I was raised by TV in the 90s, so of course I wanted to be a dad. Sure, there was Homer Simpson as the most popular dad, but I also had Dan Conner, Uncle Phil, Jason Seaver, and Carl Winslow. Growing up in a “complicated” family like I did, I looked up to them and how they always knew the thing to say, or do, whenever a problem arose.
So of course I was pro-Let’s Have a Kid. My son was the outcome of a meticulously planned pregnancy process. We read books and went to a several months-long birth class where we were free to ask any questions. We found a duo of midwives who his mom and I liked, and would eventually facilitate the birth. I was at every appointment, tracking our mixed-up RNA as it grew into something an ultrasound tech could identify.
It felt exciting. Especially when we came up with a dozen perfect names for a girl. We were so excited about having a girl and despite not being religious, took the ease at which we assembled girl names to be a sign.
It was not a sign.
Our son was born 25 hours before the year turned to 2014.
He took 25 hours, an epidural, several doses of Pitocin, and an emergency response when he encounters shoulder dystocia. But he was here, all 10 lbs, 11oz, and 22 inches. He was the largest baby born in Bozeman, Montana in 2013. I know because I watched a nurse erase some smaller baby’s stats from a sandwich board outside of the nursery.
The process of his birth was difficult for all involved. His initial Apgar score was low, his mom was exhausted. I was useless and helpless as my son and his mom faced this incredible task of birth. Obviously my experience pales in comparison to what she went through, and it feels wrong to say it was hard for me too. But it was terrifying to be that helpless when a crisis faced my family. I didn’t even know what “Apgar” meant.
Both turned out okay.
Sitting shirtless and holding hi – the fourth baby I’d ever held, and by far the freshest – I remember thinking that he was a miracle, and that he was terrifying.
There’s a cheesy joke that goes like this: how can you tell a joke is a dad joke? It’s apparent..
For people, it’s more complicated. I don’t think you become a dad when a kid is born. Lots of kids never meet the people who provided their genetics. Therefore, a child being born does not make a dad. So becoming a dad must be something more. There’s a moment when a choice is made.
I was 28 and had no idea how to handle a baby. No idea how to comfort. No idea about needs. No idea about cues. No idea about anything because most of the fatherhood books I read told me to follow mom’s lead. So as the nurses took his mom to recovery after her feat, I realized the awful situation unfolding.
“You’re not leaving me alone with him, are you?”
“Yes,” a nurse said. A door shut behind her, and we were alone.
He cried. I cried.
Eventually he was out of energy and began sleeping in my arms. I felt like I’d failed my first test as a dad. My baby had to exhaust himself to find peace. Oof.
As we sat there alone, waiting for whatever was next, I was nearing 48 hours without sleep and started thinking of random nonsense until my brain fell on lighthearted fare like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a father and son story set in a post-apocalyptic world. There’s a bit near the beginning that had stuck out to me when I first read it: “[T]hey set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”
Each the other’s world entire. Heady stuff to consider, but that’s what my anxious and sleep-deprived brain spat out as I worried about who I’d be as a dad. Is the role of a dad to be the leader after a calamity? Is it more? Changing diapers? Making Money? Baseball coaching?
“I’ll get better,” I said to my kid, just hours old.
Was this a father?
Like most men, I didn’t get paternity leave. However, my former employer did lay me off for two weeks so I could go broke while learning basic parenting tasks like diaper changing and swaddling. The kid mostly breastfed and slept, with some interruptions from me to change his diaper, or swaddle him. I brought his mom water and snacks.
Is that being a provider?
Soon I was back to working. The two of them were alone at home. It seemed like he’d change between the hours when I left, and when I’d return. He was a new person every day, and I was missing it. I began to feel useless to my family’s needs.
This, of course, was a symptom of my own postpartum depression. With my time at work, I was ignoring that, and unfortunately missing the symptoms his mom experienced during the 10-12 hours I was gone every day.
When his mom returned to work a few months later, I adjusted my schedule to be home with our son on Mondays and Tuesdays so we could save on daycare. With her at work, the kid and I suddenly had 16 terrifying hours together. I’d been told parenting was so good you could set a laugh track to it. Instead, mine felt like an episode of Lost, complete with decoding cryptic messages (infant cues) that I didn’t understand. It took me weeks to understand just what the hell I was doing. I had missed a lot by going back to work.
But I had made a promise to him. So I worked on figuring parenting out. It wasn’t fun, or easy.
All of this is to say that the question “what day did you become a dad?” remains complicated. To me, I wake up every day and make a choice to try and be better than yesterday. I try to be engaged with what he’s into. I try to lead my son through the calamities of everyday existence–a rude kid at school, his parents divorcing, or the frustration of losing at Rocket League. I try to be a better dad, and a better man. That’s the choice I make.
In that way, every day I become a dad.
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock