One night, when I was four or five, I was watching a National Geographic special about great blue whales with my parents. At one point in the program, there was a feature about their mating rituals and I asked Mom and Dad, “What are those whales doing?” My parents, being the young hippies they were, gave me an honest answer employing the words “penis” and “vagina.”
I was appalled. My mom still recalls with glee my reply: “Gross! I might get married, but I’ll never do that!”
At some point about 20 years later, that turned into, “I might do that… but I’ll never get married!” Then around 30, it turned to, “Okay, I can do that and get married and it’s probably okay… as long as we don’t have kids.” You can probably see where this is going.
I think it’s fair to say that I entered into fatherhood reluctantly (possibly an understatement). Yes, I am aware it probably makes me sound like a bad person. Here’s the thing:
I liked my little life the way it was. I liked playing in a band; I liked going out and enjoying meals unencumbered by screaming (usually); I liked having a beer with breakfast on Sundays after sleeping as late as I cared to; and I didn’t really want any of that to change.
When I and my now-former wife first met, we were both on the same page: between don’t want or unsure if wanting to have a kid. After a while, the reproductive urge set in, and she became dead set on having a baby, preferably many of them. Through no small amount of convincing, I agreed to try.
After trips to the OBGYN, the general consensus of our prospects for a successful pregnancy reminded me of a monologue from the Coen brothers’ classic, Raising Arizona: “Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase…”
The actual doctor’s response was, “Well, stranger things have happened.” Upon hearing this, I was a little more encouraged. My little reptilian brain started churning, and I realized that we could be trying for months before it might happen. Months, possibly years, of babymaking sex were all but a guarantee!
When she started ovulating the next week, we went for it. Twice, actually. A few days later, when her monthly visitor failed to promptly show, she went to the Rite-Aid and confirmed with a 3 pack of EPTs that she was indeed with child.
I was blown away! What about “stranger things have happened,” not to mention the months, possibly even years, of coitus non-interruptus?!? Also, we’re having a kid! Holy shit!
In my mind, this all registered, and I was proud and happy, but, at the same time, it seemed surreal: I was going to be a dad, bearing the responsibility for not just the survival of another human being but also making sure he or she didn’t grow up to be an asshole.
Like everything else in my life, I felt like I would have to experience it in order to wrap my head around it and failed to find much use for advice books and the sage wisdom of the Internet regarding fatherhood. This was a point of contention. My future ex-wife was cool about things during the pregnancy for the most part, but she considered my approach to be head-in-the-sand. Regardless of the number of books I did or didn’t read, I was poised to confront fatherhood head on… as soon as the kid actually arrived.
The day came and, after 9+ months of anticipation, I was ready for it. The thing is, though, is that it scared the hell out of me when I held him, when I bathed him, when I took him to the store… I was so acutely aware of how fragile his existence was and how very much it was in my hands.
I also never knew my gag reflex was so strong until I changed a diaper. A couple of times I narrowly missed vomiting on my infant son, opting to catch it in the clean diaper instead. If you have ever had to bear the expense of disposable diapers, you know that was a tough call. Like, “How much does a bath cost?”
Here’s the part that makes me sound like an asshole: his mother was (understandably) obsessive about him and didn’t want to let him leave her side ever, and, generally, I was just fine with that arrangement. When she started classes a few months after he was born and I had him by myself for a few nights while she was in class, I was completely freaked out the first few times–my mind jumping from whether or not I would do something to jeopardize his well being to wondering if I could get him to stop crying if he started up, or ohmygod what if he just stops breathing!!!???
I thought it would just come naturally, like so many other things, and I was a parental mess.
It was a hard first year. It wasn’t until he was about six months old that I began to feel at ease with him, and it wasn’t until he developed something of a personality shortly thereafter that I truly bonded with him. Not that I didn’t love the kid and wasn’t willing to lay down my life for him from birth, but, honestly, he was a puzzle to me. As I learned how to understand him, how to make him laugh, how to play with him, I began to see the beauty of the whole fatherhood thing and derived joy from it. My time with him became pleasurable rather than a fulfillment of responsibility.
When Henry turned 3, my wife became my ex-wife. She moved to a friend’s house and later to an apartment of her own, and we agreed to a split 50/50 custody. Though the dissolution of a marriage is one of the more difficult life events I can imagine enduring, it had its upside in that my relationship with my boy has grown immeasurably.
Maybe it was the closeness fostered by the, “Looks like it’s just you and me now, kid” talk (as I cried fat, sorrowful tears blubbering to someone who couldn’t be bothered to look away from his Elmo phone) or the emergence of communicative faculties which have allowed us to develop a personal relationship or our mutual love of pho and southern fried chicken. Whatever it was, I’m deeply grateful.
Finally, I understand all the clichés and platitudes people employ when describing the experience of fatherhood. It IS the hardest, best thing I’ve ever done; I DO see so much of myself in him; and, now five years in, I can’t imagine a life worth living without him in it.