At 4:19 a.m., on January 13, 2012, I became a dad. At an ungodly hour when 95% of the time zone is asleep, my son Edwin came into the world eight weeks early. He was 4 pounds, 12 ounces, and 18" long. He was squalling, with an Apgar score of 8 (stunning for being so early), and though we didn’t know it, we were starting a 35-day NICU stay.
I didn’t hold him at all on the first day.
Not because of permissions, but because I couldn’t. I was too scared. Here was this tiny, fragile little life, hooked to a snake’s nest of wires and tubes all designed to make sure his body was functioning as it should, and to ensure that he didn’t begin “circling the drain” at any point.
By about 11 a.m., our visitors were gone, Eddy was in the NICU, and my wife was in the maternity ward. I drove home to have a shower, get some food in my stomach, and to assemble a bunch of my wife’s stuff for the stay we had ahead of us.
Mostly I just leaned against the wall in the shower and cried. I was so not ready for any of this, despite having a birthing class (the first of four had happened two days earlier) and having read a couple of books on the subject.
On day two, I finally held him. Sitting down in the critical care section of the NICU, a nurse placed him in my arms (picture above), and I sat and whispered to him. I apologized for all the mistakes I was going to make as a dad, as if it were a foregone conclusion, and mostly I wondered how in the hell I was going to get my son to the point of adulthood without damaging his ability to be a decent and functional human being.
It’s a behavior and a worry that would continue for almost a year.
“How Can You Not Know How to Change a Diaper?”
My realization of what was going on hit me like a ton of bricks in late 2012. I’m not even sure what it was I was watching on TV, but I clearly remember being really angry at the dad being portrayed on the screen. “How can you not know how to change a fucking diaper?” I was practically yelling. “For fuck’s sake, you’re making us look like a bunch of fucking idiots!”
As I’ve gotten older, I have taken to stepping back and listening to my own outbursts, as I’ve come to realize that they’re great indicators of what my subconscious is doing. At the point of the outburst at the TV, I was transitioning into a space in my life where I was comfortable with the routine of being a father. I could change a diaper without thinking about it and dodge the occasional arc of pee like Neo dodging Agents’ bullets. So when I saw this bumbling father being a ginormous fuck-up on television, I was really annoyed, because I sure as hell didn’t want anyone thinking that this was how I was as a father.
The more I interacted with the mass media after this, the more I paid attention to the roles of fathers. By and large, fathers are portrayed as a bunch of dimwits who don’t have the common sense imbued to the average chimpanzee.
My first really clear memory of what I now refer as the “Fuck-Up Father” stereotype in the mass media is the moment Homer Simpson did a Stuka-like nosedive into Springfield Gorge on Bart’s skateboard (and apparently, that moment resonates for others, too). However, when you start to look backward, even to the advent of television, dads are generally portrayed as inept putzes when it comes to anything associated with child-rearing.
As the article in the Deseret News (linked to under “resonates,” above) points out, there was a spate of shows in the 80's that showed dads as caring, and more competent…but am I the only one that remembers points in The Cosby Show where Cliff Huxtable was called out for dumb parenting mistakes?
It Has an Impact
Generally speaking, I’m a pretty confident guy — I firmly believe that if I need to learn how to do something, I can do so. Yet, coming into child-rearing, I lived in fear of harming my child. Whether that harm was physical (exacerbated, no doubt, by that lengthy NICU stay) or emotional, didn’t matter. I was terrified.
Now, you could argue that that feeling might be a fear born of legacy — my father wasn’t exactly great at the gig. Look back, however, on my experience thus far, I seem to be avoiding much of the same things he did that I view now as inadequate or misguided.
So why the fear, then? I am convinced that over the long-term exposure to the stereotype of the bumbling father eventually convinced me that men are inept at being parents. Once I really became aware of why I was always anxiety-ridden over my role as a parent, I was able to logically counter it. And while that’s useful, it doesn’t always work — the idea that as a father I’m required to be a complete fuckwit is still embedded.
While I’m not a racist by any stretch of the imagination, I do understand more why minorities decry the lack of positive role models in the media, and I understand how that lack can lead to people believing that they have a predisposition toward certain behaviors. It’s not surprising that young black men think that they only have the option to be athletes, rappers or thugs, because that’s how the media portrays them.
With all the media’s portrayal of fatherhood as one giant clown show from beginning to end, it’s not surprising that there are fathers out there, like me, whose greatest fear is being so inadequate as to damage their child’s development.
When you get down to brass tacks, being a parent isn’t that tough. First, see to your child’s needs — ensure that they have food, sleep, and are physically healthy. Second, spend time with them at play. That’s really all there is to it. Changing a diaper isn’t the Apollo Program, and raising a kid isn’t a crapshoot. Read a few books, attend a birthing class, even find a father’s group to meet with so that you aren’t operating in an echo chamber comprised of your marriage.