Many Babies Straight-Up Hate Their Fathers
There is always going to be something about parenting you wish you knew before you had to learn it on the fly. Something along the way is going to surprise you, whether it’s figuring out the best ways to deal with tantrums, best strategies to get your kid to eat solid foods, whatever. What you don’t expect—and what super super sucks—is when the surprise you don’t know how to navigate happens literally days after your kid is born.
Some quick background: Since my wife and I decided to have kids, I knew I wanted to be a super-involved dad. Growing up on a steady diet of Robin Williams movies really underscored the importance of a good father figure to me (also I had a really great dad, but shhh don’t tell him, we’re WASPs and feelings are off-limits). Anyway, the idea of stay-at-home parenting was always appealing to me. I’m a writer, obviously—hey why are you laughing? That’s not the joke part of this article! Rude. Anyway, I’m a writer, so the idea has always been for me to stay home, take care of the kid, and write in my spare time.
That is, of course, until Kevin Fiege and Steven Spielberg finally read my scripts, I become a member of the Millionaire Hollyweird Elite, and no one in my house has to work. But since those jerks are dragging their feet producing my script for T-ReX-Men (a Jurassic Park/X-Men crossover), I had to prepare to be primary caregiver. Back then, I still had my 9-5 job, which offered decent paternity leave, but didn’t pay me enough for us to afford childcare. That was a bummer—I liked that job—but honestly? Aside from all the normal nervousness and anxiety that comes with being a new parent, I was pretty doe-eyed and excited about starting this new life chapter.
The lesson, as always: Don’t get excited about anything. Expecting good things is for marks and rubes. See, for roughly the first month and a half of his life, my son wanted nothing to do with me. Like, total rejection. Crying when I’d try to hold him, just not wanting to be near me at all. I have this photo of him an one month old letting me snuggle him, and it’s one of my favorite pictures of the two of us because it’s the first time I remember him really letting me be close without his mother present (I mean, she’s a few feet away, taking the picture, but still). Sure, I gave him bottles from time to time, did my damnedest to help comfort him when he was crying, and did my share of diaper changes. But his general vibe was Rufio from Hook yelling “kill the lawyer” at me.
Newborns not wanting to be around anyone but their mothers is fairly common. Turns out, living in a womb is pretty sweet: You’re warm, you’re fed, and you can pee freely. Getting splashed out into a cold world where clothes are a necessity and you have to actively search for food is a shock to the system. Babies, especially breastfeeding ones, want to be around Mom, and everyone else can go fly a kite (note: it’s good to stop cursing when you have a kid). Here’s a What To Expect article that lends credence to my point. Anecdotally, every dad I know has experienced this. But I’d never heard of it. So I was less prepared for this rejection than the first guy to ever pick up an acoustic guitar at a party only to be told “Wonderwall” is boring, actually.
It’s devastating. You feel helpless. You feel ready to do anything up to and including dressing as an ancient British lady with cake on her face just to get one little baby smile or giggle. Not only had I spent roughly a year recalibrating my identity and goals around “Time To Be Dad” just to be totally rejected by my son, my wife was having a hard time, too.
This might be a shocker, but pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding is like, really difficult. Remember when Genie in Aladdin had to create a lavish parade for a made-up prince completely out of thin air? Being a new mom is like, even tougher than that. No matter how much I was ready to step up as Super Homemaker, nothing could change the fact that my wife had a traumatic birth experience, was constantly sleep-deprived because the baby needed to be fed at all hours of the night, and was the only one who could effectively respond to him when he was upset. I couldn’t give her any kind of relief, even to peel the baby off her for more than an hour.
Don’t read this column wrong, she had it way worse than me. But this is advice for dads, so here’s how I felt: utterly useless to everyone around me. Like a flathead screwdriver on a Phillips head screw. Like a Coke can at a restaurant that asks “is Pepsi okay?” Like a guy in a Chewbacca suit at a Deep Space Nine party. None of these jokes are funny, and that’s because none of this shit was funny. It sucked. I was deeply insecure and depressed, she was sleeping like two hours a night, and the baby was being a real baby about everything. This simply wasn’t how it was supposed to go. After all, why have paternity leave when your baby won’t look at you?
Remember a little while ago, when a bunch of media morons made fun of Pete Buttigieg for taking paternity leave (despite being pro-paternity leave themselves)? Well, Matt Walsh kinda came close to my lived experience with this pithy tweet.
“There isn’t much for dad to do … take care of mom” gives away the entire game. Your kid might not be able to bond with you, Dad, on your terms right away, but Christ Almighty does Mom need help. She’s been growing this needy, helpless little poop monster in her own body for months and now has to have it cling to her desperately at all hours of the day. She’s not necessarily going to feel like getting up from the bed to make herself breakfast. Besides, not only does Mom need help, but being present only hastens your kid’s acceptance of you. And yes, grandparents and aunts and uncles and friends can all help, too—both my parents and my in-laws were around a good deal during this time despite living out-of-state—but at the end of the day, it was just my wife and me, trying to figure out how to live with our baby.
My wife got 12 weeks maternity leave, I got six, and because America is built on cruelty, we were absolutely over the moon to have that much time. I broke mine up into three-week chunks: after three weeks, I went back to work; when her leave was up, I took another three weeks off. During the first three weeks, the baby wanted nothing to do with me, so I did whatever I could. Cooking, cleaning, any kind of comfort possible, trying to be present with the baby, whatever. I’m not saying I was perfect, because I 100% was not. I was moody, depressed, and most of all, scared. What if my kid just … never liked me?
Eventually, that picture of the baby and me snuggling happened. Eventually, he started letting me give him baths in a little sink-sized baby tub while telling him stories. That got him to make eye contact with me and hear my voice. He started letting me carry him the same way James Bond carries his baby. By the time my second three weeks rolled around and my wife went back to work, the baby was ready to let me take care of him.
Three years later, we’re like the dude version of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore (except instead of coffee shops, we hit up playgrounds). We spend every waking moment together. He just started preschool, and every day when I pick him up, he sprints out the door grinning ear-to-ear and jumps into my arms (he’s wearing a mask, obviously, but he smiles with his whole face). No one can ever convince me those first three weeks didn’t make that possible. Paternity leave is valuable, even when it feels like you’re barely parenting. When we talk about childcare, we need to be talking about both parents—no matter gender or marital/relationship status—being able to be involved in a baby’s life.
I recognize I’m writing this column from an extremely heteronormative, two-parent perspective, and that’s not everyone’s experience. But for anyone who falls into the socially constructed “dad” role of parenting, know this: The first few weeks are going to be hard, but it’s so worth it to keep at it. You keep trying to be a good partner, you keep trying to be a good parent, and eventually, you figure out how to be a family. Is it easy? Shit no! There are never-ending hiccups, like learning to eat solid foods or learning how to sleep or potty training. Maybe sometimes you make a stupid mistake or handle a situation in a way you regret. Maybe you and your partner split up and you have to figure out how to co-parent. But you keep going, you keep trying, and hopefully you can skip the first two acts of Hook and become the kind of dad a red-mohawked swashbuckler wishes he had relatively quickly. It’s not easy, but goddamnit, it’s worth it. Hang in there, dads.
Chris Corlew is currently cleaning imaginary cake off his walls from an extremely one-sided food fight he had with his toddler. Find him on Twitter.
Top image: Ben_Kerckx/Pixabay