He Hung On For Dear Life, And So Did I

My anxieties on becoming a father

On December 31, 1997, my wife was five months pregnant with our first child. We’d gone to bed early, I’d dreamed a bad dream, and then in the earliest hours of the new year I had lain awake in our bed. Though I was 50 years old, I’d never been a father before and privately had some trouble imagining myself stepping fluidly into that role, a fact that’s not much solace at 4:00 a.m. when you’re lying next to your pregnant wife and trying to calm yourself to sleep. I eased my hand onto Laura’s expanding stomach and a few moments later received a thump from the babe within. Oh, the little stranger was in there all right.

As the due date approached, my anxieties, elusive and unnamed, did not diminish. One afternoon our nine-year-old niece, who was at the time fascinated with all pregnancies and most especially Laura’s, told us about the fourth-grade teacher at her elementary school who’d recently gone into labor three weeks early. Her water had broken on a day when the schedules were reversed and children were encouraged to wear clothes backside front or inside out. “It was backwards day,” my niece informed us factually, “and the baby just came out.” I chimed in with a laugh but behind the laugh was a quick clench on what seemed like a sly truth. Any day you give birth is a backwards day, and for many years thereafter the days will seem inside out. Laura was in labor for 22 hours. She bore the pain without so much as a Tylenol, a stoic side that was a revelation to me, and at two-something in the morning, Samuel Thompson burst into the world looking a little startled. When the nurse cleaned him off and presented him to Laura, I could not help staring at her. The face that a few minutes before had been a sweaty pale contortion of anguish and pain now wore a look not easily described. It was a look of transported bliss, the look of someone newly converted to a powerful religion. For Laura, bearing and holding this baby seemed to have had something like a beatifying effect. Seeing Laura in this exalted state was deeply affecting, but I also knew I could not reach or receive the sensations that now suffused her. If she were in a church, I was peering in the window.

I had guessed — hoped — that my seeing the baby would immediately and irreversibly dispel all doubts about my aptitude for parenting. It didn’t. And the first difficult weeks only compounded things. Sam didn’t sleep, was diagnosed with colic. Laura, herself sleepless, had problems producing enough milk. As I held Sam while Laura tried to talk to the lactation consultant, he kept whimpering and reaching for her across the room. Theirs was not quite a sealed world, but I entered it as any outsider would. I could change a diaper, or carry Sam room to room, or occasionally even jolly him out of a car-seat tantrum, but I was definitely an auxiliary item. Still, I couldn’t help being smitten with S.T. — there was so much endearing about him. That pow! was the favorite of his three-word vocabulary. That his core nature was fearless and inquisitive (when, before he could walk, he pulled himself onto the sofa and then began to climb over its backrest, I wrote in my journal, “Sam’s wee motor skills seem to have outstripped his wee brain”). That he couldn’t help but seat-dance when Warren Zevon came on the car radio. But whereas Laura and Sam seemed somewhat mine, he seemed entirely hers.

I would not, of course, be writing this piece if things had not changed. I would’ve swallowed it all and done my best. But it did change, which, in retrospect, seems not only wondrous but inevitable. Sam began to include me in his world. He began to watch me move about the room and began to crane his neck to see where I’d gone. He began to smile at me. He spoke my name more often. He laughed when I said Boutrose Boutrose Golly!

Then he did something he’d never done before. I’d been doing some readings on the East Coast and had been away for almost ten days, my only real absence from Sam since his birth. When I landed in San Diego, I slipped through the crowd and began to head toward the baggage claim, where Laura and I had agreed to meet. But they had come early and Sam was seated with his mother on a bench, playing with tiny trucks. He saw me, slid from the seat, and held up his arms to be lifted. And when he was lifted, he clung to me and hung on for dear life, and so did I. This was, I suppose, my first conscious realization that, for him, I was irreplaceable, and it was a surprisingly powerful moment. I had to get us all moving for fear of making a public spectacle of myself, but I did not let go of Sam until we’d reached the car.

Long ago, in the days of Ozzie Nelson and Ward Cleaver, and before its displacement by the more watery designation of caregiver, fathers were often thought of as providers. The sense was economic (though how old Oz provided was always an open question). Today mothers provide in this economic sense too, as well as in all the other ways. But the child is also the provider. I was reminded of that late one afternoon this winter when Sam suddenly broke into a grin at something I couldn’t fathom. We were upstairs. He walked west, in the direction of the high shuttered windows, through which sun slanted, then he stopped and began laughing, waving his arms, opening and closing his hands. He was, I realized, chasing dust motes. Prior to Sam’s birth, a male friend had warned me that, after children, your life is no longer your own. It’s true of course, but it’s also true that at some point you don’t much want it to be.

This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.

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