For me, becoming a father has always felt as attainable as becoming an NFL running back. Both are things I’ve dreamt of doing, and both would let me emulate my childhood heroes (my dad and Bo Jackson, based on his work in Tecmo Bowl). But ultimately, they both remain out of reach, reserved for those with skills and measurables I fear I’ll never possess.
While a lack of physicality keeps me off every 53-man roster (not to mention a pain tolerance that maxes at “banged funny bone”), it’s my lack of emotional competence that stands between me and fatherhood. I tend to be closed off, and I resist vulnerability. I struggle to connect on the deepest levels, and I become vomitous at the first coo of baby talk.
This self-awareness has relegated parenthood to an alternate galaxy, never registering as a realistic option. I watch peers shouldering diaper bags and pondering minivans, and it evokes the same thought I get listening to Billy Joel play the piano: There’s no way I could do that.
But that mindset is going to have to change. Soon. Earlier this year I got married, and not long after, my wife and I bought our first house. After years of resisting it, I suddenly find myself hip-deep in adulthood. And there’s only one step that logically comprises the next step.
While we’ve discussed having kids in the abstract, it was during the housing search I realized it was a not-too-distant reality. Picking the best neighborhood wasn’t just about commute times and proximity to frozen yogurt spots; it also was about school districts. And even though we weren’t ready for the American-dream setup, with the big yard I’d have to cut, we had to find a place that had at least one bedroom on the same level as the master.
Since we moved in, I’ve been using that room as a gym, because there’s nothing in it. I tell myself it’s empty because we don’t have a bed to stick in there, but I know better. The room has taken on temporary status until it gets its permanent resident.
With this inevitability looming, I’ve decided to go through my sort of pre-parenthood training camp, preemptively locating the headspace I’ll need to proceed and survive. Because if my track record indicates anything, it’s that when dealing with big decisions, I need time. I need time to evaluate a situation, to consider it and analyze it and obsess over it. And then I need some more.
Case in point: My wife and I dated for five and a half years before I proposed. I loved her, and I was committed to her, but I just wasn’t ready to be a husband. I didn’t know if I was capable of being one. At one point early on, I ended things, because I didn’t want to steal her time. The breakup lasted just two months, but the fears behind it stuck until I found the nerve to buy that ring.
And now those fears have infiltrated my thoughts on fatherhood. Several years ago, I heard a comedian on a late-night show talking about the first time he held his son. Cradling the boy in his arms, he looked down at that blank slate of a face and said, “No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, I’m going to screw you up somehow.”
It’s true. We all have faults and insecurities, nearly all of which can be traced to the relationship we have with our parents. My mother and father couldn’t have been more loving and devoted, and they couldn’t have done things more right. Yet, because of the way I interpreted various childhood interactions, here I am, writing articles like this. If saints like that aren’t exempt, where does that leave me?
Especially considering my stance on baby talk. I can’t stand it. The fawning, the wide-eyed facial expressions, the goo-goo-ga-ga inflection in the voice—it’s enough to summon my breakfast into my esophagus. Nauseating as it is, though, I’m convinced my aversion to it is covering for something deeper.
Baby talk, in a way, is a gateway to connection. It’s an adult casting aside pride and decorum and all expectations of cool to behave like, well, a baby. And if you can do that, if you can get down on the child’s level and communicate by ending every fourth word in “y,” then you can probably open up enough and be accessible enough to form a meaningful bond.
I’ve failed to do any of that since my niece was born six years ago, and I’ve continued failing at it since my nephew’s arrival four years later. I want to engage with them, and I want to connect, but I don’t speak their language. I don’t know what to say or how to say it, meaning our interactions stall after, “Hello, how are you?”
On the emotional spectrum, I land toward logic. I value intuition and gut instinct, but it takes more than a feeling for me to commit to something. I have to be able to look at what’s asked of me, break it down and objectively see how the puzzle fits back together. Things have to make sense.
