Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I'm A Horrible Father And That's Okay

I love babies and babies love me; this has been true since I was about ten years old. I've spent my entire adult life looking forward to fatherhood, and it's finally here in the form of my three-week-old son, Malcolm. So, how am I doing?

I'm effing miserable. Sort of. It's complicated. Let me explain.

My Son Doesn't Seem To Like Me Very Much

I love babies and babies love me, but it turns out that the babies that love me aren't newborns. I'm used to babies that can laugh and hold their heads up; newborns are potted plants that need to be watered and repotted every two hours. Mal doesn't interact. Hell, he can barely see and noises just startle him. He is physically incapable of smiling at something that he likes. This is the absolute best I can hope for: that the child will be distracted long enough to not hate life enough to scream about it. When he looks at me, I don't see recognition. When I joke and make goofy faces... I get a blank stare. He is completely unimpressed with me.

Perhaps he's figured out...

I Don't Seem To Like Him Very Much Either

Supposedly when a man has a child, it's the greatest feeling ever. I've heard this from many people, and I've come to the conclusion that it's a vicious lie. There was no instantaneous and overwhelming sense of love. In fact, when Mal was born I was beside myself wondering what was wrong because I had no feelings for him whatsoever. I was exhausted, yes, and my wife was a bit of a wreck so I was trying to help her. Thankfully after a day or so I started to get attached to the little guy, which may be because...

I Am Terrified Of Killing My Child

Funny story: last weekend I was visiting with some family and my sister was holding Mal while sitting in the dining room with our mother and some aunts and our grandmother and a cousin. Mal started to fuss and I ran in from the other room to take him. My sister looked up at me and reminded me that nearly every person at the table had given birth to a child and that I needed to calm the hell down. Which was true.

Oh, but it gets worse. I'm kind of a worrier already, but with Mal I find myself inventing things to fret about. Is he eating enough? Is he eating too much? Is he pooping regularly enough? Is he breathing right at this very second? Are his feet too cold? Is his scalp supposed to be that color? Is it a problem that one of his nipples seems to be larger than the other? I would have the pediatrician's emergency phone number memorized if I didn't constantly have my wife telling me that everything's fine and I need to calm the hell down and that I'm doing a good job, which she has to do regularly because...

I Really Suck At This

When Abby and I were planning the family, we always assumed that after she delivered the baby she would hand it off to me. See, my wife is a bit... surly. Even when she was pregnant, her maternal instinct was present, but it was running in a very low gear. But not me! Remember, I love babies and babies love me. Abby worried that she might not bond with the child, but I assured her that she'd be a great mother and I'd be a great father and it would all work out just great. And guess what? Abby's not just a great mother, she's an incredible mother. She's patient with the child in ways she's never been with anyone. And she's really good with him: she's running errands with him, doing laundry, washing dishes. She's doing the chores that I used to do, and all while taking care of a child. Hell, she's even lost all of her pregnancy weight already. I was totally right about her.

I was dead wrong about me. God help me I try, but I get so frustrated. I'm exasperated all the time, I can't soothe the child, I'm forgetting things, I'm shirking my chores. And then I feel guilty because Abby spends the entire day watching the kid and when she hands him off to me for the evening, I can't make him calm down and she has to take him back. I know that the first few months are survival mode, but I feel like I'm the only one struggling to survive. Seriously, there are days when I feel like my sole contribution to this family is my paycheck.

At least I have my hobbies, but not really because...

I Now Suck At Everything Else Too

I have many talents. I write music. I write stories. I write code. Not a whole lot of that has been happening lately. I've been writing music for the kid, and after three weeks I have a song and a half that I haven't memorized yet. I try to hammer out a chapter or two on some story idea in the evening, but I'm constantly losing my flow because I have to stop and feed the kid or change a diaper. My work has almost certainly been suffering. Hell, when a friend comes over, I can't even find anything to talk about other than the baby. I can't even have a beer and an intelligent conversation with my best friend because my brain is stuck in full-on baby mode. The only reason I've had time to read books is because you can hold a Kindle in one hand while feeding the baby in the other.

And it may never get better because...

There Is No Light At The End Of The Tunnel

This may be the hard part, but it's not like it ever gets easy. I still have teenagers to look forward to. Oh, and let's not forget whose son we're talking about here. Abby and I were both grade-school outcasts. My sister was cool. My brother was cool. I was never cool. God, when I think back about younger versions of myself... I was the kid who had emotional problems, who broke into tears on the bus because other kids teased him. I used to stay up nights crying to my mother about the stress of going to school the next day. If Mal turns out to be like me, I get to experience that bit of hell from the perspective of the impotent parent.

Also, I was kind of an annoying kid. The words that came out of my father's mouth most frequently were: "Stop trying to be funny all the time." I was that obnoxious. Remember the annoying kid in the first Might Ducks movie? The "swing batter batter kid"? This kid? He reminded people of me. People told me that I had to go see that movie so I could see the kid that reminded them of me, and he was that obnoxious little puke. So I can't wait to see how much Mal takes after his father.

So Is There Any Good News At All?

Sort of. It's complicated. Let me explain.

