WAITING FOR FATHERHOOD

Nine months is a long time to wait for a child; good thing we weren’t elephants, whose pregnancies last two years. Nearly twenty-five Father’s Days ago, I was soon to become a father, and I still had plenty of time to think about it.
I did not “hate kids,” as some intimates maintained when I was in my twenties. They based that opinion on my frequent use of the term “piss-pots” to refer to small children. However, I’d simply adopted that expression after hearing George Burns use it in the movie “Going in Style.” No, what I really felt was not distaste, but the absence of clear-cut thoughts concerning children. I’d simply never contemplated what it would be like to interact with them or raise them.
How did this happen? My three siblings were significantly older so, in many ways, I was raised as an only child. During my childhood, our neighborhood had no other young children, let alone babies. A demographic shift had occurred, and I was left marooned in an all-adult world.
When I approached twenty years of age, my now-married and geographically distant brothers begat my six nieces and nephews like a tag-team, in alternating years. I uttered the appropriate “oohs” and “aahs” over photographs and stories about their babies from afar, as though they were great athletes or movie stars. When our family convened for holidays, and I actually encountered the babies, my main impression was of bodily discharges, crying and fussing.
In short, while I was pleased my brothers appeared pleased, I was mystified, and certainly did not envy them or see myself in their positions. Fatherhood was not something I craved.
I married at thirty. While I was a willing participant in the conception process, I didn’t ponder what having a child would mean until my wife, Katie, revealed she was pregnant. My reaction was fear. I thought: “What if I don’t feel anything special, only a sense of duty?” I was confident I could “hang in there” and “perform” the role of a father, but I feared my time, finances and relationship with my new wife would suffer.
During the early stages of Katie’s pregnancy, lacking a positive emotional surge, I assured Katie I “would do what I have to do.” She was not sufficiently comforted and, with the benefit of hindsight, I understand why.
“I need more support,” she said.
I looked at her without comprehension.
“And I want you to show more anticipation.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It would be nice if you rubbed my belly, or talked to it,” she said.
I nodded, skeptically, and attempted a few awkward strokes. I was determined to avoid discussing the subject, lest I reveal too many of my doubts.
Pregnancy is a challenging process, to say the least, for a woman. (Can’t Mother Nature come up with something better?) It’s not so great for a husband, either, if he struggles to summon empathy from a seemingly empty supply.
Each morning, I ran to the kitchen hoping to deliver dry cereal to Katie before she might begin to retch over a toilet. We were both stressed out. While she was not a complainer, she was always exhausted, her back was sore, and her appetite was bizarre. She craved sweet potatoes or yams on a regular basis. Meals often featured crackers and plain pasta.
My doubts were constantly in the back of my mind. How could a child who I spawned come into the world without a father’s wholehearted love and affection? But I was prone to denial and good at compartmentalizing. I focused on work and such things as gardening, tennis and reading; anything to avoid considering the imminent change; I was soon to be a FATHER.
Three months in, Katie had an ultrasound exam. For the first time, I saw a tiny heart beating and learned my child would be a daughter. I tried to picture pink clothing, ribbons and the like. That wasn’t too bad. Then I pictured boyfriends. Not good. I realized I hadn’t formulated a preference for a son or a daughter. At least I wasn’t an old-style chauvinist who preferred a boy. The photo image they printed and handed me showed a stark reality: I was not prepared.
At five months, Katie signed us up for a Bradley birthing class. She explained it was a progressive sort of Lamaze, which I believed vaguely to be a sort of breathing exercise program, not that that meant anything to me. We paid to visit a woman’s dismal little apartment, where we sat on the floor with four other couples, and performed exercises and stretches with cushions that were somehow meant to assist childbirth. My thoughts were mostly consumed with not dirtying my clothes on the filthy carpet. I struggled not to laugh or detectably roll my eyes at the New Age pronouncements of the leader, such as: “You are vessels of creation. Life springs eternal from within, etc.” Such celebrations of pregnancy are designed, I imagine, to bring joy and anticipation to the birth event. But, for me, with my lack of enthusiasm so clear, it only made waiting worse.
After the sixth month, Katie’s morning sickness began to subside but her appearance continued to transform. “Who is this woman?” I asked myself. Formerly trim and athletic, a small bump in her mid-section had progressed from the size of a softball to that of a volleyball, and was heading to a basketball. I struggled to not resent the pregnancy every day. Katie’s energy was less, her back was worse, and I was becoming increasingly nervous. No longer in the back of my mind, I was worrying all the time, “What if I feel nothing for this child?”
“Are you excited?” people would ask.
“Yes, sort of, pretty much” I would say, trying to muster a smile.
Katie knew better than to ask. She didn’t want to hear my mantra about “Doing what I have to do” anymore. The waiting and uncertainty were agonizing for her, too.
When the eighth month arrived, and we chose wallpaper and a crib for the baby’s room, the wait was almost over. On a trip to buy curtains for the baby’s room, we discussed possible names.
“Valerie?” I said. “No,” said Katie. “What about an ’S’ name?”
“Susie?” I said. “Sharon?”
Katie shook her head.
“Definitely not Sandy,” I said.
I felt uncomfortable shifting the concept of “the baby” to a specific individual. I feared my ambivalence was a betrayal. In my anxiety, I offered a joke with regard to my last name, Sanders: “How about Orbital?” I suggested. Katie was not particularly amused.
I’d once told Katie that, according to family lore, I was supposed to have been named after my grandmother, Sarah, but I’d ruined the plan by being male. Desperately trying to foster a connection, Katie suggested we name our daughter “Sarah.”
I liked the sound of “Sarah Sanders” and appreciated the gracious nod to my family. Yet, waiting for this newly-named member of the human race, my progeny, was now even more nerve-wracking. “If I don’t feel anything special,” I thought, “it’ll be horrible. How will I live with myself, an emotional stranger to someone named after my own grandmother?”

