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New parents reaching a new normal

If traditional methods for getting your baby to sleep don’t work and leave you feeling like a zombie, here are some tips. On Parenting contributor and new dad Bobby McMahon offers some creative solutions. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Our son’s birth last fall came with all the pomp and circumstance you’d expect with a first child.

My wife and I hung a flag in front of our home, proclaiming to the neighborhood in big blue and white letters that “It’s A Boy.” There were warm greeting cards, visitors ready to hug and hold and more than one panicked call to the doctor because “that can’t be normal.”

But in the weeks and months since, the flag has come down, now tucked away in a drawer. My wife has put the cards in a box in the closet for safekeeping. The occasional doctor calls have continued but, by and large, being a parent has started to feel increasingly normal.

Our son is just here now. I’m not surprised to see him around anymore. I wake up and there he is, squirming about in his crib. It’s still amazing, because we made a new person and we get to love him and teach him things. But he’s also now part of our everyday life.

It’s like The Lion King. We presented him before the members of our animal kingdom, metaphorically holding him high above our heads (he did not have the neck control to go full Lion King). And now we’ve moved to the part of the movie where Simba and his dad just walk around talking about how everything the light touches is his kingdom, which in the case of our son includes a collection of mismatched IKEA bookshelves and a used wafflemaker.

While things are still overwhelming from time to time, I’ve generally moved past the existential questions of fatherhood to more mundane queries, like whether this small amount of spit-up on his onesie requires me to change his outfit.

He didn’t spit up a lot, I think to myself. Just a little. He’s not soaked or anything. And it’s not like we’re going anywhere fancy. It’s Panera. You know what, if someone at Panera gives us crap about not changing our child’s clothes with this decidedly small amount of spit-up on them, they need to get a life. And they need to buy us a cinnamon roll to say they are sorry, because seriously, what kind of person would go out of their way to point out that amount of spit-up on a baby’s onesie? It’s barely a dribble.

At that point, I realize that I’m tired and cranky, and the person I was moments ago preparing to unload upon does not exist.

Things being normal, though, certainly doesn’t mean easy, and just because the questions are different doesn’t mean they’re not still questions. Amid the day-to-day repetition, one thing that can be hard is figuring out which moments are worth capturing, even if it’s only with a grainy iPhone photo.

We still have the big, cinematic moments marking his firsts, like the first time he rolled over, but there are seemingly hundreds of wonderful little smiles or wiggles or half-achievements each week that strike a chord with me. They’re all special in their own way, but which do I save, and which do I allow to brush by me? What will I care about in 10 years? What will I wish I would have hung on to longer?

There are times, though, when the answers are clear. There’s a song I love called “The Temptation of Adam” by Josh Ritter, a beautiful tune about two lovers in a nuclear missile silo waiting to end the world. I sing it a lot to my son when we’re doing laps around our smallish kitchen at night as my wife and I try to settle him for bedtime.

The characters in the song start talking about pressing “the button” and ending everything. And the narrator sings to his love that, if they stuck pins in a map of “all the places where you thought that love would be found,” he would only need one pin — right there with her.

I can’t count how many times I’ve sung this song to my son in the past few months. But one night not long ago, as I circled my kitchen, holding him close, hoping that my singing would calm him down, I hung up on that line.

I thought of where I wanted to be the most. And I wished I could stay there, holding him, singing this song about the apocalypse, and that time would keep going somewhere else.

Outwardly, there wasn’t anything special about that night, but it hardly felt normal to me. It felt like the first day, when I put that flag outside my house and told everyone my son had come home.

Bobby McMahon is a new father and writer living near Washington D.C. He tweets @BobFrankPat.

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