For a holiday built around a baby, Christmas is terrible for parents with newborns.
Thanksgiving gave you a taste of what the anarchy can be like.
A bunch of family around. A baby who "we swear he/she is never like this" and who all of a sudden won't nap or won't eat or won't go to bed or won't let you put them down. You try to eat the same holiday meal you've had your whole life but now it's with one hand holding a bottle and the other hand eating now lukewarm turkey (or, in my case, Tofurky!).
Christmas? You're adding in presents and maybe multiple pit stops throughout the day or religious services or bigger family get-togethers. It can be a recipe for disaster for new parents who haven't slept in forever.
It's a good thing Christmas as we know it wasn't celebrated for long after the birth of Jesus, because Mary and Joseph surely would have been like, "GUYS KEEP IT DOWN BABY JESUS JUST WENT TO SLEEP!" (I also feel bad for all the other babies born on December 25 0 A.D. because you know nobody remembered their birthday ever.)
Having a baby during the holidays is both the absolute best and the absolute hardest.
If you haven't experienced the baby-at-Christmas thing yet, you might think it's just like any other time you take your baby out but with some presents and maybe extra travel involved.
You may be imagining a cooing baby laughing as he/she is passed from relative to relative, wearing that cute Christmas outfit with the elf ears, ripping open presents by grabbing a loose piece of gift wrap as you all laugh and help them pull it off, and then, after a day of fun, going to sleep while you cozy up to your wife and watch "Elf" or the vastly underrated "Arthur Christmas."
(Seriously, why don't more people watch "Arthur Christmas?" I blame ABC Family for not putting it on the 25 Days of Christmas rotation.)
There is every possibility that your whole holiday season will go smoothly. After all, a morbidly obese, elderly man is sliding down your non-existent chimney. Anything is possible.
But you are kidding yourself if you think it's not just as likely that:
- Your baby doesn't want anyone else holding him.
- Your baby won't go to bed.
- Your baby refuses to sit still or look up for photos.
- Your baby throws up all over the new outfit. Then has a blow out in the next one.
- Your baby has you saying "I don't know what's gotten into her" as much as you say "Merry Christmas."
Ignoring that possibility sets yourself for more frustration later, and that's not fair to your baby or you.
Here's the great thing, though, about the possibility of a cranky baby during the holidays. You get a pass! How your baby acts is not a reflection on your parenting skills, especially at Christmas. It's a reflection on being around strange new faces in possibly strange new places, with nap time all messed up and shiny objects shoved in front of them to "open." It's a lot! Hell, you're probably cranky enough on your own during the holidays. Being a new dad or mom can ramp that up if you're not careful.
Let's make this clear: Don't be anxious that your distant relatives will think less of you because that baby they've been admiring on Facebook suddenly is acting out Billy Bob Thornton's part in "Bad Santa." You know what your baby is really like, and also you don't owe those relatives anything — you're not there to show off how good of a parent you are; you're there to be together as a family.
I've seen the highs and lows of babies during the holidays.
Just this past weekend, our twin girls — now eight months old! That's them in the main photo. — had a mini-Christmas with some relatives. And, out of nowhere, they were having a blast "opening" presents and giggling and enjoying the whole thing. It's hard to say for certain, but it was quite possibly the cutest thing that's ever happened. I never would have expected that in a million years.
On the flip side, when my son was not even a year old, he cried his way through all of New Year's Eve — just furious all day no matter what we did. It was to the point where, drained and exhausted, we had to set an alarm to wake back up for New Year's, clink a glass of champagne, and go right back to sleep. (It turned out our little guy was sick — and there wasn't anything we could do about it. Just bad timing.)
Even then, I wouldn't trade a holiday with my babies for anything. It puts things in perspective, you get to watch them do things for the first time that you've been doing your whole life, and you'll find a whole new level of enjoyment. Also, it might make you cry when you watch Christmas movies even if you've seen then a million times because now you "get it" and whatever. Or something. I've heard.
So how do you mitigate the possibility of a bad holiday experience?
