Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A New Normal

Yesterday evening, I left work and picked Poohbutt up from daycare as I do every weekday. We chatted through traffic while she snacked on pretzels. We settled in at home rather quickly, and my 19-month-old daughter began "reading" Newsweek to me. When she moved onto Say Goodnight and Baby's Day, I realized that a new Normal has finally settled in on our household.

As many of you know, the old Normal was my watching Pooh all day and going to work at night. It was supposed to only last nine months--until she turned one--but went on until she was 18 months. I was reluctant to let that Normal go, but it couldn't last forever. Finally, I took her to her first day of daycare just a few days after my birthday.

It was one of those bitterly ironic, bright and sunny spring mornings. Pooh bounded enthusiastically out of the house, racing her Ma and Da to the car. You wanted to laugh (ain't nothin' cuter than a running toddler), but I was choking back the tears. I fought the crying jag the entire way--from the Metro station to drop off Ma, through the rush hour traffic, all the way into the daycare center. I didn't want my baby girl to think anything was wrong. That is my duty.

It worked. She was confused and apprehensive being dropped off that first day. But she didn't cry. Not in my presence, anyway. And I didn't in hers. Afterwards, though, I was a mess. A zombie, mostly, trying to figure out why the hell I was at work in the daylight. Once, bumming a cigarette from a co-worker, trying to talk about daycare, I finally succumbed. I had to scurry off to my car and let the tears flow.

Caring for a child, day in and day out, for those really long hours, is pretty intense. It's so joyful and exhilarating, so exhausting and enervating, it can simply overwhelm your identity if you let it. Somewhere in the muddle of the soup I call myself, I know that I am a husband and a son and a friend, an employee, a co-worker, and a colleague, and a writer. There are other things, as well. But they all seemed to be buried somewhere as I became a father.

There was never a moment my daughter wasn't on my mind during the day. I never lost sight of her. My head was filled with Pooh. What was I going to feed her? When was I going to put her down for her nap? What can I teach her today? What will I learn from her? Where will we go today? Will she please eat something other than these damned French fries?!

I had never been so wrapped up in another human being's well-being. Never so concerned with the mercurial, little tyke's moment-to-moment happiness. Never so personally invested in anybody else. And I'd never been closer to anyone than I was with my little Poohbutt for those 15 months. And she'll never know. She'll never know how hard that was to give up.

Or how excruciating it was those first, few days giving her up to the folks at daycare. It didn't take her long to figure out what was up. And that she didn't like it. On that second day, she screamed and wailed and had to be pried off of me. I could hear her screams as I climbed the stairs and left the building.

A lot of you know the cloud that hangs over your head when you leave your baby and she screams like you just put her on the last train to Auschwitz. Rationally, I knew it was for the best. She just reached a stage in her development where she needed more engagement than I felt I could offer. Besides, I had to earn money. As I heard one mother say, "Do you rather want to be around for your baby's seventh tooth coming in or be able to provide for her future?"

I also knew that I wasn't anyone special. Ma had to go through this when Pooh was only three months old, and our girl was receiving her very sustenance from her mother's body. That has got to be the deepest bond one must surrender. I know, my poor wife really did suffer when she had to go back to work. But even her suffering isn't unique. There is hardly a parent in this country who hasn't gone through what I went through this past month. I knew that. Rationally. But when your kid starts crying--even within the hands of paid professionals--who, in many ways, can care for her better than you can--you best believe you want to get all Action Jackson, kick down some doors, and save your baby from all that pain.

But Pooh didn't want to be saved--not by me. I was the man who betrayed her on a daily basis. She was relieved to be rescued from daycare at the end of the day, but she was absolutely ecstatic to see Ma. Not me. She could no longer count on her Da to protect her.

Ma was the one she ran to when she was hungry, when she was happy, when she fell down. She had no need for me, anymore. One night, when she woke up screaming in her crib, instead of crying, "Da! Da! Da!" as she usually did, she screeched, "Ma! Ma! Ma!" When I went into her room to pick her up as I usually did, she ran away from me, tripped, and fell in her crib, and refused to be picked up.

"Well, she wants her Ma now," my wife ventured, "because Mommies are the nurturing ones."

Now, I don't ever want to dog mothers--my best friend is a mother--or rather, the mother of my child. And yall know about black men and they mommas. However, one thing that bugs me about this recent Cult of Motherhood is the either/or false dichotomy our culture foists on us when it comes to parenthood. It seems we can have either good fathers or good mothers. But we can never have both.

That "Father Knows Best" myth that countless generations before us grew up with was complete and utter bullshit--as though the mother was just some cooking, cleaning, perfumed uterus that deferred to the "real" parent when he got home. But why replace that myth of a father with the bubbling, bumbling oaf we have today who impedes real parent at every turn or who, at his best, can only be considered "helpful"?

