We’ve all been there. I know this because we’re here now.
You have a child. You actually saw it happen. Well, some of it anyways.
Stepping into the nursery with the doctor, a detached numbness hovers, and you have a hard time deciding what’s actually going on. Whatever you feel at this moment, it’s primal yet mundane, maybe even profound, but…
A living thing is staring back up at you.
In my experience, there was no one around to tell me what to do. Even the imaginary audience in my head was silent. Not knowing what advice to offer, my brain conjured up scenes from movies and TV shows. My detachment only increased. Does anyone truly live in this moment? Wasn’t I supposed to be overwhelmed with love or joy or something?
My lizard brain, high on fumes, droned on about sleep. Reality no longer made sense. I didn’t make sense. If the twilight zone existed, surely this was it.
“Hey, baby,” I said looking around, making sure no one was watching, “How’s it going?” It appeared to look in my direction, affecting a stank-face.
“Aw, you little punk-ass mofo, what’re you lookin’ at?” I said bobbing and weaving, as if I were talking shit to a friend.
The squirming infant screwed its face up and made a noise, “EEEEEEEEEEYI-AAAA!”
“Whoa! That’s a fucking scream!”
The nurse walked in, suddenly breaking this tender moment, saying she’d take the baby to our room. I left before her, strolling awkwardly down the hall, the rational part of my psyche placidly keeping pace, observing. Nothing came to mind.
Stepping into the recovery room, my wife stared at me, high off the epidural. My first thought upon seeing her was to proudly declare that the baby had already heard the word “fuck”.
Something had begun.
We walked out of the hospital that first day thinking that a doctor, some scientist, or clandestine government official would come out and tell us the simulation was over. The baby, a hologram, would dissolve in an explosion of light particles. Yet as the days passed, no one came, and we settled into a routine.
Nothing about the first few months felt natural. Parenting didn’t feel natural. I often felt myself going through the motions, barely existing between periods of unconsciousness.
When people asked how it was going, I gave it to them as straight as I could: “Well, the baby is still alive and I haven’t dropped her, yet.” Not exactly the answer they were looking for, but it was the one I had.
Everyone else fawned over the child, loving her instantly, but I felt myself struggling with affection. I hardly knew the baby. We hardly knew the baby. Sure it was cute, and I was fond of it, but I didn’t feel myself bursting with rainbows, sunshine, and love, like I was supposed to.
“Oh, you’re over the moon,” a well-wisher once assumed. “You’re so over the moon in love, aren’t you?”
I recall staring at her for a moment too long, not sure whether to laugh hysterically or scream. Instead, I nodded my head in vigorous agreement, “Yes! Yes, I am,” hoping she’d politely fuck off.
I guess I hadn’t reached that side of the moon yet.
Almost a year in, our reality continued to restructure itself, and days were dominated by a never-ending litany of tasks and background fatigue. Fatigue. A reality that’s intellectually easy to grasp, but difficult to experience. Breaks were few and far between, and only came when free babysitters showed up. Otherwise, we were on autopilot – automatons performing tasks, devoid of higher thought, but dutifully nurturing our growing parasite.
After many 2, 3, and 4AM rocking sessions with the shrieker, we joked about which relatives or potential adoptive family would pay the most for the baby. Could we start a bidding war? Maybe whiskey-dipped spoons weren’t a myth…
Were we unusual in our sentiments about our child? Could we be accused of being horrible, unloving people for labeling our sweet lovechild a parasite, for starting a bidding war over her adoption, or resurrecting old cures for ill temper? I don’t think so. We were coping, as many of you out there have coped, with humor befitting our inexperience and fatigue.
Having and raising children is a strange and exhausting, yet sublime experience. The vast majority of you were/are probably like us: excited, nervous, and ignorantly thinking you’ll still know yourself after the sleepless rush of the first year. If you can’t laugh about it, you’ll crack. Besides, in our own way, we were bonding with the baby, who’s now earned all her proper pronouns and a name!
Plus, you know… We’ve had time to sleep on it.
So what’s love got to do with it? And when did love develop? I sure as shit haven’t answered that question in this short piece. But my non sequitur is that survival is everything. If you can survive the first year, you can sort love out later.
Also, it’s not a question that’s easily answered by many a first time parent. Looking back, you may see facets of it in the small things – first intelligible words, “thank you” (sadly, not an expletive), the first full tower you build together, just to knock it down, maybe even light saber battles in the dark and the first time they correctly pull guard.
Then there are the times when they inadvertently embarrass you in the family changing area after a swim lesson. “Daddy, I have a vagina and you have a penis.” Lots of people heard that one.
There’s also the image I have of mom and daughter walking to school for the first time. Fucking priceless.
I still can’t easily define when I felt love for my child, but looking back, I don’t see it as missing. I see it as a thing that’s been growing alongside all of us from the start.