Here are my suggestions to have a merry Christmas with a baby around:
- Leave on a high note: Just like George Costanza decided to leave after a joke got a good laugh, your best bet is to start packing up when your baby starts getting a little cranky, rather than waiting until the crying starts and you still have 30 minutes of packing to do. Waiting too long means the difference between everyone sweetly saying goodbye to the baby and everyone waving at your car through the window as your race out of the driveway to get your screaming kid home.
- Keep to a schedule: If at all possible, time out driving/eating around the regular nap time, as this should really help reduce fussiness. We scheduled our two-hour trip so the girls would take their usual nap in the car and then would be in a good mood when we arrived. Come to think of it, why didn't I take a two-hour nap in the car? Are those self-driven cars available yet? Can I have one?
- Don't get too attached to the idea of a perfect photo: Those friends of yours who always have the best photos of their baby doing something adorable? They took 500 shots and made their baby sit their long after the moment was gone until they got a good photo. If you're spending more time propping up the baby beside the stocking or trying to make them smile by the tree than you are on enjoying your baby's first Christmas, you're missing something. One Instagram photo is cool. Ten Instagram photos means you're more concerned that others believe your baby is having a magical Christmas than whether they really ARE having one.
- Babies do not understand it's the holidays: I like to remind myself of this one. They aren't trying to be extra cranky and they have no reason to want to be in a better mood. This is just another day to them!
- Give them time to decompress: Getting passed around to every distant cousin for an hour is a recipe for crankiness. It's not what they'd experience at home, unless you live with all of your distant cousins and then I have some questions for you after this. Keep some time set aside for your baby to just chill in a carrier (really smart to bring one!) or quietly play on a blanket.
- Be willing to adjust your plan: You may have had a tradition your entire life of going to grandma's or seeing a Christmas parade or opening presents in a certain pattern. Having a baby means that you may need to start new traditions or be OK with adjusting what you've always done (Maybe it makes more sense to have everyone over to your house. Maybe it's too cold to take the baby out to a parade this year so you stay home.) That doesn't mean it's worse or that it's not as fun because it's not the same. It means that you've got a new part of your family to share everything you love about the holidays with, even if that means changing some of what you've always done.
- Don't forget about where they'll sleep: Pack 'n' Play? Crib? Co-sleeper? If you are staying overnight somewhere else, give this some thought. Part of it is what you can fit in your car/easily take down and put back up. And don't trust that just because the hotel/relative has "something you can use," that it's up to your standards. It's baby safety, dude. It's OK if you have them send you a photo or ask more about it. My wife and I recently requested a hotel provide a Pack 'n' Play. When I came back to the room and saw it set up, I realized they didn't have any of the supporting bars for the base - there was literally nothing to keep our daughter level. On a scale of 1 to potential baby murder, that's an 11. So I asked for a new one, got it, and all was good. But it was a good lesson in not assuming standards are the same.
- Take advantage of the extra hands on deck: After you've opened presents or had the big meal, it's not crazy for you to ask if fill-in-the-blank relative can hold the baby for an hour so you can go crash. They'll love the baby time. You'll love the sleep time. Actually, that might be the best Christmas gift ever.
- Remember the reason for the season: I can't believe I just used that phrase, but it's true. Holidays are stressful. Don't let the fact you're a new parent trying to juggle all these responsibilities take away from enjoying having family around, eating a meal together, and showing off your little baby. If the baby is fussy? She'll calm down eventually. If she won't let anyone else hold her? Then she's reminding you that you are what she wants more than any Christmas present in the whole world. If she keeps blowing out her diapers? Then you need to stop feeding her egg nog. Seriously, gross.
I can't say thanks enough for reading Instafather this past year. 2015 included the birth of my twin girls (and subsequent NICU/hospital stays), my son hitting age 2, and news from many couples I know and love that they are expecting babies of their own. I am quite sure 2016 won't involve any new babies for my wife and me — quite sure — but I am still very passionate about helping new dads get off to a strong start! Enjoy the holidays and I'll see you in 2016!
Photo of my beautiful daughters by Mudpies 'n' Butterflies.