The guy's guide to new fatherhood
The guy's guide to new fatherhood
An admission: I do not hoard great reservoirs of wisdom. I have no extraordinary expertise, no neatly typed, itemized answers from which you, the new father, might crib. On this day, I come to you as a lay father. I come to you as someone who did many things wrong and a few things right. And I come to you dressed in shirts that, to this day, bear traces of multiple protein stains. Take my hand. On second thought, don't. You'll need both free to change the hundreds of soiled diapers that, for the next year at least, will dominate your life. Shall we begin?
In the beginning, there was the preamble
During “our” pregnancy fatherhood was an abstraction, even though the reality was everywhere. For one, my formerly svelte girlfriend of almost 20 years, Indershini, was fast becoming as curvaceous as Stephen Harper. And our neat and sparsely decorated home was suddenly invaded by baby things, with their discomfiting bright colours and function-over-form esthetics. Some functions were less evident than others.
“What's this?” I asked, picking up a plastic do-dad.
“A baby rattle.”
“And we own this because…?”
“It makes a shaking noise.”
“So, let me get this straight: we like shaking noise?”
Usually, my girlfriend responded positively to my cynicism. But as her belly grew (and grew), she seemed to become less amenable to my, um, “outlook.” Where had she gone?
The final straw
She was becoming a full-fledged parent. This was understandable, since she'd been training for the gig for nine months. I, on the other hand, was in a state of denial. She did her best to jog me out of it, though. One week, we had to buy a stroller; the next, I had to pick out a crib. A fancy red chair was purchased expressly for breast-feeding ergonomics, the details of which I chose to ignore. And she was now demanding that I help decide on a name. Apparently all the kids have them these days.
The final straw occurred about a week before she was due. It was time, she decreed, to paint the baby's room. “Paint the room!” I whined. “Why? What's the baby going to do? Complain about earth tones? Maybe we should call our kid Benjamin Moore,” I muttered. “Or Pratt and Lambert, if we have twins.” This went over well.
Let me be clear, I was thrilled about the prospect of fatherhood, but at this point Baby was very much an abstraction. Whether unconsciously or by design, I avoided thinking about [NAME TBA] and how s/he might affect my life. But I was in for a rude awakening. It would happen Dec. 29, 2003, shortly after 9 p.m.
LESSON LEARNED: No matter how abstract parenthood is to you, it is anything but vague to your partner.
IF I HAD TO DO IT AGAIN: I'd shut up and just paint the room.
The blessed event
Six pounds, 10 ounces. Male. Name: TBA. I'll spare you the intimate details of his birth, but suffice to say, as a general rule, children are slippery. Immediately after [NAME TBA] was born there was a moment of panic when it was discovered that he wasn't breathing. The doors to the room burst open and some specialist came in with stat written all over his face, and for the first time it sunk in that, ohmygoid, we were in a hospital and my child -- my child -- was in distress. He was no longer an abstraction. He was real, and he was my son.
In no time, however, our baby was testing out his lungs, screaming as if he'd been forced to sleep in a bedroom that hadn't been painted in soothing Ralph Lauren colours.
Did I have paternal urges?
My girlfriend held him in her arms as if she'd been doing this forever. She had tears in her eyes. “Isn't he beautiful?” she asked rhetorically. I think I had the presence of mind to answer in the affirmative. But beauty was not the first word I thought of. His fingernails were a colour not normally found in nature, or Ralph Lauren. He was wrinkled and pallid and kind of squished -- which is, of course, pretty much what one expects from a newborn infant who has been cooped up in a womb for nine long months. But it did bring home a point. My girlfriend was overwhelmed; I, however, was not. Did I have paternal urges? Or was I an unfeeling cad, unsuited to life with NoName® baby?
We posed for pictures: by ourselves, with our family, with our wonderful obstetrician, Dr. Mark Rosengarten. Typical. Except that among the photos is a very different shot. In one of the first pictures taken of my son, on the first day of his life, he is…smiling.
LESSON LEARNED: This is all new to you; conflicted feelings and doubt are often part of the equation.
IF I HAD TO DO IT AGAIN: I'd at least have given him a name because during the next phase you'll barely begin to recall your own.
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The first month is hell
The first month of fatherhood is, simply, hell. Like other trauma victims, I have chosen to excise it from my mind. But the memories are not gone. They live on, buried deep in some psychological pit, retrievable only through hypnosis. Or so I thought. Then, a few weeks ago, I opened The Box.
The Box consisted of baby things we'd saved, most of which were mementos of our son's first month. There was a copy of his original ultrasound and his Apgar score sheet. There was his hospital bracelet, a shockingly small loop of plastic roughly the diameter of my thumb -- he was that small. There was the ID card, with no first name. A lock of his hair.
The most interesting thing about The Box, however, was a bunch of paper sheets, rolled up in a scroll. I unrolled them. Down the left-hand margin were a series of densely bunched times: 12:15 a.m., 1:05 a.m., 2:50 a.m., 3:15 a.m., 4:10 a.m. and so on. The next column was titled BREAST/FORMULA indicating how long our child had fed and upon which delicacy he had dined. The next three columns had to do with bodily expulsions of one kind or another. Some boxes were checked off, while others featured comments such as “explosive” and “projectile.”
