When my daughter was born I was 35 and felt 23. Now she’s one, and I’m 36 going on 72. It’s been a long year.
But it’s been a blazingly short year, too. Like the 30-minute point in one of those techie movies where things happen in slow-mo and revolve around the dazed protagonist, right up until everything screams into overdrive for a second or two and he ends up confused and under attack on some alien planet, sometime far into the future.
Well, I’m that guy, only my mission is not to save the world from alien invasion – I only wish my life was that easy. No, my goal is to save my sanity from sleep deprivation, financial ruin and the crushing fear my fellow parent friends induce when they tell me, “Are you kidding, the first year’s the easiest; just wait until high school!” In short, my Lex Luther is fatherhood.
It all started wonderfully enough. When our daughter Leila was born, I took three weeks off to help my wife recover as I spent time “bonding” with my little girl. Basically, I burned a lot of toast, ordered a lot of pizzas, watched a lot of sports, never showered or shaved and shuffled around in my bathrobe all day. A lot like college, only with more diaper changes.
I should say, however, that my wife was a saint. Basically, she had two babies to deal with: Leila, who was content to cry and whine and feed and poop 24/7, and me, who basically did the same thing. It was because I was totally unprepared for fatherhood; I had the desire, but the skills had left the building. Actually, I doubt they ever had gotten close to the city.
I grew up totally infant-free. My sister is only two years younger than I and we had no relatives with babies. As an adult, my friends had kids, but I have a tendency to stay in my room a lot, with sporadic and unpredictable multi-month or multi-year jaunts out of the country. So I had a total of maybe 10 hours of time around babies, all of which consisted of the same conversation: “It’s okay, Terence, you can hold her.” “No thanks. Maybe later, when the drooling stops.” In fact, the first diaper I ever changed was my daughter’s; it was a painful learning curve for both of us.
But still, those first three weeks were bliss, and Leila, by all accounts, was a wonderful baby. She didn’t cry all the time and I could hold her like a football while watching sports.
Then, in the fourth week, reality hit like an 11,000-pound poopy diaper. The problems started when, again as in college, the outside world actually expected intelligent output from me. I had to get organized. I had to get caught up. I had to get some sleep!
I toyed with the idea of setting up a bed in my office and visiting home for quick showers and those “bonding” sessions, but something told me that would not be seen as very progressive fathering. So I began prioritizing my time. I moved surfing, tennis, TV sports, and reading down a few spots. My wife moved them down a few more. They came to a rest just below taking out the trash and eating, which I was lucky to get to in the first place.
I soon discovered, and kept discovering over the course of a year, that there are rules to this fathering gig. And the rules are never, ever made by the father. In fact, we aren’t even let in on the discussion. For us, it’s learn as you go – and there’s a lot to learn…
Knowledge is good; ignorance is better
Long ago in my marriage I learned how to get out of responsibilities diplomatically. To get out of laundry duty I offered unlimited help. Then I mixed every conceivable pattern and color together, poured in an entire bottle of bleach, and, voila, I was banished from the laundry room. Sure, it put a temporary dent in the clothing budget, but the rewards last forever. Same thing with cooking and cleaning: Charbroiled a few dinners, stained a few rugs and bingo, it was beer and Lakers time, baby. It’s what I call the Ozzy Osborne approach.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work when it comes to being a dad. Primarily because when you mess up, someone gets hurt and everyone cries. So I decided I had better get informed; I hit the local library. The choices were endless.Tens of thousands of pages dedicated to taming those tantrums and parent empowerment and how not to go completely bonkers. I pulled out Dr. Spock’s tome; his was at least a name I had heard, I thought. The book was 939 pages long and started with the words, “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” I put it back on the shelf; definitely not for me.
Next I flipped through a book specifically on fatherhood called Dear Son, About Your Baby. I landed on page 65 and read, “Playtime doesn’t mean you can go out and play baseball with the fellas.” Ooh, that sounded depressing; I put it back. In Tears and Tantrums I found the advice: “Children who are allowed to cry and rage as much as needed become more pleasant to live with.” This author was obviously deaf. I thumbed through a few others – Parent Power!,The Best Advice I Ever Got – but none of them spoke to me. Then, I saw it, the guide that was seemingly written specifically for me: Parenting for Dummies. I opened it and read a selection on the Five Basic Parenting Skills: Speak and listen with care; be consistent; follow through; remain patient; learn to manage behavior. Well, I possessed none of those skills, but the type was nice and big and there was a lot of white space between the lines, so home the book went with me.
