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How It Feels To Be a Dad
A few analogies on the first 9 months of parenthood
I’m sitting in the backyard with four other people. Two of them are my friends, Chase and Michael. The other two are infants. Don’t worry, the babies aren’t randos - we know these lil idiots. Chase has a one year old and I have a nine month old.
They are our children, and we are their dads.
Michael, a red-bearded comedian who drives a motorcycle, asks how the whole parenting thing is going. I never know how to answer that, so I repeat the facts, slowly, as if speaking another language I’ve just begun learning on Duolingo a few weeks back.
“This. is. my. child.”
“I’m. a. father. and. this. is. my. son.”
We laugh at this absurdity of how true and yet obviously false these statements are.
A Role I Cannot Play
It feels like I’m like I’m reciting dialogue for a character I could never, ever play. Dustin Hoffman and Chevy Chase and Liam Neeson and all the other actors who play dads were unavailable, so they were like ok shit, let’s get that dude Alex who still eats 60% of a salad with his bare hands in here and see if he can pull it off. And now the production is under way and here I am, playing the part of Dad, for the rest of my days.
I am now someone who can say - and factually mean - “all that matters is my family.” What?! That’s something you hear in westerns and WWII movies when the hero realizes, tears in her eyes, that the fame / money / whatever goal they wanted isn’t what they really wanted. That what they really wanted was right under their noses the whole time.
And now, that’s me. Or at least it could be, theoretically. Like there is nothing stopping me from walking into Ralphs to buy some Diet Coke1 and baby food and say, proudly to the cashier: “all that matters is my family.”
In my backyard, the conversation continues - Chase and I taking turns practicing the language, hoping that if we use it enough it will stop sounding so weird coming out of our mouths:
“How. Is. your. son?”
“What’s. the. newest. thing. he’s. doing?”
No matter how much we say it, it still feels forced, like a “donde esta la biblioteca’ in Spanish 101. And yet unlike that high school freshman year class, this is now our lives.
We have been dropped into Mexico with no guide, no training, and no one here speaks a word of English. Cool beans.
A Caveat: The Role of Adult
Part of why this is so weird for us, this language of Dad, is that we’ve lived a whole long time as Adults (Without Babies). We are both thirty four - fun fact, I’m actually two days older than Chase - so since turning eighteen we’ve each had sixteen years of time to be adults, to live our lives, to learn and speak and master the language of Adult (Without Baby). Sixteen years! That’s a long frikkin time.
My mom had me when she was 21 and my dad was 23. Youngins! They cannot understand the brutal pain of getting to live a full life before having a kid. Sure your struggle in Ukraine getting food for us might have been tough, but you never had to make jokes about how hard it is to speak about your kids with your 34 year old friends!! That’s real struggle! (note: delete this part before showing your parents).
When people ask me what being a dad is like, I usually respond like this: “you ever been in war? It’s sort of like that. Nothing happens 90% of the time but at any point someone could die.”
Sometimes they laugh, sometimes they look at me with concern. Either way I squint my eyes as if remembering Vietnam and continue: “You live in constant fear, the slightest noise hurtling you out of sleep - is he crying? Is he alive? Oh its nothing? Fuck.”
And it’s true - you as parents are the only thing that stands between this blob and a near certain death in this world. Cool cool.
Like right now, as I write this, I know he’s in the bathroom. He crawled over there and yep, I can hear the splish splash of his little mini sausage fingers wading through the toilet water which could quite possibly be pee water (we do not flush every time because we are trying to save the environment you sickos).
Here’s the kicker - I am on the couch and it feels so comfy and cozy and maybe I can just let him splash around in the water-that-may-be-pee for a second or two longer. This is who I have become. It is a war and already I am losing.
