On expectant fatherhood, awful dancing, and the giving up of ego.
The first test came out negative. “Well,” my wife, Sarah, said with a sad shrug. “I guess I can have a drink tonight.” But that night she sipped apprehensively at a beer and set it aside halfway through. Then she said, “I’m taking another.” The second test likewise gave us a minus sign. The next day she asked me to go back to the pharmacy. She knew what she knew: we had to go digital. The new test sticks had small screens on them, and after a few minutes she emerged from the bathroom. There was the word, clear as day: Pregnant.
We spent the first few minutes after reading the stick laughing, hugging and laughing, not really knowing what to say. I think maybe I said, “Awesome,” or something equally insufficient. We eventually went to our respective home offices in hopes that the Internet would tell us what to do next. We began researching development timelines and prenatal nutritional requirements. “You need folate,” I called to Sarah from across the hall. “Everything is saying you need folate.”
“Is that like folic acid?” she said.
I didn’t know. “Yeah,” I said. “We need to get some spinach.”
Aside from the excitement of these days and a feeling of anticipation I’ve never experienced before, I’m left with fear, a fear that in darker moments borders on certainty, that I will not be up to the task, that I will not be able to keep my wife and child happy and safe. But it isn’t just financial worries. Nor is it only the fear of loose dogs and water contaminants and monstrous people. Though those fears are present and I predict will be around to one degree or another for the next few decades, this other fear is more nebulous, harder to figure out.
There’s a story that goes around my in-laws’ house. It is something that has happened to each of the four children—Sarah and her siblings—at some point. One of them gets home late and has to wake up Dad, who has fallen asleep in a living room chair. A gentle hand on the shoulder. A quiet voice: “Dad.”
And up pops Dad—his robe hanging open, revealing a swath of belly and a pair of tighty-whities—into a karate stance: legs bent at the knees, hands flattened and up in strike position. The teenage lurker jumps back in alarm, declaring, “It’s me! It’s me!”
Perhaps needless to say, my wife’s father has no formal training in the martial arts. Every time the stories are recounted, usually around the holidays when the whole family is gathered together, Dad smiles from his recliner as the rest of the family has a good-natured chuckle at his expense. But is that smile a sign of his laughing at himself and his moment of half-slumbering panic, or is there perhaps something more going on?
When I was about 18, a friend and I went to his father’s house late-ish and found his dad asleep on the couch with the TV on. Like too many nights of that period of our lives, our minds were fuzzy with THC and general teenage stupidity, and we wanted nothing more than freedom from parental oversight and the sole control of the cable remote. My friend approached his father. Again a gentle hand on the shoulder. Again a quiet voice: “Dad.”
Wild-eyed and snorting, Dad jumps from his seated position, and, in a thick and sleepy Turkish accent, demands, “Where’s the black guys?” Now, if we can, let’s set aside, for the moment, the troubling implications this has on the state of contemporary cross-cultural understanding in this nation (i.e. why “the black guys” are a threat). That is too big a topic for us to try to comprehend in this short missive.
What I did understand, though, what shimmied its way through the muddied thoughts of this stoned 18-year-old, was this face consumed with worry, the face of a man whom I knew as one of the most caring and affectionate fathers I’d ever met. What I recognized was the half-asleep expression of a man whose family was in danger—a danger that for him, in that moment, that was incredibly real. What I saw was that face soften as he became aware of the relative safety of our surroundings.
After a few seconds, he smiled shyly at himself, joining in a bit as we, in all our adolescent arrogance, laughed openly at what we saw as the older man’s paranoia, his unsophisticated view of the world, and his utter lack of understanding that we, as teenagers, were indestructible. He put a big hand on his son’s neck, kissed his cheek, and then offered to make us food, despite the fact that it was nearing midnight.
The world loves a foolish father. We cherish the opportunity to laugh at dear old dad, to see his innocent foibles on display. It is a part of the character: the dad with the bad puns; old pops with the awful jokes.
Fatherly clowning may not be only a symptom of being culturally “out of it,” though. A 2009 study hypothesizes that in at least one arena a father’s seeming buffoonery is actually a line of protection. According to Psychologist Dr Peter Lovatt of the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, the “dad dance,” a varying but nearly always ludicrous series of off-beat movements of the arms and legs (adorned with, I assume, the oft-cited overbite expression) on display at any wedding or bar mitzvah, is an evolutionary development.
It is, according to the study, a way for the adult male to let younger females that he is not an appropriate mate, that he is attached to another brood, that they should look to the younger males of the species, perhaps the ones over by the open bar shaking their heads at the old fuckers hamming it up to “Forever Young.” The cringe inducing boogie serves as a signal that the man’s procreating days are past. It is meant to repel.
My unscientific gut reaction is that this study is a good-sized heap of malarkey. My instinct as a human being is that the dance is a naturally occurring evolutionary offshoot of play, that it is, in essence, a celebration of our bodies in space and time … even if that space is a Holiday Inn banquet room and the time is Q-Tip’s breakdown in “Groove is in the Heart.”
