Fatherhood – Seven Months In

Photo credit Lauren Perkins of StopGo Photography

TLDR

I Like it. It’s hard sometimes, but it’s helping me become a better person. I love my daughter.

Warning – Babies are gross sometimes and I spend a paragraph discussing poop. If that weirds you out, feel free to skip it.

Long Version

If what my mother modeled for me is correct, then the thing you do with babies to preserve your memory is record or chronicle the endless litany of firsts. The first time she crawled. The first time she smiled. The first time she passed a solid poop… that sort of thing. You glue fingernail clippings and teeth in envelopes pasted into a scrap-book, roll their fingers and feet in ink and press them to floral cardstock as your hedge against the vagaries of time and memory. I find exact measurements paltry and lacking – I have never understood my life as data points on a graph and doubt I would even when the datum is preserved paisley print memory album. The thing they try to lead back to, the thing they try to preserve is the feeling and what it meant; to both her, my baby, and to Lauren and I, her parents.

Rather than seek to cast ruler notches in amber let me do my best to preserve the sense of these early days; the warm-loam cub smell of my child.

If you’ll humor me, let me begin with the bad.

There are several main difficulties of being the father of a healthy child in the 21st century.

The first and most timeless one is simply that being a parent is primarily an exercise in exhausting, oftentimes near-endless drudgery. My baby’s needs are not difficult or complicated. Even when her care calls for creativity, caring for her is more or less straightforward. She doesn’t need calculus equations solved or painstakingly beautiful art produced. What my daughter needs is our warmth, Lauren’s milk, to be kept clean, to explore with her eyes or her hands, to be soothed to sleep or quietude, and our love. But though her needs are few, she needs these things in tremendous quantities with no respect for our schedules or what it was we wanted or thought we needed. Because she needs at 2am or 11am or 7pm or whenever. And sometimes, she needs to be offered each ‘solution’ several times before she decides which need she’s actually currently experiencing.

In the 4th trimester, before she’d ever smiled at me, back when her red-foldy body should still have been in the womb (had she been any other sort of mammal); I lost the sleep of the non-parent, the before-parent. Instead I dozed in a shallow twilight regularly punctured by a break-beat rhythm of staccato crying. This cast a pall fog over my life, and for much of this time most of the memories are lost to the haze as I zombie walked through my transition into parenthood. From this era, Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’ and Bob Marley’s ‘Buffalo Soldier’ were offered up as soothing sacrifices in those insomniatic fussy nights; I can’t listen to either song without being thrown back to the rocking, whispering, just go to sleep baby so I can sleep desperation of early, early parenthood. However, this crisis of rest might be a blessing. It’s possible that this soft semi-unconsciousness obscured the hard break between my life before and my life after; a shift of such magnitude that it could otherwise overwhelm. But I did this, I worked to get through while still making time to talk to and seduce my mate, handling all the other stressors and chasing the things I decided were important. The great part of being a new parent is there is no better encouragement to dispense with unimportant. The bad part is that it is at times necessary to put on hold the things that are actually important; with the cynical & lazy parents claiming that they could never resume, they that lived their life burning as a sacrificial pyre for their child. Lauren and I have vowed not to be those sorts of parents; but that’s the default, that’s the place the gravity of parenthood tugs you towards and it is only through active, intentional effort that we avoid the shrunken family solipsism of having all our identities consumed by our relationship to our child.

Then, after all this work to learn to soothe, to anticipate her so that she never, ever has cry; I was called upon to do the opposite. Eventually, inevitably if she is to learn to crawl (which she recently did) I have to refuse her cries to pick her up. If she is to learn to sleep by herself, and for me to reclaim my own sleep (more or less), I must ignore her wailing, screaming, choke-sobbing as I lay her down in the crib to meet the night and rest alone. Some parents don’t choose this, and I can’t blame them. But I believe that weaning (both off of co-sleeping and the breast) is more often than not an active process that requires my clear definition of purpose. The way I understand my role as father is, I deal with everything above her current level (most of the adult shit) while I have to get out of the way and let her deal with the things that are at her level; even when it’s hard for her, even when it hurts worse than anything she’s ever felt in her life. Right now, the things at her level are sleeping in the crib and occasionally having to muscle her way into a crawl to get something she wants. In the future her level will expand -to dealing with relationships, hierarchies, confusion, and all the other myriad growing pains- but over and over again I’m going to have to watch as the tribulations of her age break her heart and in so doing break my heart; as her cries now break my heart. Would that I’m ever there as for her as a confidant, adviser, and comfort; but inevitably she will have to learn to steer her own life, her own self while I try my best not to let the stuff from the next tier (my tier) worry her.

My daughter has become incredibly adept at finding the little detritus in our lives that would hurt her terribly, and anxious to get such things into her mouth as quickly as possible. You do not baby-proof anything, you only nudge your home and your possession towards being baby resistant.

