One day I woke up and everything had changed.
When my wife and I were expecting our first child, everyone would ask the question: “Are you ready?” It’s a well-meaning question, usually, but there’s no good way to answer it. Yes, we bought the crib. We painted the spare bedroom and called it a nursery. We stocked up on educational toys and environmentally-friendly wipes, we read books about what we should be expecting and we girded ourselves with the knowledge that our sleep would suffer soon and for a significant period of time thereafter. We had a place to put the baby and things to dress him in. My answer to the question would always be the same, though, and I meant it in all seriousness:
“As ready as I’m going to be.”
Then he was born, and we were prepared in the physical, tangible ways. What I wasn’t ready, what I couldn’t have been ready for, was feeling so useless. A short trip to the hospital and I returned home a spectator, a witness to something I couldn’t control despite desperately wanting to, a seemingly-obsolete resident of a home that was now fundamentally and irrevocably changed. This isn’t to say that I couldn’t try — I could change diapers or fix dinner or do the laundry or keep company with the equally-shell-shocked dog — but for the one thing that now mattered most in this house, the keeping-alive of this fragile and hungry eight-and-a-half-pound wad of screams, I was reduced to an executive producing credit, the kind they give you when the project’s taken out of your hands but they have to acknowledge you worked on an early version of it. I was the guy who got a World Series ring after being traded away in June.
This isn’t jealousy of motherhood, mind you: it was hard then and it is hard now, and frankly I’m quite comfortable not engaging in any of the specific things that differentiate it from fatherhood. No, it’s the confusion of waking up in a place that you thought you knew but the road signs are all in a language you can’t read. All the furniture has been moved six inches to the left, not so much that you notice but enough that you’ll bash your shins on it. Parenthood re-wired me in a way I wasn’t ready for and still don’t fully understand. I’m emotional about things I wasn’t before. I'm more conscious of responsibility, both in a day-to-day sense and a global one. I’m worried all the time.
(Do not read this as a “you’ll only understand if you have kids! You should have kids!”. This is not that. It is the best thing I have done in my life, but it turns out plenty of other people do other, better things than I do all the time. I’ve come to accept it.)
Strangers love to tell you how wonderful it is when you’ve got a newborn, and I hated that with my life on the days when the baby wasn’t sleeping and couldn’t smile or laugh yet and every day felt like dying but dying’s kind of like sleep so it’s not even that. Do not tell someone how wonderful their situation is when it has not even had a chance to demonstrate anything of the sort on its own. It didn’t help; it just made me feel even shittier for not appreciating it in the moment, for feeling so lost when I was supposed to cherish every second.
Now, four years later, with two bundles of boundless small-child energy who rely on me for things like pre-dawn cups of the good cereal only I’m dumb enough to buy for them or magnet-tile towers or re-worded versions of songs and hugs when things go wrong or go right or just for the sake of hugs, it’s 100% true. I do cherish it. It’s magical and I wouldn’t trade it for anything even though I already traded something for it.
I gave up being alone.
Now, that’s part of the point, right? People who want to have kids do it in part because they don’t want to be alone. They want someone to take care of them when they’re older, and so on. Once you have children, though, it’s not just that you’re not alone, it’s that you’re never alone. Even when you’re by yourself, you’re not. You’re accounted for at all times, because you matter to someone and they’d like to know where you are because they wish it was with them. I can’t disappear anymore, and what’s even more surprising is, I don’t even want to. I used to thrive on disappearing. Solo travel. Long runs in quiet, desolate places. Going to a bar or movie alone. Not having an agenda or a schedule or a role to play. Being away from everybody and not needing to be anybody. Even in the context of a long-term loving relationship with someone I care deeply about, there was still space to be alone. I took it. I needed it.
In those earliest days with a baby home from the hospital, when he would scream as much in my arms as he would if I’d left him on the roof of the car but would immediately fall asleep in his mother’s arms, I felt fundamentally that I did not matter. I was a side character in the story, a non-playable townsperson, an extra milling around the scenery and muttering unheard lines of filler. I resented every person who told me how great it was, because I had no reason to believe that myself.
As they grew from screamwads to tiny people, things imprinted. Their personality develops, and it’s a lot like yours, but better because it’s half someone else’s and who needs a whole extra you anyways? I’ll see them do things or hear them say things and realize that they’re things I do or say without even having known it until they’re mirrored back to me. Some my appreciation of this is pure narcissism, no doubt: they like the things I like because I like them. But it’s also in having a reason to change. It’s in making me want to like better things than the Cleveland Browns or “Party In The USA”, in wanting to be better instead of being alone and unchallenged.
There’s no miracle moment if you’re a parent who didn’t give birth, no chemical or hormonal switch that’s flipped. Everything around you changes, becomes incomprehensible, and you have to learn a new way to be. It takes a while to be able to read the road signs again, to be able to step around the ottoman in the dark.
At first, you’re alone. Then you’ll never be again.
— Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)