The thing that most surprised me about fatherhood the first time around was how long it took before I felt about my child what I was expected to feel. Clutching Tallulah after she exited the womb, I was able to generate tenderness and a bit of theoretical affection, but after that, for a good six weeks, the best I could manage was detached amusement. The worst was hatred. I distinctly remember standing on a balcony with Tallulah squawking in my arms and wondering what I would do if it wasn’t against the law to hurl her off it. I also recall convincing myself that official statistics dramatically overstated the incidence of sudden infant death syndrome—when an infant dies for no apparent reason in her crib—because most of them were probably murder. The reason we all must be so appalled by parents who murder their infants is that it is so easy and even natural to do. Maternal love may be instinctive, but paternal love is learned behavior.
Here is the central mystery of fatherhood, or at any rate my experience of it. How does a man’s resentment of this … thing… that lands in his life and instantly disrupts every aspect of it for the apparent worse turn into love? A month after Tallulah was born, I would have felt only an obligatory sadness if she had been rolled over by a truck. Six months or so later, I’d have thrown myself in front of the truck to save her from harm. What happened? What transformed me from a monster into a father? I do not know. But this time around I’m keeping a closer eye on the process.
I can’t honestly say that I’ve found Dixie, at least at first glance, quite so loathsome as her older sister. She doesn’t holler so much for no reason at all, and when she does, I’m usually not around to hear it, as I’m taking care of Tallulah. That’s the main difference this time: I now have what her mother regards as a good excuse to avoid the unpleasantness of these first few weeks, and so I do. Occasionally I even forget that she’s there. It’s a strange sensation to walk into a room, flip on the television, watch a baseball game for 20 minutes, look to your right, and find a 5-week-old child you did not know was there looking back. Still, I’ve been left knowingly alone with Dixie enough, and been made sufficiently unhappy by her with fatigue and frustration, to have felt the odd Murderous Impulse. At the same time, I have already noticed, in the past week or so, a tendency to gaze upon her with genuine fondness. Here as best I can determine are the factors contributing to what appears to be another miraculous shift in feeling occurring inside me at this very moment:
1) Maternal propaganda. I am a professional writer and therefore am meant to be keenly observant. Without Tabitha, however, I would notice next to nothing about my own child, and certainly nothing admirable. All I am able to see by myself are the many odd-colored substances that emerge from her that need cleaning up, and the many unpleasant noises she makes that shake me from my sleep. But there are all these other, more lovable things about her, too, and her mother sees every one of them and presses them upon me with such genuine enthusiasm that it thaws my frozen heart. Her facial expressions, for instance. She has her Smurf Face and her Bowel Movement Face and her ET Face. She has Her HowYaDoinToday Face and her CallMeAtTheOffice Face and her Mafia Hit-Man Face—which is the one when she curls her lip at you and you half-expect her to say, “You talkin’ to me?”
2) Her gift for mimicry. A 5-week-old baby is for the most part unresponsive to ordinary attempts to communicate with her. You can scream at her or you can sing to her, and all you’ll get in return is a blank stare. But if you press your face right up close to hers and contort it into grotesque shapes, she’ll copy whatever you’re doing. Stick out your tongue, she’ll stick out her tongue; open wide your mouth, and she’ll open wide hers, too. Lacking anything else to do when we find ourselves thrown together, we do this, and the more we do it, the more I like her.
3) Her tendency to improve with age. Already Dixie has progressed from waking every 90 minutes and screaming at the top of her little lungs to waking every two hours and screaming at the top of her lungs. While this might seem insufferable to anyone who didn’t know any worse, to me it seems like extraordinary progress. An act of goodwill, even. She still won’t win any good citizenship awards, but she’s gunning for Most Improved Player, and it’s hard not to admire her for the effort.
But there’s something else, too, which I hesitate to mention for fear it will be used against me the next time we divvy up the unpleasant chores around here. The simple act of taking care of a living creature, even when you don’t want to, maybe especially when you don’t want to, is transformative. A friend of mine who adopted his two children was asked by a friend of his how he could ever hope to love them as much as if they were his own. “Have you ever owned a dog?” he said. And that’s the nub of the matter: All the little things that you must do for a helpless creature to keep it alive cause you to love it. Most people know this instinctively. For someone like me, who has heretofore displayed a nearly superhuman gift for avoiding unpleasant tasks, it comes as a revelation. It’s because you want to hurl it off the balcony and don’t that you come to love it.