Many new fathers, I have heard, get emotional at the moment of their first child’s birth. Overwhelmed by the miracle of life, and their part in it, they weep as they look upon their new baby, this little creation that has an eternity of potential hidden in its future, and this is its very beginning. I thought for a very long time leading up to this moment that I would be weeping with the best of ’em.
But that wasn’t my experience.
No, the best word I can think to describe my experience was that I was startled. Maybe the blame lies in the fact that my eyes were glued to what we’ll call the focal point of the birth, having felt obligated to bear witness to the gory reality of labor and be as involved a participant as I could be. I didn’t want to back down, and the sight fascinated me, so I didn’t—couldn’t—look away.
Then the baby was born.
It only took a few seconds. One final push and my little Dagny came pouring out. That’s the best verb I can think of. Like a flash flood, suddenly overflowing out of my wife’s body. The size of the baby shocked me. I suppose I was expecting the size of a vastly premature baby? But no. She was normal-sized, which to me looked massive, almost Lovecraftian. She was also dark red and purple all over, and then there was all the blood that came with her, and on the whole the experience felt like something out of The Walking Dead. She resembled nothing of what I had anticipated, and she certainly didn’t resemble myself or my wife in the moment, so you’ll understand why I wasn’t filled with an instant emotional connection to this strange creation that just came out of my wife’s body.
That isn’t to say I was disgusted or disappointed, or anything like that. And it wasn’t that I didn’t love her. I was startled, but I was also fascinated. I watched the baby as she was cleaned and measured and weighed, my mind rapidly adjusting to this new reality, adjusting to the fact that this was my daughter, the new focus of my life. I was grinning the whole time, happily bewildered at this brand new experience, but still not feeling that overwhelming feeling of instant attachment and protectiveness that I feel a good father should have.
Then I got to hold her.
That was the first step. Until that point she had been treated as something like a science experiment. The team of nurses were amazing, but the baby was at a distance from us for her first ten or so minutes of life. She was being poked and prodded. Her skin was purple and she didn’t look like a normal human. She had been withdrawn from my wife’s body along with a bucket of blood. She was a thing to observe—only eventually becoming a sweet little innocent baby to be held. The nurses finished what they were doing with her and wrapped her up in a blanket, and handed her to me.
I realized very quickly something extremely important: everything I had envisioned about my Dagny—the future I’d have with her, the hobbies she’d enjoy, the skills she’d develop, the time I’d spend with her, the girl, the woman she’d become—everything I thought I knew about my daughter was wrong. Well, not wrong per se, but not necessarily true. She could still be and do some of those things, perhaps even all of them, but this little girl I was now holding in my arms wasn’t that person. She was, is, her own soul. She exists independent of my visions of my future with her. She existed before she was born, and it wasn’t my job to create her, but to discover her. That was the key difference. I didn’t know her yet. I thought I did, but the baby that came out was someone different. She was real. Not simply a dream of mine. And it would be my responsibility to get to know her, to figure out who she already was, and do the steward’s job of guiding her, not composing her.
I wonder if other parents have felt that same transition in perspectives.
Holding her in that blanket, I took her over to my wife. Nyssa was lying on the hospital bed, and she, too, was smiling ear to ear. Holding the baby, I leaned over the bed railings and laid Dagny next to Nyssa’s head.
Nyssa was instantly attached. For her the connection was emotional, whereas mine was still intellectual. As I said in my last blog post, her maternity blossomed in one fell swoop. I, meanwhile, loved my baby, but still from a slight distance. It wasn’t until almost exactly 24 hours later that I discovered my sense of fatherhood.
It wasn’t any big event or momentous moment that stirred me. In fact, it was somewhat small, and I might not even have known it ever happened if I hadn’t thought about it. It happened when the nurses came in to take her away from our hospital room for more measurements and check-ups. Nyssa had been asleep for a couple of hours at that point, and I had been taking care of Dagny. Well, more “watching over” than “taking care.” Holding her, admiring her, reflecting on how well everything had gone, how grateful I was…then the nurses took her away, and I realized I felt a slight anxiety over it. They were taking my baby! Not that I was afraid for her or anything…just that she was gone, and I missed her.
And that’s when I realized I was attached. That’s when I realized she was really mine. That’s when I finally felt like a legitimate father.
So why was that? What happened? Why did Nyssa instantly become a mother, and it took me a while longer to gain that deep-set sense of fatherhood?
In his Second Treatise on Government, the philosopher John Locke asked by what right an individual can claim to own one part of the world, when, according to the Bible, God gave the world to all humanity in common. He answered that persons own themselves and therefore their own labor. When a person works, that labor enters into the object. Thus, the object becomes the property of that person.
That’s right. John Locke’s theory of property popped into my head. A person mixes his or her labor with the land—grows some fruit trees or plants seeds in a field—and by some ancient, primitive, inherent law, that person now can justify ownership of that land.
I believe the same thing holds true of parenthood. The more time, the more effort a father or mother invests in caring for and nurturing their child, the stronger attachment they’re going to have to that child.
Nyssa put in nine months of pregnancy. Nine months full of nausea, back pain, awkwardness, discomfort. Nine months of a new life growing inside her body and leeching life energy out of her directly, feeling the baby kick and punch and feel and flip. Then the climax, 36 hours of the various stages of labor, the most painful and traumatizing natural event a body can go through. And then the beautiful process of feeding the baby with her own body through breastfeeding. Of course she’s going to feel more attachment. Of course she’s going to ascend to motherhood immediately. Look what she’s invested!
On the other hand, look what I’ve invested. I literally planted the seed and walked away (see 3:40 for the relevant quote; the whole sketch is fantastic). I gave my wife some back rubs over the months, did the dishes, bought her chocolate…but that was for her. The baby inside her was far away, an abstract concept to me, not the constant burden to bear that it was for her.
So it makes good sense to me that I only felt that longing pull to my baby once I had taken care of her. Invested some time with her. Held her and kissed her and changed her diaper once or twice. Only then did I feel she was truly mine, and not the doctor’s or the nurses’.
So what does that mean? What is the point? I think it’s as simple as the fact that we need to spend time and effort in the most important relationships. We need to mix a little more of our labor with people—parents with children, and even children with parents—and we’ll find that the investment does indeed return, with increase—with a sense of ownership. Not the selfish, domineering kind of ownership, but an emotional connection in which we care deeply, personally, about the end result.
Isn’t it about…time?