designing a baby's journal

Nothing changes your life like having a baby. Everything after that arrival is different from everything before, simply because of the presence of a little person who totally depends on his or her parents. And when the new arrival comes with company – twins or triplets or more – the change in your life is all the greater.

Although new parents have little free time to keep a journal, records of the baby’s (or babies’) progress are important – for health reasons, for satisfaction, and for looking back at this time in later years. Although there will be times when the baby is crying and you are working in a sleep-deprived fog to make things right while trying not to lose it totally, you have the reassurance that what is hard to endure is sweet to recall, and these difficult days you will later remember with fondness. Believe it or not. And even though you won’t be able to make a daily entry, you can probably gather your strength and find the time to make an occasional entry – even a short entry can later help you recall an entire day.

Following are some thoughts to help you sort out what kind of journal you might have for recording your offspring’s progress – and occasional setbacks. This list is intended to stimulate your own ideas – it is not a prescription of what you “should” write, but rather things you might consider. In the end, it’s your journal, and your ideas of what’s important will shape your writing.

When: The best time to start the journal is when you first plan to have a child. Those early thoughts about what you as a parent will do are important, and equally important is to establish the habit of writing in your journal to carry you through those first busy (and sleep-deprived) months once the baby arrives. Also some of your early expectations may later be amusing, in a way. Anne Lamott notes in “Operating Instructions” that she expected that having a baby in the house would be sort of like having a cat. =) Topics for the early entries could be the process of finding the right name for the baby and the growing presence of the baby itself.

Format: A handwritten journal is normally a pleasant experience, but handwritten journals require time a new parent is unlikely to have. Also, a physical journal is vulnerable to spills and misplacement. If you have access to a computer, it’s much better to keep an electronic journal: you can probably type faster than you can write, and you never have to search for where you left your computer. Although you can use a word-processing program, it’s so much better to get a program designed for journaling. These journaling programs have many tools to help you, and they are not expensive.

Health information: A journal program will automatically date-stamp each entry, and thus you can readily look back at a log of basic health information on your baby: weight, length, minor illnesses, immunizations (often it’s hard to recall exactly which shots were given when), appetite, and so on. These basic observations can be extremely useful to your health-care provider, and they are also important for your own reference.

Achievements: As the baby grows, you’ll want to record his or her accomplishments: first time to turn over unassisted, first words, first time to stand up, first steps, and the like. As your baby learns to talk, this gradually becomes a record of the amazing (and cute) things kids say: those remarks that you swear you’ll never forget and yet within a month can’t recall except to remember that, whatever was said, it was extremely cute and funny. Another thing you might record are the little nicknames that a baby gets from time to time.

Social skills: As your baby starts to interact with others, you can record those sessions. “Others” might be relatives, other children, or even strangers – in a variety of settings: at home, in stores, at church, or wherever you may be. Is your baby shy, fearful, bold, friendly? Are strangers treated to a little performance of joy and sweetness that is less frequently seen at home?

Animals: The first encounters between a child and animals are always interesting: the baby who sees a cat’s tail as a handle, or who shares an ice-cream cone with a dog. This category is particularly relevant if you have pets.

Photos: A picture can capture in an instant what you can’t describe in a day, and the journal software programs can accept digital photos. But you will need to add some words: if you don’t describe who the people are or what the situation was, you’ll probably remember them anyway – for a year, or ten, or even perhaps twenty. But will you know thirty years from now, when the baby, now grown, wants to explain to his or her own child who these people are and what was happening?

Projects: Every child grows into wanting to do projects: bake a cake, make a mask, build a fort or a house, paint a picture, and the like. Recording those projects can record the progress of your child’s ambition – and also serve as ideas for future rainy afternoons when you need to come up with a project.

Books and reading: As you read aloud for the 20th time some children’s book, you swear you’ll remember it forever. But all too soon you lose track of which books your child especially liked at what time. A record of the favorite books and authors will give you a view of your child’s mind as it develops and becomes especially interesting as the child’s taste develops.

Entertainment and the arts: As for literature, so also for music, for paintings, for dance, and for all the other arts: what and who are the favorites? And record the stories, songs, dances that your child makes up for you.

Ambitions: Children start thinking about their adult occupations early: fire fighter, police officer, explorer, teacher, and so on. Record those early ambitions: what does you child tell you that he or she will be – and why was that occupation picked?

Best- and least-liked foods: As your child develops, track those mysterious changes of tastes. For one thing, it’s interesting; for another, you can detect when you need to scramble to find a replacement for the current leafy green vegetable, which has suddenly become vegetable non grata. Or when the amount of milk consumed is so great that it may be leading to iron deficiency. Too, this can be helpful for spotting food allergies.

Venting: The mere presence of a baby often elicits advice, most well-meaning though some perhaps less so (“corrective” advice), from relatives, acquaintances, and even strangers. Courtesy and practical considerations may dictate a smile and a “thank you,” but in the privacy of your journal you can freely vent your unmitigated reaction at unsought and misdirected advice – and also perhaps record what you would have said if you had only thought of it at the time. =)

Relationships: Observe how your child affects the adults in his life, and how they affect him. For example, just having the baby around will reveal aspects of your parents and in-laws that you have not seen, especially if this is the first grandchild. They are not only showing aspects of themselves that have been hidden, they are showing new aspects, brought forth through their interactions with the child, just as the child’s personality begins to be shaped in part by his interactions with them. Of course, with their accumulation of past experiences, they will have more inertia of personality – but since we all are always changing, the direction of their change cannot help being influenced by the new little person in their lives. Another important relationship to observe is the relationship between the new baby and any older siblings.

Yourself: And as it is for the grandparents, so also it is for you. Observe the changes in yourself, and the changes in your relationship with your spouse or partner, by the presence of the developing baby. As the child grows, so too the child’s influence on your own identity and personality will accumulate. You will be like two trees growing next to each other: you affecting him, and him you. Become aware of these changes and these new parts of yourself that spring to life. Record your own growth as well as the growth of your child.

The parental role: You have responsibilities as a parent. One responsibility is to see to the physical safety and well-being of your child. Equally important is helping your child grow to become a self-disciplined, self-motivated, responsible adult. You will quickly discover the indisputable fact of free will: your child has a mind and a personality of his or her own. But you do have considerable influence on this developing personality.

Some of your influence can be expressed directly (as in saying “No” to dangerous or antisocial behaviors), but most of it will be indirect: through the example you set and the environment you create. Although there are excellent guides (for example, Martin Seligman’s wonderful book The Optimistic Child), much of what influences your child ultimately depends on you and your vision for your child – which includes by implication your vision for yourself.

Take some time to think about what you want your child to become, and record those thoughts so that you don’t lose them. And then think about the example and environment you can provide to help your child achieve that vision. Don’t forget that your child is always aware of your moods and your actions, and ultimately it is your example rather than your words that will get his attention and be his guide.

That’s it. I would be pleased to hear your comments and suggestions about a new-baby journal, particularly any topics I overlooked.

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