In The New One comedian Mike Birbiglia talks about the “reality-bending experience” of his daughter’s birth, “because two colossal events occurred simultaneously. One is that a human being enters the Earth. And the second is that my wife, this person I love and cherish and know better than anyone, in front of my eyes becomes a mother. And I . . . pretty much stayed the same.” Birbiglia’s experience echoes mine, with one hiccup.
While prepping my wife for a C-section, a nurse asks me if I’m planning to cut the baby’s umbilical cord. My wife laughs. I fumble with a response and absurdly, given my squeamishness and lack of athleticism, tell the woman “it’ll be a game-time decision.” When the nurse leaves, my wife asks why I didn’t just say no.
Dressed in purple scrubs and perched on a rolling chair, I hold my wife’s hand in the cold operating room. A white curtain is set up and only my wife’s head and neck are visible. On the other side of the curtain doctors perform the C-section. Nurses call out to me to get ready. I hear a baby’s cry and stand and snap five photos of my daughter as she emerges into the world. I look down at the other side of the curtain, unprepared to see my wife’s body splayed apart, organs I couldn’t name exposed.
I sit down and take my wife’s hand. Then, I faint.
I am rolled out of the OR in the chair and relegated to a raised up hospital bed in a room a few yards away. I am given a thermos of apple juice with a straw. There is a black and white clock on the wall. Eventually, the senior doctor comes in and tells me everyone is fine. My daughter will not be whisked away to NICU.
In a gesture I did not fully appreciate until later, the doctor shares a story about traveling with his son, a teenager at the time. As they were running to the gate, the son fell and broke his leg. The sight of the protruding bone and of his son in pain overwhelmed him. After confirming help was en route, the doctor lay down in the terminal and passed out.
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“A father,” writes Michael Chabon in Manhood for Amateurs, “is a man who fails every day.”
My naïve assumption was the expectation of shaping her personality, igniting her spark. Staring through the bars of her crib at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday, I thought about this full-throttled willful child. She came with character included. I could not have foreseen how that spark would burn me.
Before my daughter, I played peekaboo with my friends’ children. I boop’d noses, nattered nonsensically, and offered dizzying rides around living rooms. Once I had even been referred to as a “cool uncle.”
After my daughter, I don a Mr. Incredible costume for Halloween and feel ironic. Hopping on a foam pogo stick, I bounce higher and higher for my daughter’s amusement and tear a ligament in my foot. In a family of three, I morph into bad cop, seemingly the only position available.
“Get away from me!”
I retreat to the corner of the daycare’s play area, far from the plastic log cabin where through a window my three-year-old daughter shouts at me. I look down and pretend to study the fake grass. A one-year-old waddles past toward her father, squatting and beaming, his arms out.
Every weekday evening I pick up my daughter from preschool. She greets me with a grunt and raises a shoulder as if to deflect my approach. Often, she will walk or run away from me. Occasionally, my arrival will make her crumple to the floor in her yellow princess dress. From above she looks like a convulsing flower.
In the classroom I run after my daughter while she shrieks. I am an image of silliness: a man chasing his hat in the wind. My daughter stampedes into a circle of kids playing on the floor and punts a LEGO skyscraper. Green and blue rectangles detonate—the shrapnel hits her best friend in the face. My daughter disappears under a table, and I turn to attend to her friend’s tears.
When she refuses to leave after school, I pick her up and rush to the elevator. She screams and the atrium becomes a howling tunnel. She screams in the elevator and I imagine the cables snap, the building crumbles.
As I strap her in the car seat, she screams so loudly that a man in a nearby car with rolled-up windows looks over at me with disgust.
No amount of coaxing, wheedling, or bribery ensures a smooth departure. Our pick-ups become so painful that her teachers are now involved. They tell her how nice her daddy is. The PR works in my favor for a few days.
Upon seeing me, one of her classmates calls out to my daughter that her mother is here. As she races from the adjoining room, I watch her excitement extinguish.
On the car ride home, my daughter says, “I was so excited for mommy.”
“I’m worth getting excited for too,” I say. Immediately I feel ridiculous, pleading my case to her.
* * *
While having a difficult, surprising phone conversation with his twenty-two-year-old daughter, the father in Richard Bausch’s short story, “Aren’t You Happy For Me?,” “felt something sharp move under his heart.” Yes, the pain’s like that.
Toddler rejection strains my marriage. When the three of us are together, which is to say, most of the time, my daughter demands that my wife do everything for her. Everything.
“I want Mommy to do it.”
“What can I do?”
My sister and her family join us for trick or treating. Instead of ringing doorbells, my nephew and my daughter walk into our neighbors’ homes unannounced. After we explain how dangerous their behavior is, they still persist. I pick up my daughter and head home. She wriggles and cries out that she’s not going to play with me ever again. “You’re stupid,” she says.
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In a scene from Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, reportedly based on the author’s own experience, a father speeds his infant daughter to the closest hospital forty miles away. She’s suffered an allergic reaction from baby black widow spider bites and, should her throat close up, the father is prepared to perform an emergency tracheotomy with a Swiss Army knife.
Now that’s a game-time decision. I wonder if I’m deluding myself to think I can act as the father in the book does. My wife won’t watch the film adaptation of The Sweet Hereafter, but I’m unfazed—it’s only a movie. Instead, I wish I hadn’t seen, one Sunday at the farmers market, a dad brush his young daughter’s hand away as she reached out to grab his.
At one of our last happy hours before the pandemic, my daughter announces that she has to go to the bathroom and would like me to take her. She has never requested me when her mom’s present. I glance at my wife. Both of us expect her to rescind the offer. But my daughter doesn’t change her mind.
Afterward, at the sink in the men’s room, I hold her horizontal, and she flies like Supergirl, her soapy hands outstretched under the running faucet. I carefully raise her up and down to simulate flying and feel her unresisting body. She makes shushing noises for the imaginary wind whipping by and giggles in the mirror at us. And I laugh, too.