Thursday, November 1, 2007

Men and our Babies

I'm a man that loves babies!

I started thinking about men and babies back when I was reading the Male Privileges Checklist, and saw privilege number 11

If I have children and provide primary care for them, I'll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I'm even marginally competent.

And this advice to a prospective father, found in the comment thread in a post by Hugo Schwyzer:

BTW, your job as long as she’s breastfeeding, which takes six to eight hours a day for the first several months or longer, is to change all diapers when you’re home and especially to balance the nighttime drain on her by getting up and getting the baby, changing it, bringing it to her in bed and delivering it back to the crib. That’s the best advice we got before our first daughter was born. You’ll still get way more sleep than she will and her resentment level will be way down.

Woman and babies just seem to go together quite naturally. We have a certain iconic view of the mother and child bond, and properly so, for there is great beauty there. A mother holding a baby seems a natural and almost holy thing. I think of all the iconography around Mary and the infant Jesus.

I consider myself fortunate because I discovered the joy of caring for babies when I was a teenager, when I needed to care for my brother's son. He was a difficult baby that suffered from terrible colic, but I learned to deal with him. I listened to his screams, fed him, changed his diapers, got puked on, and paced endlessly with him so he could sleep. My ability to deal patiently with his sometimes unpredictable moods because a source of pride in me, and I think I formed a somewhat different anticipation of fatherhood than some men have. Sure, I pictured taking my future son to his first ballgame, and teaching a future daughter to ride her bike. But I also wondered what it would feel like to hold and feed a baby that wasn't just a friend’s baby, or a relative's baby. But a baby of my own! What would that feel like?

So I’ve always felt comfortable and adept at dealing with babies. My children are grown now, and I miss that "baby fix". It is pretty well established that infants need lots of physical closeness and warmth to develop properly. I've heard that some hospitals that treat infants in long term care, recognizing that nurses don't have the time to sit and rock them for hours, allow volunteers to come in and do it. I'm not certain of that, but I recall hearing of it, and I remember considering it. But it never got further than a brief wish. Somehow I was certain that all such volunteers would be woman, and I'd be considered weird.

Men and babies just don’t seem to go together. I know when I was outside with my own children and they started fussing, guys would look at me and seem to smirk. I sensed a certain relief on their part in not having to deal with it themselves, and sometimes a certain dismissive contempt of me for being in that position. Woman would offer advice, and sometimes say even say "Do you want me to try and settle him down?" We're just not expected to be good with infants, and I don’t think this attitude serves anyone.

The belief that we somehow lack the basic skills and disposition to deal with babies is foolish. As generals, we can sort out the logistics of an amphibious landing, but we can't juggle an infant's nap and feeding schedule, or negotiate getting them into a car seat with their baggage? As cops we can safely disable a violent, psychotic person, but we can't be trusted to tolerate the shrill screams of a newborn? As EMTs we can carefully extract the wounded from a horrible car wreck, but we somehow lack the delicacy needed to cradle an infant in our arms? We can work double shifts at a factory, or burn the midnight oil getting a big project done by the deadline, but we can't handle a few weeks or months of sleepless nights?

I'm not looking at this as another one of those ideological arguments over something that is really just an act of love. To me it's not really about being helpful, or being fair, or being equal, or graciously giving mom a break from the stress. It is about men getting a direct and immediate feeling of fatherhood by caring for our babies - right from the very beginning.

My wife very much wanted to breastfeed, but for various reasons it didn't work out. And part of me was glad, because in those long ago nights when I struggled out of bed listening to the screams of my first child, my daughter, I discovered myself as a father. I learned the need for patience. I learned humility, because I knew that in the eyes of this tiny person - who I loved more than my own life - I was but a dim, faceless shadow. I learned that the true measure of strength and love is the willingness to commit totally to a forever one-sided relationship.

She would continue screaming on my shoulder as the bottle warmed, and not until we sat in the rocker, and she began pulling nourishment from the nipple, did she quiet. And such a quiet! Just the faint sounds of faraway traffic. Just the sound and rhythm of her gulping, and the way she slows down and relaxes once the panic of her immediate need recedes. No longer drinking desperately, she can drink with ease, and with pleasure.

And then the miracle happens, because - as she continues to drink - her eyes open and they roll towards me. She looks not at my eyes but through my eyes, with a fixed, unblinking gaze that Mellville described as "feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence."

