I wasn’t ready to be with a baby. I didn’t understand the rhythm of it. What was the beginning, middle, and end of this task?
My son is six. He has a thing he does lately where he puts his wide-open mouth about a tenth of an inch from my nose. Then he just freezes there, panting on my nose. It’s pretty annoying. After the 500th time, I’m just trying not to go ballistic on him. He’s a sweet kid. I love him more than I love my own life. He’s very smart and very thoughtful most of the time. But he does this nose thing because he knows it drives me crazy. He knows its my personal crazy-making thing.
Kids find out your crazy-making thing, because, of course, you tell them. It’s part of the cosmic parent/child process. You take your hard-earned money, buy a big giant billboard and you declare for everyone to see the secret things that make you crazy. Right up there in twenty foot high letters. Then you show it to your kid. Mine is having people get in my face. So, I had a kid to ensure it happens to me sixteen times a day.
I’ve worked all the angles on this nose thing to try and get my six year old to stop pushing my buttons. But he won’t stop. Because it’s a loop. A loop in which I tell him to brush his teeth and do this Spanish homework and he tries to lick my nose, laughing all the while like a maniac.
My dad never had to deal with this stuff. My dad is a World War II vet. Which gives you some idea of his age and mine. My dad would have put up with it for a little while and then he would have spanked me. In fact, the knowledge that he would have spanked me would have precluded this from ever happening at all. Me, I’m not a spanker. So, I’m left with a much more complex set of interactions based on things like distraction, firmness, love and patience.
I had my son when I was forty five years old. We draw together at the kitchen table and we walk home from school in the afternoons. I can still manage a competent game of kickball at the park with six or eight kids swarming around. I sometimes wonder about the way my life was before my son was born. Did I really have that much time in the day? Why didn’t I get more done in 45 years? Really, what kind of an idiot was I?
Adults without kids are free to create their own patterns for living. Yes, they have jobs and yes they have in-laws, but these influences are not pattern wrecking. They are pattern adjusting. The illusion of control over one’s life remains intact.
Adults with babies are a whole different ball of wax. Raising babies, especially full time, inexorably forces you to dump your long held patterns; the ways of living your life that you think matter so very, very much. The ways in which you validate yourself. The methods through which you handle stress. The people you spend time with. Even right down to what you see in the mirror.
Caring for babies doesn’t make you change these patterns, it blows them to pieces. A lot of other parents told us our lives were REALLY REALLY REALLY going to change. They told us this with this manic tone that was down right creepy and distasteful. It bordered on Shakespearean in its dark intensity. As if we were already doomed. Our fates decided. The die cast. And of course, they were right. These versions of my former wife and I standing around at some party, 39 days away from a long night of ice chips and labor, really were doomed; were living their last days; were just about to be replaced. Sort of a self-induced invasion of the body snatchers.
No doubt, I had some kind of carefully designed pattern for living before my son came. Some strategy for defining myself. Whatever that pattern was, it is long gone. Levered out of the way by a tool so powerful no force on earth can resist it. Once the baby came, those old patterns I had designed for myself were about as useless as the birthing music CD I had made; thinking that the Debussy would be helpful. It wasn’t helpful. It never even got played.
For most of us men, here’s how it goes. When the baby first arrives in your life, you take a big breath and you start getting things done. It’s a natural response. As a man, you make sense of a new baby’s arrival in the same way you might deal with a new job. You continue washing and fixing and painting and buying and doing a list of stuff. Typically, the mother is caring for the baby. This is, in part, because a child emerges from his mother’s body and enters her arms. Furthermore, an infant in the first weeks of life, sleeps, as does his or her mother. A father goes about the business of making sure the sleeping is supported. During the first weeks, the baby creates some demands on the father, but they are not emotional, they are logistical. Tasks are easy. Tasks are even satisfying. Tasks don’t change who you are.
But then comes a fork in the road. A spiritual and personal transition that saunters up while you’re fixing the screen door, taps you on the shoulder and says’ “Guess what? You’re dead. The you that’s right here, right now, fixing this screen door? Buh-bye. It’s time for the new you.”
And you respond, “The hell you say. I ain’t going nowhere. You see this phillips head screwdriver here? You see this door hinge? Get real. I survived my parents. I can survive this.”
And the spiritual transition smiles and says, “Sweetie, you didn’t survive your parents. They survived you.”
And then your spouse gently lays a six week old baby in your arms. You hear the front door close. The car starts and she’s gone for the next few HOURS. Then you look down and you realize that the baby isn’t just sleeping any more. That comfortable list of dad tasks is now yesterday’s news. The practical shifts to the personal. A human being is there. Awake. Looking at you.