Elliott is innocently filthy in a way that’s hard to explain; coating herself and everything else in a zone of befoulment regularly with fluids of snot, vomit, shit, piss, and baby food without regard to any known sense of propriety. When she was especially small, we had to be careful to clean out the folds of her near-permanently fist formed hands (hands held tight as though she was ever about to get in a boxing match with a stuffed animal). She had a tendency to grab bits of dust and then drool into the lines of her hands; producing black sticky strands of what we lovingly dubbed ‘baby garbage.’ Many a bath has ended in a scramble to get her up and away from the floating clumps of turd she’s just filled the blue baby-tub with; hurriedly hosing her off as 3 forlorn toy turtles bob sadly about with slowly unfolding clumps of what appears to be pea soup mixed with modeling clay. Her shit has gone from yellow mucus to green slime to black/brown bricks of turd and looped back and forth and back again. It has also been, in a word, everywhere.

Which is to say, a baby (my baby) can be dirty in a way inconceivable to adults.

The other primary difficulty of being a parent in the modern era, a difficulty more pronounced every year, is not that there are no maps for path through parenthood; there are a million. And each one screamingly insists that the other maps are not only wrong, but actively dangerous for you and your child. None of these maps is the territory, but every decision I make about the care and rearing of my daughter can feel like a life and death choice; one that could very well leave scars that she carries for the rest of her life. I think this is why parents are so often combative, judgmental assholes regarding other parents who make different decisions about their children (the bad parents, the one to be gossiped about against the backdrop of a primary color jungle gyms or while hands decorate birthday cake).

We are all playing a high stakes best-guessing game and we’re all terrified that we’re making the wrong decision.

And one of the only ways some people know how to soothe themselves is to relentlessly attack the alternatives. Because only by convincing themselves that all other tactics are the road to hell that they can assure themselves that they are not, themselves, making damned and damning choices. Personally, I feel (and do my best to remind myself) that human beings are fairly plastic and surprisingly resilient. The good-enough path informed by loving intentions is better than the ‘perfect’ path informed by terror.

Even if I could, somehow, transcend my humanity and be ‘perfect’ I would be a terrible role model, because there’s no reason to believe that she could be. One of the gifts I hope to give her is the image of me struggling, succeeding and failing; but not stopping.

That said, I have fucked up with her. My negligence has resulted in her experiencing unnecessary pain. I let her fall from that shitty plastic rocker in our living room, tumble a foot down in slow but not slow enough motion to smack her beautiful little face into the hard, taupe plastic leg of the contraption. The essential difficulty here is not the terror-guilt (she was hurt but uninjured) the true difficulty is learning, accepting, getting up the next day and trying to do better without a break in care. The difficulty is understanding that, whatever mistakes I make, I don’t get to stop being a parent. I don’t really get to tag out; even when I fuck up, even when I’m sick, even when I’m exhausted. Despite my own innumerable shortcomings there is no one else, no one better to be the father to my daughter. We, the parents, the relatives, the family, the friends; are all she has, are all we have. The mantra of parenthood (and possibly life in general) is frustratingly simple: Do better, don’t stop. Repeat it endlessly on your best and worst days, repeat it in your sleeplessness and your delirium stink of not having bathed for days, repeat in the peaks and valleys of your own brain chemistry, repeat in your hunger and on your aching knees: Do better, don’t stop.

My only other quibble with parenthood is the nightmare that scheduling has become. It is far easier to simply cease going out. The irony being, now that Ellie is more or less sleep-trained, it is *stupid* easy for one parent to go out while it remains *stupid* difficult for both of us to do so. I think when it comes to socializing, Lauren and I might begin to resemble the whole Bruce Wayne/Batman thing where you never quite see us in the same room together–unless that room is our apartment wherein we’re both smiling bag-eyed with a light patina of organic matter of various kinds covering our clothing.

That’s the bad. And it’s real and it’s everything everyone says it is. But’s paltry and laughably insignificant next to the joy.

Bear in mind, I may well be biased; a partial witness of the most unbelievable kind. Because I always wanted to be a father, always thought of myself as (eventually) becoming a Dad. And I was then given this gift of an amazing wife with both of us blessed by the absence of hurry, the feeling like we needed to rush into the next phase of our life. But I love being a Dad; love to hold my daughter, love to play with her, love to run my nose over the thin-fine hair of her head and breathe her in. She is thriving.

Historically, I’ve always liked kids but haven’t cared overmuch for babies. Kids, even little kids, I can talk to, play with, and generally interact with in ways that made sense to me. Babies on the other hand always seemed like so much undifferentiated mass of mewling fairly confounding need; little shit-scream monsters devoid of personality. I knew I would, and did, love Ellie from the moment I saw her; but I didn’t know that I’d *like* her as a baby. But I did like her, even then; even when she was a little grub unready for the world, totally squint-eyed-zoned-out from her lack of context and overwhelmed by the cascading surge of sensation. I liked her, and I loved her; liked the way her tiny fingers clutched about my pinky before she ever saw me as a person as opposed to an indecipherable gibberish glut of shape and color and light.

