Friday, July 29, 2011

Planning for Peanut: Advice to the Advisers

Like so many great jokes, courtesy of "30 Rock"

I don't handle unsolicited advice well, which can make this business of being pregnant very difficult. It seems nearly every parent I know wants to share their top tips with me. I've learned to accept that all this wisdom comes from a place of well-meaning concern and that some of it is actually very helpful. But it's a lot to sort through. The volume of advice I received during a recent trip home to Michigan culminated into a roaring wall of sound, but not in a fun "Be My Baby" kind of way. Instead of a catchy, Phil Spector-produced groove, it was the voice of every parent I know (not just the ones in Michigan, but everyone I've talked to in the past several months), and all the absolutely essential do's and dont's they've shared without my asking. So dizzying was the din inside my head that I hardly said a word to Dan during our ten hour drive back to Chattanooga. It's taken days to process and sift through all that information - some of which I will strongly consider, some of which I will ignore - and frankly, I'm glad to be back in a place where I don't know so many people.

In response to that experience, I've developed my own set of tips for giving unsolicited advice to new parents. If you've raised a kid and you really care about your first-time expectant friends (which I honestly believe you do), there's something you feel they need to know and you want your message to stick, I suggest you do the following ~

Pick one piece of advice. Be specific. Why just one? Because, as I mentioned above, your new parent pals are getting loads of free advice from everyone they know. This is a simple marketing technique. It's sort of like Facebook updates - if I have an FB friend who posts twenty items every day, I tend to ignore most of what they're saying. But that phantom FB friend who only occasionally shares an intelligent, funny or interesting item usually gets my attention.

Let's talk specificity. Lots of dad friends have told us, "You're life is over." Though this warning is morbid, I don't think it's completely unhelpful. But it isn't very specific. I think dudes tend to say this because the change from childless, adult male to new father is quite abrupt. It literally happens overnight. But we pregnant ladies know our old lives are over when we can't get drunk, our breasts balloon, our ankles swell, and we feel a small person swimming around our insides. So instead, I ask you, why is life over? Because you can no longer be your top priority? Because you won't pee or poop in privacy for several years to come? What do you miss most about your pre-kid, lost life? If you want your friend to understand how tough the transition can be, you'll communicate it better by being precise.

Bonus! - if your carefully selected two cents is thoughtful and appropriate, you may find your buddies seeking your input at their own volition. My favorite free suggestion I received in Michigan came from our friend P, who is the father of a six-month-old boy (as well as two teenagers). As he was about to leave our brewpub gathering, he approached me and said, "I have one piece of advice for you."

He paused and I said, "Okay."

"Don't buy anything." He opened the laptop bag hanging at his side. "What is a diaper bag? It's a bag." He then revealed a small pack of diapers and a rolled-up, baby-sized yoga mat. "When the kid needs to be changed, we roll this out on the floor and change him there. It's simple as that. Don't buy anything." A brief but spirited discussion on the rip-off price of changing tables (and other infant "must-haves") followed.

Why did I love this advice so much? It isn't just that it suited my anti-consumerist spirit. It was the way P delivered it. He limited himself to one particular tidbit and saved it for the end of our visit, so there was no way it could snowball into a long lecture. By doing so, he implicitly recognized that I could take it or leave it. I really appreciated him showing me that respect and I'm apt to go to him for more advice, from one cheapskate to another.

Consider how your audience may be different from you. Are you the sort of person who likes to thoroughly research a new subject by reading lots of books? Did you and your partner believe that a midwife-assisted home birth was absolutely essential? Do you tend to plan around worst-case scenarios as a way of being prepared for difficult situations and events?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, that's cool. But you should know that you and I are very different people, and that's cool, too. I've found that a great deal of childbirth and parenting advice is based on the advice-giver's personal circumstances or character. For instance, someone who ate only organic and natural foods during pregnancy might be wealthier than me. A parent who recommends twenty books on childbirth is probably more interested in text research and reading than I am. I'm not saying that I can't learn something from their counsel, but I may not be as ardent in my approach.

So if you're inclined to phrase your free advice in terms like, "You have to blah, blah, blah, " or, "Every parent must do this and that," be prepared to be ignored. Rather, you may want to preface your statements like my friend J did when I asked her for book suggestions - "You should know that I'm really big on natural birth." It happened that I was interested in going that route, too, so it was a good thing I asked her. But I didn't feel like she'd snub me if I were eager to have an epidural. Her statement implied, "Though I have strong feelings about the subject, I know my beliefs aren't for everyone." I found that tone comforting. That was months ago, and I've sought her advice on many topics (from baby showers to prenatal classes) since then.

Limit yourself to one suggested book or video. This is in addition to your one piece of advice; think of it as that personal item you can bring along with your carry-on bag. Again, your friends are likely building a lengthy syllabus based on the advice of every parent they know. If your top pick is a repeat of another adviser's choice, even better. Your expectant buddy is more likely to read it.

Don't judge. My friend C's birth coach told her this when they first met, and I love it because it's the perfect summary of the best thing I've gotten out of pregnancy (besides the baby, of course). I haven't even given birth yet and I already find that I'm way more open-minded and sympathetic to parents and other pregnant women.

I've never felt so fucking vulnerable in my life and I know that feeling will just become more intense after Little Peanut arrives. I'm constantly wondering if I'm doing the right thing, if I'm on schedule for being prepared, if I put the right items on the registry, if I have my financial ducks in a row. The last thing I want to see right now is my friend's fallen expression, followed by a statement like, "You know, if you aren't working full-time you don't have FMLA coverage." Yeah, I know.

