Since I’ve become a parent, I find there are two sneaking suspicions that underline my entire existence:
1.) There’s almost certainly a better way of doing whatever you’re trying to accomplish, and if you had just read the heaping pile of books you purchased in the first trimester you’d probably know what it is.
2.) Every other parent in the world has read that pile of books, and what’s more, they all know you haven’t, and they’re judging you for it.
I want to be involved. I want to be an active participant in my son’s life. I want to be an amazing father. I want to be a glad dad bad ass. So I read articles. Paint and I talk ad infinitum. I’ve joined facebook groups. If there’s any truth to how the media portrays fatherhood, I’m over here batting like, a thousand touchdowns. (That’s how sports works, right?)
All that, and I still spend a significant portion of my day feeling like somebody who got their job by lying about their skills on their resume. Now I have to act like I know what I’m doing.
This is all further complicated by the fact that Paint has spent years of her life as a nanny. She has practical, hands on experience when it comes to dealing with the little ankle-biters. As a result, it’s really easy to rely on her to do everything.
Not because I’m lazy, but because I’m scared. I don’t want to screw anything up, least of all my son. It would be so simple to just allow the cultural gender roles do their dark work and assume that Paint will handle the child rearing, and I will bring home the bacon.
However, that’s a shitty thing to do. For one, there’s no reason she should have that responsibility heaped upon her shoulders. Despite my inner monologue, it turns out I am a capable, fully functional grown ass man. Two, that’s not the kind of dad I want to be.
Fortunately, I’ve recently stumbled across an epiphany that changes everything. It came about because for the first time since he was born, I had plans to go out on my own and grab dinner with a friend of mine. I came home after work and reminded Paint about my man-date. She said, “Oh, that’ll be fun. You should take Pigment.”
You see, something you should know about my son is that he seems to be part werewolf. Once the sun goes down, our sweet, docile, little boy goes feral. His red blood darkens and becomes pure rage which transforms his adorable coos into sanity shattering howls.
I say he’s bent on our destruction. My wife says it’s gas.
Either way, it happens nearly every night. If we catch it early enough we can give him a hit of holy water and he’ll recover. Some nights, though, nothing helps. After we go through our bag of tricks, all we can do is gently speak to him and be present for it.
This was the reason for my hesitation. I was confident that if Pigment was in a good mood, taking him out wouldn’t be a problem at all. However, it was still early in the evening and the moon could come out at any moment.
As it happened, his stomach chose nearly that exact moment to let out a low, ominous growl heralding the approach of his transformation. Paint and I sprang into action. Holy water? Administered. Back? Patted. Songs? Sang. Tummy time engage! Gaseous emission in three…two…
Time had passed. It was late enough that I needed to be gathering my things to go. I looked down at Pigment, now smiling with big, bright eyes and cooing like a particularly good-natured dove.
It was an easy decision to make. Once we’ve beaten the Change it usually waits a few hours before trying to reclaim him. The missus was beside herself at the prospect of getting time home alone (a first, after ten weeks of baby handling). I could smell the rich scent of brownie points baking in the oven.
“What the hell?” I thought. “I’ll gather him, too.”
When all was ready, I scooped him up in my arms, ready to show him off to the world. Unfortunately, I had neglected to take one thing into account: I am not his mother.
This is relevant because it just so happens that at the time, Pigment held a not insignificant preference for his mother. Cognitively, I understood this. At his age, his neural network isn’t dense enough to hold space for two caretakers; all children begin bonding with only one person. Since I wasn’t the person sustaining his life with my own body, he chose his mother, and I was downgraded to “the hairy helper that helps sometimes”.
The moment I lifted him off the floor and began to make my way toward the door, he began screaming. Paint offered me a thousand opportunities to relinquish the child and just go be my own man. This was it! The chance I was waiting for! An open door to continue being the dopey-dad who doesn’t actually know how to parent while his wife does all the heavy lifting.
Actually, it turns out, that’s not what I wanted.
From somewhere deep within me, I knew that I needed to take Pigment with me. I wasn’t sure what the night would look like. I didn’t know how it would go. But in that moment, I knew that if I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror, I had to let it happen.
Plus, I kind of liked the idea of being the single dad for a night. It would be a growing experience. Hell, it would be a bonding experience, right? Right?!
He screamed as I kissed Paint goodbye. He screamed as I walked outside. He screamed as I opened the car door. He screamed as I fit him into the car seat. He screamed as I got in the car and he screamed as I backed out and headed to our destination.
I was meeting my buddy at a restaurant about ten minutes away. He screamed the entire time, pausing only to gasp for breath. I sang songs at him. I defied all known laws of physics and managed to reach behind me, find his pacifier, and get it into his mouth. Sadly, it turns out this must be a grave insult to his people because this only served to further enrage him.
By the time I pulled into the parking lot, my nerves were frazzled. Okay, we’re here. Step outside, close the car door. The silence crashes into me like a wave. Cleansing breath. Get your energy on point. Alright. Here we go. I open the door and it’s like opening a psychic blast furnace. I steel myself and strap the baby carrier to my chest while trying to sooth him with my words.
He’s exhausted. He’s nearly screamed himself into oblivion, so he doesn’t put up much of a fight as I struggle to get him situated. Finally, we’re ready. His cries are now being muffled by my chest, but he seems to be calming down. I walk a few laps around the car before heading inside. When I reach the door, I glance down and see that blessed sleep has claimed him.
That ends once I actually enter the restaurant. The moment I step through the threshold, he is awake and howling. We chose a casual burger joint, and I was grateful to find that his cries were largely drowned out by ambient noise. I leaned down and gently shushed his ear. Just that quickly, I watched sleep take him once more.
I honestly hadn’t expected that to work. The fact that it did lit up my brain like a Christmas tree. This was the first time my actions seemed to have any immediate effect on him. I ordered my food and met with my friend. We chatted while I tried not to drip any condiments on my baby’s head. We talked about parenthood, and I told him some of the ways it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but how sometimes it’s also the best.
After about an hour or so, Pigment had enough and decided to once again voice his discontent at his lot in life. I stood and gently swayed and bounced and bobbed and weaved as I tried to tune into some kind of magical frequency that would lend him some calm. It was not to be found.
I ended up saying good night to my friend all too early, as I once again got Pigment secured in his car seat. I was hoping he would be tired enough to go to sleep once the car got rolling.
No luck. Instead, it was a repeat of our trip down. Screams without ceasing. Paint heard us approaching well before we reached the door. She was ready for him and swooped in as soon as I entered, wielding her mommy magic to make our boy happy again.
Later that night, I was replaying the evening in my mind. When Pigment was crying, I felt utterly insufficient. I felt useless because I couldn’t calm him. I felt like a shitty dad, and I didn’t particularly enjoy that feeling. I began to realize how dangerous the situation I was in could be. It’s a cycle.
You feel unprepared and overexposed as a father because you lack hands on experience with your child. Those feelings then push you toward refusing opportunities to gain that experience the next time around.
The only way to break out of the cycle is to fling yourself headlong into disaster.
This, my friends, is the epiphany:
Sometimes you have to act like the person you want to become, even if that’s not who you are yet.
At the end of day, despite a screaming infant, despite a dinner that got cut short, nobody died. Nobody called the cops. No one threatened to take my son away. I’m still here.
And next time? When we’re at the library and my son deafens everyone in a three-stack radius? I’ll survive that, too.
I guess what I’m saying is, parents, even when it’s shitty, you will survive this. And next time? It’ll be easier. It’ll go smoother. You’ll begin to get it figured out. Just keep trying, and eventually your wolf will grow tame.