If life before having a baby was a novel, life with a baby is poetry. (If this sounds overly romantic, just hear me out.)
Life pre-baby made sense. It was linear. The plot moved forward. Characters spoke in complete sentences. Chapters had clear beginnings and endings.
Life with a baby happens in stops and starts. Like poetry, life with a baby is occasionally so beautiful it’s nearly transcendent. Also like poetry, it usually doesn’t make much sense. Sure, you’ll share quotes from time to time on social media, but most of what you’re reading is just a garble of words on a page. You’re told there’s a hidden meaning to everything... but maybe there’s not?
A friend of mine who is currently pregnant asked me if I thought it might be realistic for her and her husband to keep their two full-time jobs and split caring for their baby during the day, without any childcare assistance.
If you have kids, you probably understand that the correct answer to this question is: “No... unless you’re willing to go crazy / not sleep / attend no scheduled calls or meetings.” (Yes, this is what people with jobs and kids did/have been doing during COVID, and from what I’ve heard, insanity is the general experience.)
Nevertheless, it’s actually a fair question, given how little is shared about how much hands-on care kids actually need during the day. Just like how movies about pregnancy are just montages of “hormonal” women throwing up, eating ice cream, and getting ultrasounds, movies depicting new parenthood choose either the total chaos of dirty diapers and screaming or relegate the baby to an invisible side character, sleeping peacefully offscreen for most of the movie while everyone looks well rested with great hair.
But what does caring for a baby actually entail? There are lots of variables in the answer to this question, of course. How old the baby is matters a lot. Each baby’s needs are different. Families juggle the responsibilities of caretaking differently. The point I’m hoping comes across in sharing a day in our lives caring for Wren right now is that taking care of a baby is a full-time job, however you assign and divide it, no matter how “easy” your baby is.
There are no shortage of “baby schedules” available online, with regimented hours for sleep, feeding, and even diaper changes. It is, at best, annoying and, at worst, isolating to read about these baby robots who supposedly operate on this strict schedule every day. These schedules are also frustratingly vague. Sometimes entire hours are just described as “playtime” - is this 6-month-old enjoying a game of solitaire or are they actually being entertained by their caretaker?
In service of transparency of what taking care of a baby actually looks like, here’s one recent day in our lives caring for 5.5-month-old Wren…
5:50am - Wren starts making some noises, which means she’s waking up. We just sleep trained Wren a couple weeks ago, and since then she has slept 11-11.5 hours straight at night. She went to bed at 6:30pm last night, so she’s almost hitting ~11.5 hours at 5:50am. (We’d like her to wake up after 6am, but we’re in the process of trying to determine what formula of naps/wake time/bedtime will achieve that aim. At this moment, this is very unclear. Please send tips.)
6:00am - Wren is squawking more loudly now. If she wakes up before 6am, we let her make noises or fuss in her crib until we come in at 6am.
6:05am - I get out of bed, use the bathroom, and brush my teeth. I get Wren out of her crib and breastfeed her. I change her diaper and put her down on the carpet with a few toys. She kicks around and plays a bit while I make matcha.
6:15am - Wren noticed that I went out of her view and was unhappy about that. She’s now in my arms as I finish making my tea.
6:20am - Wren is back to playing on the ground while I sit next to her and drink my tea. If I break eye contact to look at the New Yorker article I’m trying to read, she notices and makes her dissatisfaction clear. She enjoys an audience.
6:30am - My tea is gone now, and I’m busy keeping the required eye contact with Wren, chatting with her, and moving her toys around to keep floor time interesting. I help Wren practice rolling from stomach to back and from back to stomach. She lets out lots of happy screeches. This is a pretty cute time of day with her.
7:00am - Peter is up and brushing his teeth. Wren is delighted to see him — another audience member for her floor activities.
7:30am - I trade off Wren duties with Peter and go for a run.
8:20am - After 30 minutes of various activities (sit in bouncy chair and watch Dad make coffee, tour the house in Dad’s arms, sit on the couch together, look outside at the birds) Peter changes Wren’s diaper and puts her in her sleep suit. He turns on her white noise machine and closes the blackout blinds and blackout curtain in her room. (We’re serious about blackout in this house. Once you start reading baby sleep stuff, it becomes clear that you cannot make a room too dark.) He lays her down drowsy but awake* in her crib. Wren goes to sleep after a few minutes of rolling around and murmuring to herself.
Around this time, I get back from my run, shower, have breakfast with Peter, leave the dishes in the sink for later, and start some work. We can now “expect” this first nap of the day to be at least an hour, and typically around 90 minutes, but the time and length are variable enough that I would not schedule a work call during this time - at least not one that I can’t interrupt to go grab and feed a baby while on the call.
