This will be my last column with The Mail, so I figured I’d return to my favorite subject one last time before saying "adieu." That, of course, is the subject of my son, Nicholas.
It’s been interesting because my time here at the paper has been short, but really did coincide with a monumental transformation in my life, and time has a tendency to dilate when such big things are happening. I look back at some of my earlier columns about Nicholas, and I only dimly recognize the me that wrote them, even though he only wrote them last summer.
My son, too, has become something entirely different than the squalling potato I described in those early writeups. He has an abiding love for Kermit the Frog, waves at everything with a face, and smiles from ear to ear every time I arrive home from work.
In the early, colicky months of his life, my wife Jenny got through the days by being a bona fide superhero. I got through them by thinking of parenting as a very simple (if high stakes) game with just two objectives: 1) Don’t break the baby and 2) Stay sane.
The first objective was actually pretty easy. As a newborn, Nicholas certainly seemed fragile, but he had straightforward needs; all we had to do was feed him, burp him, change his diaper, hold him and coo at him every once in awhile (that last part came naturally — I challenge anyone to look into newborn Nicholas’ eyes and not start cooing). Beyond that, just lay him somewhere soft and safe, and we were golden.
It was the second goal that was the real challenge. I’m pretty sure babies’ cries are biologically designed to be a straight shot to the stress centers of parents’ brains, and Nicholas used his like a cabbie laying on his horn in New York City traffic. Combined with all of the disruptions to our normal routine and the new sheer sense of weight that everything took on, it was enough to bring one or both of us face to face with potential emotional collapse almost daily.
The trick, I realized, was to simply recognize the importance of the second objective in the baby-raising game, and to keep in mind that as long as we were meeting all of the requirements of the first objective (not breaking the baby), we could dedicate ourselves to maintaining our sanity in whatever way we saw fit.
Now, at 10 months old, that bundle of joy/love/shrill elemental noise has sprouted arms that reach, legs that hustle and a voice that can articulate delightful consonant strings. With every new milestone he crosses (and there are heaps of them), he becomes less an object of our affection and more a subject, an agent, a thinker and doer of things. God help me, he’s becoming a person.
I don’t think there’s a word for an equal mix of joy and terror, but if there were, I would use it to describe what I feel whenever he cocks a knowing eyebrow at me or babbles something that closely resembles “dada.” The joy part is self-explanatory, I think, but you might rightly wonder why fear is the other half of the recipe.
It goes back to my baby-raising game and its two objectives. As Nicholas becomes more of a person, “Don’t break the baby” becomes a far more complicated proposition. I can see him learning from everything around him, and it’s clear that the human he will be is being shaped by the world we present to him now. That’s wonderful, but when I spend any amount of time thinking about it, it’s also terrifying.
Up until this point in Nick’s life, I’ve been thinking of dadhood in terms of what it means for me — increased responsibility, fewer naps, an endless, overflowing well of love, etc. But as my son races toward his first birthday, I’m forced to confront my identity as his dad. He sees me, and he’s determining who I am, who I will be to him for the rest of his life. The possibilities for messing up have just exponentially increased.
And it’s at this stage that I’ll be taking the reins of primary caregiver. My departure from The Mail is coinciding with Jenny’s return to the workforce with a new lecturer position in Indiana, and I’ll be tagging in as stay-at-home parent in a new home and new state.
In my first column for the paper, written just a few weeks from this time last year, I talked about the obstacles of inexperience, about having to push through the inevitable cloud of foolishness that encompasses the beginning of any new endeavor. This year with the paper has been an adventure I wouldn’t trade for anything, but now it’s time to tackle the next, and the stakes feel higher than ever. I guess I can take comfort from the sentiments I expressed almost a year ago, accepting that I will inevitably get the task of child-rearing wrong sometimes, but recognizing that there’s really no other way to go about it.
I’m heading in — wish me luck, Marshfield!