depression, faith, parenthood, Sam

Random Thoughts on Fatherhood: Four Months

1. Wednesdays have been my weekday off for the past four years. My routine rarely varied: I woke up, took our MacBook and a good book (or two) to a coffee shop, and hung out there as long as I felt like it. In the afternoon I did work around the house if needed, or — even if there was work to do around the house — napped. Two years ago, when we started volunteering as junior high youth leaders at our church, Erin and I started going to a Wednesday afternoon meeting. After that, dinner. Then pick-up basketball. Then “Lost,” until it moved to Tuesday nights. Now, depending on when basketball ends (since we still live in pre-DVR times at the Vore household), “Modern Family.” Inevitably the day would end with me falling asleep with the lights on and an open book on my chest and my contacts still in, all of which caused Erin great consternation at two in the morning when she’d wake up and say, “You did it again,” and I would stumble to the bathroom, remove the now-burning contacts plastered to my eyeballs, and lament how my thirtysomething body ached in ways it never used to after an hour and a half of physical activity.

I really liked my Wednesday routine. One of the things I was most afraid of when I became a dad was losing it.

I am someone who needs a lot of downtime. When I don’t get it, I start breaking down. A bad Wednesday (too many errands, unexpected work issues, a poor showing on the court) had ripple effects around the rest of my week. So what would I do when I had a kid?

It feels terribly selfish to ask that question. But it was an honest question for me. What if I never had downtime again? What if being a good dad meant forsaking things I not only wanted, but things I felt like I needed to operate and get through my week?

I thought the biggest challenge of fatherhood would be confronting just how self-centered I really am. Certainly that’s been a battle. Now, though, four months into it, I’m surprised at how easily I’ve let go of my old Wednesday routine. Why? It has been replaced by something immeasurably better.

2. Now I wake up on Wednesdays a couple hours earlier than I used to. Sam squawks and chirps into the monitor Erin leaves on my nightstand before she goes to school. (I’m not sure exactly what a baby velociraptor sounds like, but I think Sam does a pretty good impression.) Then comes my second favorite part of the day: I go into the nursery and unswaddle him as he lights up with an expression that says, I know you! You’re coming to get me out of this straightjacket which I’ve already freed one arm from! And then you’ll wipe my butt! And then feed me with a bottle! And make infantile noises and jiggle brightly colored toys above me and pretend you’re a square dance caller when you read me that book about the barnyard animals who dance together! I like you!

Yes, Sam, I will do all of these things. And I will do them gladly. This is what fathers do.

3. After those things, our day can go any number of directions. When it was still warm out, we went for a walk at Sharon Woods in the fabulous Bob stroller (courtesy of the Sweeneys, who graduated to a deluxe double-wide Bob). Sometime we run errands, to the post office or Trader Joe’s or Costco, and are treated with looks that either say, Ah, the modern father, a new breed of domestic creature, or, How did a man with so little hair have a son with so much? (followed by, Does he look like a kidnapper? Maybe I should call the cops). Last week we received an exclusive invitation to a play group with such A-list stars as Kyle, Ava, Jack and Reagan. I was the only father there, and a good thing too: When we found what we thought was a dead mouse underneath a cabinet, it was my duty to dispose of the body. It turned out to be a cat toy. Later I was called upon to kill a wasp. It was nice to feel needed.

4. Shankar Vandatam wrote in Slate recently that parents are addicted to parenthood. He said

Parents spend endless hours commiserating with one another about the travails of parenthood. Yet when researchers present data about children and unhappiness, parents rise up in protest. Research may depict parenthood as a bile-inducing, rage-fueling, stress-producing ordeal, but parents tell us that becoming parents is the best thing they ever did. Nonparents write off this reaction as defensiveness—if you’ve screwed up by having a kid and don’t want to admit it, you pretend to be happy—but parents regularly choose to have more than one child. If parenthood were as subjectively awful as the objective research implies, wouldn’t all parents stop at one child? It’s one thing to claim that a stubbed toe doesn’t hurt, and quite another to aim a second kick at the chair.

So what explains the urge to continue procreating? Here Vandatam brings in the addict angle:

Parenting is a grind, and most parents are stressed out much more than they are happy. But when parents think about parenting, they don’t remember the background stress. They remember the cuddle and the kiss. Parenting is a series of intensely high highs, followed by long periods of frustration and stress, during which you go to great lengths to find your way back to that sofa and that kiss.

We have a name for people who pursue rare moments of bliss at the expense of their wallets and their social and professional relationships: addicts.

Am I an addict now? Do parents pretend to be happy simply to fight off a mammoth case of buyer’s remorse? Are the rare moments of bliss worth the frustration and stress?

What I know is that fatherhood has certainly reprogrammed me. I can remember a time not too long ago when Erin and I revolted at the thought of babies. Five years, we agreed when we got married. (And then maybe another five.) We said all the things non-parents do: We like our freedom. We like going out to movies when we feel like it. There’s something about holing up for a weekend and tearing through a full season of “Mad Men.” We’ll see less of our friends when we have a kid.

Do we miss those things? Sure. We’ve certainly become hermits since Sam showed up. Friday nights are spent on the couch reading magazines. We haven’t been to the theater in six months. We’ve read a lot fewer books and watched a lot fewer TV shows. Our blogging has been a bit more sporadic, depending on the week.

But when I say I wouldn’t trade parenthood for any of that I don’t think I’m rationalizing anything. All of the things we did before we became parents were fun. Now all the things we do as parents are fulfilling, and fun, in different ways. I can’t imagine it being otherwise. We once were not parents, and now we are. It’s as simple and complicated as that.