I soon found, however, that Dummies didn’t address the dramatic – traumatic? – issues that hit in the first year. It focuses more on the less important stuff like child safety and medical issues.
Your social life is now anti-social
There are two groups this rule affects. First, your friends who don’t have kids. Basically, you should send them a “Have a nice life” email; you will never see them again – unless they end up in group two soon. This is because they are still having dinner parties that don’t revolve around the number of poops, burps, tantrums, and vomiting attacks the little princess had that day. For some reason, this kills the romantic buzz still humming through their veins. Also, they will want to go out after dinner and party until insane hours, like nine. And if you’re thinking dad can venture out with the boys while mom stays home and breast feeds, I have one piece of advice: Never, ever, under any circumstances, use the argument, “But obviously that’s what God wanted when he gave you the equipment instead of me.” Trust me on this one.
Group two consists of friends who also have infants and toddlers. You will still see them, sort of. Dinners at their house will go something like this: Both moms run back and forth between kitchen and babies while the dads stand around confused running down quick requests like “Stir that!” and “Change that!” in between sips of warm beer. Attempts at intelligent conversation are made over the crying of one or both babies (usually they trade off to insure constant noise) but only a series of convoluted half sentences are accomplished, so that soon Michael Jackson is blamed for some sniper shootings that were of course the result of a Saddam Hussein/al-Qaida link to our own CIA who is secretly tapping the back bedroom to find out how many poopy diapers Leila had this week. (Like I said, everything comes back to this poop theme.)
About this time something is discovered to be lacking for a proper meal and Dad Number One gets to escape to the store for a frantic, but somehow more relaxing, 20 minutes. Upon his return he’ll find that due to a crying fit and “blow-out” (yes, diaper-related again, and no, don’t ask) the original dinner idea has been scrapped. Dad Number Two is at this moment on the phone with The Pizza Bakery ordering $50 worth of pizza and salads. By the end of the evening, everyone is huddled over a cold piece of pizza watching “The Bachelor.”
You will need a bigger house
An amazing paradox exists with babies: That cute little cuddly person who has no job, hobbies or friends is going to require more space that the 49ers football team. It’s an unexplained phenomenon more perplexing than black holes or Keanu Reeves’ acting career.
If you’re lucky, you have an extra four rooms: A nursery, a room for the shipload of toys you bought because they’re just so cute and “Leila will be nine years old sooner than we think”; a room for the truckload of clothes bought for the same reason; a room for the piles of laundry – yes, the clothes are tiny, but they are attacked hourly by food, drool and you know what; and finally, what I like to call an operating room, a negative-pressure, hermetically sealed space where all diaper changes go on.
Of course, this is not going to save the utter demolition of the living room, which at my home is referred to as the minefield because of the impossibility of stepping even two feet without coming down on some demented toy manufacturer’s evil attempt to break every adult’s ankle. Equally as treacherous are the kitchen – Leila has her own drawer of “harmless” cooking utensils to fling around at will – the dining room and the hallway. The Dummies book suggested baby-proofing, of course, and setting a small basket of toys in each room, so that: First, we wouldn’t have to constantly follow Leila around, pulling her away from electric sockets and off tables, and second, she would be occupied with the toys. Two problems here. One, that nice $1,000 hard wood hutch looks like a K-Mart $99 special with baby-proofing rubber all over it. And two, the toys are fun for exactly the amount of time it takes Leila to hurl them out of the basket, then she’s back to trying to pull Mommy’s pants off while she cooks.
So around the 50th time I tripped over the Jam With Elmo Electric Guitar I had an epiphany: “Baby Track!” I yelled. My wife stopped cooking, Leila stopped pulling. “What?” my wife asked. “You get some track lighting tracks,” I explained. “Then you get a harness, like the ones poodles wear as leashes. One that fits Leila.” My wife lifted Leila up and took a step back. I pressed on. “Next you attach a bar from the tracks to Leila’s harness, and presto, she can only move in certain areas of the house. Like a monorail system for kids! We could make a fortune, here!” Leila started to cry; my wife said, “Daddy’s mean and crazy.” I called The Pizza Bakery.
