November 30, 2021

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Fatherhood Crept Up on Me

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I’d always assumed I’d be a father, for better or worse, until the day I assumed I never would. My wife and I married at 25, expecting, like good Catholics, that our own children would simply arrive. But they didn’t.

For the first two years after we were married I didn’t really notice. I felt I had been dealt an extended honeymoon. In the third year I started to wonder, and then my wife and I spent the next five years asking questions: first of each other (are we doing this right?); then of doctors (well, are we?); and finally of God.

There’s no shortage of public discussion about having kids. Most of the time we talk about who wants them and who doesn’t, how many we want, and when to have them. The underlying assumption is that children are there to be had, waiting for you, if you want them.

For us, it wasn’t so. After five years of asking questions, we spent another five years trying to accept the answers, or rather the lack of answers. No one seemed to see a problem. There was nothing wrong with anyone, but it wasn’t happening. Maybe, we were told, it’s bad luck; we were simply catching the wrong side of the odds. Maybe it wasn’t in the plan for us.

Eventually, I stopped asking questions. As I moved from being “around 30” to “around 40,” my friends’ babies grew up and became teenagers. Their family lives were dominated by swimming practice and travel team baseball. My wife and I moved around, because we could. I changed jobs when I liked because, well, why not? I adopted the persona of the fun uncle and godfather, the one who shows up without a profanity filter but with an inflatable T-rex costume for the kids. I tempted their parents with cigarettes, made them drink a little more and stay up a little later than they normally would.

My wife and I got used to what we didn’t have, or who we didn’t have, and built the architecture of our life together around the hole, emotionally and logistically. We learned to get on with things, and to settle into what the future we weren’t planning for looked like. We got comfortable. Until the day everything changed.

When my wife got pregnant there was a lot of denial along with the joy. It was like an inverted sense of grief. We didn’t tell anyone initially. A lot can go wrong in the first three months. Part of me didn’t want to tell, because everything about my life was about to change. I had barely begun to understand what that meant.

There was a lot of bargaining. I mean, not that much would change, really. How could it? It’s only one little person, and I had spent nearly 15 years silently critiquing other people’s child-rearing while mastering the rest of adult life, more or less.

Around 8½ months in—somewhere about the time I was assembling the flat pack crib, or maybe it was the flat-pack changing table, or the flat-pack nursery-room chest of drawers (why doesn’t anyone sell preassembled baby furniture?)—acceptance hit me: I don’t know what I’m doing. If I can’t put together furniture without violence and blasphemy, what possible hope is there that I can raise a whole human person from scratch?

I began to accept that fatherhood was probably going to be a disaster. I was probably going to be a disaster. Maybe the best thing about having kids in your 20s is your complete lack of awareness of what’s being asked of you. I was too old for that kind of ignorance.

As I surveyed all the petty passions and projects with which I had filled my life over the years, fully accepting that none of it would matter once the baby came, I had to wonder: Is this me? Will I still be me when all this stuff doesn’t matter anymore? Who’s the person that’s going to raise this kid, anyway?

I thought I had answered those questions, until the doctor put that squalling little muppet into my arms earlier this month. In that moment, I stood there looking at the child, then at my wife, and then at the child again. As my vision cleared, I realized it wasn’t the baby I was seeing for the first time, it was me. I’d never really known who I was until that moment. Becoming a father didn’t change me; it helped me understand who I’d always been and who I would be from now on.

Mr. Condon is editor of the Pillar.

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2021-10-22 18:40:00

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