5. One of the things I most feared about parenthood was passing on my junk to my kid. And by junk I specifically mean depression.

I have been afraid of this long before I actually became a parent. Many years ago, after I got past the fear that my depression would make me unmanageable as a potential boyfriend/husband, I picked up the fear that it would be irresponsible, if not cruel, of me to have kids. Especially a boy. Depression has generational roots, and I can trace them up and down my family tree.

I had the good fortune this spring of taking a class at Crossroads called “Strongholds.” (The alternate title, which will either be more or less creepy depending on your point of view, was “Healing & Deliverance.”) The class was just for men, and over thirteen weeks we addressed various strongholds — fear, religion, accusation, bitterness, to name a few — which have biblical foundations and which Christians believe we were meant to have freedom from.

The metaphor that stuck for me, trying to make sense of generational strongholds, was that of squatters’ rights. Imagine over a century ago some wandering folk set up a camp in your great-great-whoever’s backyard. Instead of kicking them off his property, your great-great-whoever decided that so long as the squatters stayed outside and kept the music down after eleven o’clock, they weren’t doing anyone any harm. So they establish a truce.

Your great-great-whoever has kids, and they understand the arrangement. Maybe they like it, maybe they don’t, but the squatters stay put and everyone gets along more or less.

Then those kids have kids, and the squatters’ kids have kids, and all this new generation knows is that this is the way things have always been. The squatters’ kids believe they own the land they’ve grown up on. And the kids in the house assume the same and let the arrangement be.

How is this like generational strongholds? Because once you’ve agreed to coexist with a stronghold — say, a spirit of fear — then it sets up camp for good. You see this all throughout the Bible, as early as the Garden of Eden (memorably interpreted by David Bazan).

You don’t have to be a Christian to believe that generations pass things on. Think “the apple doesn’t fall from the tree,” or “like father, like son.”

You also don’t have to be a Christian to believe that you can be freed from strongholds, though it certainly helps me believe that. Going through that class, I came to see that there’s no reason why I must agree that depression continues along my family line. So I started praying it wouldn’t. My friends started praying with me. Time will tell, as these things go, but when I look at smiley Sam I don’t feel fear that he is destined to suffer in the same ways I have suffered. I believe things can change for the better. Becoming a father has, if nothing else, made me a believer in the future.

6. My favorite part of the day is bath time. Many of my dad friends told me it would be. When I begin taking Sam’s clothes off on the changing table, he squirms and kicks with joy, the way babies do when they’re about to get naked. While Erin is still filling the tub, I hold Sam in front of the mirror and he grins and kicks some more. I set him in his bathtub and, wide-eyed, he surveys the water around him before he first pees, then starts kicking (again) and splashing indiscriminately. We just recently discovered an octopus squirt toy; when we spray water on his stomach, Sam giggles as if it is the greatest invention on earth.

It’s then that I think, even if all I ever got from being a dad was this giggle, that would be enough. Of course, I’ve gotten much, much more than that.

So yes, I’ll come out and say it. My name is Ben, and I am addicted to fatherhood. And I can’t wait to wake up on Wednesday morning.

x

[photo: Jenny Beck]

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7 thoughts on “Random Thoughts on Fatherhood: Four Months

  1. Great entry Ben! There’s so much there that I’d like to comment on…
    1) Totally understand the pre-baby feelings–parenting is a big commitment and one that changes everything. It’s tough to do that, even if we are satisfied with the outcome.
    2) It’s not a bad case for addict-like behavior, but something about it seems inadequate. Teachers spend countless hours commiserating about the travails of teaching. I’ll bet most professions do the same, unless they’re lonely, lonely professions that just stew in quiet desperation. LIFE has a lot in it that’s frustrating and also rewarding, and parenting is one facet of life. Maybe people have just largely forgotten what real, actual life is and expect it to be one big amusement park, a brave new world.
    3) Depression: Great metaphor, and I think you’re right that the generational baggage can be overcome. Even if Sam is genetically predisposed to depression, even if he has to suffer through it, he should have the advantage of a self-aware, loving father who will be there for him to lend the wisdom of his own experience to make the struggle that much easier: a burden shared is a burden halved.
    4) We started using the nose sucker (aka the boogie monster) in the bath tub the same way you use the octopus squirt toy. Thea loves it too.
    5) Stomp your feet! Clap your hands! Everybody ready for a barn-yard dance! (I insert “fiddle” music on page turns).

  2. Thanks, John.

    And I insert fiddle music on page turns too! I wonder if all fathers are predisposed to hum/sing the same jingle.

    Would be an interesting case study.

    1. Now that Naomi’s interested, reading that one takes twice as long because each child gets her own chance to twirl with the pig and take a spin with the barnyard dog.

  3. ben- you are such a talented writer! i continually admire you both for your attitude toward parenting, your love of weird games (brad loves it too!), and your ability to transfer the experiences of your daily life into something beautiful and true.

    yea for pre-dvr living and digital converter boxes! we join you!
    Lauren

  4. Outstanding post. I do have a request though. Can you please provide me a recording of the fiddle sounds as you turn the page? Turns out my fiddle sounds scare Nathaniel and cause him to freak out. I am hoping you are a little more in pitch.

    1. I am most definitely not in pitch. So when Sam giggles, I guess I can’t be sure he’s not laughing at me as opposed to with me.

      Bevin and Lauren — thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed reading.

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