We were writing down everything that went into, and came out of, our son. There was a good reason for this: we were barking mad. Although oblivious to our own psychological state, others surely must have known. Like the team of nurses who fielded calls at the Newborn Hotline. We had literally memorized the number.
ME: “Help! Our baby is [crying/screaming/throwing up]!!!”
NURSE: “That's what babies do.”
ME: “No! You don't understand! Our baby is [crying/screaming/throwing up]!”
NURSE: (Sigh) “Is this Guy?”
ME: (Pause) “No. It's Mr. Smith.”
NURSE: “OK, Guy, let's go over this one more time….”
Finding a role
Although my girlfriend and I had grown weird together, at least she had a role. A big one, too: calmer of child and dispenser of liquid refreshment. My role was less defined. I tried to be there in some sort of supportive capacity, but it was obvious I was peripheral. I could have slipped out the door, saved the world from tyranny and arm-wrestled drunken sailors, and my absence would not have been noticed until it came time to dispose of poo.
Was I bonding with my own baby? This was my life?
It was only for a month. By the end of it we had developed a routine, of sorts. Sleep was becoming more common. We had even chosen a name: Mica. Things were finally going our way. This is what we thought.
Life, as you knew it, is over
Don't be fooled by The Lull. This happy time can take place roughly between the first and fourth month. It's a time when Baby sleeps a lot and when his cries, even at full throttle, are barely above a mewl. It is a time when some new parents actually go to restaurants -- and bring their docile, sleeping kid.
During The Lull, the trials of fatherhood seem minimal. The temptation is to think: You know, I'm really pretty good at this fatherhood thing. You begin to entertain thoughts of having another kid or two. Or more -- you could always open up a sweatshop with all that free labour. A thought.
But this grace period is fleeting. Enjoy The Lull while you can. Over the next few months your child will start becoming increasingly independent. Great. But what does it mean for you? Herewith, an incomplete list.
TUNING OUT: Your CD collection will grow -- but in unpleasant ways. Say goodbye to the latest Radiohead release. Instead, embrace the mellow sounds of Jump and Jive with Hi-5, Raffi's somnolent Baby Beluga and Potty Patty's Potty Song #3 with its, er, “moving” chorus: “When we have to poo-poo, we go to the potty, because we like dry pants and messy pants are icky.” Trust me, you'd rather listen to cats mate.
TV OR NOT TV? You will watch a lot of TV and videos (Yippee!!) but it will all be uniformly bad (Oh). There is no statute that demands kids programming be as hopelessly boring as most of it assuredly is, but there might as well be. Much of it is pointless drivel, seemingly designed to enrage any sentient adult. That said, you can still watch adult shows, but only after 8 p.m. What's on? Who knows. You're so exhausted you'll fall asleep in 10 minutes anyway, so it really doesn't matter.
POTTY MOUTH: You will become everything you said you wouldn't. In my past life as a nonparenting person, I observed that most new parents loved to regale their childless friends with gripping stories about their child's bowel accomplishments. This horrified me. I swore I'd never do it, right up until I did it myself. Again, and again.
SOCIAL SCENE STEALER: Sleeping in used to mean until 10 a.m. Now it means until dawn.
COLLATERAL DAMAGE: For most guys, a hangover lasts one day; for men who are parents, a hangover lasts the better part of a week. That said, you will go out, only less. Far, far less. (OK, you'll probably never leave home.)
That said, the joy of being a Year One Parent – seeing your child go from patently helpless to slightly helpless -- outweighs any of these inconveniences. I read that somewhere, I think.
LESSON LEARNED: For infants, the Baby Einstein oeuvre is as addictive as opium.
IF I HAD TO DO IT AGAIN: I'd buy stock in Baby Einstein. Or exile its creator, Julie Aigner-Clark, to an Elba of her choice.
Life, as you know it, has just begun
At the end of my child's first year, I couldn't help but take stock. My initial concerns about bonding with Baby? About being a bystander to my child's life? They quickly disappeared. Indeed, today the “trauma” of early fatherhood seems so distant as to be, ironically, an abstraction.
What I do recall most vividly are a full 12 months of good memories. Mica's first time sitting up. The look of sheer determination on his face as he tried to crawl. On his back in the bathtub, glaring at me and kicking up a storm, as if to say: “Dude, I could take you….” His face completely covered in food the first time he tried to use a spoon by himself, another step in the march toward self-sufficiency.
Speaking of steps, Mica literally took his first ones on his first birthday. Like his first smile, it seemed almost like kismet was working overtime. Today, I often think about that first, joyous smile. It may have been nothing. It may have been gas. But I've come to believe it was a glimpse into who he is and what he would -- will -- be. Only an hour out of his mother's womb, he looked around, and even though he couldn't really see, he liked what he saw.
That's my boy. He's three now, and the best thing in my life. Before his birth, I would have had a hard time visualizing myself saying that. Now, it would be unthinkable to say anything else.
If I had to do it again? Of course I would. In a heartbeat.
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