In the robin’s egg blue evening sky, I’m looking at the pinprick diamond light of Venus shine as the rose light fades from the clouds scattered across the horizon like fallen leaves; the blush of seeming life draining from them as they dissipate in the whispering evening breeze. The moon is as thin as a thread, her beaming face turned away from the night falling here, gazing across the void of space.
The sangria in my glass is cool and sweet, with just enough tartness underneath. It’s all that remains of a delicious and delightful brunch we had this morning with a coworker and mutual friend; we made, as always, the sourdough waffles; they brought the sweet fruit and the sangria. It was a nice way to start our day–OK, let’s be honest, shall we? Our day started, as have the past several, before 6 a.m.
3B is, we believe, cutting his first molars, and he’s been up before his usual 6 a.m. wake-up time. I believe this morning was 5:22 a.m. Or was this the 5:17 a.m. morning? Whichever it was, between that and the sangria, the entire Bradstein household took a nap this afternoon when 3B went down for his snooze. Gone were our plans to . . . well . . . do anything but eat and sleep today.
We did take another trip down to the pool, but since it was 5 p.m., the water was too cool for 3B to want to take a dip. He did have a good time playing with the water, visiting the pine trees alongside the pool, and crab-walking around on the concrete (he’s got to protect those delicate baby knees). When we came home from that, we grabbed Barky and turned around and went straight back outside for his evening walk. Then it was home again, home again, jiggety jig, and dinner time for all of us, then bath time for 3B, then bedtime, then kitchen clean up time and now Mama’s out doing some last minute Father’s Day shopping before bedtime for us big kids.
At the end of days like this I sometimes muse on this chaos that is fatherhood, but I usually doze off before I have a chance to record any of my reflections. But tonight, being the eve of a great Hallmark holiday that commemorates this position that I’ve held for almost 11 months, I thought that I’d try to get them down before I fade away.
My first observation about parenthood is one that Mama and I keep coming back to: there’s not much to it. It’s more accurate, I suppose, to say that there’s as much to it as you want there to be. We have days like today, during which our attention is split between our friends and 3B, and days that are all about 3B. Both are good for him, in their own ways, but there’s nothing to stop us from having nothing but days in which our attention is divided. Or even having nothing but days when we hardly pay any attention to him at all. There are no parenting police (I’m ignoring the snarking parents of the blogosphere for the time being) watching us. We’re not even close enough to family that they would know. (Except, of course, all of them who read this blog.)
There is nobody who will flog us if we don’t play with 3B enough, or read to him enough, or pick him up for snuggles whenever he wants it, or fly him through the air just to make him laugh, or help him practice walking, or sing him songs, or any of those other things we do because we have to. And we do have to do them–not because we’re scared of any consequences for not doing them, but because we are driven by internal motions–compulsions, desires, and an overwhelming love–that we are all too glad to run along with. Nobody could pay us enough to do all of this. That is in part because no sum of money could make up for all of the efforts we sustain on 3B’s behalf, but it’s also because there is no reward richer to us than our son’s smile, or the sound of his silly laugh, or the feeling of his arms wrapping around our necks and squeezing tight for comfort, for love, and for the joy of friendship. And that reward is continuously compounding, it grows every time we receive it.
But there is nothing that compels us to reach this reward but ourselves. So it is that there isn’t much to this parenting thing, except ourselves. At the same time, there is nothing but ourselves, because if parenting does nothing else, it lays bare a parent’s true nature.
I recall making proclamations, when I was young and still knew everything, about what kind of parent I would be. “I’ll always . . .” and “I’ll never . . .” and so on. It turns out, however, that as a dad, I’ll always be who I am, and that will never change. That’s not to say that I’ll never change, but I mean that, as a father, I’m going to be who I am as a person. If I don’t drag my fat, hairy ass out of bed every morning to do sun salutations, I’m not going to suddenly start doing that now that I’m a father, so my kid will become a three-year-old yogi. And I’m not going to start sewing all of my child’s clothes from sustainably harvested (by unionized labor) organic fair-trade fibers when I can’t even get it together to replace the buttons that popped off of all my pairs of shorts when I gained 15 pounds during pregnancy.
