I didn't read the baby books. In that regard I could relate to Seth Rogan's character in "Knocked Up
." Before Zoey was born I thought, this is between my child and me
, so I mostly ignored people's unsolicited advice, and I sought out practically zero help in understanding what was about to happen to me. I say me
because although something very obviously physical was happening to my beautiful wife, and something undoubtedly emotional was about to occur to us as a family, I was wholly ignorant of the powerful tsunami that was about to consume me and wash away so much of what I knew about myself. I doubt whether any of the baby books could have prepared me for all that was about to come.
Months before she was born, I talked to Zoey. I told her things, as if she might hear them from within the safe confines of her mother's rapidly expanding belly, believing already, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she was the intelligent human being that she would eventually become. I told her about Curtis Granderson, and how he'd better start hitting lefties or she wouldn't get a chance to enjoy his awesomeness (because certainly she was a Tigers fan, and certainly Curtis Granderson was awesome), and how she already had a jersey emblazoned with his number, and it would be a shame for it to go to waste. I told her how Michigan Basketball would be back across the span of her beautiful lifetime. I told her how she'd come to expect yearly Tournament invites, and how she'd get giddy for March, and when John Beilein's charges were stacking up wins in December and January I would feel nudges from the womb that only could have been interpreted as celebratory inter-uteran high fives. I had plans of singing Jimmy Buffett songs to her as she slipped off to sleep, "A Pirate Looks at Forty
," but others too...and we would listen to Israel Kamakawiwo'ole in the darkness and dream of far away places under gently rotating mobiles of paper flying ships.
We had a bond, an agreement, and an understanding about how this Daddy and daughter thing would go. We were partners...dare I say buddies, and I believed that all of the revelations that I would ever need would come naturally, through some kind of loving osmosis between her soft, incredible smelling skin, and my own rough and enormous hands. We would share a moment of silent understanding with one another after all those months of one sided communication. We had a deal. She would like baseball stadiums and flying on airplanes, and I would fix everything that was ever broken, and rescue her each and every time rescuing was required. She would be attached to my hip, and Daddy would be the cure for all ills. I would gently coo "What a Wonderful World
" to her as her eyes grew heavy and she slipped into a gentle, trusting sleep.
The moment that I thought would come was illusive. It didn't happen in the hospital when the physician handed her to my teary, uncharacteristically emotional wife, or when her tiny fingers gripped my trembling own. It didn't happen when she wiggled and writhed in my arms that first time, her bright blue eyes boring through me as though I were a stranger, or worse, a fraud, incapable of fixing anything, let alone everything. It didn't happen when she squealed her unique squeal through the night those first few long and empty evenings as we tried to figure her out, the panic engulfing both her mother and I...mostly I. Over those first few sleepless nights no amount of rocking or singing could soothe her. I crooned "A Pirate Looks at Forty
," and walked in circles for hours but she didn't respond. She didn't care. My wife urged me to be patient, and she taught me tricks from those very baby books, or that our mid-wife had shown her, but I was resistant, indignant even. I didn't want to have to resort to tricks to soothe my child. I wanted her to know me, and to hear my voice and have that alone make everything okay. I wanted my touch and smell to ease her breaking heart and desperate cries. I wanted her to believe that as long as she heard her Daddy's voice that everything was going to be okay. It wasn't. On one disturbing occasion when I swore to my wife that I could handle it, when I promised myself patience, I humbly handed our daughter back over to her after what felt like hours of bumbling, and I swore that I was through with her, that I would never attempt to tackle this deceptive Dad thing ever again. I was dented and broken and discouraged. June was confident and skilled and whatever she did to dismantle each and every situation actually worked. Zoey would calm and the crying would stop, and I would slink back to the couch and beat myself up over my obvious deficiencies. I was confident that I was the fraud that I had been so frightened of being.
"She's a baby
," my wife would reassure me in her perfectly practiced motherly tone, "she's just going to take some figuring out
," but the figuring out part was well underway in June's world. They had established something that I could not. They were a team. They needed one another. No one needed me, nor were they expanding the roster, although Mom wished so desperately that I would make the cut. She didn't want to play without me. Mom's bear the unimaginable burden of childbirth, but they also inherit all those infamous, "Hi Moms,
" on glowing TV screens, and all of the dying breaths on distant battlefields. Dad's get ties on Father's Day, and feelings of inadequacy. June was as measured and deliberate as the Colorado River carving into the Grand Canyon. She was good at this Mom thing. She was capable, quick to act, calm in crisis...everything that I wasn't...and Zoey was a good baby. She slept in giant chunks. She fed well. She wasn't colicky or fussy. She adjusted amazingly to strangers and strange situations. She flew fifteen hours on a plane across the Pacific Ocean. She sat in her car seat for fourteen hours across the middle of America needing only to stop for a few hours after crossing the Mississippi River, some nine or ten hours into the trip. She was an incredible baby. I, it seemed, was the only one who wasn't handling things well. I didn't do well on the flight to Hawaii. On the drive to Kansas City I needed to stop for the night in Hannibal, MO if only just to maintain my sanity. I was the one who looked terrible in the morning, and exhausted each evening. For the first time in my life I wasn't doing anything right, and nothing came easy. Meanwhile I sat in awe of my wife. She had the most natural of difficulties, the kind that you'd expect, but she managed them with a Michael Jordan-esque professionalism and focus. She was never off of her game for very long. I felt as though I was drowning in incompetence. I was heartbroken and hurt.
