Last weekend we ventured away with our son. This time to Tasmania, his third trip in eight months of life, and we knew how to prepare. Luggage was simple: a small daypack each for my wife and me, with a massive suitcase filled with the paraphernalia of infancy for him. But more than anything the trip was a success because I now understand the secret of parenting: always lower your expectations.
In retrospect, I should have understood this from the events of his birth. My wife had a routinely horrendous experience, with plenty of blood, screams and exquisite pain. Yet she still speaks fondly of it all; in the end, it could have been a whole lot worse. I imagine that once you accept the prospect of a runaway train ripping through your perineum things can only improve from there.
And so it is with just about every aspect of having a baby. We have long ago abandoned hope of a sudden change in his sleep. I originally thought this might happen at three months, then we pushed it to six. Now at eight months and still predominantly nocturnally alert I have become resigned to our fate. I doubt he will ever simply lie down and snooze for the night.
But by forsaking hope for an idea of perfect that may never exist, we can instead celebrate the real achievements that have been made. For starters, he is no longer in our bed. That means we can have dinner together, even if the whole process of cooking, eating and cleaning has to take place in the half hour we have before he wakes up again screaming.
It might not sound like much, but it is infinitely better than the early months of tag-teaming rocking in a dark room to keep him sedate. And then he will re-settle, eventually, and we can almost have a conversation before one or both of us collapses again.
While we do hope for improvements in his sleep, we know these will be gradual, and we adjust our expectations accordingly. Suddenly we feel less like failures, because we are ahead of rather than behind the game.
It doesn't end at sleep. Most parents will know that developmental milestones are another source of potential consternation. I was vaguely aware of how competitive these could be, particularly with other babies of a similar age around.
Consciously, we have tried to avoid taking them too seriously. He is smiling, laughing, engaging and pooping –- everything about that is incredible, and humbling. We don't want to have expectations of anything else along a specific schedule, lest we be worried about a mythically concerning delay.
Perhaps this is easier as a doctor. Milestones, as taught in medical school, are extremely broad. They exist only to discover significant illnesses that may require intervention, rather than a faux-concern about regimental steps in physical development, or specific weeks where changes are scheduled to occur. At the moment he giggles when we give him raspberries, and that seems about right.
This is not about anticipating underachievement; it is instead an approach to parenting that ignores meaningless external pressure. Really I hope it extends to how we treat him as a child, a teenager, and an adult. I want to encourage him to be whomever and whatever he desires, to the best of his ability.
There is always a risk coming from a family like ours of having a sense of necessary achievement. But I want him to know that my only expectation is that he is my son, and he can always expect me to be there as his father.
So what did we do on this trip? We saw some buildings. We spent about an hour at MONA before he lost it. He found some new carpet on which to vomit.
Before he was born that would seem like a waste of a trip. But now, heading south, we imagined we wouldn't be able to leave the hotel at all. Instead we crossed that bar with plenty of space, finding unanticipated joy in the bonus. With low expectations, you can only ever go up.