There’s a picture on the wall above the little shelf where my wife stows her bag when she gets home from work. It’s a photograph of my daughter taken the day after she was born. Her little head is resting in the palm of my hand, her wee fist balled by my seemingly beam-sized thumb, and it would all be seamlessly adorable but for the look on her face.
A full day after the deal went down, she was still visibly pissed about being born. Her expression was a cross between Grumpy Cat and a Notre Dame gargoyle. It’s my favorite picture because I love her and the moment it captured, but everyone who sees it always says something along the lines of, “Damn, she’s mad.”
After listening to her father rant and rave about the world from the safe confines of her mother’s womb, she may have had an idea of what she’d landed in the middle of, and was not thrilled. A few days later, in what I assume was a calculated act of vengeance, she threw up into my mouth right after we gave her a bath. Take that, Dad.
It was a vomit sniper shot delivered just as I was articulating a vowel (the “o” in “what’s wrong?” to be precise), and it gave me the first good inkling that I might have what it takes to do the fatherhood thing, because I didn’t fling her out of pure reflex when she filled my mouth with barely-digested breastmilk. It’s the little things.
On Friday, my daughter will finish kindergarten, and my wife and I are very calm puddles about the whole situation. A few minutes ago, she was fitting snugly into my hand and barfing into my gob, all of seven pounds and about the size of a cordless telephone. Suddenly, she’s half my height and asking to wear my Patriots hat to school. (Yes, I inflicted my membership in that detested fan base upon her. Her mother the Steelers fan tried her best, but Daddy won that round, at least for now.)
You think you’re scared when they’re first born because you don’t know anything, but you’re not really scared. You’re just a rookie who has never faced a major-league fastball. I remember being petrified when the doctor handed her to me for the first time; I had almost no practical experience with babies, and was certain I would flub the whole operation.
Then she was there, swaddled and angry and small and utterly helpless, and it felt like a previously untouched vault of information opened in my mind. Suddenly, I knew exactly how to hold her, feed her, change her, rock her, sing to her, all of it, like I’d been doing it my entire life.
After that, there is no time for fear because it’s no sleep, feedings every three hours, burpings with the barf cloth on the shoulder because you only forget once, diaper changes, laundry, more laundry, rectal thermometers, those little snot-sucker bubble things that simply do not work, and everything else that goes into the care and maintenance of an entirely new and thoroughly defenseless human being.
Then, like a blur, she’s on the verge of finishing kindergarten, and the real fear begins because the world is a monster, and she’s still my little girl who is yet so sweet that she doesn’t understand sarcasm, like, at all. I cannot even begin to know what this world will do to her.
If it’s only half of what I fear it could be, the very idea makes me want to grab her up and hide her behind the moon with a lifetime supply of oxygen, chicken nuggets and My Little Pony videos. At least she’ll be safe from the ocean when it comes, which it will. That, too, is her birthright.
This impulse is, of course, absurd. Walling my daughter of from the claws and fangs of the world would be to steal from her, and from the world. We all suffer our sorrows as we go, but there are also sunsets and friends and books and music and love to be found and treasured along the way. Scars are instructive. This is what I tell myself, and sometimes it even helps.
People have asked me how my wife and I can justify bringing a child into such a crowded, polluted, violent world. I always answer the same way: People made this mess, and people will be needed to fix it. I’m not consigning my daughter to a life of activism, mind you. Her path is hers to choose, and for all I know she will grow up to be a petroleum broker on Wall Street. I doubt it, though; she likes flowers too much.
As a father, my fear rides sidecar with hope. My hopes for her are not pegged to any particular outcome beyond survival. All I can do is the best I can do to prepare her for what awaits. I fill her with books and stories about real history, with music and art and all the love I can share. I explain it all gently, leaving plenty of time for play.
I tell her what is right and what is wrong, that everyone is the same and that she is stronger than tempered steel. I instruct respect for herself and others, self-sacrifice and that her good word is all she will ever really have in this life. I tell her integrity is all. When she asked what the word meant, I replied, “It means doing the right thing when nobody is looking.”
We could use more of that these days. I am afraid for my daughter, and with good reason, but until I am in the ground, I will have hope for her, and for us all.
Happy Father’s Day.