People.com posted a great photo essay by photographer Phillip Toledano called “The Reluctant Father.” Toledano discusses his initial feelings about being a father, which weren’t at all what he thought they would be:
“There’s how you feel, and then there’s how you think you should feel. In the movies, when people have kids, they’re welcomed into the world with a cracking fusillade of manly backslapping and tears. It’s one of life’s BIG events. I just felt weird.”
In the introduction to my anthology When I First Held You (coming out in May), I write about this as well. For the first few hours after my son’s birth I felt oddly unconnected to the boy, both literally and figuratively. Felix had been taken to Neonatal Intensive Care after inhaling fluid during the final stages of his delivery, which had stretched for over four hours before a vacuum assist sucked the struggling child into the world. My wife and I only had a chance to hold him for a few seconds — during which he bubbled at the mouth and made funny wounded-bird-like noises as he tried to get a full breath — before the doctors intervened.
After they wheeled him off to the NICU, I sat in the delivery room while my wife was stitched up, and felt a great unclenching relief more than anything. Relief that the grueling, 23-hour ordeal of labor had ended and that my wife was no longer out-of-her-head in agony, the kind of pain I had never witnessed before in close-up. The labor hadn’t gone at all how we had thought it would. Felix got stuck, and no amount of pushing seemed to help. There were no tears of joy, only of terror and hurt. I’m pretty sure that if this had been another time, my wife would’ve crawled off into the woods and died with that baby still inside of her.
Now that it was over, I didn’t want to leave her side for a minute. As for the boy? I hoped that he would be ok, but for those first few hours, he seemed abstract to me, while my wife was right there, tired and aching, but alright. For that, I gave thanks. I felt more husband than father.
Part of me wondered if I just wasn’t cut out for the whole enterprise. My biological father wasn’t a part of my life; he hadn’t ever been. My mom’s pregnancy was unplanned. My biological father was still a teenager, and he didn’t stick around long enough to even see me born. I had grown up not wanting kids of my own, and so as I sat there in a hospital room eating a mediocre chicken salad sandwich, probing my heart for bigger feelings toward this kid and not finding them, I worried that maybe I had inherited my dad’s weak paternal instincts.
That wasn’t the case. As “The Reluctant Father” so beautifully captures, the journey to loving your child — to go from feeling “weird” to really being in love — can take some time. While Toledano comes at this from a father’s perspective, that can be the case from women as well. My wife says that it took months to experience a deep, personal love for Felix. The kind of love that was there at first was there in a very real way, but was more instinct than choice. What came later was a deeper kind of love.
It’s the process of falling in love with a child that’s different for women and men. For a woman, motherhood is a physical relationship from the start, with the baby growing inside of her body. A man looks in from the outside. Nothing happens to a guy’s body. The changes are emotional and psychological, which means they can be repressed. My biological father, for example, could walk away from my pregnant mother and not bear any physical scars. My mother, on the other hand, couldn’t disregard the fact that I existed. It was real to her in a way that it wasn’t to him.
When the baby comes, many women breastfeed, which again gives them a physical sense of connection to their child and ample time to bond. They look at the baby’s face, and into the baby’s eyes; they daydream about the child that will emerge from the infant. A man has to choose to get involved, and the bonding time may not be as intimate as those quiet moments of nursing. In fact, the man might be handling diapers, walking the child about to induce naps or burps, and doing a lot of house chores — jobs that, while essential, aren’t the most pleasant. Resentment arises, and it’s easy for a man to feel marginal in the family’s new shape. Your wife is so preoccupied with the child that there’s a sense that you’ve lost her, that your intimacy has forever been shattered. Toledano’s piece glances at this as well.
Adjusting to parenthood is definitely different for mothers than it is for fathers. That intimate love for the child takes time. As “The Reluctant Father” illustrates, many months of transition may pass before that connection sets in place for the dad. But when it does? It’s a powerful thing that lodges itself in your chest and your stomach. It can give you goosebumps, or bring you to tears. There’s no doubting its reality.
The more I read about the inner lives of dads, the clearer it seems that, just as boys and girls develop differently but end up, as adults, at the same place emotionally and intellectually, so too do parents arrive at the same conclusion by different routes. A father’s love is just as strong, deep, everlasting, and unconditional as a mother’s love, even if it starts out hesitantly, with reluctance.