I wait a few more seconds, ok maybe a minute, ok maybe a few minutes but eventaully I do get up and walk over to see what was going on. Here’s what I found:
Death By 1000 Paper Cuts
I once heard that Osama Bin Laden’s strategy for destroying America was “death by 1000 paper cuts,” which also happens to be a great way to describe parenting. None of the moments in and of themselves are all that painful, but together over the course of a lifetime, they will destroy you.
The origin of this phrase is an actual process of torture and execution used in China called Lingchi, or ‘death by a thousand cuts’ and is described as a form of execution where “a knife was used to methodically remove portions of the body over an extended period of time, eventually resulting in death.”2
According to the Wikipedia article, the western perception of the practice is incorrect - its not that the person is kept alive for 1000 cuts until they die - the death itself happens fairly quickly with the majority of cuts happening afterwards.
Which, again, feels like parenting. The death of Alex the Adult happens soon after the baby is born, but the cuts continue long thereafter until some day into the distant future I wake up and realize that I have been spiritually reborn: a phoenix rising out of ashes but instead of a phoenix I’m more of a hairy five foot six man who is balding but mostly on the back of his head so you can’t see it yet, a man who can somehow speak the language of Dad with confidence and aplomb3.
At least that’s what I hope will happen. I’m only 9 months in, so like only 30-40 cuts of the way through, hence my fumbling the language of Dad so bad. Cool cool cool.
And Also, A Forehead Kiss
I do want to say, in the interest of fairness and also to ensure I am not disowned by my family - its not all bad. There are moments, each a few seconds long at most, that are somehow better than anything I’ve ever experienced before in my life.
For example - my wife Lauren was at work (she currently supports our family financially while I sit around letting the baby play in pee water), so we played peekaboo over Facetime. She would take her black N95 mask on and off, giving him a big ol cheesy smile every time she revealed her face, and he would LOSE HIS SHIT. Laughing like she had made THE BEST joke of all time.
What got me was how he laughed. It was a laugh that was deep in him - he would cock his head back and to the side so you could see two lil nubs of his two top teeth showing - a laugh of recognition that said “ahhhh there she goes again!”, like he had seen this 100 times and loved it every single time. He really couldn’t help himself, that’s how funny it was, over and over and over again. This wasn’t a fart joke or someone slipping on a banana peel either - this was deep, this was true, something that made our baby dig deep into his soul and think, ‘this. this right here is the human experience.’
Our babysitter Jess pointed out how insane it is that babies laugh before doing almost anything else. Before crawling, walking, talking, or the millions of other milestones they’ll have in their life, they can understand a good joke. Comedic timing, delivery, its all there already, from day one. Jess said, “maybe that - comedy - is what separates us from everyone else.”
Thinking back to his laughing I can’t help but agree, low key blown away by the profundity therein.
Moments like these aren’t paper cuts, of course. They are forehead kisses that burrow into the depths of my soul. They say “hey, I love you” in a language I don’t yet understand, the language of Dad which I am just starting to get the hang of and may never truly become fluent in - perhaps thats not even the point.
Perhaps the point is simply to enjoy the dance of how that language evolves over time. Like my dad is probably still learning how to speak Dad with me, especially now that I am Dad too. In this way we’re all Dads fumbling our way through understanding each other, mostly failing and yet trying nonetheless.
And yet the death of my Adult self is still real, and has most definitely transpired in a way I cannot yet fully articulate. Though it isn’t so much a thousand cuts, but more like five hundred paper cuts and five hundred forehead kisses, or actually to be fair more like nine hundred and fifty paper cuts and fifty forehead kisses.
Whatever the ratio, I feel it happening, slowly and may I add surely, until finally I am Dad who squints his eyes into the sweltering noon day sun, toothpick in his teeth, and says confidently to no one in particular: “this is my son. and all that matters now is family.”
Legally I am obligated to add that my parents are VERY mad that I am still drinking Diet Coke and have made me promise not to ever give our baby any. They say they will fly in and be his rolemodels (they only drink bottled water).
I am obsessed with the word aplomb and will use it as much as possible until I die.