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.