I was there at the conception of our daughter. I was there for the doctor visits. I was there breathing along, walking the corridors, massaging, holding hands, and coaching and coaxing. I was there ready to slug the doctors when they gave my wife the epidural and she was in complete agony. I was there to stop the overly eager resident from giving her a C-section. After 22 hours of labor, my wife became my hero that day. And I was there with tears in my eyes as little Pooh came into the world and I cut the umbilical cord.

I was there because that is what fathers do. And those of us who give a shit would do a lot more if it were physically possible.

When I took my wife and daughter home, I actually knew what to do (having much younger siblings and cousins came in handy for once--ha!). So yes, I changed diapers and burped and swaddled. I even tried skin time until my daughter started ripping the hairs from my chest. I was up late at night and early in the morning. I heated up the donated meals, entertained visitors, ran errands, dealt with grandparents while my ladies slept. And I went to work.

That is what we fathers do.

And, for the last 15 months, I woke up with Pooh, changed her diapers, fumbled around with that damned Butt Paste, clothed her, fed her, and bathed her, and played with her, and put her to sleep.

When she was hungry, she tugged on my sleeve. When she was tired, she lay her head on my chest. And when she was scared or hurt, she ran into my arms, and I lifted her up and rocked her gently and hushed and hummed and sang and I showered her pain with Daddy kisses.

It's what I thought a father should do. While I'll admit I really fell down on the housekeeping, I was not the bubbling, bumbling idiot I always here about. I was an equal partner in raising our child. And I know I'm not anything special here. I know there are tons of fathers out there just like me. I just wonder why I never see him in the popular discourse. I wonder where he is.

A little over a week ago, I was at the daycare dealing with a brand new pang. I was just coming to grips with Poohbutt's histrionics with my leaving every day when she totally surprised me. Instead of clinging to me, begging me not to leave, she was actually wriggling out of my grasp, wanting to get down to play with her friends. I suddenly didn't know which was worse. Of course, I hated her screaming bloody murder every time I left, but this ...? Her first little step towards independence. "Da, you cool and all, but look at my girl Shanice over there with all those crayons."

It wasn't too overly dramatic, no gnashing of teeth, but I did feel it. I now knew that the old Normal was being replaced. But this is what being a parent is, right? The slow, incremental process of letting go. It hurts a little, but you can't help but feel a little proud. There my baby girl was, laughing and playing with other kids.

But I can't lie. There was something quite glorious in that old Normal. Having your daughter running at you, laughing, "Da! Da!" and waking you up in the morning with a kiss. Playing dolls with Campbell Camel and Baby Rose. Going to the Chinese buffet and downing sushi together. Playing in the sand. And that overriding feeling of pride I got doing my damnedest to be a good father.

I guess a lot of my melancholy was because I also got caught up in the Either/Or. Either I could be this loving, caring nurturer or I could be that rock-solid, good provider I've been hearing so much about. But life isn't really either/or, is it? It's these infinite possibilities of And, if we let it. I can be loving and caring and a good provider and a father and a husband and son and friend and, who knows, maybe even a writer.

Later in the evening, after we all sat down and had dinner together, the three of us played catch on the dining room floor. Pooh sat on Da's lap and we caught the ball and threw it back to Ma together. God, it was fun.

I'll probably always miss the old Normal, and there are some kinks still to be worked out (how does a lazy, no-good bum of a writer finally become a good provider, and, oh yeah, what about that housework?); but I've got to say, I'm really loving this new Normal, too. And I'm really looking forward to all the new Normals yet to come.


mountain.mama said...

This is a great post written by a parent. Mom or dad, we all struggle with the feelings as our little Poohs grow up. Just when you think you've got it all figured out? It will change again.

nunya said...

Thank you for this very special post.

You are all of those things and more.

Just keep a sense of humor because the minute you think you got "normal" down Poohbutt will be setting up a new normal :)

nicola said...

Oh how right you are I have been there, walking away from a child being held by some well meaning stranger with screams of mummeeeeeee drifting down the stairs, as I say to myself I am doing it for them, to pay for the tennis, the golf, riding lessons etc and to make sure they have access to computers, TV but sometimes I do wonder. Thought for this week -I'll call it special occasion mum - why will be revealed. My 11 year old told me that my 6 year old Ollie had been trying to justify why it was OK to have sweets sometimes (daddy had brought the whole tribe into the hospital where I work so I could feed my new baby) Ollie had said thoughtfully 'Sweets are for special occasions- like when we see Mummy!' Claudia thought this was funny, I cried myself to sleep. It is impossible to do it all but sometimes it definitely feels like the balance is wrong.