Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from The Dadly Virtues: Adventures From the Worst Job You’ll Ever Love, edited by Jonathan V. Last and published by the Templeton Press.
Ever since my son was born ten months ago, I’ve been thinking of a scene from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
The valiant crew of the starship Enterprise has commandeered a Klingon bird-of-prey for their return to planet Earth. Spock, the Vulcan science officer who has just come back from the dead — it’s a long story — is on the bridge, where he is monitoring interstellar communications. His longtime friend Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the ship’s doctor, approaches him and sits down.
“Perhaps we could cover some philosophical ground,” McCoy says, hoping to start a conversation about mortality. “Life, death, life. Things of that nature.”
“I did not have time on Vulcan to review the philosophical disciplines,” Spock says.
“C’mon, Spock. It’s me, McCoy. You really have gone where no man has gone before. Can’t you tell me what it felt like?”
“It would be impossible,” Spock says, “to discuss the subject without a common frame of reference.”
McCoy is flabbergasted. “You’re joking,” he says.
“A joke — is a story with a humorous climax?”
“You mean I have to die to discuss your insights on death?”
My attitude toward fatherhood is the same as Spock’s attitude toward resurrection. It is impossible to understand unless it is happening — or has already happened — to you. Becoming a father changes one’s life so quickly, so substantively, and so comprehensively, one finds it increasingly difficult to identify with, or relate to, single friends and couples who have not crossed the barrier separating the carefree, childfree life from the duty-bound, child-saturated one.
For example: The other day I asked a single friend of mine what his plans were for the evening. He and his girlfriend maintain a busy social schedule, and I wanted to know if he was free for an impromptu business meeting.
“Well,” he told me, “we’re thinking of meeting for a drink.” “Ah,” I said. “With whom?”
My friend, not having reached the point in life where leaving the house requires an amount of logistical preparation similar to that which preceded the invasion of Normandy, looked upon me with pity.
“With each other,” he said.
With each other — what a concept! What would have been a commonplace activity for me less than a year ago is now an alien ritual, as distant from the day-to-day realities of my life as a rain dance by an Amazonian tribe. Reflecting on my new reality — the cycle of work and drinks replaced by the cycle of work, baby, more baby, and drinks at home to forget about baby — I find solace in the thought that my friend’s time will also come, that at some point, he too will suffer that loss of freedom, that death of personality, known as “fatherhood.”
The tragedy is that he cannot begin to comprehend his fate. There is no way for him to prepare, to study, to fortify himself for what is coming. Taking in a movie, reading for pleasure, bingeing on Netflix, spending days with no set appointments, no fixed routines — all these distractions are nice while they last. Once the baby arrives, you can say arrivederci, sayonara, au revoir, good-bye to living for one’s self, auf Wiedersehen to looking out for numero uno.
Maybe one day the crew of the Enterprise will bring us dads, like Spock, back from the grave. But for the next twenty years or so — a sentence that is extended with the birth of each additional child — you are no longer the star of your own movie. You are a supporting player, the straight man to baby’s comic antics, Felix to his Oscar. Better start learning your lines.
This disassociation of self begins prior to the birth of your child. For most of my wife’s pregnancy I practiced denial, living as if our existence as married yuppies would continue uninterrupted, and enjoying the perks of having, for nine months, a go-to designated driver. It was not until several weeks before my son came into this world that I had the first hint of what life with him would be like.
My wife had signed us up for a labor and delivery class at the hospital where our baby would be born. The class was held on a Saturday. As we drove to the hospital that clear and sunny winter morning — my memory here is fuzzy, and those who know me best will tell you I am not one to complain — I may have griped about spending 50 percent of the weekend inside a classroom.
Then again, I said, maybe 50 percent is something of an exaggeration. “How long is this class, anyway?”
“Not long,” my wife answered. “Eight hours.”
We arrived at the hospital and followed signs to the classroom. We would be spending the day in a large, windowless meeting space with a dry-erase board and video screen. Some two dozen folding chairs were arranged in a circle. On one side of the room was a table that held juice and snacks. We filled out name tags as other expecting couples took their seats. Husbands and wives murmured to each other. A recording of Enya was playing. I checked my watch.
The instructor was a nurse and grandmother. She began the class by asking the dads to step out of the room while she spoke to the moms, probably to turn them against us.
“Take this pen and paper,” she said to one of the men. “And write down all of the questions you have.”
The dads shuffled out to the hallway and formed a standing circle. We looked at each other awkwardly. One of us ducked into the men’s room — morning sickness, perhaps. I checked my watch.
“So,” said the newly appointed secretary, “what are our questions?”
One guy was curious — no doubt for purely medical reasons — about the varieties of painkillers available to his wife. Another guy wanted to know the best time to take his wife to the delivery room. Many of our questions were detail-oriented: What should we have ready at home for the trip to the hospital and for our eventual return? What would be the monetary cost of delivery and our stay at the hospital? Who would handle the birth certificate and Social Security information? Where would we get food? How could we make our wives more comfortable? I wanted to know where to park.
