Parenthood: Inside vs. Outside
By Jeremy Adam Smith
Web Exclusive, August 28, 2006
Once upon a time, I didn't know any parents my own age, but I'd see them on the streets with their young children.
I'd see the whining, the screaming, the messes, the rising frustration. I'd feel wings beating frantically against the walls of my chest, something fighting to escape. I'd think: no, no, not me, never, parenthood looks horrible, they must be miserable.
At that point in my life I expended a great deal of energy avoiding responsibility. I equated this absence with freedom.
After my wife Shelly got pregnant, I would walk the streets of San Francisco with a feeling of doom, imagining—correctly—that I wouldn't be able to go there or do that after the baby came.
"The baby" was a very abstract concept.
Today I am a dad. Our son Liko sleeps in bed with us. At twenty-one months—two weeks ago—we started to night-wean him, so that he would not nurse all night on Shelly. As I write, Shelly sleeps in the living room; Liko and I sleep in the bedroom. We'll continue this arrangement until Liko no longer tries to nurse at night.
Why keep him in the bedroom at all? Why not just put him in a crib and close the door?
Because we don't want to. We like having him in bed with us. He'll get his own room someday. There's no rush. In the meantime, however, we don't want him pawing at Shelly's breasts every hour on the hour from midnight till six a.m.
It's going fine. In the early months—the fabled fourth trimester—Liko needed Shelly and in my ignorance and inexperience, I was largely a supportive bystander. I could not imagine putting him down to sleep without mom; I couldn't imagine caring for him all by myself, as a father. This bred a certain helplessness on my part, which I've been told is common to first-time fathers.
Last night as I watched Liko sleep, his little back rising and falling, something changed, as though I had been carrying within myself a message written in a language that I only at that moment learned to read. It's difficult to translate, from that inner language into English. I'll try.
Last night my son curled up into the crook of my arm. I held him, feeling like the bed was a raft and we were just drifting along some dark river. In a flash I felt totally responsible for Liko and totally capable of caring for him, day or night, in a way that I hadn't felt before.
That feeling of responsibility and capability gave me a concomitant feeling of confidence and power; not "power" in the sense of physical force or strength, but as in the ability to do what has to be done.
"Father" did not feel like a role that I was adopting, but like something intrinsic to my identity. It didn't feel "like" anything, really; it was its own thing, my thing, like my arms or my legs.
Today as I write I feel somehow more free than I have felt in two years. True, my world is smaller, baby-sized. But from where I now sit, I can see things that I've never seen before.
I am writing in the cafe of the San Francisco Main Public Library. A short time ago a young man, mid-20's, sat down next to me with another young man, who suffers from a degenerative nervous disorder of some kind. They are strangers to me, but I have seen them both around the Mission many times, one caring from the other.
I don't know anything about their relationship— brothers, friends?
They both dress like Mission hipsters, in high-tops and thrift-store jackets, the kind of alterna-uniforms you see shoulder-to-shoulder at a Yo La Tengo concert. Over the years I've watched the sick one grow more palsied, more bent upon himself, less recognizable. I don't know anything about his illness, but I cannot imagine him surviving too many more years.
For the past fifteen minutes I covertly watched one hold a drink up to the other's mouth. I watched him wipe the other's chin, force the other's hands into a position that would allow him to eat, spoon food. A palsied hand knocked milk onto a shirt, the floor. One patiently cleaned it up. At the end one had a small seizure; the other dealt with it.
They just left, one guiding the other at the elbow. Watching them oppressed and saddened me; my hands feel heavy as I write. I'm trying to understand why. Part of the answer is that it is horrible to witness a dependency that can only end in death. But perhaps I was also seeing myself as I might appear with Liko to other people: burdened by responsibility, trapped in caring for another, covered in spit and milk. That's the external image.
Internally, how do the two young men feel? There must be anger, both at thwarted lives. But what freedom and power is there, where we can't see it?
If I could get into a time machine and find my childless old self sitting in a bar, knocking back his third beer, laughing with friends but secretly afraid of fatherhood, I might sidle up and whisper the truth: Parenthood is not what it seems. The life you're living will end, yes, but don't worry: you'll get a new life.
Jeremy Adam Smith is a writer in San Francisco. He blogs about the politics of parenting at http://daddy-dialectic.blogspot.com/.