I got to hold a baby the other day.
I don’t just mean a young child. Eitan is three and a half and still gets referred to as “the baby” sometimes. That’s not what I mean. I mean a baby, barely a week and a half old on the day when I met him. He was a floppy mush of skin and hair with the tiniest little mouth that seemed to open twice as wide when he needed to yawn. His father brought him into the room, holding the baby in his forearm in a perfect football grip, and gently laid him into my arms.
I laughed and said, “Jesus, I forgot how small they are when they’re born.”
Eitan the toddler was a giant compared to this little being, probably twice as tall and three times the weight. My arms usually start to ache after carrying Eitan for five or ten minutes so holding the baby was a snap, but I found myself feeling nervous. The baby might have been small, at least compared with Eitan, but I could feel the overwhelming weight of the responsibilities that all parents feel when their children are born. Eitan can control his movements; he can run and jump and put his hands out to break his fall if he trips. This tiny little human, though, was completely helpless. I don’t mind admitting that I was somewhat relieved that he woke up a bit and started crying because it meant that I could return him to his father.
His father is young, but looked like he’d been playing the role for years. He was confident as he picked up his son from my arms, leaned back and put the baby on his chest. The baby, surely sensing his father’s warmth and hearing his heartbeat, fell back to sleep almost immediately. My God, this kid is a natural, I thought. The slightest bit of jealousy I felt at the ease with which he had been able to calm his son was drowned out immediately by my pride at having played a role, however minor, in helping a child step up and become a man when he needed to.
The baby’s father and I had spoken before about the different feelings that parents experience, whether they are new to parenting or seasoned veterans. He told me that he loves his son and that he wants to give him the best life possible, but that he does not know how. He said that he does not feel like he has the resources or the knowledge to be a good father. “What can I offer him?” he asked. I explained to him that every parent thinks about the quality of life that they can provide for their children and that the truth is that most of it doesn’t matter. I told him that he could learn to change diapers and to feed the baby a bottle and to do all of the other little things that go into caring for a baby. The key was that he needed to love his son, no matter what, and that the rest would work itself out.
I pointed at the baby on his chest, now snoozing contentedly. “He knows that you love him,” I said. “You’re here with him, talking to him, spending time with him. He can feel your love coming through whenever he’s with you.” The baby’s father gave a noncommittal shrug. “You picked him up and he fell back to sleep immediately. He can feel every bit of positive energy you’re sending his way. You can do this. It’s going to be hard a lot of the time and there are going to be times when you’re going to want to throw your son out the window, if not jump out yourself. But the greatest thing about being a dad is that it helps you see strength that you never knew you had. You just have to be open to it.”
He seemed satisfied with my short soliloquy, though still somewhat unconvinced. I couldn’t blame him, of course. Becoming a parent is a hard adjustment for everyone, no matter the age, gender or ethnicity. I had just turned 29 when Eitan was born. I had a steady job, a wife, a place to live and a master’s degree and still, I struggled as much as anyone. I made mistakes and I got frustrated and angry and dejected.
But then things changed.
I started learning from my mistakes. I started figuring out techniques and shortcuts, like soaking every bottle of milk in the sink at the same time rather than washing each one individually and standing out of the line of fire when changing Eitan’s diaper. I stopped beating myself up every time things went wrong and I started believing that I could do everything that Eitan needed from me. My confidence grew and I kept getting better. I adapted to Eitan and he adapted to me.
The other thing I told the baby’s father – the thing I would say to any new parent – was that parenting is a process. It’s a matter of constantly shifting tactics to figure out what works and adjusting when things don’t go according to plan. It’s getting used to the idea that just when you think you’ve figured things out, your kid grows or stands up or starts eating real food or does something else new that throws you off and makes you learn all over again.
He said to me, “That sounds really annoying.”
“It is,” I said with a laugh. Then I added, “But even so, moments like these, with your son sleeping on your chest? There’s no better feeling in the world.”
He glanced down at his son, sleeping softly. And he smiled.