Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Evolution of a Dad

Sanity is not a recommended personal quality for the job of parenting. Squeamishness is not, nor is long and deliberate decision-making. Much of parenting, far more than I'd expected, has to do with quick and dirty do-it-now reactiveness, all the while being gentle and loving to the child in front of you. These qualities aren't issued at the hospital with the baby blanket and diaper bag, and it's hard to pinpoint exactly when they emerge.

I knew Eric for many years before he was a parent. He courted his wife, my good friend Cara, when I was expecting my first child, and my bridesmaid dress for their wedding had to be custom-fit to accomodate my barely post-baby figure. He got to see parenting up close and personal long before he applied for the job himself. He was a great guy, but babies made him nervous, as they do many young men. The only way he would consent to hold Mary as a newborn was to arrange himself on our couch, his body plastered against the back of the seat, arm and shoulder carefully braced against the arm of the couch, with Mary carefully laid across his lap. Even then, he was visibly afraid that she would suddenly gain the power of motion and leap out of his protecting arms onto the floor. After a few minutes his nerves would overpower his politeness and he would hand her back, shaking his head at the courage required to carry a baby all over the house, sometimes in only one arm.

Time passed, and he and Cara decided to start a family of their own. But they, as so many couples do, found that there was quite a long journey between deciding to start a family and actually getting the heartstopping double pink line on the pregnancy test. In those long years, fluctuating between frustration and hard-earned patience, Eric became more comfortable around my children. Mary adored him, and started crawling into his lap almost as soon as she could walk, and her wide grin won out over his natural caution. It helped that she, like many toddlers, was apparently indestructible.

When Peter was born and Eric and Cara were still waiting, his reticence had faded even farther. He would hold Peter, and he didn't even have to sit down to do it! I loved surreptitiously watching him, the 3-year-old Mary climbing up his leg in her inimitable way, as he grinned at her and laughed as he scooped her up into a scratchy-bearded hug. Looking at Cara's wistful expression, the same thought always came to mind: "He's going to make a GREAT dad."

And he did. Mariah made her long-awaited entrance into Eric and Cara's life a little over a year ago, and it was astounding to watch how naturally he fell into the Proud Daddy pose -- baby held across his chest, grin nearly splitting his face in two, and neck cocked at that sweetly awkward angle that says, "I'm looking at you right now, but as soon as you break eye contact I'm going to look back at my daughter."

We saw less of them for a while as their lives were overtaken by the inevitable hurricane of diapers, bottles, and sleepless nights followed by crashingly tired days. But then Mariah got a little older, and the more we saw of them, the more evident it became that we were right -- Eric was a great dad.

I didn't realize quite how thoroughly he had made the transition, though, until Mariah's first birthday party. Our whole family attended, and Peter (as he so often is) was excited beyond his little body's endurance. The whirling carousel, the giggling children, the bobbing balloons, the noise of the calliope, and the endless bowls of pastel M&M's all combined for sensory overload. He ate too big a bite of cake, gagged, and his dad sprang to move Peter's chair back from the other diners. In less time than it takes to tell it, I upended my fruit plate onto the tablecloth, threw myself bodily across the table, and shoved the plate under Peter's chin to catch the mess.

The woman at the next table watched this drama, eyes wide, and I realized that to a non-parent my actions would have looked, in that first split second, like the flailings of a madwoman. Strawberries bouncing across the decorations, grapes rolling under the table, my body flopped gracelessly horizontal like an outfielder going for the game-saving catch. What startled me more than anything was that I hadn't even thought about it. He barfed. I leapt. It was that simple.

We cleaned him up and sent him outside for a breath of fresh air. He seemed to be feeling a little more steady, and he came back in asking for more candy. My hesitation was well-founded -- as he stood next to the dessert table between Eric and me as we chatted, Peter got the familiar wide-eyed look of panic on his face and made the little urping sound that signals an impending explosion. I scrambled for a plate, a napkin, a garbage can, anything to keep it off the birthday cake. I spun around, plate in hand, only to see Eric stretched out in the classic parental pose for vomiting children. He was standing precariously balanced on his tiptoes, arms outstretched to make the catch, face a mixture of compassion and sympathetic nausea, trying at once to console Peter and keep from requiring an entire change of clothes himself. He had the same three seconds to react, and he'd beaten me to it.

No question about it ... he's a dad.


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