By Charlie Kondek
Fatherhood changed my life. I think we use that phrase a lot, about all kinds of things that happen to us, without ever really considering the gravity of an actual, life-changing event. We feel our lives are changed, that we are different people, when we hear certain music, see certain films, read certain books, have certain epiphanies. We recall them later in florid, inflated memory; “I remember exactly where I was when that happened. It changed my life.” But we do not fully experience the vertigo of a life-changing event until we have really fallen down that well. Fatherhood changed my life. Twice.
I am told that a man’s body and brain are saturated internally by a biochemical response to seeing his children born. Certainly this would explain for me the feeling I had at the birth of my first son. Something inside of me turned forever. I could palpably feel the switch being thrown. And as the little man struggled with life outside the womb, I stood in the delivery room staring at him from beyond the warm lights and knew, with utter clarity, that I was not the same person.
I’m not boasting when I say that the man created on that day has, so far, been a great dad. When my oldest was passed before me for the first time I instinctively called his name in the same singsong with which I had addressed my wife’s swollen abdomen and was shocked to discover that this minutes-old frog-like creature turned his thin eyes in my direction as if annoyed. “You!” his face seemed to say. I’m quite sure I’m not inventing this memory, because the nurse handling him noticed it, too. “He recognizes you!” she exclaimed. I have witnesses.
It’s as if we knew each other before he was born, Louie and I, a bond the depth of which is surpassed each day. I said I am “a great dad” and I qualify that in large part by the rapport I have with the child, now three years old. I am his hero, his tutor in all things, his constant playmate. I am the first thing he sees when he gets up in the morning and the last thing he wants to see at night, the thing he cries out for if he wakes from a bad dream. When he was a nursling he would pull himself away from the breast to smile at me, as if to say, “Don’t go anywhere, old sport, I’ll be right with you.” Except when I’m working or at the few extracurricular activities I attend each week, we’re together.
I take every aspect of his parenting seriously. Once when we thought he might be seriously ill I prayed with more intensity and conviction than I had ever prayed before. I never forgot that feeling, that desperate cribside prayer, because it was probably the very moment that my faith was the strongest it’s ever been, certain bane to the rare ghosts of atheistic thoughts. That’s powerful. Fatherhood makes me believe in God.
The feelings surrounding my second son have been complicated, and it’s precisely because I have set my standards for fatherhood so high, have exceeded my expectations in parenting to the extent that I have, that I am obsessed with them, and struggle to understand and keep perspective on them. I love my second son, Sam. We planned for him, tried for him and got him. I want him and his brother to have the strength of their brotherhood all their lives. But the feelings in me about having a second baby have been unavoidably benchmarked by the first.
I guess there’s just nothing like the first baby. When we brought him home I jumped at his every mewl and whimper, held him in exactly the position he wanted til my arms ached, then held him some more so he would go on sleeping. Catering to these same demands in a second infant feels less an intoxicating blessing and more like a chore. Whereas with the first child I was busy hastily rearranging my mind and my worldview to accommodate him, with this one that work has already been done, and I wish I could just show him where all the toys and furniture are and turn him loose, have him fall naturally into the happy domestic routine of the household, join me and his older brother at play.
This is where perspective comes in. Even before Sam was born I found myself having to remind myself that he was not an accessory to Lou, but his own person, though attached to a sibling, with his own rhythms starting again at zero: erratic sleeping, always on the hip, ravenously nursing and comfort sucking, crying as his only means of communication. (And what a set of pipes this one has, although, like Lou, he is easily comforted.)
Caring for Sam is a chore and we always do our chores. In fact, I am writing this on a yellow legal pad while Sam sleeps on my chest. It’s nearly midnight and there are “M*A*S*H*” reruns on TV. This lacks the same mystic quality that such activities had the first time around. This time, I’m all business – I can only imagine what it would be like with a third, fourth, fifth child. By then you’ve got to be approaching a state of mind like that of a coach, a general or a ringmaster.
The first child sets the bar so high. My attachment to him was instant, the raw drama and excitement of a wedding day. With the second child, falling in love has been gradual, like waking up beside your spouse to discover how much more you love her today than yesterday. It’s the contrast that I find so remarkable, so troubling, so earnestly needing my private, inner attentions.
As I said, I take every aspect of my parenting seriously. I will always work to look at Sam with fresh eyes, though there is an irremovable context to him, to take time just for him, even as we have taken time reassuring Lou of his valued place in our hearts. Already behaviors are developing that I hadn’t exactly anticipated. Sam, now five months old, wants to be everywhere his brother is, and is content to sit in my lap watching him play. And Lou is enjoying the position of importance in the baby’s life. “I think he wants to be by me, dad. Move his exer-saucer closer to me.” It is my hope, indeed my prayer, that the two will develop a bond and an alliance unique to themselves, though I do not cherish the battles between them that may come.
Before I had kids, I liked kids. Now that I have kids, I really like kids. That is why I was so startled when I didn’t feel the same elation at the second child as at the first. I can feel a deep yearning to care for strangers’ children. The distant cry of a child in a store causes my head to swivel like a dog’s. Why wasn’t my connection to my own second infant the same? But Sam and I, we’re working that out. He has special smiles for me, now, is sometimes comforted only by my touch, laughs deep baby belly laughs at little games only he and I play. He’s walking well-trod paths in my heart and I want him to know them well, but also to blaze trails of his own in that tangled forest.