This article is part of an ongoing series by Michael Lewis about the birth of his third child. Click here to read the other entries in the series. Michael Lewis first began his “Dad Again” column after the birth of his second daughter, Dixie, in 2002. Click here to read about that delivery.
Once they wheel Tabitha from the delivery room to the recovery room, Stage 1 ends and Stage 2 begins. For the whole of Stage 1, a father performs no task more onerous than seeming busy when he isn’t. Nothing in Stage 1 prepares him for Stage 2, when he becomes, in a heartbeat, chauffeur, cook, nurse, gofer, personal shopper, Mr. Fixit, sole provider, and single parent. Stage 2 is life as a Mexican immigrant, with less free time. Entering Stage 2, I know from experience, I have between 24 and 48 hours before I’m overwhelmed by a tsunami of self-pity. I set out to make the most of them.
The first assignment is to fetch our 7- and 4-year-old daughters from home so that they can meet their new baby brother and see firsthand the joy of partial disinheritance. The birth is meant to have put them into a delicate psychological state. As I enter the house, I see no trace of it, however, or, for that matter, of them. Just inside the front door lies the shrapnel from an exploded giant Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. In the kitchen is the residue of what seems to have been a pancake breakfast for 20. Dishes long banished from use have migrated out of the backs of kitchen cabinets, toys untouched for years litter their bedroom floors. Exactly 13 hours ago, at midnight, our kind and generous next door neighbors left their own bed for ours, so that we might go to the hospital and have a baby. Briefly, I have the feeling that if I turned around and walked away, my children would very happily use these new grown-ups to create a new life for themselves and never think twice about it.
At length, I find them, at play with their benign overlords in the courtyard. “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” they shriek.
We embrace, histrionically. They know where I’ve been, and they know their mother has given birth. But instead of asking the obvious question—to what?—they race off to find various works of art they’ve created in the past six hours. “You have a baby brother!” I shout at their vanishing backs. A baby brother, as it happens, is exactly what they both claimed to least want. “A baby brother!” they shriek again. I’ve never been able to feel whatever it is I’m meant to feel on great occasions, so I shouldn’t expect them to either. But of course I do. It’s not until they climb into the minivan that they finally get a grip. “Daddy?” asks Dixie, age 4, from her seat in the third row. “How does the baby get out of mama?”
This minivan is new. I’ve never been in the same car with a person who still seemed so far away. In the rearview mirror, her little blond head is a speck.
I holler back what little I know.
“Daddy?” asks Quinn, age 7.
“How do cells get from your body into mama’s body?”
We wheel into the hospital parking lot.
“Help me look for a parking spot.”
That distracts her: They love to look for parking spots. In the Bay Area, looking for parking spots counts as a hobby. One day when they are grown, their therapists will ask them, “What did you and your father do together?” and they will say, “Look for parking spots.”
We find a spot and instantly the race is on to the hospital elevators, followed by the usual battle-to-the-death to push the up/down button, followed by the usual cries from Dixie that because Quinn pushed the up/down button she has first dibs on the floor button, followed by Quinn’s usual attempt to push the floor button, too. Since not long after Tabitha began to balloon, they’ve treated every resource as scarce; one of anything has become casus belli; no object is too trivial to squabble over. A Gummi Worm vitamin, for instance, or a ripped pair of stockings. Produce in their presence an actually desirable object—an elevator button in need of punching or, God forbid, a piece of candy—and you’ll have screams inside of a minute and tears inside of two. Oddly enough, they used to get along.
When the elevator doors open onto the third floor—all smiles, you’d never know how narrowly they’d just averted bloodshed—they come face to knee with Shirley. Shirley is the large and intimidating security guard assigned to prevent the 12,000 babies born each year in the Alta Bates hospital from being stolen. She must be a success at it, as she’s been guarding them even longer than we’ve been making them. This is the very same Shirley who, seven and a half years ago, prevented Quinn from being abducted at birth, and thus spared some poor kidnapper years of sleep deprivation.
But even Shirley presents the girls with no more than a small speed bump in their endless race. Security badges gleefully grabbed, they resume their competition to see who will be the first to find mama’s room, No. 3133. Advantage Quinn, again, as Dixie can’t read any number greater than 10. With Dixie behind her, running as fast as her little legs will carry her and screeching “Wait for me Quinn!” Quinn flies to her mother’s hospital door. And there, amazingly, she stops in her tracks. The big, cold recovery room door is too much for even her to barrel through. She knocks nervously and announces her presence, giving Dixie just time enough to catch up.
“Just let me put some clothes on!” I hear Tabitha shout.
That’s not what she’s doing. She’s setting the stage.
Much effort, none of it mine, has gone into preparing for this moment. She’s bought and read them countless books about sibling rivalry; taken them to endless sibling prep classes at the hospital; rented many sibling-themed videos narrated by respected authorities—Dora the Explorer for Dixie, Arthur for Quinn; watched with them, every Sunday night, their own old baby videos; and even bought presents to give to them from the baby when they visit him in the hospital. Before this propaganda blitz, our children may or may not have suspected that they were victims of a robbery, but afterward they were certain of it. Hardly a day has passed in months without melodramatic suffering. One afternoon I collected Dixie from her pre-school—to take one of approximately 6,000 examples—and learned that she’d moped around the playground until a teacher finally asked her what was troubling her. “When the baby comes, my parents won’t love me as much,” she’d said. Asked where she’d got that idea from, she said, “My big sister told me.”
I’ve sometimes felt that we’re using the wrong manual to fix an appliance—that, say, we’re trying to repair a washing machine with the instructions for the lawn mower. But my wife presses on, determined to find room enough for three children’s happiness. The current wisdom holds that if you seem to be not all that interested in your new child the first time the old ones come to see him, you might lessen their suspicion that he’s come to pick their pockets. And so that’s what she’s doing in there: As her children wait at her hospital door, she’s moving Walker from her bed into a distant crib.
“OK, come in!”
They push through the door and into the room.
“Can I hold him, Mom?” asks Quinn.
“No, I want to hold him!” shouts Dixie.
And with that Walker’s identity is established: one of something that we need two of. In less time than it takes an Indy pit crew to change a tire, Quinn’s holding him and Dixie’s waiting her turn, swallowing an emotion she cannot articulate and wearing an expression barely distinguishable from motion sickness.