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Debut Dad

A blog about the first few months of parenthood.

Debut Dad: Final thoughts on new fatherhood

Our doula said I could look, and so I did, peering over the surgical shield as Pepin was wrested from Lucy's womb. Feet first, then the head, which took some doing, like angling a chair through a doorway. When Pepin was set on a table, suctioned and wiped, her legs were pinned back by her ears. 

I told the nurse I was impressed by Pepin's flexibility and she looked at me funny. Breeched. Four and a half weeks early. Five pounds, one ounce. "This one's not going anywhere," she said. "Two weeks, at least."

It's been 16 weeks since Pepin arrived, folded up like a diver who didn't have a chance to untuck. The 11 days she spent in the Special Care Nursery now seem like one long night, a long time ago, as though it were some other baby who was set on my chest like a starfish, kept alive with a feeding tube.

Not the one asleep upstairs, the one with folds we've never seen into, her neck like the dark side of the moon. The one who seems this close to making a grilled-cheese sandwich and watching The Gilmore Girls. 

This is the last post of Debut Dad. After three months, the debut has given way to a long-running performance and the stage fright has worn off, even if I sometimes still can't think of anything better to do with unwanted food in the fridge than throw it out the door.

Pepin seems indestructible now in a way I couldn't have imagined. She sleeps two five-hour stretches at night and is no longer terrorized by the bottle, though she's still touchy, like undetonated ordnance. We've passed from a war zone into a minefield and settled in. Not because she's any less demanding, but because we are. We've retracted, pulled back the furniture of our lives so she can take up as much room as she needs, which of course is as much as we have. 

A couple weeks ago, we returned to the Special Care Nursery at Methodist Hospital to deliver care packages — clothes, books, diapers — for anyone who might need them. It looked the same coming off the elevator: the check-in desk, the double doors that power open, the table in the lobby where we used to eat whatever anyone brought us, huddled like refugees.

But the check-in nurse was unfamiliar. And when the doors cracked open, a nurse who'd once put Pepin through her paces took the packages, thanked us, and slipped back inside — the first time we hadn't walked through. There were other babies back there now. We were on the outside, and when the door closed there was nothing to do but go home with Pepin and think about the ghosts we left behind, the people whose skin we'd already outgrown.

With that, a few frequently asked questions:

Q: Are you ending this because some readers last week thought Lucy should make you an every-other-weekend dad?
A: Um, no. This was the plan all along. Three months is long enough for anyone to meditate on his child's spit-up at one in the morning, and probably as long as you want to read about it.

Q: Is there something you thought about putting in the blog but didn't? This is your last chance.
A: Well, this marks Lucy's one and only photographic appearance in the blog (above). I never mentioned the one baby product I'm not sure I'd want to live without: the Boon grass and twig bottle drying rack. Or the video that we and our stroller appeared in, honoring nurses at Methodist Hospital. Also, the Diaper Genie is dead. Self defense. Someone should probably use the Chatter Telephone to notify his family.

Q: Are there fellow writers about fatherhood who inspired you?
A: Ben Percy has written with enviable honesty and insight about fatherhood, as well as werewolves, a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark trip, and the latest personal technology. And he lives in Northfield. I don't know when he sleeps, but he has kids, so I think I know the answer.

Q: Do you really wear earplugs at night?
A: All night. But not while staying up to feed Pepin at 1:30 a.m. or much after 6 a.m. when she wakes up again, so yeah, all 3.5 hours of the night.

Debut Dad: Polar bear pajamas in the age of extinction

Pepin's clothes are covered with animals. Her books are about animals. Her toys are animals. Her room is wallpapered with animals. Her crib is printed with animals. Awake and asleep, she lives in a menagerie, as though all humans start out among the other species, only to join ours once they become interested in Legos.

I'd forgotten how closely childhood is linked with animals until I went to a baby store. It could have been a zoo gift shop, except for an unfortunate take on the hipster taxidermy trend (a stuffed Babar is one thing, an elephant's head on the wall is a mixed message at best). Pepin is embedded among the same animals I marveled at in Ranger Rick magazine and every Sunday on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Except now, in real life, they're quickly disappearing. 

The polar bears on her pajamas: mostly gone by 2050 — when she'll be 35 — due to melting habitat. The elephants on her onesies, her crib, and her bookshelf: extinct in the wild in 10 to 20 years — when she'll be boxing up her stuffed animals — due to poachers hacking off their tusks for Asian knick-knacks. Rhinos: extinct even before she has booted Nosey, her mother's favorite stuffed animal, from her bed.

In Pepin's lifetime, all the creatures she's enchanted by will likely be gone or nearly so, one way or another (except for the patchwork crocodile snake with Disney eyes thing — that will probably be on the increase). It's the Sixth Extinction, if you're keeping score at home, and it's happening now, the fifth being the one that killed off the dinosaurs and the first being caused by cyanobacteria, another creature whose population spiked (and made our existence possible by boosting oxygen levels; we're not the only species to have radically altered our atmosphere). 

This one is being caused by us. When I was growing up, it was less obvious; we could get away with thinking that we had our habitat and everything else had its own. But billions of people and many megatons of carbon later, it's clear we're the carp in the pond, the cyanobacteria. And the cognitive dissonance of watching Pepin romp among doomed animals is some days like a ringing in my ears, a tinnitus of the conscience.  

There are no unselfish reasons for having children, which may be the best evidence that the urge is largely biological. We're selfish creatures — like all the others. And to open someone's eyes onto this big blue-and-green balloon — even with all the air we've let out of it, the wonders we're sapping with our strength — well,  there's no better place we know of to bring humans into existence. 

Pepin is predictably unfazed so far, and perhaps she will remain so. She may yet have a chance to see these creatures in the wild, and if they disappear before she does she may see them the way we see dinosaurs, as unfraught about their fate as we are awe-inspired. She may be into robots, finding her own wonders in answer to the question of her existence. She's unlikely to hold it against me.