Being a Dad

Being a DadMy one-year-old’s upstairs, in bed, sleeping off the morning. My back hurts from carrying her around and running after her. She’s been ill a lot the last month, and was teething, but things seem to be alright again today. I have an hour or so to myself to do the chores and write a little.

I often hear ‘nothing can prepare you for parenthood’. Maybe that’s true, but you know: I’m a writer, it’s my job to describe the indescribable.

So I say ‘challenge accepted’.

Responsible dad

It’s two in the morning. It’s been a busy day at work. I’m sound asleep. Well, I was ten seconds ago. Then a wail of despair echoed through the house from the room down the hall. Our little bundle of joy just woke up, decided she was unhappy with the absence of the two beings of great awesomeness a.k.a. mom and dad, and went ahead and made her displeasure known.

Taking care of a baby can be quite trying, but the basics aren’t that hard. You feed them, clean them, and put them to bed at the right times; the rest takes care of itself. The problem – when she goes off -, is figuring out what it’s the right time for. Is she hungry? Does she want a hug? Or is it dirty diapers?

Before I had a daughter of my own, I barely held babies for fear of breaking them somehow. Then, on a faithful day a year ago, I ended up holding a ten-minute-old-very-tiny-moving-breathing-wriggling girl in my arms. Starting that day – actually, that night – my wife and I were suddenly responsible for doing all that feeding, cleaning, and bed-putting.
But, guess what: it wasn’t that bad. Yes, we freaked out several times in the beginning. Yes, we tried to feed her and carry her around for an hour in the dead of night before figuring out her diaper was full up to her armpits.

In short, having a baby is a real learning-on-the-job adventure. And the toughest time is at the start, when you have the least experience.

Happy dad

It’s two-fifteen. After a sleepy exchange with my wife, I’m in the other room holding a baby clutched to my chest. Tiny arms are stretched around my neck, a stuffed toy rabbit and duck are squeezed between us. Her crying has stopped and her breathing has grown more relaxed.  It’s weird to realize that this tiny being has become the center of our life. I can’t imagine a life without her.

People usually say the sleepless nights and endless dirty diapers ‘are worth it’. I took that on faith, before. Most people decide to have a second, third, or even more babies. That has to mean that those people did find it worth it and decided they wanted more. Of course, knowing isn’t the same as understanding.

Now that I’m a year in, I do understand it. The first few weeks, your baby is just a tiny flesh puppet, screaming displeasure, ingesting food and ejecting poo. Then she smiles at you for the first time. She starts to laugh at your lame funny voices. She discovers she has hands and starts giggling endlessly at her toys. She clutches you, because you’re daddy and that makes you the most important person in her world – except for mommy maybe.

Part of it’s biological. That same part of your brain that finds pictures of kittens cute will fire off ten times as hard when your baby makes her first sound or takes her first step.
Part of it is the investment. The harder you work at something, the better you feel when it goes well. And few things require more work than a baby.

No-vacation dad

It’s quarter-to-seven. My alarm clock whines us awake. Already? Oh right, her-majesty kept us awake from two to three. Sigh. Nothing for it but to grab a quick shower and get dressed. Work awaits, but first her-majesty had to be fed, dressed, and taken to daycare. No rest for the wicked. And tomorrow we do it all again. And again. And again.

What I didn’t really get before we had a baby was the gnawing fear. She’s got a fever, is she going to be alright? I can hear her crying from her bedroom- what if it’s serious? I can no longer hear her in her bedroom – what if she’s dead?
I’m afraid for my daughter a lot, usually without cause, but that hardly makes a difference the next time around.

The other thing that is hard to grasp is the unrelentingness of babies.
Part of it is the sleepless nights. Tiny babies – our daughter was born 2,5 kilos / 5,5 pounds – need food every few hours, even at night. Other babies just don’t sleep.
Part of it is that it doesn’t stop. There is no vacation from your baby. I don’t know if you ever have them, but there are times at work that I think ‘I really need a vacation’. So I take one, and I can charge up. That doesn’t exist for babies. They’re there all the time, and you need to take care of them.
You are no longer a free adult, surrounded by other adults who can take care of themselves. There is this non-adult that you need to take care of, 24-7.

If you spend your energy on your child one sleepless night, you can’t just recharge the next. It’s possible, but you have to work that out with your partner because you can’t simply sleep in. If you’re not careful, you consistently spend more energy than you recharge. That’s one of the roads to a depression or burn-out.

It’s a dad’s life

Did that give you a glimpse into the world of parenthood? I hope it gave some context to the statement ‘it’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it’.

It sounds a bit negative, now that I read it back. That’s probably because I feel people should go into parenthood knowing what they’re getting into. I’ve seen people dreaming about a glowing pregnancy, browsing catalogs of baby clothes with dewy eyes.
Be careful. It’s not all pink clouds and rainbows. And although I hardly mentioned her in this post, my wife is my greatest support in this endeavor. If your relationship isn’t up to snuff, it can get even harder.

It sucks. A lot. It’s also awesome even more.

Oh, my daughter’s woken up. I guess writing-time’s up.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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