The first hint of the changes fatherhood would bring came over eight months before my daughter Leila was born. And it was not subtle. My wife Gayl and I were cruising our 32-foot sailboat through the South Pacific, living as wanderers and letting warm trade winds and our fickle hearts dictate which anchorage we next called home. We had crossed over 3,000 miles of ocean from mainland Mexico, explored the Marquesan Islands, and had found a remote atoll in the Tuamotus named Tahanea that fulfilled almost every requirement for paradise: Crystal clear water; only two other boats – four good friends; abundant sea life; completely uninhabited. We were enjoying our second week of diving with the local sharks and manta rays and watching tropical sunsets fade behind swaying palms and our plan was to sail to a nearby atoll where, according to a radio friend, perfect surf was currently firing – the final ingredient of heaven.
Then, we discovered that Gayl was pregnant. We were overjoyed, of course, but it presented a dilemma. We had been living “on the hook” in the South Pacific’s wild west for seven weeks and the closest thing to fresh greens was the growth under our keel. Suddenly vitamin supplements seemed cruelly insufficient for the mother of my child. And Tahanea, for all its glory, was anything but fertile – nothing more than a ring of reef in the sea, the most we could hope for was a diet of coconuts and fresh ahi.
So, just a few moments after I toasted the nature gods for blessing us, my broad smile faded as my island paradise turned from oasis to prison.
“You need veggies,” I said, thereby killing any possibility of ever sounding brave or swashbuckling again.
After an hour of networking over the high frequency radio I discovered there was a chance at produce a night’s sail away at an inhabited atoll named Fakarava.
“Calm down,” Gayl said. “Let’s sail to the wave, you can surf for a few days, then we’ll go to Fakarava.”
Bolstering my Woody Allen image by summoning visions of a poor, emaciated baby, denied vital nutrients because her father had to get tubed, I waved her off. “No, no, no. We’re heading for produce.”
I was still the captain of the household (but oh, how that would change!) and so the following noon we weighed anchor and sailed through the night in pursuit of zucchini, broccoli and anything citrusy. Thirty hours later we landed at Fakarava’s small Rotoava village.
At first it seemed promising. Though it too was merely a ring of coral in a desert of ocean, Fakarava boasted a large quay, a school and church and talk of two markets. We started down the atoll’s sole crushed-coral road.
An hour later we were assured there was not so much as a lima bean in sight. The supply ship had come weeks ago and was due sometime that week – “we think,” said the local market owner. So, as perfect waves poured un-ridden onto an isolated reef that I had quit my job, sold my house, and sailed over 3,000 miles to surf, I sat and waited for fruit.
The schooner came three days later, we loaded up on as much produce and fuel as possible – about a week’s worth – and bolted for the waves. We arrived just in time…for the last echoes of swell to peter out and the wind to change to unfavorable.
In month five of Gayl’s pregnancy, after exploring the thankfully bountiful Society Islands, we flew home to Orange County, where my formal education on fatherhood began. Gayl and I enrolled in a long list of Hoag Hospital classes: Lamaze, Babycare, Baby Saver…Naively, I thought I would be spared such classes as Breast Feeding and Postpartum Depression on grounds of gender.
“Get real,” Gayl said. “You’re back on land now, in the 21st century.”
So, just weeks after I had been commanding a small boat on the great South Pacific Ocean, catching my dinner and facing down squalls (and yes, tracking down treasures of leafy greens), I found myself in workshops discussing nipple confusion, breast pumps and fundal massage. I practiced swaddling, diaper changing and CPR on plastic dolls. I actually read The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy. I also learned that, given enough technical description and illustrations of the breasts’ inner workings and nurturing qualities, the healthy male can actually be stripped of all his lust for them. Yes, there were times when I would have gladly given up my cell phone and two-gig hard drive for the naïve chauvinism of the 50s.
Ironically, the only thing even remotely familiar to me came during the breast-feeding class when the “football hold” was discussed.
