06 May 2008

Baby Bonding

When Jennifer Margulis asked me if I wanted to be part of the book tour for The Baby Bonding Book for Dads, her newest book--co-authored with her husband, James di Properzio, I said, "You remember I'm a lesbian, right?" She did, but said that she wanted the book to tour a variety of places in blog land, and she'd love to have a stop here. "Sure thing," I said. "Send it my way." (disclosure: Jennifer and I first got in contact with each other via some bloggy connection, and she phone interviewed me for a magazine article she was writing that never got published. Since then, we've had every-now-and-again e-mail correspondence in relationship to some of her writing. Her publisher provided the book for my use. You can read more of Jennifer online in at Literary Mama, Mothering, or the website for her previous book, Toddler.)

This book is a nice size--just slightly bigger than a 7"x7 square, with 20 short chapters, three pages each, with two photos each. And the photos alone are a reason to take a peek-- Christopher Briscoe's photos are exquisite. The chapters themselves are good--each very positive, stressing what to do with your new baby (as opposed to what to avoid). It's nice to read parenting advice that focuses on using playful, relaxed contact to build a great relationship with a new child.

When Politica and I were in the midst of our adoption process, we read a lot about bonding and attachment, so I read The Baby Bonding Book for Dads through all the attachment theory I've read. It's a nice idea to write a book for fathers that assumes they're competent and involved caregivers (I remember one of Curly Haired Cousin's doctors saying to Quiet Friend once, "So, you're playing babysitter today?" when Quiet Friend took Curly Haired Cousin to the doctor (who was accustomed to seeing Mississippi Friend there instead). "No, I'm being his father," Quiet Friend pointed out.) But there's nothing here that's particular exclusive to fathers: all new parents (of older children, of newborns) could practice what di Properzio and Margulis recommend here: spend time with your child, skin to skin. Carry her. Talk to him while dressing him. Feed her. Take him outdoors. Play games while changing her diaper. This book is clearly written by people who love their relationship with children, and who have great ideas about ways to start building a relationship with children from the very first moment of contact.

When Curious Girl first joined our family, we spent weeks playing on the living room floor together. CG (then 9 months old) wasn't very strong at first--in fact, she learned to crawl with her legs in that first month, and it took her a while to get up the strength to crawl over my legs. I remember that being a big deal at the time. She'd been used to life in her orphanage, which was a pretty quiet place, and we didn't want to overstimulate her. We also wanted to teach her who we were, help her understand what it means to live in a family rather than in an institution, and give her time and space to figure out her new life. And mostly, we wanted to encourage her to attach to us. When we first came home, she'd have gone to pretty much any adult (especially those with white coats, like her orphanage caretakers wore; since she was sick constantly, she saw lots of white coats in those early months!). We used our floor time to make lots of eye contact, to get her to look at us, come to us, react to us. We sang songs to her, made fun games out of everything, so she'd see us as sources of fun, and more importantly, sources of comfort and caring. A lot of what we did is reflected in this book--so while the title is focused on fathers bonding with their babies, I'd actually like to see it repackaged as a baby bonding book for parents.

I know, I'm contrary about gendered parenting books. I read this book with some suspicion, half expecting to be irritated by generalizations about mothers or fathers. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book is mostly just father-to-father informal conversation, like this:
Anything you can do with your face is interesting, too. Pretend to look surprised, wiggle your ears. Blow little puffs of air into the baby's face and then laugh or make surprised noises--even gorillas play this game with their young--and your baby wil either laugh or frown. This is your first chance to let go of your staid, grown-up demeanor and be silly, because nobody wants to be like the really serious, boring old dads some of your friends had when you were a kid. Maybe you don't feel like a cool dad yet, but when you were a kid, like every kid, you knew in your heart that you weren't going to be a strict/boring/old-fashioned/whatever like your dad. This is prime practice time, because babie are like dogs: they don't care what you do so much, as long as you're paying attention to them.
Turns out my big quibble with this book is that I can't figure out what Jennifer Margulis actually wrote here. She and her husband are named as co-authors on the cover, but the book is written entirely in the first person singular by her husband. The preface leads off with a story about how the author used to watch his father shave and now his daughter watches him shave. I suppose there are a few chapters that don't have an explicit first-person reference (so perhaps this is the answer to my question), but her husband's "I" pops up enough through the book that it really reads like a singly-authored book, by a man writing to other men, particularly in the preface and epilogue. So I wondered a bit about where Jennifer was in all this. I'm a writing teacher: I think about how authors represent themselves. But that probably isn't going to detract from others' enjoyment of this celebration of parent/child bonding.


Songbird said...

I guess the up side to this book is the idea that fathers can be an active part of the child's life, but that seems like advice *my* dad's generation needed.

About the book said...

Thanks for this review Susan. I appreciated your taking the time to read and write about it, and I love your blog and am honored to be mentioned on it. I also appreciate the criticism--we struggled a lot with the voice (I wrote about half of the book but we ended up putting it in the first person because it just made more sense since it really is a book by a dad to a dad with a writerly mom on the sidelines writing and cheering...). So, it's a royal "I" in some ways...