Take what you can get
There are some silver linings that come with fatherhood. The problem is that the clouds they surround are big and dark. Take the first time my little girl looked deep into my eyes and said Dada. It was more awe-inspiring than my first tropical sunset. It made all the months of sleepless, thankless work worthwhile. And I felt that way a full three minutes, right up until the moment Leila turned her head, looked deep into the sofa’s pillows, and said Dada, this time with the addition of a loving smile. I like to think that she’s actually a little tease; in other words, she’s so smart she has skipped the boring-point-at-object-and-label-it game and gone straight to the conceptual and intellectual game of irony.
I know, it’s thin, but hey, it gets me through the night.
Signs of trouble
Somewhere around the eighth month my wife brought home the book Baby Signs. “This way we can actually communicate,” she said. “Isn’t that what all the crying and screaming is about?” I said. “I’m talking about Leila, not you.” Oh. I snuck into my closet and checked the Parenting for Dummies. There was nothing about this baby signing thing; I was in over my head again.
I put down The Old Man and the Sea and picked up Baby Signs (I was averaging about 10 words a day anyway). I had to admit, the reasons for teaching Leila Baby Signs were compelling. The book pointed out: “Talking is so easy for adults, we forget how difficult it was to learn…. There’s the tongue to place, the lips to form, the vocal chords to control, the breathing to regulate…. Considering how slowly babies learn even easy words like ball and doggy, let alone difficult words like scared and elephant, many months are lost that could be spent having rich and rewarding interactions, both for child and parent.”
The book suggested starting with some easier signs and building up to conceptual things like hungry, hot or tired. So, for the next few months, my wife and I signed our brains out. If you take walks in Crystal Cove State Park, perhaps you saw us. We were the couple thrusting our arms up in the air for big, panting like a black lab for dog, flipping our tongues in and out for lizard, and wildly flapping our arms for bird. Thank god there aren’t any kangaroos in California.
Leila took a stoic attitude to all this; she sat and watched, mouth straight, and seemed to be planning an escape from what had to be a terrible mix-up at the hospital nursery – this set of village idiots could not be her real parents.
But then, she did it. I asked her how big she was and she thrust her arms up over her head. “This big!” she was saying. I signed back big, she signed back big again. Yes, joy, success!
Twenty minutes later I winced in pain as I threw my arms up for the 457th time. But Leila was smiling, and that’s all that mattered.
Unfortunately, she has yet to learn the signs that will tell us when she needs to be changed, is hungry or thirsty. For those, she’s decided screaming and crying get a much quicker response. So now we are an entire family of spasmodic idiots who walk at Crystal Cove. Shows daily.
Sleep? We don’t need no stinking sleep!
It’s amazing to me now just how much time I used to waste sleeping. I’ve found that I can function at at least a 12 percent efficiency level on almost zero sleep; give me a few hours of Zs and I’m almost at zombie level. It’s all just a numbers game, really: It takes twice as long to do the simplest of tasks, but you have doubled your waking hours.
Of course, the reason for my lack of sleep has changed slightly. In the first few months it was simply because Leila was little more than a filter. She would feed for 40 minutes every two hours, preceded or followed by making room for the new food. So I moonlighted by changing her when she cried, handing her to my wife, napping, changing her again, napping, and changing her when she cried….
After a few months, Leila transitioned to being able to sleep for hours on end without food. I anticipated escapes to dreamscapes that rivaled the best vacations. Then, Leila decided that neither bassinet nor crib was adequate for her bigness. She had her eyes on our full-sized bed.
After three nights of playing my elbow’s bigger than your knee, I found myself in the Sit and Sleep parking lot. Two hours later, I woke up to the sound of a man’s jovial voice: “That is our finest model, you have excellent taste, sir!” I blinked and rubbed my eyes. A huge smile and head of waxed hair stared down at me and I felt like I was floating on a cloud. Actually, I was on a $3,500 king-sized deluxe mattress.
The bed was delivered the next day and my wife and I feasted our eyes on its acreage. Hours later, all three of us lay down and drifted off.
Two hours later I woke up clinging like a mountaineer to the edge of K2. I felt a tiny foot jabbed against my spine. Turning over, I stared in amazement as I saw my wife, waaay over there doing the same thing. Leila had learned her first letter: an H. We were the vertical bars and she was the horizontal, stretched out like a cheerleader and fast asleep.
So what have I learned after a year on the front? Mainly that the real trick is staying sane and having even a shot at becoming the super dad you really want to be takes stamina and endurance, but mostly a very Zen-like attitude. You must learn to embrace the good in every moment and let the bad, the smelly and the ear-shattering flow on by. Yes, I think it was Spicolli who said, “Just go with the flow, dude.” Because, dude, there’s going to be a lot flowing.