Saturday, April 19, 2008

"What's it like being a father?"

Since I became a father my friends have continually asked how I am doing in that new capacity. I guess I have to get used to my son being a frequent topic of conversation. It's a general rule that most social interchanges begin with small talk, and Baby E. is now an easy starting point for just about everyone I run into. I really have to make an effort to engage in the kind of talk that starts with, "How's the kid?" or "What's it like being a father?" Those are such broad questions that I never know quite how to reply. If the expectation is merely the return of courtesy, I have no problem replying that everything is "fine". But what does that mean anyway? It sounds so mundane coming out of my mouth that most of the time I'd rather just shrug and mumble something beneath my breath.

Anyway, the answer is that Baby E. is fine. That is... unless he's not, and the resultant discussion is going to extend well past simple amiability. As far as the other question, I have thought a lot about it and I think I have a fairly straightforward answer. Becoming a father (for me) was an opportunity to finally understand what fear is. I can honestly say that before this experience I never really was afraid of anything (other than a generalizable terror of death). I felt pretty invulnerable to the sort of eventualities that normally provoke a fearful response. I am still relatively young and have a semblance of good health (despite myself). I've always been appropriately cautious and have a way of constantly preparing for the worst. Additionally, I am of large stature, so I've never really seriously considered other people a threat to my physical well-being. All in all, I've been quite lucky (if you believe in that sort of thing).

So it is only now that I get it. The world is a dark, brutal place where human beings visit the worst kinds of atrocities on each other and everything else on the Earth. It may be a bleak outlook... but I'm reasonably confident that it's a fair representation of reality. If it's just a matter of self-preservation, or the well-being of others who can ultimately take care of themselves- then that's an acceptable proposition. But now I'm responsible to someone who I love very deeply. Anything that happens to him effects me on the deepest level. His concerns are my own. And he can't do anything to stave off the insidious forces around him. It has to be me or someone I trust with his life. That may be a cliché, but it's a profound realization now that I'm actually a parent.

I'll share an example situation that best illustrates the change in my awareness. Today M. needed to go to the salon for a hair cut, and she proposed that we take E. and his stroller to the shopping center together. I could watch him, or push him around while I waited for her. Sounds great, eh? She promised to buy me one of my fancy coffee drinks, so I agreed. So I got to the chain java shop, found a comfy armchair and parked E. beside me while I read Kim Deitch's Alias the Cat (which is quite amusing, by the way). I gave E. a pacifier and he was quiet, and I figured that time would pass quickly and in a carefree, relaxed manner. For about twenty minutes I was right. And then a guy came up and asked if anyone was sitting next to me. There was a similar seat, separated by a coffee table, next to mine. I grunted and moved E. to the opposite side, away from the stranger.

At first I was just worried that my peace would be disrupted by the jarring that moving E.'s stroller entailed. Luckily he didn't wake up, and I settled back in to my reading. But then I caught a glimpse of this guy out of the corner of my eye. He was of average build, with stringy longish hair glued down on the backside of his balding head. He had squinty eyes and filthy, formerly white running shoes. And he had a leering smirk, and seemed to be paying inordinate attention to my sleeping baby. I tried to radiate menace without provoking a confrontation. Perhaps he didn't have evil intentions. Yet all I could think about were all the grimy perverts and ne'er-do-wells that surround us constantly. Maybe I read too much true crime, but there it is. He hadn't even done anything, but I visualized bashing in his skull. You'll have to forgive me, because sometimes that's what it's like being a father.

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Anonymous Diane said...

That's what the Maya sling is for. 'nuff said. Great comments from you, you're a great day!

4:30 PM  

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