When I found out I was going to be a dad, I reacted the way a guy would when his doctor tells him he’s got six months to live: At first, I went into shock, then I started planning all the things I needed to do before my life was over, and finally, I went out to the desert with one of my former high school students to make meth and provide for my family. OK, I didn’t actually live out the “Breaking Bad” plot line, but I did start doing a lot of out-of-character things – i.e., writing for parenting websites.
My greatest fear was a nagging feeling I wasn’t going to love the baby. Whenever I voiced this concern to people, I got the same response: “Listen, the minute you hold your baby, that fear will go away.” Then I held my beautiful, healthy, 10-fingered/10-toed baby girl, and it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I felt a lot of things – a protective instinct for the helpless little creature, exhilaration, the effects of adrenaline – but instant, unconditional love wasn’t one of them.
I sure as hell didn’t have the same feelings as my wife. The minute Emma came out of her uterine suite screaming, my wife reached for her with a primal intensity I’d never seen before. Their bond was instant. My bond with the baby, on the other hand, was going to take time.
During the first few days with the new roommate, I spent a lot of time wondering if I was getting glimpses of this great unconditional love of parenthood everybody spoke so highly of. If so, like Mark Wahlberg’s acting, I thought it was highly overrated.
But repetition kept me busy enough to avoid worrying whether I was an emotionally depraved human being incapable of loving his own child or just a typical sleep-deprived parent. The diapers alone were a full-time job. A feeding-to-excrement ratio of one-to-one forced me to get comfortable with baby poop. The discovery that the early poops don’t even smell was one of the most joyful surprises of my life so far.
A basic competency for the job – giving bottles, squeezing pudgy extremities into tight, unnecessarily complicated outfits, singing Emma to sleep – felt rewarding in its own way, but the love part started with a single smile.
Sure, Emma could’ve been pooping during that first smile, but the consistent grins and uninhibited squeals of delight I received every morning confirmed she was actually excited to see me. That’s how she did it. Emma won me over with a series of tiny gestures – a head on my shoulder here, a sloppy kiss on my nose there – until I eventually caught up to my wife’s love level.
Then came the changes.
By three months Emma was rolling over, by six months she was sitting up. At seven months, Emma was crawling around like that demon girl in “The Grudge,” and I was nostalgic for the days when she was small enough to bathe in the sink. Every couple of weeks my daughter transformed into a different tiny human, which meant every trick we’d discover to keep our mercurial roommate happy quickly became obsolete.
At one, the transformation continues. Emma’s got a tiny arsenal of words (“dog,” “cat,” “dada,” “mama,” and the never-ending, never-answered question, “What’s that?”), she’s walking on two legs with all the coordination of a drunk sorority girl in seven-inch heels, and she has a habit of blowing you a kiss and then slapping your face in one swift gesture.
Today, I’m telling her our cat isn’t “Dada,” but soon she’ll be correcting me for saying whatever my generation’s version of “The Google” will be.
That’s how fast we seem to be moving.
People love to bring up the time thing and say things like, “Enjoy the time with your baby, because trust me, that time will fly,” which, of course, is true. It’s hard to look back at the first year of your baby’s life without feeling like Father Time wasn’t sprinting through those 12 months.
Except it’s also not true. There were plenty of moments where the slow passage of time seemed unbearable. If you’ve ever dabbled in psychedelics, 15 minutes doesn’t just seem to last hours, it actually does last that long. When you’re trying to soothe a screaming, inconsolable baby at 3 a.m., you’re basically on mushrooms – only without the vivid colors and metaphysical revelations about the oneness of the universe.
It’s so hard to get a handle on time during that first year because your baby is changing so drastically, so quickly. It’s the equivalent of having a 20-year high school reunion every couple of months. Every couple of weeks, you look at your kid and go, “Dude, when did you get so old?”
After a full year with our little roommate, so much has changed since those early days, especially my feelings for her. That and the poops. Those things smell awful now.