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first person

Illustration by Rachel Wada

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Hey Google, is it normal that my 3-month-old only sleeps if I’m holding her?

I don’t remember how many times I’d typed questions like this into the search bar before I felt a tinge of embarrassment. I am a pediatrician – shouldn’t I know these things? I am a person of science – shouldn’t I turn to better resources than Dr. Google and mommy blogs? It turns out that years of post-secondary education in science and a residency in pediatrics could not prepare me for motherhood or save me from the traps into which every desperate sleep-deprived new parent has fallen.

By the time my baby girl is five-months old, she is sleeping more, crying less, and allowing me to shower daily. On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, we head out to our first baby swim class. I’ve spent the entire day optimizing nap time and mealtime with the hopes of securing myself a happy baby for the 30 minute class. I remind myself to release expectations. Maybe we’ll swim happily, and then again, maybe we won’t.

In the changeroom, I pull on her swim diaper and ask her not to cry or poop in the pool. On the pool deck, we meet the other moms and babies. The baby girls are all wearing bathing suits over their swim diapers; my daughter looks like a boy in a Speedo. Is this a mom fail? No, it’s fine. We’re just gender-neutral and minimalist people I tell myself.

Our instructor appears. He’s twenty-something years old, handsome, with an eyebrow ring, and he strolls over with the swagger of a guy who’s way too cool to be teaching a baby swim class. His name is Brad. Just 10 short years ago, I was 20, eyeing the likes of Brad flirtatiously on university campus. Today, I’m eyeing him suspiciously. What does this guy even know about babies?

We follow Brad’s direction on how to enter the pool, and my daughter beams as we explore the water. Brad swims over to check on us, and brings his face in close as he tickles her feet, causing her to scream explosively. “Sometimes I have that effect on people,” he says, brushing it off. Her rage dissipates as he swims away, and I find myself pleased at her dramatic response. That’s right my girl, they need to earn your trust before they get in your face like that.

After Brad leads us in a riveting sing-and-splash rendition of The Wheels on the Bus (does anyone else find this hilarious?), we transition the babies onto their backs. Brad instructs us to lower their ears into the water because it’s important for their development, something about losing the sensation of sound underwater. What? That’s not a thing! I try to silence the pediatrician in me. Then, I hear my mother’s voice warning me not to let water get in the baby’s ears because it can get trapped there. Wait, is that a thing? When I tell Brad that I’m not comfortable with this part, he says that I’ll “wanna skip the next part, too.” Why would you assume that, Brad?

Dunks. Brad explains that we will blow air in our babies’ faces to elicit the close-your-eyes-hold-your-breath reflex, and then dunk them underwater. Brad was right – I do wanna skip this part. I observe all the dunks happen around me. The babies emerge from the water, some smiling, others confused but none crying. I look at my sweet little girl, the spitting image of her father, who has (almost) no fear. Okay, we can do this. One, two, three… Blow, reflex, dunk!

She emerges. She’s staring at me, in shock. Her arms are flailing. She’s about to cry. There’s probably so much water in her ears, dammit! And then, she laughs. We did it! I kiss her face as she giggles – that nose, those cheeks, her double chin. I’m overwhelmed with joy – enough joy to survive the subsequent half hour of crying as she demands to be dried, changed and fed all at once. You can’t win ‘em all.

As we walk home, I reflect on the lessons I’ve learned as a mother that were never covered in my medical training – submerging ears underwater and all. I think back on situations in which friends have turned to me for parental advice, and I’ve found myself unable to provide more wisdom than any other new mom. I remember the questions I’ve Googled, wondering why I hadn’t already known the answers. I find myself disappointed – but why?

Perhaps because my profession is a defining part of my identity, and it feels wrong not to have the answers on matters relating to children. I suppose I believed that by working with children and parents every day, I would have a leg up on becoming a parent myself. But of course being a pediatrician could not possibly prepare me for motherhood – not the emotional rollercoaster or existential crisis, not the physical exhaustion, not the nitty-gritty logistics of it all. Perhaps it will be the other way around – that being a parent myself will help me as a pediatrician and give me a leg up on understanding where my patients’ parents are coming from.

But for now, we’re off to practise our dunks.

Leeza Limenis lives in Toronto.