On Ryan’s Plate: Notes from a New Father
I’ve been thinking for weeks about how to capture in blog post form the intense joy and terror of becoming a new father. Having Lila has been amazing and overwhelming. Every time I’ve tried to capture the experience in words, I found it indescribable. But I can’t just say it’s indescribable. That sounds pretentious. Plus, this would be a pretty short blog post.
So let’s start with the obvious. Fatherhood is life-altering in every sense of the word. Becoming a dad makes you examine everything you are, everything you have ever been, only to find it all inadequate. What qualifications could I possibly have that entitle me to take responsibility for an entire human life? Why didn’t I prepare more? What have I been doing with my life? Why did I spend so much time memorizing the biographies of the six characters who have served as Batman’s sidekick Robin and so little time learning the kinds of skills that could truly benefit me now, like CPR, or woodworking, or starting a fire by rubbing sticks together? Can you actually start a fire by rubbing sticks together? If you can, it seems like something a dad should know.
But the deeper, scarier realization is that you cannot prepare. Not really. We read all the hot books – your Baby Whisperer and Happiest Baby on the Block and What to Expect When You’re Expecting – and they were immensely helpful. But being a dad, like tightrope walking, is something you can only learn by doing. Which means on day one, you know almost nothing. And day two isn’t much better. A colleague and father of two recently told me “I can tell you with all confidence, you don’t know what you’re doing.” He meant no offense, but he has me pegged. He has every new dad pegged. In fact, he has every dad pegged. Just as you’re getting used to a phase in your child’s life, they up and change on you, bringing a whole new set of challenges. It’s the more intense version of teaching a new class, where you’ve read only a few pages ahead of the students. But in this case, you’re chapters behind.
And then there’s the crying. Before becoming a dad, I naively feared changing poopy diapers most of all. US Weekly’s cover recently proclaimed that Eric Johnson, Jessica Simpson’s fiancé, had the same fear (this information about Jessica Simpson’s fiancé is more useless knowledge that doesn’t help me start fires with sticks). Eric and I, poor bastards both, had no idea. Changing diapers is no picnic, but it pales next to those early weeks of crying. The constant crying of a newborn baby elicits a unique form of terror, frustration, and powerlessness. Anna and I spent those first few weeks shell-shocked. Between the two of us, we probably spent 15 hours a day rocking her, holding her near the hairdryer, bouncing her on an exercise ball (to add insult to injury, Anna is a significantly better bouncer than I am). And we were the lucky ones, with a good baby who calmed down in just a few weeks and sleeps long stretches at night. If you want to know if you’re ready to become a dad, hire an actor from your local community theater to follow you around and scream in your ear for two straight weeks. If you don’t murder the person, odds are you’re ready. If you do murder the person, hide the body in the dumpster behind O’Charleys and get a low maintenance pet, like a chinchilla.
But the crying is worth it. The poop is worth it. The crushing self-doubt is worth it. Anything is worth it in the moments when she wraps her five tiny fingers around just one of mine, or when she falls asleep on my chest. From the instant I saw my daughter, I felt something I have never felt for anyone else. I love my family and friends, and I love my wife more than ever now that I’ve seen the strength and compassion she brings to motherhood. But love for a child is just different. It comes so quickly, and feels almost primal. It is a feeling of obligation and accomplishment. It endures despite and because of incredible paradoxes. I love her because she is so vulnerable, yet so stubborn and feisty. I am a part of her, yet on some level she will always be a mystery to me. And I will love her most deeply, most fully, by slowly pushing her away.
I cannot wait to see who she becomes as she grows up. I cannot wait to get to know her at every phase of her life. But in the years as she grows older, starts school, leaves for college, gets married, and as I grow older and eventually die in that tragic Sasquatch hunting mishap, I’ll remember the experiences of rocking my daughter while she falls asleep as some of the purest, most tender moments of human connection I’ve ever felt. It is, for all my effort, a connection that cannot be put into words.