There was one question, however, that I cannot forget; that stood for all of our ignorance and naiveté, a symbol of our fundamental irrelevance to the biological miracle at hand. When his turn came, one of the dads pursed his lips, looked at the floor, raised his head, and said, “What do we do, you know, after?”
His question was unanswerable. Not having experienced fatherhood, we lacked the common frame of reference necessary to express, in even the simplest terms, the shape our lives would take after our families increased by 50 percent. The very idea of a discontinuity between past practices and future responsibilities was, to me at least, a novelty.
I stood there shifting my weight from heel to heel, contemplating the terrifying prospect of assuming responsibility for the life and rearing of a human being, knowing that I myself am not exactly what one would call “fully reared.” Eventually the instructor summoned the men to return to the classroom. Our spouses greeted us with knowing smiles. It quickly became obvious that the objective of class was less to familiarize us with the hospital than to educate the dads in their forthcoming role in the drama of delivery. That role could have been summarized, much more clearly and briefly, as follows: Be nice to your wife. Do what she asks.
The group discussed our questions. The issue of “what comes after” was met with nervous laughter (and remained unanswered). We toured the hospital. We watched clip after clip after clip of “birth stories” in which moms, writhing in agony, assumed semicomical positions while dads gave their wives massages and tried to say nice things and otherwise looked on helplessly. At the end of each story a child was born.
We practiced the exercises ourselves. The one I remember best: The couple pretends it has regressed in age and is at a middle-school dance. You stand there, hands on her hips, her hands on your shoulders, and sway in place as your wife breathes deeply to distract herself from the pain of contractions. As we rehearsed, the instructor walked throughout the room, telling us, in a low, smooth, NPR-like voice, about mindfulness and meditation and support. I checked my watch.
We watched more birth stories. The class sat in the dark, observing one couple after another endure the trial of delivering a baby. Howling, panting, crying, pleading — we heard it all, we saw it all. When the lights came up, no one was smiling. Each pair of husbands and wives seemed to have moved a few inches closer together. Steeling themselves for what lay ahead.
My wife raised her hand. “Yes?” said the instructor.
“The women in the videos — did they have epidurals?” “Oh no,” said the instructor. “These are natural births.”
The women in our class let out a very audible collective sigh.
The instructor looked confused. “How many moms here are planning on having an epidural?”
All but one of the women raised their hands.
Poof, voilà — just like that, the class was exposed as a tremendous waste of time. A waste of time that still had three or so hours to run.
Knowing that my wife was going to be heavily anaesthetized during delivery, I let my mind wander. And yet, despite my best efforts to shield it from infiltration, pieces of conversation, snippets of the lecture, random audio — where to park, the importance of breast-feeding, what to bring to the hospital, cafeteria menu options — penetrated my consciousness.
The instructor gave us tips on how to calm an agitated baby. Try changing his diaper, she said. Bounce him gently in your arms. And she kept repeating the phrase “skin-to-skin,” to the point where it assumed the status of a mantra, an incantation that became impossible for me to ignore.
“After the baby is delivered, we give him to the mother to hold, because skin-to-skin contact is soothing and calming to the child.” “Be sure that you spend a few moments during each feeding enjoying skin-to-skin contact with your baby.” “If the child is colicky or fussy, try skin-to-skin.” “Skin-to-skin always helps.” “We find that babies who enjoy a lot of skin-to-skin time do very well on their SATs.” (It’s possible I hallucinated that last part.)
I felt as if I had stumbled upon a panacea for every ailment, worry, and nuisance. “Do you suffer from the heartbreak of psoriasis? Then try skin-to-skin!” It was while I was caught up in this reverie that I first began to recognize the scope of change endured by the father of a newborn. There would come a time, it occurred to me, when my wife will have recovered from the delivery and find herself busy with an errand or a get-together with friends to which she could not bring, or would not want to bring, our son.
Which meant that there would come a time, there inevitably would be a moment — a suspenseful, awe-inspiring, climactic moment — when I, who had never changed a diaper or made a bottle or held a baby for more than a few minutes — would have to take care of our infant myself.
And so I did what any young man would do. I panicked.
“When’s our due date again?” I whispered to my wife. “March 15,” she said.
“March 15. Got it.”
“Why are you sweating all of a sudden?” I checked my watch.
As it turned out, our son was born a few days before the Ides of March. The accommodations at the hospital were comfortable, the nurses were kind, and during night feedings they brought the wrong baby to our room only once. After a few days the three of us returned home.
The best thing about newborns is that they are not very exciting. They tend to sleep a lot. They eat. When they are hungry they cry. “The truth,” writes Dave Barry in Babies and Other Hazards of Sex, “is that during the first six months babies mainly just lie around and poop.”
This condition is perfect for dads. To my surprise I discovered that changing diapers is easy as long as the child is a few weeks old and pretty much inert. As for lying around, well, that’s how I spend most of my free time anyway. I recall one pleasant and edifying evening my family spent watching A Few Good Men, as I explained to my son, not for the last time, how Colonel Jessup is actually the hero of the story.
