Alimentary canal diary: How I put the “me” in meconium


File photo. File photo.

Like many expectant parents, I was dreading the number one and two responsibilities of raising a baby. The numbers are daunting: According to one source, the average baby requires somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 diaper changes from birth to the successful completion of potty training. Newborns require as many as 12 diaper changes a day. That number gets down to a more manageable five or so a day by the time a baby is a year old, but this is offset by the fact that stools get larger and less manageable as babies start eating solid food.

Years ago, a friend confided her anxiety that she wouldn’t be able to control her gag reflex and change her son’s diapers. To her surprise, she managed. But what if I couldn’t? Prior to becoming a father, my one and only diapering attempt was in a prenatal class on a mannequin—and even in a controlled environment, it didn’t go particularly well.

I worried, too, that I might go to the other extreme and become one of those parents who apparently have stared so deeply into the alimentary abyss they’ve fallen in. Facebook posts about size, color, and consistency of baby stools are all too common. The New York Times recently reported on a subculture of parents (apparently concentrated in Brooklyn) who are attempting to raise their babies diaper-free from birth. Eschewing diapers, “elimination communication” advocates prefer grabbing their babies and holding them over dishes, between parked cars, and even over kitchen sinks during parties whenever nature calls and a toilet is not at hand. These parents concede they are not always successful in anticipating the movement of their baby’s bowels. Still, they prefer cleaning up miscellaneously placed messes to using diapers. I vowed I would never lose sight of the fact that just because “everyone poops” doesn’t mean everyone has to talk about—or live in it.

So, I had some anxiety as my wife’s due date approached. In the end, however, I rose to the challenge. Resistance, after all, is futile; the good old days when men could take a pass on this baleful task are long gone. While watching my wife give birth without anesthesia (!), my attitude even shifted from stoic to positive acceptance. I’ve never felt happier about being a man than I did during that eight-hour stretch (pun intended), but I’ve also never been more in awe of my wife in particular and womanhood in general. If my wife could do that, the least I could do was to man up and change a bunch of diapers.

The first diaper change for all babies, however, is awful and my experience was a true test of paternal devotion. Babies produce a thick, tarry, and high-volume poo called “meconium” within a few hours of birth. Meconium is not for the faint of heart—it’s a toxic sludge that accumulates during nine months in utero. Fortunately, meconium is basically a one-time trial by fire; you get through that one and you’re good to go because subsequent bowel movements are much easier for many months to come.

While I was mentally prepared for the meconium, my daughter presented physical challenges of her own; namely, she was nothing like the mannequin baby I’d diapered in prenatal class. First, she moved. A lot (my recommendation for first-time expectant fathers is to try tying a bow tie on a greased pig). And if I dropped her, there would be consequences. I stood there in the recovery room contemplating all this until the neonatal nurse snapped me back into focus by pointing out (1) she wouldn’t be going home with us to take care of the diapering so I’d better pay attention right now, and (2) I was bigger than my daughter and should be able to manage getting a diaper on her without someone else holding her down.

My daughter, however, has an exceptional talent for squirming, as she demonstrated the night she was born by making a mockery of even the veteran nurse’s professional swaddling technique. I’ve had to improvise to find ways of keeping my daughter in clean diapers. The thing that has been most effective was discovered entirely by accident: She will suddenly and dramatically calm down when listening to “Hey Jude”—and no other music I’ve tried so far has produced the same effect. “Hey Jude,” at 7:09, is the right length of time to change an average diaper. (If I take longer than 7:09, I’m in trouble because simply repeating the song doesn’t work.) I worry what the long-term Pavlovian effect of associating “Hey Jude” with diaper changes might be, but if it produces a mishap in a public setting, she can claim she grew up in Brooklyn to get sympathy.

We’re now past the one-year mark and I’m down to just one or two diaper changes daily. I have no idea what to expect with potty training, but it seems like most kids make the transition by age 3 or so. This means I may only have to listen to “Hey Jude” 400 to 500 more times. But who’s counting?

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