Mom spent every day with Zoey, almost every waking hour. I went back to work almost immediately as so often is the case. At work, I helped someone else's children through their most difficult and intimate struggles, meanwhile I would occasionally close my office door and allow my own eyes to fill with tears from occasional exhaustion and near constant inability to connect. It was hard. There were days I could do neither job very well.
For the first time in my life I couldn't talk myself into feeling better. I considered actually talking to someone else. I regularly helped adolescents access counseling, and therapy, but had never before considered myself as a candidate. I found myself Googling "post-partum depression men
," and the query's results helped make sense of things. It didn't make me feel any better, but it did make better sense of some of the things that I was struggling with...incompetence, an incomprehensible de-valuing, a slithery kind of unpreparedness, naivety, embarrassment, disappointment... Google assured me that if I could just hang on three or four months that things would get better...that this was a natural phenomenon, but the moment that I thought would come naturally wasn't coming at all.
After many months it appeared that Google was indeed right. It started to feel better. Zoey started to look as though she might be feeling comfortable in my awkward arms, and I could sometimes soothe her, sometimes help her find sleep, and even occasionally coax a smile, even a giggle. I was getting there, but where I wasn't sure, and it didn't look anything like that place I thought I'd be, singing Louis Armstrong and staring into the eyes of someone who unequivocally adored me. That's not where I was on the impossible road map of this fatherhood journey. I was no longer lost, but I didn't recognize a thing around me. I'd spent every waking moment trying to be something that I felt I might never be, and the occasional base hit was doing nothing for my average.
Suddenly, and more strangely than I might have imagined there came an evening when the planet flipped on it's axis, and everything changed. On that particular night the baby books mattered little to the universe, and no amount of motherly whatever-you-call-it could make a dent in the demeanor of our daughter. No holding, rocking, feeding or funny face from her Mom could make her still, nothing my wife tried worked. She was sleepless and forlorn, and so was our daughter. I was eager to pinch hit, so I picked her up, my wife having long since given up the chore, and we walked. We walked in circles, around the house, her tiny writhing body tucked onto my forearm like a football, her delicate head resting in the palm of my hand, her soft, wet eyes staring up at her father's smiling face. I kissed her on the forehead and again on the cheek. I kissed her small lips and touched my cheek to hers in the gentlest of hugs that I could muster. I talked oh-so softly. I told her how much I loved her. I couldn't put her down, and I couldn't stop walking...in circles, around and around the house...through the living room and kitchen, down the hall, and back into the living room, around and around we walked as I cradled her and cooed lovingly at this little girl whose face looked wholly unfamiliar and yet a lot like my own. Eventually she fell near silent, balanced there on my arm she stared at me, trying to figure me out it seemed. Her eyes grew heavy, and we walked, and I talked, and I felt her relax in the palm of my hand. I actually felt it. I slowly strode back to her darkened room, and we sat down in the chair her Baachan had bought for us to do exactly this. I raised her to my shoulder. She heaved a giant sigh and she burrowed deeply into my chest. We swayed back and forth in the soft glow of a dull night light, and I started to sing. "Mother mother ocean, I have heard you call...
" This beautiful little girl, the daughter that had eluded me, quieted further still, her sniffles softening, and the shoulder shuddering attempts to stop crying, the kind that only children can manage, grew further and further apart, and less forced. With my hand on her back, gently patting, I could hear her heave and softly sob for the last time and then drift off to sleep. I rocked and sang until the previous four months melted into the softness of the moment and deep into that Spring night. The sound of my own voice soothed even my own earlier anguish. I stayed there for hours, until I could feel her heartbeat beneath my hand. Eventually I drifted off to sleep myself, dreaming of far away places under gently rotating mobiles of paper flying ships.
* I woke in the early hours of morning, distracted by some distant notion drifting through a quiet house. Oddly, I thought of my friend Dustin and how he might find his own songs to sing in the middle of the night, and how he too might forgo the baby books in search of something just a little more profound.