But is looking slightly foolish only a side effect of being a dad, an occupational inevitability? Certainly, concerns about “coolness” begin to fall away in fatherhood. Even as fatherhood approaches, I am already feeling a growing ambivalence towards preoccupations—new music, etc.—which only days ago seemed at least tangentially important to my life. Sartorially, the desire for comfort and convenience over style builds. Culturally, the urge to stay current with the trend-makers of Hollywood and New York (inasmuch as it was ever there) wanes. There are, after all, only so many hours in a day, and moments that might have been spent plotting clever Facebook status updates are now—already—being spent researching baby-proofing products.
So it isn’t a loss of coolness that worries me. Even the word “cool” denotes a certain brand of nonchalance that I do not care about, a mode of thinking that is above such pedestrian banalities as insurance plans and binkies. Cool, in fact, seems to be the antithesis of fatherliness: two mutually exclusive approaches to the world. Some years ago The Onion ran the headline “Cool Dad A Terrible Father,” and, as usual, within the joke was nestled a solid and irrefutable truth.
But still, the study gives me pause.
While other little boys thrived on the attention lavished upon the class clown, I shrank from the eyes of my fellow children. It was as if I was constantly ducking the possibility of embarrassment. Some of my most vivid memories of childhood were ones where I felt the deep stomach drop of shame.
Overhearing my mother and older brother in a conversation obviously not meant for me, I interrupted to ask “What’s ‘porno’ mean?” Another time, I overreached my intellect and, in front of a group of relatives, meant to say “genetic,” but instead came out with “genital.” The ensuing laughter, even the way my mother (very understandably) had to cover her smiling mouth, was the worst thing I could imagine at the moment: a crushing shame.
Later, while friends eagerly signed up for karaoke, having their turn at “Wonderwall” or “Turning Japanese,” I made my home at the far end of the table where I perfected my eye roll while secretly wishing I had a personality that could throw social caution to the wind and take public ownership of my human imperfections. And though I have since become more comfortable with myself, even going out my way occasionally to play the fool for a laugh, I still remember those early moments with nearly the same level of disgrace as I felt at the time. The fear of ridicule, of being laughed at, looms large in my consciousness.
No, it isn’t the loss of whatever modicum of cool I’ve ever had. It isn’t the loss of anything that worries me. It is the ability to give up ego. And I don’t mean this in the swaggering d-bag sort of way. I don’t mean arrogance. I mean the shell that we wear over our instinctual selves, that consciousness of ourselves as selves.
I like to imagine that my instinct to protect will be as certain as Sarah’s understanding of her pregnancy. That like my wife, who in the face of two tests announcing her not-pregnancy remained resolved in her knowledge of the zygote growing within her, I will, when the time comes, discover some as-yet-untapped reservoir of protective abilities. I’m thinking of something like a paternal version of the park scene in the first Bourne movie, when training kicks in and the amnesiac hero beats the hell out of two armed men.
Will I find within myself the selflessness (or more exactly, the egolessness) that we all hold as the hallmark of fatherhood? Will the arrival of my child transform me so completely that I will indeed take to the dance floor with uncoordinated, middle-aged abandon? Will I give no thought to how my pale and ever-softening body looks as I leap from bed at the sound of the house settling, perhaps even scaring the wits out of my daughter or son?
A couple months ago I was awoken when my wife said my name, a tone of sleepy alarm edging her voice. As my eyes adjusted to the relative dark of our bedroom, I heard a soft thump on the floor. Without thought, I knew what the matter was: our epileptic Italian Greyhound was having a seizure. I flung the blanket aside and leapt—well, something approximating a leap anyway—across the bed and laid the dog on his side and gently held him in place, his stiffened legs outstretched and jerking, his dilated eyes pointed toward me but, as far as I could tell, seeing nothing. I stroked his neck and spoke in soft tones (“Okay, buddy, you’re okay…”), even though I was pretty sure he couldn’t really hear me.
As with all his fits, this one lasted only a few minutes; his body eventually relaxed and his breathing resumed a steady, calm pace. He got up and shook neck to tail, a little woozy, but for the most part fine and seemingly without memory of the spell.
The next day, having beers with friends, my wife mentioned the incident. “You were all action,” she said to me. “You were like, boom, on the situation.” I didn’t want to say anything myself, but yeah, I handled that shit. A small but proud moment in the grander scheme, but one that looms larger now that I’m going to have a child.
At this point, I know almost exactly nothing about what the next 20 or so years will bring. I don’t really know what folic acid is. I don’t know how to differentiate between a baby having a cold and something more serious. I don’t know when the right moment will be to let go of the bicycle seat.
I know how to keep a 17-pound epileptic dog from winging himself into a wall or table corner during a fit. That’s about it. But, hell, a couple years ago I didn’t know that. And I’m starting to suspect that when I’m with my in-laws and everyone, myself included, starts ribbing old Dad (“Where’d you learn karate again?” “What was that outfit you were wearing?”), he sits back with his red wine and hears the stories of when he leapt into action and smiles, thinking, “You’re goddamn right I did.”