For new fathers, there are times an enthusiasm gap emerges: it is between other’s expectations of your excitement level, and the one you actually feel.
“Yes, I’m excited.”
“Yeah, I’m so excited. It’s wonderful.”
“It’s truly incredible, yes. Very exciting.”
Oh for God’s sake, I’m excited already.
On March 18, I became a father when my son, Nicholas Li Dale, was born. It was perhaps the most amazing moment of my life. An entire new person occupied the room, and the planet. A couple had become a family. A person who barely felt like an adult half the time was now, incomprehensively, a dad.
What I didn’t realize was that I’d be expected to sustain the awed, mouth-agape smile for all eternity.
In preparation for the blessed event, my wife and I scoured parenting websites, read books, researched baby accessories. We took classes, built cribs, installed car seats. We were as ready as anyone really can be for the ensuing self-deprived scramble drill of late-night feedings, dirty diapers and bouts of inexplicably insatiable crying.
We adore Nicholas nonetheless, of course. We both signed up for this, and would make the same choice again in a heartbeat.
Logistics? Check. Love? Double check.
As any seasoned mom or dad would attest, babies are the ultimate game changers, meaning some of the finer points of parental preparedness can only be accrued from experience. It also means that some situations, though shared, don’t evoke the same emotional reactions. One such scenario is particularly vexing. It occurs when a relative fawns or close friend coos – which is, essentially, every time anyone is around Nicholas. While my wife proudly plays along, I sport the strained smile of an exhausted malcontent who has done this song and dance countless times in a condensed timeframe.
Welcome to my enthusiasm gap.
Mind the Gap
I have no idea if my enthusiasm gap is a gender issue – I’m not accredited or experienced enough to pass judgment on that. All I know is that I’m a new dad, and it’s enough of a nuisance that I’m writing 1,000 words about it.
Here, a point of clarity: The tension exists, if only in my own head, not between my wife and I, but between me and the third (or should I say fourth) party in the room. I’m putting on airs for the aunt or neighbor or family friend ogling Nicholas, not the wife who, with 10 years of marriage under her belt, can see right through my feigned excitement anyway. Depending on the specific loved one, the gap is of varying lengths and depths. A close friend who is also a new-ish parent? Small gap – a puddle jump. Grandparent? George Washington Bridge.
It can be difficult to analyze an emotion that you feel guilty for feeling in the first place. It’s awkward enough when a loved one is radiating Level 10 euphoria when you’re at Level 5 semi-contentedness. When the topic at hand is your own child, the reaction shoots past awkward into a blushing, uncomfortable culpability.
Someone I love and respect is over the moon about our newborn son… so why can’t I at least hit the ceiling in reply? I feel bad for not feeling better.
I’ve discussed the issue with my wife who, to her credit, reassured me that I’m not a completely self-centered ingrate (emphasis on the “completely”) for being unable to hold a permanent headstand over the blessing that Nicholas so truly is. Circumstantial emotions matter far less than the honest effort and imperfect actions we both take to care for Nicholas. Unenthused does not equal undevoted.
Still, that awkwardness is there – an oafish elephant in the room that, if not addressed, risks being a source of unintended alienation from people I care for. My baby shouldn’t be a barrier.
Closing the Gap
In my vast experience as a recovering screw-up, I’ve learned that the first step to navigating any less-than-ideal scenario is to not make it worse. In this case, that means admitting the gap in enthusiasm to myself without harboring resentment over it.
I can’t control my initial few seconds of reaction, which typically are an internal monologue somewhere along the lines of: “Here we go again. Another person acting like they’ve never seen a baby before.” That thought is immediately followed by “God, I’m such an ungrateful jerk.”
What I can control is where I go from there.
The next thing I try to tell myself is that this is all normal. This situation, and my resulting mildly annoyed alienation, has been felt by tired, time-impoverished new parents – and, I can only assume, dads especially – since the dawn of parenting. It doesn’t make me any less proud a father to admit that.
I see Nicholas every day, so have built up a familiarity-bred cuteness immunity that this person – who, let me remember, I respect and care for – naturally has not. Sit with this awkward moment in time without stewing in it. Let them gush and coo for a few minutes.
And from there, I can go about closing the enthusiasm gap.
Part of the frustration in all this googoogaga-ing is that, amid baby babble, baby bedtime books and baby music – all heavily sprinkled with baby screaming fits – I find myself starved for adult conversation. My goal, then, becomes weaning the friend or family member off Nicholas and back into the land of grown-ups.
So far, I’ve found the solution that works best plays to good old-fashioned self-interest. “I feel like I’ve been so busy with Nicholas that we haven’t really caught up lately. How are you doing?“
At once, this phrase is both selfish and selfless. People – myself included – love talking about themselves, and appreciate others asking them about themselves. In turn, I get to be a good listener without listening to sweeping hyperbole expressing what I already know: that Nicholas is a beautiful, blessed and altogether incredible gift from God. Advantage: grown-up talk.
I didn’t become a parent to have my child create an alienating chasm between me and my loved ones. However innocent and natural, a baby-built enthusiasm gap is just that: a gap – one capable of becoming a barrier that diminishes the intimacy we’ve come to depend upon from those closest to us.
So before it widens, mind the gap. Then close it.
Photo: Flickr/Harsha KR