What the First 5 Presidents Taught Me About Raising My Newborn Daughter


3 presidential lessons that made fatherhood slightly less terrifying
I’m five books into my quest to read a biography of every president in chronological order. I’ve read about Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and I’m finishing up Monroe now. My already slow progress ground to a halt six weeks ago when my wife and I welcomed our first child, Emerson Paige, into the world.

Now instead of learning about the Jay Treaty and the War of 1812, I’m reading What to Expect in the First Year and asking the internet stuff like "newborn eyes roll back in head normal?" (normal).

The reading and blogging part of me must adapt as I acclimate to this new world of sleep deprivation, diapers, feedings, and a surreal sense of disbelief and awe that this beautiful creature is here to stay and my identity and priorities must shift. Forever.

Stealing moments as both daughter and mother sleep to write this, I reflected on the lessons I gleaned from the first five presidents that I’m applying to raising my newborn daughter – the do’s and don’ts of what it means to be a father of 8 pounds of an utterly dependent micro-human waiting to be shaped by my love and neuroses.

These are the 3 main lessons I’ve learned.

1. Be there.

It’s getting easy to be there when she’s making eye contact or showing early attempts to smile, or sleeping in my arms. It’s harder to be there when she’s wailing at the top of her lungs, spitting up like some kind of milk volcano, or writhing in gassy pain when we just want her to sleep. Those are the times I want to tap out and pass her to mommy or any halfway trustworthy-looking stranger nearby.

Reading about the early presidents was more of a lesson in what not to do when it came to being there for my daughter. The first presidents (except Washington and Madison who had no children of their own but both had disappointing stepsons) spent much of their pre-presidential years in Europe as ambassadors and diplomats. That meant missing out on much of the formative years of their young children's lives.

John Adams spent years in Europe away from his family. The son he took with him, John Quincy, went on to become president and lived to 80. The son he spent less time with, Charles, died of alcoholism at 30. I wonder what difference it would have made if John had been there alongside Abigail to steer Charles in the right direction. Those sons seem like extreme ends of the stick, and I’d like to think there’s a happy medium in there somewhere that will allow my daughter to be a successful social drinker.

After serving in France for years, Thomas Jefferson finally brought his 9-year-old daughter Polly over to join him and she didn’t even recognize him. The poor girl was torn from her home against her will, put on a boat for weeks, and finally delivered to a man she didn’t know. As painful as that was for her, I wonder how Jefferson felt when they reunited and he saw no love in her eyes. I understand service to one's country still separates families, but I could never handle being a stranger to my child.

I started thinking being apart from your young children was normal, essential even, if you wanted to be politically successful in the early 1800s. Then I read about James Monroe. Even though he was sent to Europe multiple times, he always brought his wife and daughter with him – where he went, they went, as a family. He gives me hope that work-life balance is achievable for my wife and I who want to be equal parents and providers.

Monroe also died penniless after a lifetime of public service and needed his children's help to support himself at the end. So the real takeaway for us might be Be there...and have a 401(k). 

2. Learn to love poop.

American farmers like George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were among the first to use manure as fertilizer. They knew its value, and fully understood the dung concoction was something to be studied, cultivated, and revered. John Adams even had a recipe for it in his diary. If I still lived in the Midwest with easy access to all the ingredients, I might have tried to recreate it in an attempt to copy the model of the popular Julie & Julia blog.

It involved freezing over the winter and thawing it in the spring – this recipe was serious shit.
I've recently learned the value and variety of newborn poop. The dark horror came upon us immediately, in the hospital. Most babies have one or two “meconium” stools their first day – a black, tarry substance that’s the product of swallowing amniotic fluid in the womb. My daughter had eight. Eight. Her bowels expelled enough tarry goop to trap a family of wooly mammoths for millennia. She must have passed through the vaginal canal like Pacman, gulping the whole way down.

Now I've learned to have a love-hate relationship with her poop. Once the maternity nurses showed me how, changing her diapers was one of the few times I actually knew what to do with her in those first days; my purpose was as clear as her diapers were soiled. It's actually a relief now to open those Pampers and see a big load because it means she's digesting her food and growing and thriving, and her awful gas pain has a real, solvable cause.

When George Washington was looking for a farm manager, he said he wanted “above all, Midas like, one who can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards Gold.” My newborn definitely has that Midas touch, but her poop doesn’t look like gold. On the best of days, it looks like basil pesto. On the worst of days, it looks like basil pesto sprayed five feet across the room. She's too young to draw pictures or make macaroni art; poop is all she has to give at this point and she's incredibly generous.

3. Read.

We may get through this biography project sooner than I thought.
The Founding Fathers weren’t born with the innate ability to lead men or found a country. Carving a successful republic out of a monarchy was a new and momentous endeavor, but they weren't flying completely blind. They were extremely well-read on the subjects of Greek, Roman, and English government and Enlightenment philosophy which guided the Constitution. They took advantage of the vast body of knowledge already out there and let it inform their decisions.

Parenting should be approached the same way.

I know (and I’ve heard a million times) that no book can prepare you for what it’s like having a baby. You don't say? I’ve had books that were so good they kept me up at night, but that was on my terms, not at random intervals for weeks straight sucking out my soul.

Obviously real-life experience is different from the advice and warnings you read about, but books have armed me and my wife with knowledge that gives us an inkling of what's normal and helped us form some kind of plan. There is no “what feels right” in the moment when everything is tortuous and you're plagued with deranged insecurity. You can go ahead and wing it, but I’m diving headfirst into Harvey Karp's 5 S's of calming a crying baby and binge-read babycenter.com. Even if our eat-play-sleep plan is literally shit all over by our strong-willed baby, it helps us feel a little less helpless.

All the books in the world won't stop us from making our own mistakes with our poopy little nation-state, but I'd like to avoid some mistakes other people already made. I know my wife and I aren't founding a country, but we’re raising a human being and sometimes it feels like the same thing.


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