I can’t speak for other dads, but it scared the crap out of me. I remember holding my son and feeling like the clock had screeched to a halt. When will my wife be back? When will I be able to get to work on painting the porch? I felt as if I was literally tearing in half. Part of me was willing to work twenty hours a day if someone would just take the baby away and let me keep doing things MY WAY.
I wasn’t ready to be with a baby. I didn’t understand the rhythm of it. What was the beginning, middle, and end of this task? Every story of my childhood swarmed over me. Every loss. Every failing. Life seemed inexorably sad in that moment, alone in the house with my newborn son.”What the hell is WRONG WITH ME?” I thought, my fears cascading up. I felt utterly trapped. But looking back, I can see why it was scary. This fear was about things that could not be negotiated away, or run from, or laughed off. This fear was about something that could never ever be completed.
My problem was, I really didn’t know how to be still. To just sit still and be with him. Whatever your strengths might be, babies will always need something you didn’t naturally arrive with. Because, basically, they need everything. And they need it for years. It’s like staring down a long hallway with no exits and only one path forward. And in that moment, you recall all the stories of parents who didn’t so much walk that long hallway, as stumble screaming down it. Spanking and yelling and cursing and drinking their way into divorce court and child support and uncomfortable dinners with a twenty year old kids they had never come to know.
“Am I that guy?” you ask yourself.
At which point, you either bail out or you start changing. And yes, you can bail out and hold on to the patterns of living you had created for yourself long ago. You can choose to defend them to the death. Men and women do it all the time. Sometimes they physically walk out the door. Sometimes they just check out emotionally, leaving behind an automatron of a parent who goes through the motions with some secret part of themselves locked away for twenty years. Those folks do not make the change that parenting demands. Those fierce souls go another lonelier way. And they never came to fully know their children.
I like to think I made the changes. Or more accurately, they made me, because if you let parenting lead you into new ways of being outside your well worn comfort zone, you will find growth. You learn patience. You learn to let things be uncertain. You learn to say yes, instead of no. You relearn how to play. You give up control (and thereby gain a bit of it.) You learn the point at which physical and emotional exhaustion makes fingertip to fingertip contact with the divine.
Clear memories come back to me of my son’s first couple of years. Two of those memories are with me now. One is that fearful moment of first being left alone with him. But I have a second memory as well. I recall walking though my house at bed time with my infant son in my arms, his little head on my shoulder, his little body light as a feather. It is dark and my living room is lit by only a night light. I am walking him in slow circles, my steps punctuated by the soft creaking of the wooden floor.
My son is not crying. He rarely ever did. He is happy. He is just breathing and moving a little; settling in my arms. As I am walking, I am murmuring a song. “You Are My Sunshine…”. I have changed one word of the lyrics to make sure he knows how I feel. As I walk holding him, I am utterly content and at peace. Walking with him this way at bedtime was one of the rituals that had evolved between us. The quiet of the house. The gentle creaking of the floor as I made slow circles.
At some magical point between the first time I was left alone with him, and this moment, as I held him close in the darkened house, who I was and how I viewed my place in the world had changed. The process of giving in to fatherhood was terribly difficult. Many times I struggled in ways that were no doubt painful to watch. It took time to learn the power of yes and the liberation that comes with giving yourself over to the little tiny needs of the moment. The little needs that come one after another after another. But I was in the moment now, circling the floor with my dozing son. I was in the zone and I was truly home; possibly for the first time in my life. And as my son drifted off to sleep, his breathing changing to the sleep rhythm I know so well, I murmured my song to him.
“You are my sunshine,
My only sunshine,
You make me happy,
When skies are gray.
You’ll always know dear,
How much I love you.
Please don’t take
My sunshine away.”
The opportunity to open up my life to my son continues to change who I am, even as he grows and moves out into the world, and eventually away from me. In caring for him and looking after his littlest needs, I have set my feet on a path that has taught me things about myself I would never have known without him. It is a complex process full of dark moments and frustrations. Ask any parent. Its the tearing down of who you were and the giving over to service and change. It is not a journey for the weak of heart. When I see a mother or a dad collapsed beyond exhaustion on a park bench staring blankly at their kids, I know how they feel. But the process of really engaging in my son’s life for the last six years has taught me one thing that I will never forget.
That who I am inside the boundaries of myself, is only a small part of who I really am. I am defined by what I create in the world in relationship with my son, with my wife, and with others. It’s a lesson that was a long time coming. As men, we can learn this through service to our children and the purposeful setting aside of our own needs. We learn it in the baptism of birth and the long nights and days of care and attention.
As babies grow, so do we.
This story is an excerpt from Remaking Manhood, a collection of Mark Greene’s most popular articles on parenting, culture and masculinity. Get your copy at Barnes & Noble Online or Amazon.
This article was originally published on the Good Men Project