My name is Tim, and I am a father. Not 10 feet from where I sit, Lola, my progeny, is dancing without self-consciousness or style, like a drunken WASP at a wedding. “Dada! Dada! Dada!” she yells, glaring at me with what seems like unquestioning love. I manage a half-wave. I sort of smile. I try to turn back to the computer screen, but here it comes again, louder than before: “Dada! Dada! Da-DAAA!” Urgh! Kids! Don’t you hate ’em? I want to tell Lola that bubba’s brain ain’t working so good, that I’m not her Dada, that she should go bug someone else for a change. But I do not. Fourteen months after my daughter’s birth, I have been forced to face the truth: Lola is not addressing the super or the dentist or my wife’s cute friend Josh. She’s talking to me. My name is Tim, and yes, I am a Da-DAAA.
Before I became one of them, I bought into the notion that fatherhood brought with it a grounding sense of humanity, love, belonging. Sure, there’d be sleeplessness and bills and vomit, but why waste time on the negatives when I was about to be admitted to the Adult Man’s inner sanctum? Fatherhood would cloak me with authority and respect. It would redress a lifetime’s imbalance of power, transforming me from the boy who took orders to the man who would give them. I was thrilled by the prospect.
And then my child was born.
Among those notions accepted as universal truths is the belief that a parent’s first sight of their child is an almost religious experience. In a glittering moment, the solipsist is filled with selfless love, while those confused by their place in the world comprehend at once the meaning of their lives. Having witnessed my wife’s pain and seen the gloopy creature that she bore, I find this almost impossible to believe. For sure, I felt immense relief that our baby was healthy and my wife was fine. But the sensation barely ran deeper. Back home, there was a Knicks game on. There were cold beers in the fridge. Those things I understood and cherished, while the thing in my arms was entirely alien to me. As I held the shivering babe to my chest, I realized that I was the victim of an immense scam, that the feeling I had-a frightened sense that I’d better not drop the kid-was entirely different from the epiphany I’d been led to expect. And of all the lies, perhaps the most egregious was the promise that a man would be born along with the child. If anything, quite the reverse is true.
Fathers of newborn children realize within moments of returning home that all fondly held notions of paternal control will be ripped apart and tossed out the window. Before we invited our child into our home (an act of generosity for which I suspect I’ll forever pay), my wife and I enjoyed a cozy equilibrium, a domestic checkmate of the genders. But with Lola in the house, I was suddenly outnumbered and outgunned. It was as if the presence of a penis-admittedly the source of all this trouble-was held against me. My role was to follow orders, with the chain of command unequivocally beginning with my 48-hour-old daughter burping and crapping out orders from her Moses basket.
In those early days, I could usually be found hovering close to the Empress, bowing, walking backwards, jumping to attention if she so much as lifted a toe in my direction. And when I tried to assert my authority, I was firmly put back in my place by any one of the coven of females present. Progress may have been made toward sexual equality, but when it comes to raising infant children, men are simply considered lacking in intuitive skills. Sometime during my 25th trip to Duane Reade to buy more formula or diaper-rash cream or-God save me-a bright purple mucus-extractor, it struck me that if I wanted to be more than a delivery boy, if I wanted to shine as paterfamilias, I needed to suppress my innate masculinity, to give voice to my feminine side. In short, in order to become a real man, I needed to learn how to be less of one.
To suggest that child-rearing skills do not come naturally to most men is neither a weasly attempt to shirk paternal responsibilities nor a sexist swipe at mothers who choose the executive office over the kitchen. It’s just a fact that the games boys play growing up, and often continue to play as men, are not as close to the business of child care as those played by girls and the women they become. Sure, there are plenty of men who succeed as accomplished chefs or nurses (and plenty of women who fail), and yet clichés about the domestic incompetence of men abound because of their truth.
Faced with the task of dressing Lola in the morning, I am paralyzed by hopelessness. While she wriggles dangerously close to the edge of her changing table, I stand, one hand poised to catch her if she falls, desperately trying to choose between the 87 dresses she seems to own. Invariably, I’ll pick the one I’d most like to see on Britney Spears, only to be reminded that it’s one thing being accomplished at undressing a woman, but it’s quite another figuring out how to get those Agnès B. crossover straps over your daughter’s neck without strangling her in the process. Even when I’ve succeeded, there are shoes or tights or hats to choose. To find them, I usually need to empty at least one entire drawer-and then, adding insult to injury, I need to put everything back where I found it. This is not a task that comes easily to men. In our everyday lives, we do not recognize the need to fold and stack. Our fingers may be too large to cope with tiny T-shirts and pants and socks. Yet what choice do we have? Folding is as much a part of
fatherhood as changing diapers, ambling along the sidewalk behind some dainty stroller or brushing straight the ringlets at the back of her dolly-blond head.
Fearing violent counter-reactions from men overwhelmed by the demands of fatherhood, the National Center for Fathering recommends on its Web site that a father should set his baby “in his crib for a minute while he’s screaming and do sit-ups or jumping jacks to let off steam. Turn on soothing music. Call a friend. Pray.”
And I do. I pray that one of these days, fatherhood will mean more than being on all fours at Lola’s feet wiping lunch off the floor while she lobs sticky lumps of mac and cheese at the back of my neck. I pray that one of those cute East Village girls who magically appear when I take Lola on a sunset walk will surprise me with a greeting of “Oh, that Dad’s so cute I could just eat him up.” And I pray that when I’m dribbling and incontinent and spitting my food at strangers, my daughter will softly consider every last sacrifice I made and laugh with pure joy as she wipes the wet macaroni off her curly blond hair.