Tell her everything now, while she’s listening.
Babies, Springsteen, and midnight drives are the mothers of invention.
If you’re a modern Dad—and by visiting this site you’ve all but signed an affidavit agreeing that you are—you’re likely active in a pageant of duties once reserved exclusively for women: the care and nurture of your newborn, infant, toddler, and child. To totally botch Mr. Churchill, Never have so many men changed so many diapers and warmed so many bottles, pushed so many prams and donned so many Bjorns in the history of mankind. It’s truly a sea change, this new distribution of household duties, and its nuances are still too early yet to be fully comprehended. And while a good many men are actually better equipped to serve as the family’s primary care giver, there are some things that men find themselves unable and even unwilling to do, which unfortunately can be primary in the care and development of one’s baby child.
One such duty I found it impossible to fulfill with my first daughter was communicating in baby talk. Goo-goo, gaga, and the sort: these falsetto murmurings and dove-like coos do not easily issue forth from me, and would most likely sound horrible were I to work at it. Not only in the company of others, where it’s embarrassing for the obvious emasculating reasons (“how did that eunuch spawn a baby?”), but even in the private moments around the house—when the wife is off working or running or sleeping—were these sounds to come from my mouth I’d feel like a complete phony, an existential failure, poorly pretending to be a woman when I want baby to respond sweetly to my more authentic bass clef tones, those of a man. Swarthy and leathery-smelling, person of big hands, creature of strength and temper. Daddy.
Consulting the “What to Expect” tomes as well as the varied sources of opinions available on the babynet, it’s clearly of vital importance that parents speak with their baby, talk to it, fill its little ears with a continual yammer of sounds, words, tones, and emotions—to round out the stream of the world’s ever-present stimulus with a shell of human meaning, the foundation of love. Talk to your baby for its happiness, they say. Talked-to babies do better in school, you’ll read. The baby wants to listen—you may never get such an undiscriminating audience in the rest of the world, so take advantage of it!
I had grown comfortable enough with the practice of doing the midnight-to-six baby shift, rocking her, walking her around the house, and humming into her belly to put her back down after she fed off of her somnambulistic momma. One night she was particularly ornery and my wife needed sleep badly, so I packed the baby off into the car and we drove to the beach, up and down the West Coast of America, in a not-chilly night, listening softly to early Springsteen songs until she fell asleep and I got seriously bored of my nostalgia and my cliché-riddled life. I was driving around thinking I had nothing to tell the baby, when suddenly I realized that I had everything to tell her, and she would willingly listen. There was Manhattan to talk about, there was losing my virginity to laugh about, there was hitchhiking, falling in love, getting my heart broken, stories about kissing people I shouldn’t kiss, and skiing. I could tell her about driving a stick shift, about work, what it’s like to swim from Alcatraz back to land on Jan. 1 in a Speedo, and Mahler. There was that thing known as a road trip, how your mother and I met, summer vacations at the beach, and my favorite season. It was an invitation to tell baby the unexpurgated story of my life, far from a judgmental ear or a blabbing mouth. I could tell her stories filled with delight, pain, wistfulness, and in every case, real emotion. It was like bragging and confession all wrapped in a foil of love and duty, told lovingly as if to a frightened kitten.
So I made a list called 49 Things You Must Tell Your Baby. This was the easy part. Rousing just enough enthusiasm to tell a story in a low, breathy voice at 3.22am without toppling over into “damn, now I’m really awake,” that the hard part. I’d carry the girl out to the living room, assume a position cradling her but also protecting her, should I doze off, and tell her a story. At first the change of room confused her, but as we built a new routine (how can a 3 month old kid already have become accustomed to something being a certain way, anyway?) and soon she was part of it. I included a number of “blue” stories, I’ll admit. How a Russian stripper on a hot July night in Chicago with a bowl of vice squad quality pot helped me understand Led Zeppelin; I described my first experience with mushrooms; and what I did after I watched the-girl-I-was-hoping-was-becoming-my-girlfriend got dragged, dropped, and seriously hurt by a train—these kinds of outlier experiences were the more interesting to recall, and I actually re-told them, hoping they’d get better. It was like writing an autobiography, because I could summons the emotions again that made me feel uncaged, youthful, hot and alive. I told her about Paris, sometimes funny, sometimes just a travelogue’s sensory recall, with faint strokes of the lyrical to cover up the musky rot of bohemianism.
She’s five now. And she’s beautiful and happy, and calls me “bad daddy” because the word “no” has more consequence than before. She’s in kindergarten, and has left Holden’s field of rye, ever lurching forward in girl steps and skips to a future of come-what-may, guarded by a daddy’s dark, but loving shadow.
Read more in the Real Fatherhood series.
Image of father holding his daughter on the beach courtesy of Shutterstock