by Jonathan Lyons on June 12, 2012

So my first few pieces on fatherhood, as I reread them, feel a bit like melodrama, which suggests that the loss of the immediacy of the experience is on track and that I am not, in fact, suffering from PTSD. I hope that not everything I’m saying is obvious, and I honestly hope that my observations don’t come off as some sort of attempt at a how-to manual from a Wise Man On The Mountain, advising others on the proper path of child-rearing. I’m learning this as we go. Unlike the 18-year-old me — fresh from the east side of Waterloo, Iowa, who knew everything and wasn’t going to put up with anyone telling him otherwise — the 44-year-old me is genuinely aware of how little he really knows.

I have no idea how any single parent ever, ever does this, precisely because I can barely imagine two of us keeping up as it is. I spent the first months of Curran’s life doing 24/7 baby duty. And when I looked over at my partner as I was mired in baby duty, she almost always was as well. But many single parents do pull it off.

So, things I know now:

Be patient. Be Zen, if you can.

After all, you’re the motherfucker who created this kid’s life. If you planned this, you knew damn well what you were getting yourself into. Tap into that awareness of what you decided to embark upon.

Frustration? That’s only human. But for the duration, you have to be more than yer average human.

That tension you feel cramping up your back/neck/wherever? Part of the job. I think it’s instinctive to react that way to a child’s crying or — gods forbid — screaming. Recognize that that’s why you feel that pain in your back/neck/wherever; in my case, anyway, it helps me intellectualize the stress and get past it.

As K puts it, “I seem to notice that just when things get to the point that they can’t go on like this anymore, when I’m pulling my hair out and in tears, that is exactly when the pattern shifts again in his sleeping/nursing/etc. ‘schedule.’ That is, in addition to patience, be ready to roll with the changes and, in a very Zen sense, to recognize the impermanence of it all — it will change again.”

Be ready. A child needs your 24/7 care and then some.

Seriously. A human baby is born helpless. (Again, I state the obvious.) That means your career, your interests, your hobbies all get shelved for most of those first few months. Or, again, at least that’s what it’s meant for me. If you are really, really lucky, you’ll have a partner like mine, who shares responsibilities with you so you don’t go insane doing nothing but baby shit. I wish I could pull up some of my late-night conversations with E.C. Fish from Curran’s first couple of months, because having friends with child-rearing experience to Facebook chat with — particularly in the wee hours of the morning, when you’re trying to let your sleep-deprived partner get a little rest — helps tremendously.

I don’t know how to recover most of my Facebook convos with E.C., and that’s a shame. He’s a hilarious, witty dad who, as I recall, was up partly because he watches C-SPAN at 3:00 a.m. (That phrase was actually his bio when we both wrote for an indie Iowa City mag many moons ago.) I remember one seriously late night when I was up with my wee one, trying to get him to sleep and let my partner get a few precious moments of snooze/off-boob time, when E.C. asked me something like, “Are you ready to kill the kid yet?”

(I’ve spoken with E.C. on this, as my creative “memory” added details involving a garbage disposal that he, not being a monster, in no way suggested.)

It was late, and I was the kind of exhausted you only get from having a one-month-old who hasn’t gotten the hang of sleeping at night, but I still had my reservations about the humor heading down this path. I gave my response cautiously and privately, via messaging. I said, “I think I passed the moment of going Cronus on his ass after the 12th or 13th diaper.”

Lovez me some dark humor — this conversation was on December 24, in the middle of the night, and yet here we were, joking about me eating my newborn. Or putting him down the garbage disposal. Whichever. This, as it happens, is how E.C. met my grad-schoolmate Ashley-Jayne Nicolaus; she, being on the Left Coast, wasn’t technically up as late as I was with the newbie, nor as late as Fish was in the central time zone. Not having met E.C., she had no idea what sort of demonic psychopath I might be dealing with in the wee hours, advising me to shove my boy down the drain or eat him or otherwise dispose of him.

She bristled.

E.C. chuckled.

He advised her to ask me about him. And — sleep-deprived and joking about familial cannibalism — I introduced them online, making certain to note the asphalt-black-and-thick sense of humor he has that was part of what was keeping me going at that hour.

It’s good friends who get you through the baby’s late nights. So, another observation:

It gets better after the three-month mark.