Then again, Mama and I are consciously making every effort to be good role models for eating a wide range of healthy foods, brushing our teeth, wearing sunscreen, being nice to people, and innumerable other small things throughout our days and lives. Those are all things that we wanted to do before, for ourselves, but that having 3B around has motivated us to finally follow through on because, while we’re not so concerned about the long-term effects on us–we’re big kids, after all–we are concerned about 3B’s long-term welfare, and we know that he is most likely to follow our lead. And, honestly, I think that it’s these small changes that may be the hardest to make because they require tiny sustained efforts.
Big dramatic flourishes, like moving to the south of France so your child can study the play of light on sunflowers to become the most accomplished oil painter in history by the time he’s 11, are easy, in a way. It’s harder to sustain the small, silent, almost invisible motions that bring no immediate reward–nutrition, dental hygiene, and skin protection are all actions that provide no positive feedback. If you succeed, the best you can hope for is a lack of negative feedback–no health complications, no cavities, no skin cancer. And, as a wise man once told me, it is in those small things we do when nobody is watching that our true nature is revealed.
As I said, there is nobody watching us parent. Except 3B, that is. Even when we aren’t taking these tiny steps for his sake, he’s still learning from us. At the same time, he’s teaching us.
I become more convinced with every parent I meet and every parent’s blog that I read, that our children are tiny Buddha masters sent to teach us the lessons we cannot learn ourselves. I have many that I still need to learn–my temper is too strong, my patience is too thin, my cynicism is too deep–but there are others that I feel that I almost have the answers for, thanks to our little resident red-headed bohdisattva. The biggest of these answers is that, like that fat-armed sailor, I yam what I yam, and that what I yam isn’t as bad as I thought. That’s the answer to the lesson that 3B continues to teach me about worry, particularly self-worry.
I’m that guy who sees a perfectly beautiful day, with a clear blue sky and looks around to see if he can spy the contrails of ICBMs streaking in across the northern horizon from Russia. Part of that is the result of having my formative years fall during the Reagan regime, but most of that is just me. I could worry a hole through a silver dollar. Fortunately for everyone around me, most of that worry is self-directed: can I do this? what if I fail? what if I succeed? won’t success be worse? has anybody already noticed that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing? Really, it’s a regular nihilists’ cocktail party in my head, most of the time.
That can be immobilizing at times, so I’ve got handy coping mechanisms to get me through the paralysis of worry that I can fall into. None of them, however, are as good as the cure of self-confidence, which is what 3B, even as a tiny bean, has been able to teach me. I clearly recall taking him from Mama after a night feeding, when he was still squealing and squirming, trying to kick his way out of his swaddle and go to sleep at the same time. It was past 3 a.m., and it wasn’t the first time we had been up in the night. In fact, I knew that I only had three hours before he would be up to eat again, so every minute that we were awake was another precious minute of sleep lost. And man, were those minutes precious. While Mama dropped back into slumber, I tipped the glider as far back as I could and lay with 3B on my chest, gently rocking, holding his swaddle tightly together, and exhaling sussurations into his ears. It was all so comforting that I slowly started to drift off myself. I knew that I couldn’t, because if I fell asleep, I would lose my grip on 3B, causing him to slip down and at least wake up, if not hit the floor. But I had never been this bone-tired in my life; I truly thought myself incapable of remaining conscious. And I recall thinking to myself, “I have to be able to stay awake.” 3B saw to it that there was no way for me to worry that I couldn’t stay awake–I simply had to succeed. He fell asleep on my chest, knowing my true nature, knowing that I would hold him, knowing that I would stay awake. And in so doing, he revealed me to myself.
That was just one of many small moments through which 3B has taught me that I don’t need to worry so much about who I am. Every time he laughs when I fling him in the air, or listens raptly while I read him a story, or reaches his arms out for me to hold him against my chest as he curls in for comfort, 3B lets me know that there’s not much to this parenting thing, but that there is something to it, and not to worry–that I’ve got that something. And every time he does that–every time he teaches me that it’s OK to wake up without a care in the world, with a smile and a hug for everyone you meet, even the dog–I have to thank him for teaching me how to be a father.