In this installment of “Love, Recorded,” Matt is away from the baby and wondering what makes a dad a dad.
I have been trying to teach my daughter to wave. I say goodbye, wave, step out of the room; I step back in, say hello, wave. This is because a friend’s baby kept waving at me and I got jealous. I think Grace doesn’t wave because we never leave her. My wife is always with her. Since our daughter is asleep when I go to work, I only ever come back to her.
I spent this last week in Louisville, KY, my first time among the bluegrass, by which I mean cement and sprawl and the hotel bathtub. I took my first bath (actually, two) in a year. I was away from Grace for only the second time—the first time I was too busy to be lonely, I was among writers desperate to be among writers. I would have welcomed a little loneliness, last time. This time, I took a bath and reveled and then felt guilty about reveling and then missed the feeling of my daughter’s soft arms around my neck.
I wanted the time away. But instead I pestered my Louisville friend until she let me see her baby, who waved and waved.
Trying to sleep-train our baby may have been our worst parenting decision. It’s hard to tell. Why is taking care of something you love so much so hard? While she was screaming, I was rocking her in the baby carrier. For a week afterward, she kept losing control of her head, as if it were a rock on a string, as if she were pulling it around after her. I think I must be a horrible father. My wife and I both freaked out, started Googling. Google is a long fast rabbit hole.
Doctor Google, another friend calls it. The doctor who knew too much. Too much sometimes worse than too little.
If you search long enough, you will find horror stories of the most horrible. And if you search longer, you will find that those horror stories are not alone, that they are not so infrequent, or that the internet makes the bad world smaller.
The damage you can still do a 9-month old baby. The possibilities are frightening. No wonder my wife wants to buy Grace a baby helmet.
With the spastic head-nodding comes also a digression, or relapse, of language. Suddenly she is calling everything “Appa,” Daddy in Korean. We’d thought she knew what Appa meant. We’d thought she was calling me with purpose. Now we are forced to reconfigure our pride.
Does she even know the words she knows? Is she getting thinner? My wife always thinks she is getting thinner. Is she eating enough? Is she not developing enough? Have we hurt her? Have we arrested her development? Are we not teaching her enough? When will things get better?
What if she is better off without me?
It’s a legitimate question, people. A father is not a father until he ponders his own absence, I think. To be a parent is to be an existentialist. To be a parent means existing to the nth degree. You have never existed as much as you exist when you have a baby.
In Louisville, a university has flown me out and put me up to give a reading, teach a single class. My parents don’t seem to believe this is possible. Someone will fly you out to read.
I am reading to adults—maybe this is what they don’t understand. I use my big-boy voice. But I can see how writers could become better readers by reading to children. That easy shift, that willingness to love a story or let it become completely background to life. It is not a matter of life or death. It is a matter of life or “life.”
Anything can become everything or nothing. A ball in the hand can stop a flood of tears or be a weapon. It is a matter of timing and connection.
I am away. My baby is at home. I can picture what she is doing at certain points in the day, waiting for us to approve of her when she stands, then smiling, satisfied. I can picture her rubbing her eyes, confused that she wants to sleep when she also wants to stay awake forever. I am taking a second bath. I am watching a movie when I should be having my first long sleep. This is the dilemma of free time—when you never have it, do you waste it away just because you finally can?
The first night, I watch Blue Valentine. The next day, My Neighbor Totoro. The second is a movie I used to watch often, a movie I hope to watch often with my daughter. Both movies seem to be more about fathers than they are. I want to be the father in Totoro, wise and beloved, calm in the face of change. Yet the father in Blue Valentine strikes me as far more real—too real, the way he wants to love so much that it fucks up the way he loves. Totoro, actually, is the better movie. I can’t believe I almost cry as I watch an animated film about a forest spirit that looks like a giant blueberry had a child with a bear.
Everything changes, we say. But really only you change. You change the way you see everything. You see the tears in everything. You cry over children’s fates, over potential fates, over the effect of the old on the young.
When I get home, it is hotter than it was in Louisville. The weather is freaking out. The world, some still insist, is soon going to end. Nobody cares. My daughter looks at me with interest. I can’t stop hugging her. She looks so much bigger, so much more adult, and yet so much more like a baby, so much more fragile and important and to be guarded over. I feel an overwhelming sense of identity, that this is who I am. I told my Louisville friend how much more worthless it feels to do nothing, as a parent, without your child around. How when I lie on the floor next to my daughter, I feel as if I am doing something important, but in the hotel in Louisville, watching Blue Valentine, I felt as if my life was without purpose. I feel purposeful now, doing nothing with my daughter.
My wife says Grace hasn’t said “Appa” once since I left. She is babbling now, on to saying “lalala.” She has changed again. I have missed it. She has stopped calling me. And yet I feel even more like a parent, like I have found out something secret: who I am when I am without my daughter. I have found that wherever I go, the difference is always there, pre-baby to baby. You can’t leave it behind, even if you wanted to. I come back, I wave, and my daughter knows that I will always come back, that there is no reason for her to say goodbye.
—photo Flickr/Paul Skeie