The human mind is a powerful thing. While the perils and pleasures of the universe expand exponentially, our neuroses, insecurities, and ambitions limit our perspectives and paint over this landscape with different hues. And nowhere does the disjoint between reality & perception manifest itself more prominently than in that last step to manhood: becoming a father. Especially when you’re in your early twenties.
Yes, many men have had kids younger than me. And other men have been much older. But in the mid-twenties you can still wear a hoody to work, you get carded at liquor stores, and you still hear on occasion “last call” at a bar while out with friends. You’re not swimming in discretionary spending, but the few nice clothes you have you expect to stay spot free. Or at least you hope.
With that baseline of little responsibility and living in a perfect bio dome of your own creation, you tend to overreact. You tend to brood. I still recall with terror the first time I had to wipe my son’s bottom and change his diapers. His mom laughed at my hesitation, my indecision. She tossed Junito on the bed, pulled off the old pamper, lifted his little legs, and handed me the clean-wipe. No tiene tanta ciencia she chirped in her gorgeous Central American Spanish. It’s not rocket science.
I gradually grew into my role as vomit-absorber, spit-up sponge, and late night baby-singer/ songwriter. My son, Junito, still is working on his ingles, yet at 6-months he would only fall asleep when he heard me sing “Rock-a-by-Baby.” And I realized that the spirit of improvisation and the warmth of affection were my best tools as a young father.
Yet diaper duty soon turned into another Herculean task for a young man finding his feet as a professional—daycare. My wife and I share the same basic question about daycare: where does the money go? Beyond the iron gate that opens to my son’s daycare, I imagine inside a black hole, and teachers drinking margaritas and dancing circles around it, tossing in stacks of cash and listening to Notorious B.I.G. That’s obviously not the case, but investing in my son’s future while I’m still paying my own school loans feels somehow rushed.
Running on the treadmill of middle class social mobility can be a difficult juggling act, but it can also lead you down a dark path. In the American psyche, we often rely on material objects to distinguish and demarcate success. We also fawn over youth and bio-dome childhoods, where parents must get the perfect toy for the perfect birthday party at the perfect Chuck E. Cheese. Yet if we push ourselves to work 120 hour workweeks to buy our children objects, what about that lost time we could be spending with them?
Despite having earned a graduate degree, I have avoided corporate America like the plague. When some folks look at a ladder, they think “climb.” When those same folks look at a crowd, they think “competition.” As a kid raised in Kansas to the children of farmers, I avoid ladders and crowds for paranoia’s sake. Yet the start-up salary presents a monthly budget debate—new soccer cleats for Papy, or toilet paper for the family? Is it so harsh to think people can use a rag and save a tree or two?
Still, few young couples don’t encounter a few financial disagreements. And in the deal-making involved in the joint checkbook, we always factor in the last part of the equation: us. Despite devoting time and energy to our lovely children, my wife and I remain relatively attractive and athletic twenty-somethings. Thus, we pinch pennies, save coupons, and hit clearance sales all week so that the weekend can squeeze-in a movie not named “Toy Story.”
And having a young son while I’m young has one major perk: I can still play my favorite sport, soccer, with him. I long suspected that American fathers prefer tossing a football or baseball with sons because both acts require minimal athleticism. This is in contrast to sprinting 90 yards to tackle an opposing forward. My son watching me play only a few years past my peak, while still able to conjure goals out of thin air in stoppage time, is a more gratifying feeling than all the cheers I heard in high school and college.
So there you have it, you recently college-educated young professional, you. Your aversion to balancing your checkbook, diapers, vomit, and sleepless nights due to crying are all mental blocks. They prevent you from seeing the good stuff—the first word, the first step, and, of course, the first-step-then-soccer-goal-then-trash-talk. If you find the right lady, don’t doubt your ability to be a good father. You already have the most important tool to raising a kid—it’s right inside your chest.
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