Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Challenges (And Empowerment) Of One-Handed Parenting

After two months of parenthood, I can hardly be considered a font of child care wisdom. But one thing I’m getting really good at is one-handed parenting -- my term for a delicate dance that involves groping for light switches, reaching carefully to open doors, cabinets and dresser drawers, and picking things up and cleaning things up, all with the benefit of just a single hand, with a baby cradled in the other arm. 

I’m getting plenty of practice at one-handed parenting because my son demands it. He’s happiest when perched in the crook my of arm, where he can get a good view of everything that’s happening around him. He’s not a huge fan of being placed in his crib, and tends to start shrieking when I try, so I end up carrying him around with me quite a bit.

All of this is physically exhausting, of course. My advice to first-time parents would be to do everything in your day-to-day life with one hand -- while cradling a pumpkin or watermelon in the other -- for about 3 months prior to the baby’s arrival. Sure, you will look ridiculous, but this exercise will help you develop the dexterity and physical endurance you’ll be needing to perform vital parental functions.

Diaper changing, of course, is at the top of this list. You’ll be using both hands, but one will always be occupied with grabbing your child’s feet and lifting him or her up during the changing process. So you’ve got one free hand to do everything that needs doing. Which works fine as long as the baby is in a good mood. If not, you’ve only got one hand to handle the diaper changing AND the flailing of legs that is meant to thwart your attempts.

After a while, diaper changing starts to feel like a game -- a Jenga of delicate motions played with one hand. One false move, and someone (you) is going to have a mess to clean up.

Nighttime diaper changing missions have a higher degree of technical complexity. I often find myself scooping up my hungry, agitated baby and navigating groggily through the darkness to the changing table, all the while repeating ‘Do NOT fumble’ like a mantra in my head.

When I’m standing there half-asleep and my son starts screaming mid-change -- or when the velcro from the dirty diaper grabs onto the clean one while I’m pulling it off, leaving the changing table momentarily unprotected from disaster -- I feel like a zombie MacGyver trying to cobble together a hasty fix in the limited light.

In addition to changing diapers, I’m constantly gathering, sorting, arranging and fixing things with one hand. When my son is in a squirmy mood, and I need to hold him with both hands, I’ll use my elbows to perform basic tasks. The other night, I twisted open a door knob using my foot and toes, Karate Kid-style. Come to think of it, one-appendage parenting would be a more accurate description of what I do.

Cooking might not seem well suited for one-handed parenting, but I’ve found myself performing remarkably well in the kitchen. I started out opening cans of soup with one hand and have since graduated to making oatmeal cookies, obviously keeping my son away from the heat of the oven. Ultimately, my goal is to pull off a 5-course Chateaubriand dinner for six -- using one hand, naturally.

One-handed parenting is borne of necessity and is rooted in human beings’ innate ability to overcome difficulties and meet challenges. In many ways, new parents are like Chinese acrobats spinning plates on sticks, doing logistical parenting with one hand and emotionally supportive parenting with the other, maintaining balance all the while. Juggling all these things can be chaotic, and there are times when I can hear the dry, husky laugh of the universe, amused by my predicament.

But you know what? I've found one-handed parenting to be very empowering. Once you’ve been doing  it for a while, you look back with amazement at what you’ve managed to pull off with limited physical resources. You start gaining a deeper appreciation for the challenges people without the use of both arms go through every day. And you feel more capable of tackling other parenting challenges that lie down the road -- ones that will involve much more than just the use of your hands.