[Today’s post is my first-ever entry for the Blogging For Books contest at The Zero Boss. This month, for Contest Number Five, we’ve been provided a choice of three “starter sentences” with which to begin a piece of creative nonfiction.]
Before I had kids, I thought... well, to be honest, I didn’t think. About what it would actually be like to be a father. To have real, live humans roaming the planet, humans for whom I was responsible. Real, live humans who would have to be fed, clothed, cleaned, sheltered, educated, and somehow kept alive.
No, such thoughts were dangerous, and so I removed any potential hazard to myself by simply keeping those dangerous thoughts away.
Once you’re married, though, the Avoidance Tactic has a short shelf life. Just as the softest drip-drip-drip of water will eventually wear away mountains of granite, sinister forces are at work eroding the Male Tendency to Procrastinate in Matters Concerning Reproduction almost from the moment the happy bridegroom picks the last kernel of rice out of his hair after the wedding.
First, you have the constant nudzhing of the parents and/or the in-laws providing a sort of white noise in the background. It’s the sound of a gently flowing brook...a gently flowing brook that will carve the Grand Canyon out of your bedrock-hard resolve if you give it enough time to work on you:
“So?”All this can be safely ignored or shunted aside, but other factors soon come into play. Foremost among these are the pernicious Friends Who Have Kids. Friends who already have children are a one-two punch to the glass jaw of your Denial Face. One, the mere existence of such people is proof that having children does not immediately make you dead; and two, the proximity of their children to your Other Half causes her Maternal Instinct to kick in. Once your friends have kids, your childless days are numbered.
“Do I have to be dead in the ground already before someone calls me ‘Grandma’?”
“Is everything OK? You’re not having...problems, are you?”
And when She Who Must Be Obeyed looks at you with those I-wanna-be-a-mommy eyes, your days of denial are over, bub. Pretty soon you are going to be doing the Daddy Dance.
In our case, the Friends Who Have Kids didn’t so much as accelerate the decision process as take some of the fear of the unknown out of it. And, damn, those kids of theirs were cute. SWMBO and I would spend a day with them and look at each other questioningly. Maybe it’s time...
Then, BANG! - before I could get my bearings, impending fatherhood loomed. At T-minus one week and counting, it was time for a Come-To-Jesus meeting with myself. What the hell had I been thinking? How did I get sucked in? Waaaaaaa!
Get a grip, I told myself. Other people have survived this, and so will you.
And, as it turns out, it wasn’t all that bad. I was the stalwart birthing coach for SWMBO as she struggled through a night-long labor to give birth to Elder Daughter. I was by her side as they gave her a shot of oxytocin to “kick things up a notch.” (Hoo, boy, was that fun.) But I was also there to provide tension-relieving comic relief:
Nurse: “Don’t touch the button on this stand that’s holding up this full bottle of intravenous dextrose infusion, OK?”[Before I had kids, I used to screw around with things that I shouldn’t mess with. Now, I don’t. As often, anyway.]
Me: “OK.” [I promptly touch the button, only to find out that the bottle is actually quite heavy and that the button releases the catch that holds it up. The bottle drops like a rock, despite my hand beneath it, and crashes to the floor.]
I was there to watch as the attending obstetric nurse tried to help my bride through the last stages of labor by using the Toothpaste Maneuver. You know the Toothpaste Maneuver: the one where the nurse mashes the mother’s belly with her forearm in an attempt to extrude the baby as one would squeeze Colgate from a tube. Not for the faint of heart.
But it worked. And I was there to take pictures with the new camera we had purchased only one week before. Pictures of our beautiful newborn baby girl!
Our very first baby girl, complete with eggplant-shaped head (from the stress of delivery), and a head-to-toe coating of blood and vernix. Ecch. Pictures that only a Daddy - or Mommy - could love... or would ever get a chance to, thanks to the inadvertent inclusion of a wayward tuft of pubic hair that would forever cause the photos to be consigned to a dark closet.
Before I had kids, I thought I’d never be able to handle being present at a delivery. But it really wasn’t so terrible. For me, anyway. It was a wee bit tougher on Momma, especially the second time around. That one - three years after the first - was, if anything, even lengthier, after a pregnancy that was complicated by the recurrence of the phlebitis that had developed during her first delivery. The last two weeks before the Mistress of Sarcasm arrived, SWMBO was in the hospital, hooked up to an IV full of anticoagulants. But the delivery itself went swimmingly. No Toothpaste Maneuver required.
It’s a funny thing about the processes of pregnancy and delivery. As arduous as they are, women have an amazingly short memory with respect to just how arduous they are. There is no other way to explain the large number of families with more than one child. Women simply forget.
“What episiotomy?”And that’s how we ended up, three years later, with two lovely girl-children.