Once she is sated, I lift her and form the bone and muscle of my shoulder into a cove for her slumber. She sleeps, and I remain awake. The warmth of her small body blankets me with peace, and with completeness. She drifts back to that unknowing place where infant souls dwell. And as I rock her my thoughts return to my world. A world of plans and responsibilities, of things I need to do tomorrow, and things I’ll need to face years from now. Of inner doubts and now suddenly sharpened fears, because I am charged with a most precious and most undeserved gift.

I know as I rock her in the night that the world outside is the same as it has always been - but my view of it shifts and reforms itself with each sway of the rocker. My world is newly built upon the foundation of her faint breath. I am a man with a mission. I am forever her hostage; on my shoulder rests the full, fearsome weight of her. And bear her I shall.

9 comments:

Stacy & Ed said...

Wow... you have a wonderful way with words! My husband has been WONDERFUL with our babies. He gets up with our son at night and gives me the much needed break from a long day with the kids when he gets home from work. I know that I'm very lucky to have such a father for my kids! I just LOVED your blog!

Hayden Tompkins said...

'marginally competent'. Hysterical.

Eryk said...

Excellent post! Much more eloquent than my own. How do you cope with the frustration of it all? I just can't help but feel like I'm being set up for failure. Like my eagerness to be involved is seen as "cute" by the women I know and that they're just waiting for me to resign myself to a more stereotypical gender role...

Sweating Through fog said...

Eryk - thanks for your comment, and good luck with your baby - I envy you.

How did I deal with the frustration? For me, it was more of a nuisance than something that made me really angry. I've heard some dads had woman come up to them and correct them for doing something "wrong", but that never happened to me.

From woman, most of the encounters were well-meaning concern on their part, and I responded with graceful demurral. Guys might have smirked, but I never took it as a big deal. To me, part of being a man is having the self-confidence to be yourself, and not feel like you need to respond personally to every slight.

tomas said...

hey -- thanks for the comment on rad dad and i'd love to use your post in the zine's newest issue if you don't mind -- i can send you some copies as well...

let me know

and keep it up!

tomas.moniz at gmail.com

Our New Baby said...

Great post. Makes me think and laugh all at the same time. At times I am not sure what to expect as we are just getting ready for our first one.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a 'baby person', I've never been a baby person, and I won't pretend to be.
They scare the hell out of me for 3 reasons: 1) I don't have the reflexes I had 30 years ago, and the way babies wriggle and squirm and lunge I'm mortified the wee child will move suddenly and I'll lose my grip, 2) it's been my experience if I commit even the slightest infraction in the eyes of whatever female happens to be standing near I'll be subjected to a merciless tirade espousing my every shortcoming as a human being (or for merely being male, whichever comes first) and 3) in todays age of rampant False Allegations... btdtand I WILL NOT EXPOSE MYSELF TO THAT AGAIN.
When my daughter was born my world was compelte. My work schedule was such that I could easily make that extra hour in the morning to rouse her, change her, feed her, read a book to her and tuck her back into bed before I left for work in the morning... and by Goddess I took fullest advantage of that privilege.
I towered over her (the ever attentive mighty protector) and watched her grow from infant to toddler, toddler to rugrat, to adolescence, and into her teenage years before fate and social conventions conspired to eject me from her life... and I'll be there on her 18th birthday when she's no longer a meal ticket for local DCS to feast at the Great DC Tax Buffet.
Munchkin has the birthday to die for waiting for her complete with a boat. There's a story there: when she was 5 we were in a store and she saw a 'Barbie Sail Boat' she desperately wanted that I just didn't have the funds for at the time so I promised her a boat when I could afford it.
On her 18th birthday she's getting a 14' sail boat named 'Kittens Promise' and a SUV to carry it to the lake.
Until then? I won't be around children, at all, period.
One casual passerby gets the wrong opinion and I'm in for another whirlwind nightmare of police, assessments, evaluations and lawyers (all on my dime); plus trips to court, appointments with social services workers, front page headlines, etc.
BTDT... never again.
Gunner Retired

ZoBabe said...

Love this post! Like Gunner above, I'm not "naturally" a baby person (despite being obviously female). Having one of my own, I was simply forced to get over that.

I'm so glad, as the love and bonding of a baby is one of life's great treasures. More men should avail themselves of the opportunity.

ZoBabe said...

Oh, and STF, just saw your comment about women telling you you're "doing it wrong."

LOL, they do that to me to! I think they do it to each other to a much greater degree than men really see.

Try not to take it too personally.