Then, weeks after we brought her home she smiled; at me. And then fatherhood wasn’t all about avoiding the stick, about doing my best to keep her from crying out for something she didn’t have but now there was a carrot – the smile. Could I get her to smile again? What made her smile? I got to dive into her smiles. After smile came laughter, came coos, came more clearly seeing Lauren and I came (I think) a theory of mind for us as she regarded us. All these beautiful things, all these beautiful moments. Tickle giggles and making her crack up by exclaiming ‘naked baby’ because nudity is, kinda-sorta hilarious; most especially so when you’re a multi-rolled ruddy little cub busily laughing and chomping down on your finger. Still not able to talk, she began to play; play with her feet and her kicks, play with her vowels and consonants and with pffshhhhhffffing between her lips. And I get to play with her, flip her and do all the things that make Lauren gasp and groan which is my birthright as father; Dad as first and best jungle gym/amusement park. Through it all there is play with anticipation; when will the face appear, what’s the rhythm of the storybook, what happens right after this song? Every week she learns to play a new game; like now she plays with hammering the giraffe into the table, gummily chomping down on whatever strikes her fancy.

Teasing out her smiles and her joy makes me deliriously happy.

I do my best to avoid drowning in a deluge of adorable clothing purchases, but even I -someone who generally believes that cute hats for babies are more or less gilding a lily- am powerless to resist the detonation of cuteness when she doffs an animal hat or a darling set of PJs.

When she was smaller, I got her at odd intervals. Now, with work I get mornings (4am-630), nights (5-630) and weekends generally. I miss her, lots, but it’s enough.

I marvel at her shifting fascinations; her crush on Mr. Ceiling-fan, her open-palmed amazement at my clean-shaven face, her current grunting insistence to explore buttons and zippers, drawstrings and cords.

Elliott Rose Perkins is beautiful; this shining, beaming alchemy of Lauren and I. When she smiles, the barest hint of a single razor-sharp egg tooth poking through her gums; she smiles without reserve and in pure joy. At times it saddens me to know that someone, somewhere will teach her not to smile like that; to hold her smile back, to pose, to perform, to avoid the vulnerability of authentic wholly in the moment awww-fuck-yeah! reckless enthusiasm. I’ll just have to do my best to show her the path back to it, even as I myself follow that path.

She is gorgeous, with eyes that can’t decide if they’re green or brown, and with skin the color of light honey halfway in between her mom’s and mine. She is bright and social, loves new faces and lunge-grabbing at everything within her zone of pinching throwing upending destruction. When she was especially small, we would soothe her to sleep by strapping her to my chest and heading to the bar. She most wants to be included, to be with us. And she is smart, even now; behind her wide eyes I see her watching, thinking; plotting with a smile. Already she uses the sharp edges of her cries, her only and best tool, to reshape the world to her whim.

She holds earlobes as I did as a baby; as I did and still do to the people I love best.

The outpouring of generosity and love of friends & family, grandparents & uncles has been amazing and life affirming. There was always someone there bringing food when we couldn’t feed ourselves, watching Ellie when we needed 1 freaking hour to ourselves, or to taking us out to grab a beer or mandatory shaking of the ass to remind us that -parents though we be- we are more than a life support prosthesis for a baby. Nothing induces existential myopia like the complete dependence of an infant, and taking breathers from that to plug into the wider world keeps us sane. It’s only possible thanks to the aid and love of the people who support our family.

I don’t know how people do it alone, but I’m humbled and grateful to be part of a weave of loving people that ensures that I won’t ever need to find out.

And running through it all is the holy awe that I’m watching, that I’m helping to breathe a flow of consciousness into another human being. There is no higher temple. There is nothing more sacred than being a steward of a mind, a consciousness, a soul in bloom. Even though I am only a human steward, even though I am only a temporary, oh so temporary steward. And there is no finer encouragement to get my shit together than the fact that I will be that which is most imitated, that my voice (more or less) will become my daughter’s inner monologue.

When people say they want to watch their child grow up, what they’re saying is they want to begin the life-long process of perpetually re-meeting a human being whose intellect and passion and joy and sorrow and knowledge and place in the world and being will be born and reborn over and over again.

I want to watch my daughter grow up.

And at this point, the daily practice of being a father most irrevocably alters my daily practice of being a friend, a husband, a son; a human-being in general. Because it’s so clear that Ellie is making herself every day, because it’s so clear that I am providing so much of the raw material for that process; I become just a little more conscious that I too am making myself every day. I become a little more conscious of how I too am party to the shaping of the people in my life. I hear a little better the context I provide, the encouragement/discouragement; feel more keenly my presence and the whens and whys of my absences. When it comes to the making of Ellie, she is soupy clay. Meanwhile we ‘adults’ lie to ourselves that we are too calcified, too set to be changed. And yet we are remade all the time. Insofar as I love and am loved, I too am made by others and make them in kind. I’m part of that process, and I am in that process.

For me, to be a father is a reminder that I am not done growing; not done changing. Neither is anyone. And just as I try to greet my daughter with patience and humor, just as I try to do my utmost so that she feels safe and free to explore; would that I could give a small piece of that to everyone else in my life.

Even and most especially myself.

Be well my friends and family and internet strangers.

I’m so happy you get to watch my daughter, Elliott Rose Perkins, grow up.

 

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