The waiting was nearly over when the ninth month dawned, and we planned the trip to the hospital. I knew who to call at the midwife’s office and what route to take. I made sure the car always had plenty of gas. In short, I was doing all the things “I had to do,” but was still waiting with nagging discomfort.
The due date of October 23 came and went, prolonging the marathon. By the seventh day, we were discussing the process of inducing birth or, worse, the possibility of a Caesarian section. In efforts to start labor naturally, we took long hikes, ate spicy food, and even had Katie ingest castor oil. Something worked, and labor began the evening of October 30. We arrived at the hospital after midnight, and Katie spent a torturous night pushing and sweating and, generally, suffering. I sat beside the bed in the birthing center, held her hand, avoided saying anything stupid or insensitive when progress slowed, and finally suggested to the preoccupied midwife: “Why doesn’t Katie get up and take a shower?” That was a trick I’d heard about, ironically, at the long-ago Bradley class.
“That’s a good idea,” said the professional.
The shower seemed to work. After standing under the water for just a few minutes, Katie returned to the bed, grabbed my hand for a climactic squeeze, and pushed out the final product, at 8:12 a.m. on Halloween. Having never actually seen a live birth (I’d averted my eyes even when my cat gave birth), I was stunned to see a fully-black-haired head emerge from the birth canal and slide into the mid-wife’s hands. I cut the umbilical cord as instructed, and beheld my daughter, Sarah, for the first time.
The wait was over. What did I feel? How did this end? With extraordinary and spectacular relief, I found the welling up of love and affection for that little black-haired baby to be instantaneous and complete. It was love at first sight. Yes, I thought my daughter was beautiful, but that wasn’t why I loved her. My stomach flipped with excitement, my veins pulsed with continuous shots of adrenaline, my heart pounded like a jackhammer, my hands sweated and I couldn’t stop beaming. Katie, too, was elated. She was done with labor. She had a healthy daughter. And she could see, finally, I was delighted.
I hope to never experience that sort of long-term, high-stakes uncertainty and dread again, but it was worth the wait.

Advertisements