Apparently this is all fairly normal. Everybody's different, but apparently it's not that unusual for a new father to lose his mind. And my mind was only sort of tenuously there to begin with. Someday the baby will be the kind of baby that I can entertain and be entertained by. And then I can watch him while Abby super-mom's another newborn (because we are planning to have more than one). And I think there's a corollary to the Dunning-Kruger Effect going on. Maybe the reason I think I'm such a horrible parent is because I have some ridiculously high standards for what constitutes a decent one. Or something.

See, intellectually I know everything's fine, but I still can't shake the feeling that I'm a failure as a parent. And then I get to feel guilty about that. Because honestly...

I Have No Excuse To Complain

We're doing great. The baby's fine. Abby's fine. We even still have a social life. We've gone to a dinner party, a family gathering, and a book club meeting, all in the last three weeks. We go out to dinner every once in a while--the child is actually quite good with cars and restaurants. We are in a very stable financial situation and I've got fabulous job security. Let's face it, Abby and I are model parents. If I were to complain about my plight to a random person on the street, that person would be utterly justified in punching me in the face.

Look. I thought I was mentally prepared for parenthood, and I totally wasn't. It's like thinking you're ready to go skydiving because you've gone diving before. I'm figuring this all out as I go, and apparently that's pretty normal as well. So, absent a frame of reference, I can only assume that people are telling me the truth about how I'm doing fine, and the baby's healthy, and everything will be okay. And if I take a few deep breaths, I can stop freaking out, take a look at my son... or a picture, and remind myself that he's here because I wanted him to be here, and that I'm happy with that decision, and that the madness will eventually pass... or at least it will dull a bit. I take a look at my parents, who had three kids and are now sane. Mostly sane. I remind myself that even though I was an annoying kid, since I became an adult my father and I have become rather good friends.

So, I have that to look forward to.



KK said...

Oh wow. Reading this took me back to 3.5 years ago! Only, Cody and I were the opposite of you and Abby. Cody was super dad, while I was...uh not mother of the year. Or so it seemed to me. i was convinced that Noah hated me! And then suddenly, all that seemed to pass. We could just hang out and play and life was cool. I'm not exactly sure when this happened, maybe around the 2 month mark. all I'm saying is, hang in there, it only gets better! Each age is something new and amazing. And every time you think you can't possibly love Mal more, you'll surprise yourself by falling in love with him all over again. Thanks for bringing back some great (looking back now!) memories. Enjoy every minute! Oh, and by the way...he's ADORABLE!

FlameFlash said...

Noob. ;)

Watch those little eyes. Keep offering your love. That isn't dislike, that's lack of understanding.

The potted plant analogy is totally correct as they start, but they know you're there. That constant comforting warmth you provide in those pictures you post of him sleeping on you are the bulding blocks of recognition and sparkle.

At about a month/month and a half those eyes won't seem very empty anymore and in fact will shine with an unknown intelligence that tells you what you refuse to accept right now: you're doing it right.

I haven't ventured into the teen years yet with mine, but as they grow so do you. You teach each other how to do things... and screw up together.

If I'd known with my first what I now know with my 4th I'd have been a baby ninja master.

Amy said...

It gets better. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.

The first few months are hard. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Even with Kaelin they were hard and she was my easy one.

My biggest problem with Kaelin was the worrying. I've never been a worrier, but after I had her the hormones went crazy and I would lay in bed at night inventing all these nightmarish ways in which I would unintentionally be responsible for her death. I didn't sleep well. It subsided somewhat with time, but didn't really stop until after I had Koren.

Koren was an unhappy baby. Not colicky - just unhappy. From the beginning, he hated breastfeeding - as in, would actually get angry about it. So we put him on formula after a couple of weeks and he developed some kind of milk allergy that made him grumpier (soy formula helped some but not a lot, and he eventually outgrew it) and his immune system sucked (still does).

It's hard to bond with someone who is so demanding and yet so difficult to satisfy - especially when it's your job to do so. I had a lot of guilt about the fact that I couldn't wait to be away from him for a few hours on those coveted Mother's Day Out days.

But it does get better. Every week gets better. When Koren turned 1, his grumpy issues seemed to ease, maybe his digestive system caught up or something. Getting him to smile for a picture was still an epic event though. By the time he turned 2, he was (and is) happy and goofy and makes me laugh all day long.

Here's something that nobody told us before we had kids. Kids often prefer one parent to the other (to the point of blatant rejection. It sucks, it's not fair, and it's really hard on the "reject" parent (ask Jens). There's usually not much you can do about it, although having Jens read the kids their bedtime story and put them to bed seemed to make a big difference for us. The good news is that they seem to swap their preference every few years, so you will have your turn at being the go-to parent eventually.

Congrats to you both, I'm glad Abby is settling into motherhood well. It's a real adjustment that nobody can quite prepare you for - but it's totally worth it in the end :)

Anne said...

Great essay Kurt! In my opinion one of the best things you've written. I think you could get a lot of traffic as a daddy blogger!

Abby (aka AgatheAthena) said...

You know when he actually becomes sentient and can focus on things and actually smile (not just gas-smile), you are going to love him and you two will be the greatest buds in the world.

(and yeah, he's going to be awkward in school, but maybe since we were awkward in school, we know what's going to happen and can help him not feel so awkward).