We all have our steadfast beliefs and we all judge, but I implore you to not give unsolicited advice based on that position of judgement. That "Oh my god, what are you thinking!" face is just too much for a sensitive new parent like me to handle. I suggest checking yourself internally before you say a word. This is what I say to myself all the time - "It's different for everyone." I felt like such a loser when I had to leave my job for a month during the first trimester because I felt like shit and my work was making me feel worse. Since I started feeling better in April, I've really been enjoying pregnancy, but I know that isn't every woman's experience. And yes, it's very easy for me to jump to judgmental conclusions - "If she took better care of herself, maybe she wouldn't feel sick all the time." That's a shitty assessment, based on little or no information. And then I wonder, how would I feel if someone were to judge me for laying around the house for four weeks because I felt nauseous and sleepy all the time? I'd feel really hurt, and that's humbling.

If you're confident in some aspect of your parenting, I wholeheartedly applaud you. In the midst of so much uncertainty, we all need to feel proud of ourselves sometimes. I just ask you to remember that what's easy for you may be very difficult for me, and vice versa. Or maybe my approach is different from yours, though no better or worse. I'm just going to trust that we're all doing our best. If I couldn't, we probably wouldn't be friends in the first place.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Affordable Trees

I miss Ypsilanti, MI for many reasons, but especially now that we're looking for a new apartment in Chattanooga. Ypsi is this wonderful, underrated little secret of a town. Much of it is fairly ghetto - no matter where you live, you're probably within walking distance of a crackhouse - but I love its sleepy shopping districts, historic homes and expansive parks along the Huron River. My old Ypsi neighborhood is very pretty and a pretty hip destination for poor artist types and young families, which is to say that the living is rather cheap.

Like Ypsi, Chattanooga is a dilapidated blue collar town experiencing a rebirth, but unlike Ypsi all the hip, pretty parts of town are really, really expensive. That's just the way it is. If you want to live near downtown (which we do) and safety is a concern (more so since we're having a baby) there are three "cool" areas to consider ~

The North Shore The first bastion of Chattanooga's great gentrification. Covering several lush, hilly square miles, this is where you find the fancy pants school district and a riverside row of chic retail businesses and overpriced restaurants. Frankly, I'm not impressed. It's so much like Ypsi's upscale city next door, Ann Arbor - the neighborhoods are undeniably gorgeous (and home to the most expensive real estate and rentals in town) but the business district is little more than a shiny money trap. There isn't much to do there except blow your cash on a bunch of stuff you don't need, like designer dog biscuits and boutique clothing. Oh, and the people. On Sunday we dined at Taco Mamacita, a truly good purveyor of gourmet, completely unauthentic $3.50 tacos. Our meal was wonderful, but the atmosphere felt all wrong. As I glanced around the room, I said to Dan, "This crowd reminds me of D.C. Everyone is white in the worst way." Specifically, it felt like everyone in that restaurant had once belonged to a frat or sorority. Now that isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself. It's the homogeneity that frightens me. I'm an outsider and I have no desire to be "in". That's my general impression of the North Shore's business center. And other than the superior school district, which won't be relevant to us for several more years, this seems to be the neighborhood's most touted feature. I don't get it.

The Southside Our current locale and the next big phase in Chatty gentrification, this neighborhood is genuinely cool. We have a few art galleries and a sizable collection of excellent artisan foodie establishments - Niedlov's for bread and pastries, Link 41 for sausage, Velo for coffee, The Terminal for beer (though their burgers and entrees are way better than their brews). Our people are a mix of families, yuppies, older folks and hipsters. It's racially diverse for now and I hope that lasts but I'm not sure it will. The change from low income neighborhood to up-and-coming artists' hub has happened so fast. All of those businesses have come to the Southside in just the past few years. I'm wondering how long it will be before we can't afford the rent here. As it is, the only available spaces are way bigger and pricier than what we want. And the fact remains that for all its cool exposed brick interiors, this former manufacturing center is dotted with large, treeless lots and often reeks of the chicken rendering plant down the road. The Southside was just right for our childless selves, but the prospect of a much tighter budget means that proximity to galleries, artisan foods and brewpubs just isn't that big a draw anymore. I'll take clean, fresh air instead.

St. Elmo I hope we end up living here. Situated at the foot of Lookout Mountain and just above the Georgia state line, St. Elmo used to be its own little town before it became part of Chattanooga in 1929. They have their own downtown with a cafe, a few restaurants, a couple grocery stores and a public library branch. And it's just lovely, with it's craftsman style houses, thick, old trees and mountain view. With an infant on the way, I want a solid home with a big, shady porch, 'cause I don't plan on going out often. And that's good, because there isn't much happening in St. Elmo and it's a haul to downtown Chattanooga. The bummer part of the deal is that we still need to go to work, and getting in and out of this hillside burg can be a real pain in the ass. But when all pluses and minuses are told, I think that one sacrifice is worth making.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that I find myself wanting to live in the 'burbs* and that feels pretty weird to me. Having a kid forces a complete reevaluation of what you want in a living situation. We still have our weirdo ways - choosing to rent instead of buying, wanting to live within a ten minute drive of cool businesses and happenings, valuing diversity at least as much as we value a good school district (and who knows how that will change when our kid is actually school-aged). But the fact that I'm desperately hoping we score a certain St. Elmo rental that will require lots of driving to and fro is strange, considering that walkability used to be my number one renter's concern. And this place ain't cheap, either. It's a fairly big two bedroom, which means big utility expenses. Still, I prefer this expensive choice to the more convenient but less-bang-for-your-buck North Shore, or even our current neighborhood. As I find myself settling into a lengthy nesting stage, affordable trees have gained greater priority.

*Again, St. Elmo is technically in the city of Chattanooga. But for it's sheer distance from the city center, it may as well be the suburb it was before it was annexed.