Soon after our second son was born my older boy, four at the time, said this to my wife: “You love Griffin more, and Daddy loves me more.” Uh-oh. My wife, of course, found this preposterous, and reassured him of her undying and equitable devotion, which was obviously the right thing to do. Secretly, in my heart of hearts, though, I found this surprisingly perceptive, precocious even. My son had spoken a truth, a bold, dark truth.
Now, before you get all indignant and self-righteous on me, let me say that of course I loved my newborn son. I wanted to protect him and cradle him and, most importantly, keep him alive. It’s just that I didn’t know him. And how do you love someone you don’t even know? For despite every tweenie profession of undying love for the pop idol du jour, that’s not real love, and everyone (except the tweenie) knows it.
I think it’s different for mothers and fathers, and rigorous scientific surveys conducted while sitting around drinking wine with our parent friends confirm this. (There have been dissenters, mothers who admitted that it took them a while to warm up to their children, but these have been a miniscule minority.) For most women there seems to be an immediate, visceral gushing of love that is supremely maternal, partially hormonal, and, I believe, a largely biological mechanism to prevent mothers from eating their offspring.
There’s a complicated cocktail of hormones at work here – progesterone, estrogen, prolactin, cortisol, oxytocin, thyroid, and vasopressin – that influences the way post-partum women feel both physically and emotionally. Sometimes the cocktail is a bit out of balance, causing such symptoms as being very emotional and upset, tearfulness for no apparent reason, low libido, difficulty sleeping, tiredness and lethargy, weight gain, hair loss, forgetfulness, and general imbecility. But even with these deleterious afflictions, the love seems to remain an instinctive constant.
With dads it’s different. Our love tends to develop with age.
First is The Fear. Even though this is my second child, a certain unease, something approaching terror, really, would creep upon me when I would pick my tiny son up, change his diaper, thread his delicate elfin hands through a onesie. Truth is, I was afraid I’d break him. I’d support his head as though letting it go for a second would send it rolling onto the floor and under the dresser. I considered his near-weightlessness a sure sign of mortal fragility. To paraphrase Prufrock: in short, I was afraid.
Sleep deprivation doesn’t help in the bonding process – it is, after all, one of the preferred inflictions of torturers around the world. Having to get up several times a night, feeling constantly groggy and mentally befuddled; this does not endear the infant to the father.
Nor does the sex deprivation. The magic number generally bandied about is six weeks – six weeks after the birth and you’re back in the saddle again. That number is a myth foisted upon mothers by male obstetricians and designed to give false hope to fathers. Everyone’s different, but I’d count on doubling that duration, taking your wife to a romantic dinner, encouraging her to have another glass or two of Chardonnay, and hoping for the best.
The sound of infant wailing is, I’ve read, “a normal, healthy means of expression and communication…. disturbing, even ear-piercing, loud enough to catch the caregiver’s attention but not so disturbing as to make the listener want to avoid the sound altogether.” I’m sure that’s true, but the average baby cries about 2 ½ to 3 hours a day, and the eardrum-slashing sound did not engender in me a desire to cuddle and console; it engendered the desire to make it stop. In any way possible. My heart would race, my head would throb, my breathing would quicken. My blood pressure would rise and my IQ drop in approximately equal proportions. Stick a boob in his mouth, stick a pacifier in his mouth, stick a napkin in his mouth, just make it stop. I know other fathers have felt this way from the way they’ve looked at me when I’ve explained this phenomenon at dinner parties. It’s that surreptitious commiserating glance that says, “I’m with you, mate, but there’s no way I’m getting on that sinking ship with you.”
The Fear eventually subsides, however, round about the third or fourth month. Now begins the Time of Wonderment. You become more comfortable, more assured, and begin to look at everything your baby does with fascination and astonishment. You take lots and lots of pictures. Sure, it’s still all about the mother – I mean, you don’t have functional breasts, after all – but you observe your child’s development and begin to sense the father-child bond beginning to evolve.
The kid still doesn’t do much but eat, poop, sleep and cry, but you’re beginning to warm to the little creature. There is, of course, the cuteness factor, a biological survival strategy shared by most animals, particularly mammals, which has to do with a large head to body ratio, over-sized eyes, and small noses and mouths. In fact, we breed these neotenous characteristics into our toy dogs and accentuate them in our kawaii!!! Manga. At this stage the baby is like an exotic and much-cherished pet, an extraordinary animal to be observed, fed regularly, and like a chinchilla, snuggled.
After that, each developmental milestone bridges the gap between dad and child bit by bit. This is the Era of Almost-Personhood. His first solid food, his first steps, first words, his rapidly expanding vocabulary and understanding of the world around him, all create a history of shared experience that is one of the fundamental requisites for any relationship. As he becomes more and more a rational, communicative little person he moves increasingly out of the exclusively maternal sphere of influence and becomes a Venn diagram of overlapping spheres. There are fatherly activities – my wife would never grasp our son by his hands and simultaneously rotate and revolve him over her head in a maneuver called the Super Double Daredevil Spin of Death – and more motherly ones; then there are the shared endeavors and pastimes that together constitute family life.
Unfortunately, round about this time a period of toddleresque self-awareness and shameless self-promotion rolls around. Usually called the ‘Terrible Twos,’ I prefer to think of it fondly as the ‘Shithead Stage.’ The kid begins to assert him/herself in ways that are frequently frustrating and generally unpleasant. Denied permission to shred the photo album or pour milk on the pillows or set fire to the sofa, Junior flops to the floor in a paroxysm of existential anguish that would be rather amusing if it weren’t so patently irritating.
Of course, they’re still damned cute, and the fact that they often come out with both hilarious and heartwarming nuggets of speech, and, most insidiously, now know that an “I love you, Daddy” goes a long way toward dissipating Dad’s wrath, saves them a lot of minutes in the ‘time out’ chair.
All I’m really saying is that for many fathers a child is a lot like a big chunk of bleu cheese. Veined, spotted, sometimes unbearably stinky, an offspring can often be an acquired taste. This is not something we should be ashamed to admit. It is also something that is culturally reinforced, often in very subtle ways.Reading in the New York Times about a comprehensive study of how a mother’s impulse to love and protect her child is hardwired into the brain, I was struck by the last, seemingly throw-away sentence. “Because the study only looked at mothers, it’s not known whether fathers have similar brain responses to a child’s smile or tears.” I guess the researchers felt that the way fathers’ brains work with regard to their children is inconsequential.
But I’ll save prospective researchers months of notes and millions in grant money: We do have similar brain responses, but in a perhaps more subdued and time-delayed way. We’re not all hopped up on hormones, for one thing, and in the beginning we’re pushed to the periphery, doing a lot of the grunt work but not getting much in return. It takes some time, is all.
I cannot imagine anything more wondrous and wonderful than my elder son. The love I hold for him is so intense as to be almost unbearable. It did, however, take a little while to get to this stage. It goes without saying that I also love my younger son – we just needed time to get to know each other better. Now that he’s two and a half I find that I cherish him as much, perhaps even more, than I adore a really good bleu cheese.