Before I had kids, I couldn’t conceive of a universe in which I would be comfortable around certain, ahhh, substances. The ones we all deal with on a daily basis are no big deal, but when it comes to vomit, I am a confirmed puke-a-phobic. I loathe vomit, to the point where I pride myself on not having blown lunch in over 33 years. My own personal Throw-Up Record.
But when we were vacationing in Washington D.C. and Elder Daughter came down with the stomach flu, I was the one who stayed with her while Momma escorted the young Mistress of Sarcasm to the National Zoo. Thank God for hotel wastebaskets, is all I’m going to say. I was so pleased with myself for not running screaming into the hotel parking lot. Lesson: We have unexpected reserves of inner strength that reveal themselves when we help our children face adversity. Even if it involves puke.
Before I had kids, it never occurred to me in just how many ways parents influence their children. A mother’s tone of voice, a father’s decision on what constitutes a punishable offense, the jokes Mom and Dad laugh at - all of these shape the personalities of our offspring. And I would never have dreamed just how much, and in what ways, my children would take on some of my likes, dislikes, and - dare I say it? - quirks.
She Who Must Be Obeyed, for her part, raised our girls under the philosophy that If My Parents Did It, I Will Do The Exact Opposite. Believe it or not, this was an entirely reasonable approach to take. I am not sure just how SWMBO managed to survive her own childhood and come out as well-adjusted (heh-heh) as she is, but, well, there you are. She was not abused, mind you, but her relationship with her mother was a bit sketchy, back in the day. [I am pleased to report that it is much healthier now. Having an 850-mile spatial separation is a small, but significant, factor.]
My child rearing philosophy, on the other hand, was to expose the children to High Culture at an early age. This meant reading stories to them. Constant, incessant reading, mostly of stories involving Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, or some assemblage of the above. But as soon as the girls were old enough to appreciate literature that was chewier than the standard Sesame Street Little Golden Books or Dr. Seuss, we moved up to Jonathan Swift and Arthur C. Clarke. I like to believe they enjoyed “A Modest Proposal” as much as I did. It must have worked; they now both read Chuck Palahniuk.
High Culture also meant fine music. What I regarded as “fine,” anyway. Our daughters were the only kids on the block who were intimately familiar with the dub poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson and the jazz of Miles Davis as early as age three. And then there was Frank Zappa...
Last year, the girls and I went to hear Project Object when they performed in Atlanta. Project Object, in the likely case you have never heard of them, is a band whose repertoire consists entirely of Frank Zappa’s music. But to call P.O. a “tribute group” or “cover band” does not begin to describe them, nor does it do them justice, as these terms imply a semi-skilled band that coasts along by playing (generally poor) versions of other peoples’ music. Not these boys. P.O. has several semi-permanent members who have actually played with FZ at one time or another. At the show we saw, for example, the lineup included Napoleon Murphy Brock, Ike Willis, and Don Preston... real honest-to-God FZ alumni of the first water... and except for the fact that Zappa himself was missing, they did a remarkable job of recreating the sound and feel of his legendary concerts of the 1970’s and 80’s. When Zappa died ten years ago, I had thought that sound was lost forever - yet here I was, listening to it again. The feeling of having been transported back in time literally brought tears to my eyes.
[Before I had kids, I could never have imagined sharing this sort of experience with them - and with them actually enjoying it!]
So my (then) 23- and 20-year-old daughters and I were listening to this amazing-yet-strange music, and all of us were having a grand time of it. During the break, when Elder Daughter decided to go get a beer, a fortyish man standing in line at the bar asked her what a person her age was doing at this concert - thinking, I guess, that nobody that young would have even heard of Zappa. Elder Daughter responded, “Oh, I’ve been listening to this stuff all my life.” At which the man said, in an awestruck voice, “God bless your parents!”
And, yes, we are blessed indeed. What other Dad has kids that can join him in a rousing sing-along of “Florentine Pogen”?
OK, so exposing the kids to Zappa at an early age may have warped them a little. But I’ve damaged their minds even more than that.
Maybe as a result of having read a lot of MAD Magazine as a kid, I had (and still have) a habit of inventing silly lyrics to songs. This would probably be harmless, except for the fact that, growing up, the girls didn’t always know whether ol’ Dad was singing a real song or was making up some silly crap.
[Before I had kids, I didn’t realize that children hear - and remember - every word you ever say in their earshot. This can create problems... for them.]
Here’s Elder Daughter, attending a performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Boston with a group of friends. And they’re all singing along:
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ -
Who are you, what have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ, superstar -
Who in the hell do you think you are?
At this point all eyes swivel toward Elder Daughter. “Hey, those aren’t the right lyrics!”
And she responds, “Yes, they are! I learned them from... (growing realization that she has been duped)... my Dad! Aaarrrrgggh!”
Before I had kids, I thought I’d never know how sweet it could be to tell a story like that. Now, I do.