That was part of my struggle with marriage. It didn’t make sense. I knew I wanted to fall in love, but I couldn’t wrap my head around anything beyond that. And it wasn’t just the coin-toss divorce stats that worried me; I also identified with the stereotypical concerns. I preferred variety to monotony, and I liked doing what I wanted, when I wanted. As for the lifetime commitment thing, I’ve never had an answer for where I see myself in five years, much less eternity. So how could I possibly get married?
Now, I face these battles of logic in regards to fatherhood. And the only evidence I can find is evidence that endorses my reluctance.
Every Thanksgiving, my parents and I travel from Houston to Austin to be with my mom’s family, and we make the round-trip drive all on the same day. My brother and sister-in-law, who live outside Chicago, come to Houston first, then make the drive with us. And now that they have two young children, the trip has become that much more interesting. Especially last year.
Whether it was missed naps, out-of-whack schedules or not enough tryptophan, what was a disaster from the start culminated in a frantic search off the highway for any open business—at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving night—in which my niece could use the restroom, as my poor nephew’s whaling sent tumbleweeds rolling for cover.
Go to enough family gatherings and friends’ kid’s birthday parties, and you’ll hear the same joke on repeat: This must be good birth control. Most of the time, it isn’t. Yes, it’s hectic and loud, but it can typically be shaken off without much fallout.
Not this time. This time cut to the core. I understood that five hours in the car would be hard on anyone, much less two kids under 6, and I watched in reverence as my brother and sister-in-law put out fire after fire with unyielding tranquility. And I adore my niece and nephew.
But sitting there amid the helplessness and hell breaking loose, a single thought consumed me: There is nothing appealing about this. Not one thing. And when we finally made it home, I retired to my room and watched a recorded football game. In silence.
Afterward, I had trouble reconciling what I’d witnessed. It’s not like there was someone or something to blame. That would’ve made things easier. Nobody did anything wrong, though, and outside of simply staying home, nobody could’ve done anything differently.
And maybe that was the point: Everyone did their best, and it still resulted in tear-drenched bedlam. Maybe that was just the price of parenthood.
That notion scared me, but strangely, it was also freeing. It snapped me out of the delusion that my decision to have children could or would be born out of objectivity. Why would it be? If this massacre demonstrated anything, it’s that the outsider’s view of parenting offers little incentive. There’s constant chaos and crying and itineraries to keep. Your packing list doubles when you travel, and your DVR’s free space is halved by episodes of “Bubble Guppies.” You have no free time, no independence and no disposable income that’s better spent on anything but a college fund. You have to swap Vegas for Disneyland, tolerate teenagers who can’t stand you, limit restaurant visits to under 45 minutes, and you have to do it all while in a state of worry and exhaustion. What did I miss? The hands-on relationship with bodily functions?
People can wax poetically about the virtues of parenting—how rewarding it is, how they’ve never known a love like the love for their kids, and how they can’t imagine life without them. I know they’re not lying, but the words ring hollow. How could they not? How could I possibly relate? Being a parent is a singular experience, and I’ve never experienced it. I don’t have kids, so it’s easy to imagine life without them—it’s called every day ever. And telling me my love for them will be all-consuming is like telling me one day I’ll treasure my flying Jetsons’ car—I’m sure you’re right, but as of now, neither exists.
The reality is that for me, there are no rational motives, so I need to stop looking for them. Once I realized this in regards to marriage, I was able to propose. The mystique was shattered. Of course, that realization was built upon years of getting to know my now-wife. It’s not like that with parenthood. One second it’s just the two of you, the next you’re handed a human you’ve never met for whom you’re solely responsible.
What if the kid is a jerk? What if they don’t get “Seinfeld,” or if they root for Oklahoma, or if they think “could care less” and “couldn’t care less” mean the same thing? What then?
It’s questions like these I need to stop asking. My mind is better served in the present, focused on the maintenance of my sanity and the acceptance of what’s coming. If my wife and I are lucky enough to one day be parents, I can worry about finding the answers then—along with a new place in the house where I can work out.
(Cue all current parents saying, “You won’t have time to exercise.”)
Photo: Flickr/ Martin LaBar