“I know that one!” I cried.
“Good, now teach it to mom,” the nurse said.
Of course, I wasn’t the sole soul mate in these classes. In fact, the classes were made up almost exclusively of couples. I took this as a good sign, a refreshing reality check to the consistently reinforced notion that our nation’s family values are crumbling. I was proud of my fellow future dads for their involvement, their bravery.
Of course, I kept that touchy-feely sentiment to myself.
Besides, the main effect the classes had on me, I think, was to scare the living hell out of me. I’m a bit of a hypochondriac as it is, so when I was shown list after list of things that could go wrong with a newborn – choking, suffocating, jaundice, drowning, six distinct kinds of diaper rash… Well, let’s just say I displayed signs of the first three.
Then there was the infamous video night in Lamaze class. Five Births, I think ours was called, and it was designed to prepare us for the sometimes bumpy, always gory pathway of birth. I squirmed through a viewing of everything from the trouble-free vaginal to the emergency C-section birth, and yes, I’m admitting right here in print that I worried more for myself than Gayl. After all, from what I saw, everyone in the delivery room was focused on the mother – who the hell was going to catch me when I keeled over?
The class gave us good advice on lifestyle preparation, however, and as the big day neared our home took on a different look. I spent mornings putting together the bassinet, the changing table, the stroller, while Gayl washed baby clothes and organized everything from newborn diapers to six-month-old sleepers.
In the final week I stopped going surfing, or to the bookstore, for fear of being unavailable when Gayl needed to get to the hospital. We labeled every pain Gayl felt as the possible onset of labor.
So it was rather anticlimactic when Gayl’s water broke without even a labor pinch. We drove to the hospital calmly, checked in at 11 p.m. and counted ourselves as one of the lucky couples for whom labor would be a breeze. Gayl lay back with a smile as the first hint of labor pains began, barely discernible from the subtle beat of our background Beethoven. I stood by her side, holding her hand, acting as breathing coach, and occasionally stepping aside to snap a few pictures. It was as if we were weekending at the Marriott.
Then, reality hit. It came down like a hammer and I watched Gayl’s casual smile cloud over and her brow go tense.
“Whoa,” she said, and I knew we were in trouble. This was a woman who had smiled as she clutched the helm of our boat through a thundering electrical squall 1,000 miles offshore.
I looked at the contraction monitor. It read 30.
“That’s probably pretty bad, honey,” I lied. For all I knew it was a scale of 500.
Within an hour the monitor was reading in the mid-forties and Gayl was shaking like a woman possessed. Trying to crush my hand to a pulp replaced breathing exercises and I wisely buried the idea of picture-taking.
Now, I know what you all are thinking: Here comes the cliché where the woman yells “Drugs! Give me the drugs!”
But you’re wrong.
I called for the drugs – for Gayl, mostly. She, amazingly, was reluctant.
“I really…thought…I could…do this,” she managed to say.
“Who are you trying to impress?” I said. “I would have called for the epidural in the second trimester.”
Half an hour later, after the epidural had taken effect, Gayl was sitting up taking my picture as I watched the contraction monitor approach 80.
This meant my moment of truth was coming. By four a.m. Gayl was pushing and I was holding one of her legs, partly for childbearing purposes, partly for my own support. Scenes from Five Births flashed through my mind as I struggled to encourage Gayl. I concentrated on her face, on helping her count, on anything but Leila’s slowly moving head.
But as Leila eased closer to our world I found I couldn’t help myself, I had to watch. I wanted so much to see the face of the girl that had dominated our thoughts for the better part of a year, who would define our lives from this hour on, that the fear around the more gruesome part of childbirth disappeared.
To my surprise, I did not faint, I did not turn away; I watched as my daughter entered our world. And it was wonderful.
