Here is what fatherhood is like with an infant.
A few weeks back, my younger brother, who is single, texted me. It was Saturday night, he was sitting in a bar in Harvard Square, waiting on a date, sipping a cocktail.
I texted him back:
“I just pushed James around the kitchen for 20 minutes in his stroller while running the vacuum cleaner because this all stops him from screaming.”
The parents of an infant are basically high class hostages. Except our captor wears hats with rabbit ears and is incapable of using the toilet.
His main tool of oppression is the scream. To someone used to the smooth tones of rational disagreement — or even the sarcastic repartee of teenagers — a true scream is surprisingly jarring. These are not muffled sobs at a funeral, the raised voice of the spousal reprimand. This is someone terrified of being killed. My son sounds like Jack Woltz in “The Godfather” waking up next to a severed horse’s head: “Ahhh! Ahhhhhhhhhh!” Listening from another room, you’d think his mother and I were trying to pry out his spleen using pliers (while forcing him to listen to Celine Dion). When in fact we’re just trying to dress him in an adorable outfit.
Isn’t it odd that infants are born screaming like banshees but cannot laugh or smile for months? What does that say about humanity? Does that somehow explain Fox News?
If the scream’s not enough, he’ll take it to the next level. Parents quickly realize that those medieval torturers and Dick Cheney apologists had it right: Sleep deprivation works. A week into fatherhood, I felt like I’d spent a month in Guantanamo: “I’ll confess! Anything!”
But the tyrant doesn’t make his demands clear. That’s part of his genius: he keeps you guessing. Sometimes, he wants to be fed. Other times, he no longer does — but wants to make the point that you missed your window. You just don’t know.
He’ll even manipulate you with good behavior. The first few nights, my wife and I alternated between bleary-eyed incoherence when our son couldn’t sleep, and a strange anxiety when he could. We’d had the fear of god put in us about SIDS. So after we hadn’t heard a peep from him for hours, we became convinced he was no longer breathing.
“James, wake up! Wake up!”
When he woke up and started screaming again, it was almost a relief.
But it’s not easy to get to that point. Getting your baby to quiet down is sort of like brokering international peace. It takes a long time, and you have to be prepared try everything. Pushing the stroller while running the vacuum — who knew?
But it’s a fragile peace. Your new overlord is vigilant. The other day, after 20 minutes of rather exhausting rocking, I’d finally gotten my son to sleep. Then — the arrogance of it! — I paused to scratch my chin. That was it. Game over! Back to Square One. Enjoy twenty more minutes of high pitched howls. Maybe next time you’ll learn, Dad?
Babies get lots of books. But I have a feeling no one’s still going to be giving him books when he’s ten or fifteen. Why is that? Do we only believe reading is possible in that slim margin of time before kids discover phones and Fortnite? Are we saying, “Eh, just get him through ‘Pat the Bunny’ and then hope for the best. That’s about all our president can do, anyway”?
Living with an infant requires a comfort with bodily fluids that can take some adjustment. You’ve got to be prepared to get peed on, vomited on, and drooled all over. It’s like living in a frat house, except without the comfort of alcohol.
Infants are terrified of not being able to eat immediately. See, they’re not capable of learning anything until they’re four months old, so every time they’re hungry, they don’t remember they’ve got two full-grown slaves waiting at their beck and call. My son seems to require the reassurance of sleeping right on top of his food source, which happens to be my wife. That’d be like if I couldn’t bear to sleep more than a few inches from a t-bone steak and a pint of beer.
Come to think of it, that’s sort of what you need to do as the father of an infant if you want to guarantee you get a full meal.
I can’t help thinking how strange it is that infants are actually incapable of learning. That’s so weird — but then again, he’ll re-enter that state between the ages of 16-21. I’m hoping in between we can jam a few things in.
What redeems all of this of course is the notion that someday he’ll choose a lucrative career and buy his parents a sprawling beach house and / or multi-story yacht.
That and how cute he is on a minute-by-minute basis.