9:00am - Peter goes to work in our downstairs office. He works roughly full time right now, and I am doing consulting work 2-3 days a week. On Mondays and Wednesdays, Wren is with her Gigi (my mom) from 10am-3pm while I work. Peter’s parents also often watch Wren for a few hours on another day, on a more variable basis. If someone is watching Wren, the morning/afternoon below plays out more or less the same, just with a different caretaker than me.
9:50am - Wren wakes up. I let her squawk long enough to finish my current task, close my laptop, and go get her out of her crib.
10:00am - I feed and change Wren, then we begin at the top of an awake period much the same as we did earlier in the day. Floor playing - sometimes independently, sometimes not. If she’s unhappy on the floor, I’ll put her in the carrier so she can walk around with me in the house. If she’s playing independently or in the carrier, I can clean something, do laundry, text/email someone back, or another task that is easy to stop/start. I really don’t bother to start or continue a more focused work task, as Wren doesn’t play independently much longer than 15 minutes at the most and if she’s in the carrier she likes to be moving around.
11:30am - Wren is getting sleepy and is over playing. She wants to be held, but I don’t want to put her down for her next nap quite yet. I’m doing mental math, adding up the likely length of her next naps and the wake time in between them, and where that puts her bedtime, and we’re landing a bit too early. So we go outside and count trees, then we sing a song, then we walk around the house, then we go find Peter and stare at him typing on his computer for a couple minutes. Then we repeat all those things again.
12:00pm - I change Wren, breastfeed her a little more and then repeat dark room + white noise + sleep suit + put down sleepy but awake combo. Wren drifts off after a few minutes. While Wren is napping, I continue on the work task I was working on earlier.
12:45pm - Wren wakes up. Darn. I am always hoping her second nap of the day will be at least an hour, but sometimes she wakes up earlier. I go into her room quietly and replace her pacifier, hoping that might help her continue the nap. No dice.
1:00pm - Feed, change, play. Wren is unhappy alone on the floor, so I put her in the front pack and carry her around while I make lunch.
We just started introducing Wren to solid food, so that’s now a nice way to keep her busy for 20 minutes or so. We’re having mackerel salad for lunch today, so I put Wren in her highchair and put some mackerel and cooked veggies in front of her. She hasn’t quite figured out how to use her hands to eat, but if we put food on her spoon and hand her the spoon she’ll eagerly feed herself. Peter comes upstairs to eat lunch with us. We eat together while helping Wren with loading her spoon.
After lunch, Wren needs a little clean up so I wipe her face and change her. We leave the lunch dishes with our breakfast dishes: by the sink, to wash after dinner.
3:15pm - Wren is starting to get sleepy. We need this third nap of the day to go to at least 4pm, so she’ll go to bed around 6:30pm (she can stay awake for a max of 2.5-3 hours these days). I change Wren and bundle her up to go on a walk. She’ll reliably fall asleep in either the stroller or the carrier, so that’s a good fallback for the last nap of the day when a long crib nap seems more dicey.
3:30pm - After a few minutes of walking, Wren’s asleep in the carrier. I walk and listen to my audiobook. Depending on how tired I am, this last walk of the day can feel a bit depleting, and good listening is motivating.
4:15pm - We get back from our walk. Wren wakes up when we walk in the door. I leave her in the carrier to walk around and clean up a bit. Eventually, I take her out and feed her/change her, then we’ll do some more floor play.
5:30pm - Pete is now upstairs after work, so he’s around to help entertain Wren. Maybe we’ll serve Wren another snack just to have something to do and pass the time until bedtime - today it’s a quarter of a hard boiled egg, mashed up a bit. She feeds herself a few spoonfuls and smears a lot of egg on her face.
6:00pm - We run a bath in the sink and wash the egg off Wren’s face. The bath is a good way to spend 15 minutes when Wren is ready to go to sleep but we’re stalling her. I start making dinner while Peter dries Wren off and puts her in her diaper and pajamas.
6:30pm - I take Wren to her room while Peter finishes making dinner. One last mini feeding, then the final sleep transition (!) of the day: sleep suit, white noise on, lights off. Into the crib.
Goodnight Wren, see you tomorrow!
Now Peter and I eat dinner, and catch up on the day. After dinner, we read, do a little work, scroll on our phones, enjoy the blessed quiet, etc.
9pm - We try to be in bed in the 9pm hour and asleep by 10pm so we have a chance for 8 hours straight of sleep. This takes discipline because after 7pm we finally have uninterrupted time and it’s really tempting to stay up and hang out, do something leisurely like watch a show, or take advantage of the time to get stuff done. But I remind myself how I’ll feel at 5-6am in the morning if I don’t go to bed, and that usually gets me off the couch and into bed.
*If you, like all new parents, are obsessed with getting your baby to go to sleep and stay asleep, you will have read the phrase “drowsy but awake” so. many. times. It’s annoying because it’s absolutely the key to baby sleep and yet it feels so elusive when your baby cries every time you put her down. We got the PDF for this course from a friend and all I can say is that sleep training works... I really can’t recommend it enough.