At 2:45 this morning, it was my turn to feed the baby. And it was then, during a time of night usually reserved for bad decisions after a frat party, I realized I’ve achieved a new level of fatigue.
I know there are people out there who can nod off for a couple of hours and wake up totally refreshed. My friend Jon claims he only sleeps two or three hours a night and gets along fine. But I am definitely not like Jon.
I learned as early as the fourth grade, when birthday parties took on sleepover themes, that I needed eight hours of sleep to be happy the next day. Anything less than six, and I’d be worthless for the rest of the week.
I knew going into this whole having-a-kid thing my sleep cycles would be tampered with. My more cynical friends would congratulate me and then tell me to get ready to not sleep for awhile. I thought they were being hyperbolic.
They were not.
The other night, Melinda reported I got up three times to make a bottle when one was not needed. I say she reported because I had no memory of it. At one point the same night, I shot out of a dead sleep and began pounding the covers, convinced we’d lost our son in the sheets while actually, he slept soundly in the bassinet at the foot of the bed.
Being awake this late is my own doing, honestly, as I recently volunteered for the night shift. I thought it would not only fulfill my role as dutiful husband and father, but also allow me to practice my parenting skills without being under the watch of Melinda’s scornful eye.
Did I say scornful? I meant helpful!
By the light of the Coleman lantern, I can put into practice the tips she yells at the rest of us during the day.
“You have to pick his head up more,” I overheard her tell our son D the other afternoon. “His head has to be above his feet. How would you feel if I made you eat upside down?”
As D shifted Robert in his 11-year-old arms, I stole away to the other room and pulled out my notebook. Head above feet, I wrote.
Later in the day, I watched Melinda text with two hands while she held Robert’s bottle with her chin. A pro move to be sure, one I unsuccessfully practiced that night during Robert’s 4:15 feeding.
It’s irrelevant whether I can feed him hands-free. Most nights all I can do is stare wistfully at my glass of bourbon, my Kindle, and my notebook, all sitting just fingertips out of reach.
I’m not completely hopeless. I’ve learned how to twist the bottle so Robert doesn’t scream every time I take it away, and that I need to wear a shirt so he doesn’t involuntarily yank my chest hair with his tiny hands. But the feeding isn’t the hard part.
The part that makes me wish I’d drank more Mountain Dew as a kid is what comes next: the burping.
I understand the basic principle of burping a kid, and I’ve seen it done on TV before, but truthfully, I have never felt so unequipped for a task in my entire life.
My only training consisted of watching Melinda do it once the other day, and even then it was out of the corner of my eye while I watched an episode of The Office.
I really don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like a 10th grader in a closet with a girl, fumbling around and hoping not to fuck up so bad my performance will be the topic of Monday’s conversation at the lunch table.
“Jesus, not so hard,” Melinda said after seeing me burping him with the force somewhere between killing a cockroach with a shoe and greeting a close friend. I’ve since resorted to lighter taps, like I’m absently drumming on a desk during a boring meeting.
I’ve tried to be positive about it, keeping my spirits up by coaxing burps out of him with a variation of Parliament’s song “Give Up The Funk.” We need the burp. Gotta have that burp. But by the 3rd feed cycle of the night, when the world is waking through the living room windows, my tone is more desperate, silent, pleading. Please get a burp, please get a burp, please get a burp.
Let me just be honest: sometimes, I don’t get the burp. Sometimes I pat and pat until I can’t pat anymore, because everything hurts. My forearms haven’t ached this much since middle school.
Sometimes I quit and put him to bed unfulfilled, squirming and thrashing, full of trapped gas. Sometimes, if my wife is in earshot, I lie, clearing my throat and saying “good job, buddy, good burp!” at nothing.
But I pay for that lie dearly. Because it’s only a matter of time before he spits.
Like not sleeping, I knew I was going to get my hands dirty. I knew I had to touch shit and get puked on.
My friends have stories about their experiences with spit up, most of which involved the word “projectile,” as though their kids had ICBMs coming out of their mouths.
The worst was from my friend Caitlin, whose 6-month-old son once destroyed a restaurant booth so heinously that she had to sneak behind the hostess stand to steal a roll of paper towels.
But since I’d grown up field dressing gut-shot squirrels and ducks, I figured I’d be okay.
What I didn’t figure was that I’d be the only parent to get thrown up on.
“He spit up on you again?” Melinda said to me this afternoon while a river of partially-digested milk ran down my sternum. “He never does that to me.”
“I guess he just likes you more,” I deadpanned.
“Did you burp him?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “that rhythmic pounding you heard for 10 minutes was me showing him how to play the djembe.”
Melinda shot me a sour look. “Did you get a burp?”
“Uh, yes?” I lied.
Sometimes I’ll check on him while he’s napping in his rocker and discover he’s spit up, but not wanting to go through the whole process of waking and changing him, I’ll flip him over to hide the mess, like a stained couch cushion.
Also, where the fuck are all the burp cloths? I swear we just bought another stack of them. Those things are like double-A batteries: I know I have some, but can never find them in a time of need.
Not that it matters. Those things are worthless anyway. I could drape a tarp across myself and this kid would still find an exposed shirt sleeve to hurl on. He is the Chris Kyle of pukers.
I’ve tried to head him off at the pass by keeping a close watch of how much he eats. I’ve learned I know when he’s done before he is, and sometimes, I have to cut him off like the drunk who doesn’t know when to quit.
That milk hits his belly, and my role shifts.
Now I’m no longer the friend, coaxing down another shot; I’m the friend holding the hair and saying everything will be okay, comforting him from the effects of the war being waged in his 25-day-old stomach.
But eventually, his eyes slowly close and his breath slackens, and he listens to his dad tell him soft stories of adventures and bad choices made at 2:45 a.m. Him drinking four ounces of milk and hurling on my shoulder doesn’t quite make the list of exciting stories yet, but it’s not a lifetime ban. Puke stories are really only funny in retrospect anyway.