on their walls.
One day they will laugh at how earnest they were . . . and how utterly clueless.
I'll remind them of that first frantic call for advice, when their baby was scarcely 2 weeks old.
"We've got to get him on a schedule," my brother said, his voice weary with fatigue. "He seems to sleep all day and stay up all night. What should we do?"
I stifled a laugh. "Try getting some sleep during the day," I told him. "So you can stay up all night."
How to explain that the rhythm of their days would no longer be dictated by their needs and desires?
They'd be marching now to the beat of a different drummer . . . a very small and mercurial drummer, whose antics and demands would alternately frustrate and delight them. And whose very survival would ultimately imbue them with a kind of confidence only parenthood can provide.
I did my part to pump them up--bought them books, shared advice, taught them to give a bath, fasten a Snugli, produce a burp.
But I could not teach them the most important lesson, because that can only come over time, as they struggle day-to-day to see the world through their baby's eyes.
It has to do with surrender . . . with the sacrifice not only of time and energy, but also of arrogance and the illusion of control; of the notion that there is no problem you cannot solve, no situation you cannot bend to your will if you try.
What a baby can teach you, instead, is that life by faith and instinct is sometimes all you have.
You learn to celebrate the smallest of triumphs--"He slept four hours straight last night!"--and accommodate the inevitable defeats. You swing from euphoria to panic, and become comfortable with both. You confront your limitations in the face of overwhelming and ceaseless need, and it makes you humble. You discover your hidden inner strengths, and that makes you proud.
And I watch the process start for these new parents the night my brother slams shut the child-care book in frustration. Its solutions have failed to quiet his crying son.
He slings the baby over his shoulder and paces the kitchen floor, stopping at the sink to run water for coffee, envisioning another sleepless night.
As the faucet flows, the baby stops crying and turns, wide-eyed, toward the sink. He is still and silent. His body relaxes at the sound; his eyes start to close.
And my brother stands rocking him softly at the sink--water running--until he falls asleep.
My logical mind has long since abandoned the idea of adding another baby to my brood.
But there's a part of me--an irrational, romantic, nostalgic part--that has kept the possibility alive and convinced me not to foreclose my options.
I could do it again, I've told myself on those rare occasions when my life seems orderly and in control, my three daughters on the road to independence. With the right man, the right timing, the right set of circumstances. . . .
But a week with a newborn reacquainted me with the sacrifices new parenthood requires, the way a new baby makes you suddenly vulnerable to the best and the worst life has to offer.
And I haven't the need to go there. My babies already taught me the most important lessons that infancy provides--about being patient, flexible, kind. . . .
Now it's up to me to live that way.