I can’t avoid the cliché. Everyone told us this, and when we were only a few weeks in, three months was 20 years away. But, weirdly enough, my baby boy’s brain made enough neurons and synaptic connections a bit before the three-month mark that he was abruptly much more engaged with us and the world. Fish doesn’t believe me (he called me delusional, more than once), but just before the three-month mark, Curran started echoing “hello” back to me. Another long-distance friend, David Scott — a designer now, whom I met when we were both asshole 18-year-olds at the University of Iowa (at least, I was) — chimed in online to concur: His boy had done the same thing, then lost the “hello” altogether until he was about two.

Curran echoed our hellos and made a game of it, and because I was not always sleep-deprived, I think that this all really happened. I mean, sans Cartesian doubt, I’m reasonably sure. But he’s six months along now and, as happened with Dave’s young’un, Curran stopped saying his hellos after a while, then started baby babbling and kicking out some remarkably American-English-sounding phonemes.

It gets better again by the six-month mark.

He says, “Hi, Dah-dee” a lot now, and sometimes when looking directly at me, sometimes even responding to me saying, “Hi, Curran,” but I don’t know how much he’s connecting up phonemes with peeps yet. He knows the hand signs for bath, hi, good boy, and a few others. He actually lights up, grinning and giggling, when K signs to him that it’s bath time.

But he clearly knows and responds to his name, mama, papa, daddy, kitty, bath time, and some other terms; as we’ve introduced a few pureed foods — some avocado, banana, winter squash, pears, zucchini, sweet potatoes, and amaranth so far — he’s also begun insisting on handling his own spoon. Not that gracefully, mind ya, but he gets the handle in his hand and delivers the spoonful to his mouth.

It’s gotten better, in part, because at three months he went from being a limp lump of a noob to waking up in a big way and engaging us and the world around him. It’s gotten better because now he notices more, plays more, interacts more, and is even trying to get around — that is, crawl — a bit. He’s beginning to show us who he is.

Share the burden.

No, really. As I said, I have absolutely no idea how any single person manages to do this (Amy Milligan has told me some encouraging things on keeping yer head above water with yer wee one, and I’ll take what wisdom from my child-experienced friends I can get). K and I have what we call “scholarship days.” Here’s our summer plan: Monday I get one, Tuesday she gets one, Wednesday is an all-in family day. Then Thursday is mine, Friday hers, and the weekend is family time. On my scholarship days, K is the primary caretaker — we can do that now that he’s not a newborn — and I get writing time or editing time. I usually hit the gym for a run at the start of my scholarship day. I’m making time to read books and stories I’ve left gathering dust since the start of the fall semester. K does actual scholarship on her days, when I’m the primary. I’m actually getting the hang of it, too. Trading off is what works for us and keeps us productive (being midwesterners, we have always tended to be a bit Calvinistic about that) and sane. Daycare looks like a blessing as well, if you’re lucky enough to be able to swing the cost. We don’t have family nearby to help, so in the fall — when I’ll teach full-time and K will be on sabbatical — we’ll have Curran in daycare for a few half-days each week, which will help us both to keep up.

The alternatives, as far as I can tell, would be to have one of us totally and pretty much exclusively committed to childcare — and we have friends who do this, but who sometimes clearly approach a psychological breaking point — or to have one of us do the ’70s solution: a prescription for Valium to dumb him/her down enough to make everything in the world a soft-focus dream of pure baby awesomeness, where even the shitty diapers smell like roses.

They don’t. And a six-month-old delivers more shit in a single payload than I’d ever imagined possible. But my boy says, “Hi, Dah-dee” to me, and we’ve made it through the forest of those first few months. I’m learning. My child is wanted and planned for and loved, and barring unforeseen, catastrophic bolts from the blue, he’ll have the two of us to see him through. Until he’s 17, when he’ll tell me to go fuck myself (and he’ll probably have me after that, too).

So much more to say, and I will.

* * * *

Jonathan Lyons is a new 2741ATHER. He lives and teaches and writes strange things in Central Pennsylvania.  His latest novel, Signal to Noise: A Novel Infused With Music, is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and cool indie bookstores everywhere.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Laurie M June 16, 2012 at 1:25 am

I laughed so hard, tears were running down my face. Can’t wait for the next “chapter”!


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