I was also lucky not to lose too much sleep. Our baby is not colicky. When he awoke at night it was because he was hungry. And since he was being breast-fed, I couldn’t do much to address his needs other than wake up my wife. When I knew she had things under control, I would fall asleep again. Fatherhood: piece of cake.
One night, when the baby started crying, I awoke and noticed that it was 4:00 a.m. “Wow,” I said to my wife, who was groggily rising from bed. “This is the first time he’s gotten up all night. Sleep training works!”
She laughed bitterly.
“It’s the third time. You slept through the other two.”
Sometime in the early months, during one night’s second or third feeding, my wife became understandably frustrated with this state of affairs. She reiterated the core teaching of the labor and delivery class, indeed the cardinal rule of the Continetti home: Be nice to the wife. Do what she asks. So I left the bed, accompanied her to the nursery, and, half asleep, lay on the floor until the feeding was over.
As we made our way back to our room, I said that perhaps next time I could remain asleep, as it was biologically impossible for me to feed the baby until we weaned him off of breast milk. Nature had decreed, I pronounced, that at this point in his life there was literally nothing I could do to make baby go back to sleep. It therefore made sense for me to rest so I wasn’t completely addled during the workday.
My wife narrowed her eyes, shook her head, grimaced, and said, “Why do you have to be so . . . rational?”
It was more than rationality that drove me to such conclusions, however. It was fear. I simply did not want to handle the bundle of joy — one of the many baby euphemisms that I now understand to be ironic — on my own. The terrible moment of complete responsibility had not yet arrived. I was hoping to delay it for as long as I could.
But I could not delay it forever. The months passed, and one weekend my wife made plans to spend a Saturday afternoon with some girlfriends. I would stay at home. With the child.
“You’ll be okay,” she said.
I couldn’t tell whether that was a question or a statement. “Sure,” I said.
“You’ll put him down for a nap,” she said. “He’ll sleep for most of the time.”
“Sure,” I said.
“And I’ll only be gone for a couple of hours,” she said.
“Please don’t leave me here,” I said.
The afternoon began innocently enough. I read him some books. I gave him a bottle. I placed him in his crib for naptime, turned on the white noise machine, dimmed the lights, and tiptoed out of his room. As I closed the door I listened for any sign of discomfort. All was quiet.
I went downstairs and turned on the television. Enter the Dragon was playing on cable. I sat on the couch and stretched my legs. Not so hard after all, I thought. Life should be so easy.
Then the wailing began.
Not fussing, not crying, not weeping, but wailing — an excruciating repetitive klaxon that began softly and slowly but built up into a roar of displeasure, an air-raid-siren-like peal of intensity. I ran up the stairs to the nursery, threw the door open, and lifted my son from his crib.
The diaper, I thought: It must be the diaper.
I changed the diaper, but the wailing continued. The pajamas, I thought: He must be uncomfortable in the pajamas. I replaced his pajamas with a fresh pair. Throughout the process he screamed and struggled. The wail did not end.
I tried desperately to recall the offhand remark from the labor and delivery class: Bounce the baby gently in your arms. Move around with him. Remind him of the womb.
We started bouncing. He calmed down slightly. I tried sitting on the exercise ball in the center of the nursery. But he wouldn’t have it. He wanted the standing bounce. The standing bounce was what he got.
Still he cried. I tried singing. Usually if I sang loud enough he would quiet down, if for no other reason than shock or disgust.
“Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. . . .”
I tried the walking bounce: basically lunge squats with the baby in my arms. We went like this from the nursery to the master bedroom to the office to the guest room. He kept wailing.
Changing, bouncing, and lunging — all useless. The wail continued. I was ready to call my wife, to beg for her assistance. Then another memory from the birth and delivery class hit me.
“Skin-to-skin always helps.”
Of course! Holding the hysterical child, I lunge-squatted back to the nursery. I placed him on the changing table and removed his pajama top. Then I took off the T-shirt I was wearing.
“Here we go!” I said. “Skin-to-skin!” I pressed him against me.
Perhaps a combination of skin-to-skin bouncing and lunging would work? I tried it.
Nothing. I was running out of options. I took him downstairs to the kitchen and, bouncing him in one arm, made a fresh bottle. Then shirtless baby, bottle, and shirtless I went to the family room. I would try feeding him again. We sat on the couch.
Which is where my wife found us, two half-naked sleeping messes, Bruce Lee on in the background, when she returned to the house an hour and a half later.
She burst into laughter. “Skin-to-skin,” I said.
I turned my head back to the couch, made sure the snoozing boy was comfortable on my chest, and closed my eyes, suffused with a feeling of pride and happiness, of joy and satisfaction.
It’s hard to put that feeling into words. But if you are a dad, you know what I’m talking about.
Excerpted with Permission from The Dadly Virtues: Adventures From the Worst Job You’ll Ever Love, edited by Jonathan V. Last and published by the Templeton Press.
— Matthew Continetti is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, where this column first appeared. © 2015 All rights reserved