* * *
Long before my wife and I set sail we bought a house. Now, anyone who has ever applied for a home loan can appreciate the forests of paperwork and FBI-like probing involved. What I found interesting was that every time there was a decision to be made or document to sign – whether it was solidifying the walk-through date or signing the loan papers – I was the one called. “Oh, and you better bring Gayl, too,” was the implication. And this in spite of the fact that I was a writer who on a good day had trouble finding my wallet, while Gayl managed money for a living. But no matter how many times I insisted that Gayl represented half of any decision – not to mention half the money – the call came to my office.
So, when Gayl and I were readying ourselves in the hospital to move our new family home and a nurse came in with a slew of papers, I handed two-day-old Leila to my wife and pulled out a pen.
The nurse walked right by me.
She set up a table for my wife and plopped the pile of papers in front of her. Most of them had to do with Leila – information about car seats, application for social security number, the tyke’s official discharge papers, county parenting help lines – but Gayl’s was the only signature necessary. Due to extreme sleep deprivation at the time, I can’t swear to this, but I maintain that I did not sign a single document.
With everything in order, a volunteer orderly came in with a luggage cart and a wheelchair. He and I loaded up the cart and then helped Gayl into the wheelchair, Leila in her arms.
“All ready?” he asked.
“Let’s go home,” I said, and took a step toward the wheelchair.
He cut me off.
“Sorry, hospital rules,” he explained, and with a wink, added, “You can get the luggage cart.”
At the time I felt a bit dissed. But over the next few weeks I would come to see those last few hours in the hospital as a sort of benevolent conspiracy on the staff’s part to ease me into my first month’s job as “father,” a misnomer if ever I heard one. More accurate would be any of the following titles: Waiter, butler, maid, slave.
The first few weeks of my fatherhood were spent learning to cook, do laundry, clean, and, of course, change diapers. Sadly, they were all equally alien tasks for me. Two years on a boat in the tropics had left me ill-prepared in almost all departments. The one dish I could prepare with any confidence was raw fish, sashimi; clothes washing had involved leaving surf trunks out during a squall; and cleaning was done with a deck brush.
In fact, virtually every skill I had picked up seemed all wrong. If Leila was in any danger of blowing away, for instance, I could tie a hell of a trucker’s hitch. If her bottom began growing green algae or attracted barnacles, I had the tool. Diaper rash, however, remained a mystery only the gods could solve.
The parenting classes helped a little but changing, soothing and burping a live, squirm-happy child turned out to be a bit harder than appeasing a plastic doll. Not to mention much messier. But I found love can get you through the worst of diaper blowouts.
The one skill from our voyage that came in handy was the ability to function on almost zero sleep. Crossing the Pacific had involved 25 straight days of sleeping in two-hour shifts with the added bonus of a constant underlying anxiety that at any moment all hell could bust loose. That was now paying off big-time.
Gayl was now nothing more than a milk factory, and the factory needed help. Because it would take weeks for Leila’s stomach to grow large enough to accommodate more than a few ounces of milk – a few hours worth, that is – we never got more than a few hours sleep those first 14 days. I learned to do everything in a zombie state. I spent entire days in my wife’s pink bathrobe; my tan faded; I grew lots of facial hair; my vocabulary became monosyllabic; writing a grocery list became taxing.
In short, our life became, and remains, profoundly different than just months ago. Living on the ocean our clock was nature; our plans revolved around her temperament. When the wind came up, we moved, when it rained, we stayed in, when the sun shone, we played.
Now, as parents, we remain on nature’s clock, but it ticks away not in the wind or the sun, but the moods and needs of an eight-pound miracle.
Our world is now focused and on purpose. Balance has not yet come, but then, the only way to find balance is to test its edges. And where before nature’s rewards were grand overtures, they now are subtle and intimate.
Yes, our lives have changed immeasurably and the nights are sometimes long. But then, somewhere in those first few weeks Leila looked me right in the eyes and smiled. And though I know it was probably nothing more than gas or a developing nervous system, it was still more beautiful than any sunset I ever saw, any wave I ever surfed. Because it was my first true recognition that I was a dad.