I have cooked pasta shaped like rabbits, and all my shirt shoulders are stained with spit-up. I can change diapers with one hand and sing my kid to sleep. I know the difference between a onesie, a binky, and a boppie. And the theme to Elmo's World is stuck in my head where a Foo Fighters riff should be. I am a modern day father. Have mercy on me.
New dads take on more than we ever saw our fathers do. We're breadwinners and cooks, coaches and bottle washers. Like creatures that have crawled out of the Galapagos waters for the very first time, we're out of our element and frankly a little confused. Here's what parenting looks like from this side of the changing table.
There's No Road Map
I'm a reasonably secure male, but I confess to feeling a little less virile on days when I take my 3-year-old son, Daniel, to preschool near our home in Brooklyn, New York, and pass a stream of guys in suits headed the other way, toward Wall Street. Pushing a stroller in lockstep with the moms and singing nursery rhymes, it's tough to fight the feeling that I left my gonads back home in a jar.
One recent day on the way to school, I had also tucked Danny's 3-month-old sister, Tess, into the back of our wildly overpriced double stroller. She burst into tears along the way, so I picked her up and held her close to me. That's when she started grabbing for my shirt as if she thought I had a breast full of milk under there. And why shouldn't she think so? She doesn't even technically need a dad yet. As far as Tess can tell, I'm just the ugly mom.
Which gets to the crux of the issue for me. Before our generation, the roles of moms and dads had been in place for centuries. Our parents lived a domesticated version of what had existed since time immemorial: Mothers made the home comfortable and raised the kids while fathers went out and chased dinner around with a rock. I have an excellent dad, but I can't remember him ever handing me a sandwich in a Ziploc and reminding me not to poop in my Spider-Man undies.
Sticking to established roles may not have done much for equality, but it did make things simple. A man knew who he was and what he was expected to do. Picture your father wearing a Baby Bjorn and scanning the pharmacy shelves for nipple pads and you'll understand what I'm talking about. It's completely different today. Now guys have to negotiate roles with our wives and try to come up with some balance of work life, home life, and sanity. We want to put roofs over our families' heads, but we also want to spend more time under them.
Like a lot of new dads, I can intellectualize my way into being at ease with this contemporary division of responsibilities. But it's a tough balance to strike. When my wife, Kris, recently said she was ready to go back to work, I told her I didn't need any help taking care of things at home. Cleaning up the kitchen the next evening, I then complained that I had to do all of my stuff and half of hers. Oops. It's as if my progressive thinking about sharing responsibilities has evolved ahead of my natural inclination to protect and provide. Fortunately, Kris and I don't throw things at each other with children in the house.
Beneath the Diaper
When Danny was a newborn, I didn't give much thought to his gender Ã¢â‚¬” he was a baby first, a boy second. Not until a sparkling arc of urine hit me in the neck as I was changing him did I start to consider the difference between parenting boys and girls. Now that we have one of each, I realize I'm hard-pressed to treat them exactly the same way.
My armchair theory is that men have more baggage with boys. We can't help but imagine them as little versions of ourselves, and with that comes the need to make them better men than we are. In our sons we see our own untapped potential, so we constantly direct and correct them. I want my son to write the great American novel, travel more than I have, and play guitar at Madison Square Garden. I know the poor little guy is still working on the alphabet, but it's difficult to resist being meddlesome. He must find me very annoying.
Girls we don't expect to understand. We've learned this from experience, having spent years stymied by stuff like why you enjoy TV shows that make you cry. So we're free to lavish our daughters with affection and protection. In fact, as I write this I'm awaiting the arrival of the hermetically sealed tube my daughter will live in until she's 26 and ready to date.
This Is Evolution?
A 2000 study published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior found that new fathers experience sympathetic hormonal changes after the birth of a child, including a drop in testosterone levels. This is not only alarming but ridiculously inconvenient. Here we've been summoned to our primal role as Chief Protector, and the well of masculinity is going dry. We're supposed to be keeping the bear from the cave entrance, but instead we're inside humming lullabies.
Thing is, after a lifetime of measuring our sensitivity in teaspoons, having kids turns us to mush. Like Superman brought to his knees by a fragment of his home planet, we crumble when we see a tiny bit of ourselves staring back at us. That's love, and that's great, but it comes with a dose of vulnerability and defensiveness we didn't bargain for. Those parents who pick fights at school hockey games? I always thought they were nuts. But the first time somebody fouls my kid in a game, I'll have to be fitted for a straitjacket.
The other day, I spotted another dad stumbling his way through the Galapagos of new dad-hood. He was out for a run with his kid, explaining the Walk/Don't Walk signs while pushing a jogging stroller with one hand and Ã¢â‚¬” I kid you not Ã¢â‚¬” balancing a pizza box with the other. All at once he was being a parent and teacher, promoting his own survival, and quite literally putting dinner on the table. I recognized his expression: a mixture of pride, bewilderment, and determination. A little lost without a map, but trying like hell to be a good dad. And, no, he's not going to ask for directions.