Yesterday Kish passed along the New York Times obituary for Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, who died earlier this week at age 99. Dr. Brazelton was a nationally recognized pediatrician, but he had a much more direct connection to our family. He was the “baby doctor” who wrote the books that we read when preparing to become parents. Those were the books that we consulted regularly as brand-new parents who were relentlessly scrutinizing Richard, our first-born, for every potential sign of illness, unhappiness, developmental or behavioral problems, and every other thing nervous first-time parents worry incessantly about as they try to figure out the very basic question that lies at the core of the new parent’s consciousness: is my child normal, and okay?
Perhaps a day after Kish found out she was pregnant, approximately 50 books by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton appeared on the coffee table at our tiny apartment in suburban Alexandria, Virginia. As is her wont, Kish had done her research, consulted her sources, and decided that Dr. T. Berry Brazelton was The Man when it came to providing us with guidance about how to deal with the new member of our family. The physical presence of the books on the coffee table when I got home from work at night helped to drive home the point that, in a few short months, there would be a new member of the family in that little apartment, and we would be responsible for taking care of him or her. Yikes!
Within days, the once-pristine books bore the physical signs of Kish’s careful attention. The pages sprouted highlighting and post-it notes and turned-down corners, and every night Dr. Brazelton’s books would be the subject of further examination and discussion aloud. They were a kind of holy writ for new parents, and were treated accordingly. It was obvious that Kish planned on trying to memorize everything Dr. Brazelton wrote, so that when the new member of the family, whom we had nicknamed “Junie,” emerged into the world, she would know exactly what to do at every instant.
My review of Dr. Brazelton’s books was a little less thorough. I would read a bit and then shiver inwardly and wonder how in the world I was every going to remember every symptom that might indicate whether Junie had some kind of fatal childhood illness. But as the months passed, and new maternity clothes were rolled out, and the Special Day drew nearer, and the books were digested bit by bit, I came to find Dr. Brazelton’s voice reassuring. The underlying message seemed to be that new parents could do this, and that the infant that was going to appear in your midst was in fact a pretty tough cookie who wasn’t going to be irretrievably damaged by the first inept effort to pick him up or change his diaper or feed him solid food. I remember going home the night Richard was born, while Kish was still in the hospital, and diving once more into the world of Dr. Brazelton for a final dose of common sense and encouragement before we finally brought our tiny baby home.
Once Richard arrived in our household, and was put under the new parent microscope, Dr. Brazelton’s books remained on the coffee table and were consulted anew, and repeatedly, as Richard’s every mannerism and cry and facial expression and rash was compared to the descriptions in the books. And somehow the three of us made it through. When we learned that Kish was pregnant with child number two, we’d come to realize that Dr. Brazelton had been right all along — we could muddle through, somehow, and our baby turned toddler was a pretty hardy survivor after all. By the time Russell joined the Webner family, the Dr. Brazelton books had been moved from the coffee table to the bookshelves, to be consulted in the event of something we hadn’t seen before, but for the most part we were ready to fly solo, and were a lot more relaxed about it.
We spent about two years with Dr. Brazelton and his books as a constant companion. He provided the encouragement and support we needed, at a time of tremendous vulnerability. I’m guessing that we weren’t alone in that regard. Thank you, Dr. Brazelton!