Sometimes the best parenting lessons happen when you’re not even fully awake.
That can mean so many things.
“Daaaad! I have to show you something,” my five-year-old yelled from down the hall.
It can mean something was broken. Ugh.
Or just that he wants to show me a cool scene in whatever show he’s watching.
“Da-da! Daaaddddddd! Daddy! I have to show you something.”
It can mean a huge mess was made. Grrr.
Or that he created something fantastic and imaginative with his toys and craves my approval.
“Dad. Dad. Dad. Hey dadddddddddddddddd! I’m calling you. Can you hear me? I have to show you something.”
It can mean there’s a pukey or poopy mess. Gross.
I can usually tell whether the thing he wants to show me is good or bad based on his tone of voice.
But it was late. I hadn’t been able to sleep. Everything was surreal. Confusing.
I looked over at the clock. “It’s 3:29 a.m., asshole,” the clock said. “It doesn’t matter that you’re tired. It doesn’t matter that you have to get up in less than three hours. It doesn’t matter that you’re alone and there’s no one to help you. Get up. Take care of your child. He needs you.”
Shit. The clock’s right.
In the months leading up to our son being born, I spent a lot of time in our nursery which had previously served as our home office.
I would just sit there, in a comfortable old recliner from college—our baby’s in-room rocking chair.
That was such an exciting time. Such a hopeful time.
The walls were already a soft yellow. Gender-neutral. So we left it alone.
We never learned the baby’s gender during the pregnancy. Surprises have merit.
My crafty wife made some curtains. Our very first baby item was a mobile for the crib. I think we bought it with a gift card at Pottery Barn Kids because it was literally the only thing we could afford there.
I’d glance at the crib, picturing a little person standing inside, waiting for mommy or daddy to pull them out of bed.
For some reason, I thought we were having a girl. But I was guilty of slightly favoring a boy. Because of all of the fond memories I had with my dad and stepdad. I was excited to share in those types of father-son adventures.
Gender didn’t matter, though.
The love was swelling. As I visualized the child. Rocking him or her in that chair. Playing with him or her in the backyard. All of the future games the three of us would play. And maybe four, as at that point, I still hoped there would be one more joining the family, too.
Mom and dad. Hopefully son and daughter.
My little family fantasy.
Babies are Hard
It’s hard to take care of everything that needs to be taken care of in a day for yourself AND for another little (otherwise helpless) human being. They don’t care that you’re in a hurry. They’ll puke on your shirt.
They don’t care that you just stopped a few minutes ago on your long road trip. They shit in their diapers. Really foul, awful shit, too.
They cry a lot. It’s really the only way they know how to tell you what’s going on.
If they cry, it means they’re hungry. Or they’re tired. Or they’re uncomfortable. It’s always one of the three.
Which is good because it doesn’t take long to solve. Universal problems. Universal solutions.
It’s funny that I wanted another child.
Because I was a bad father. Check that. I wasn’t a bad father. I was a bad husband to a brand-new mother.
My wife got two children right away. Or at least, that’s how she felt. Because she had to take care of all of us.
When you have a baby, everything changes. And you have to make radical adjustments. Solve problems.
Two loving adults pulling in the same direction can figure out how to solve those problems together.
But when one parent doesn’t give as much as they take?
That’s how you make a new mother feel alone. That’s how you make a woman resent a man. That’s how you lose her respect. And eventually, her love.
She did it all. She really did.
She read all the books. She baby-proofed the house. She created his schedule. She managed all of his medical care. She organized his clothes and baby needs and always had the baby bag packed and ready to go.
She made all of his homemade baby food. It was an awesome system.
She found the daycare family who, to this day, still cares for our son.
I’ve failed many things in my life. Many things.
But I’m not sure I’ve ever failed anyone harder than I did my wife during the first year of our son’s life. I was lost. And so was she.
But she figured it out.
And I didn’t.
Not until later. Not until the day we were both sitting on our deck one afternoon having a beer in the sunshine and I asked the question: “Am I the reason you didn’t want to have more kids?”
“Yes,” she said. “That is a big part of it.”
Growing. Always Growing.
Both of us.
Father and son. Twenty-nine years separating us.
But still. Growing. Every day.
The weather has been terrible. Absolutely frigid temperatures. We got six inches of snow overnight two nights ago. But right now, it’s in the mid-40s. It will be 50 tomorrow.
Those temperature swings make people sick.
My son developed a cough from sinus congestion. He coughed so hard, he vomited right when he got home yesterday.
I canceled my plans for the evening to focus on him.
We watched a couple shows. Had dinner. Had his nightly bath.
We practiced his “sight” words. Little flash cards. His writing is improving. His ability to figure out what a word is based on the letters is really impressing me. He’s learning so much in kindergarten. I feel immense pride when he shows an ability to problem solve. Hell. I feel immense pride all the time.
And here we are, six years later. Only he’s here now. All those visions dancing in my head turned into a real flesh-and-blood person. A sweet one. A funny one. A smart one. A loving one.
One capable of the stubbornness of his parents. Of the irresponsibility of his father. Of the antics of many small children.
Everything I could have hoped for sitting on that recliner late into the night six years ago, daydreaming about fatherhood.
And now it really is fatherhood. It’s not just me leaning on my wife (now ex) for direction, even though she still gets a lot more right than I do.
I’m here. Really doing it. Really being a dad.
He rattled off his sight words as I flipped through the handwritten flash cards.
“Hey dad! Did you know ‘the’ is the most-important word of all the words? It is. I know it.”
I flipped to another.
“I don’t know this one, dad. You say it.”
“You can figure it out, bud,” I said.
“Wa. Ah. Te. What!”
I love when he figures things out on his own.
“Very good! Yes! That spells ‘what’!”
We read a book. He spotted the word “lion.”
“Hey dad! I know a secret code.”
“You know a secret code?”
“Yes. He pointed to ‘lion.’ If you take out the ‘L’ and the ‘I,’ it spells ‘on.’”
“Yes it does. Very good!”
It’s such a joy seeing their little minds work. Grow. Morph.
He was coughing really hard. Even after the cough syrup.
He’d rolled off his propped-up sleeping position. Laying flat, the coughing frequency and severity increased.
“Dad! I need more water!”
I still use his last remaining spill-proof sippy cup for his nighttime water cup. I’m not sure whether that’s bad, given his age. I don’t like cleaning up spills.
I had fallen asleep around 9 p.m. and woke up at midnight just in time to catch the second night of the excellent and hilarious Jimmy Fallon rocking The Tonight Show.
I couldn’t get back to sleep.
Tossing. Turning. My son coughing down the hall.
Hot. Cold. Busy mind. More coughing.
“Dad. I need to show you something.”
It was 3:29 a.m.
I walked down the hall. He was sitting up. Wide-awake.
“Hey man. Why aren’t you sleeping? What do you want to show me?”
He climbed out of bed and walked to the hallway closet and opened it.
He pointed inside.
There was a humidifier sitting there.
A device that hadn’t left the closet since the last time my ex-wife used it.
I smiled. I have no idea how he even remembered that was in there.
“Okay. You get back in bed. I’ll take care of this for you.”
I put the basin in the sink to fill up.
I ran downstairs to grab salt—the crappy iodized table salt—not my delicious Kosher salt I use for all my food prep.
I salted the water, not bothering to measure.
A couple minutes later, the humidifier was sending hot steam into the air. Relieving my son’s congestion.
My little man.
Thinking for himself.
And helping me, too.
This article first appeared on Must Be This Tall To Ride.
Photo: George Atanassov/Flickr