Alas, I am not currently in Tennessee. No, I am still home in North Carolina. My wife, taking advantage of the waning weeks of her maternity leave, talked my parents into riding with her over the mountains into her home town while I am at work. I am almost halfway through their four-day trip, and I am very, very lonely.
I do not seek your pity, dear reader. Instead, I wish to invite you to join me on a brief exploration of the nature of parental attachment. I will hastily admit that the idea of having a few days to myself was a refreshing notion for such an introvert as myself. My little girl is, after all, seven weeks old, and demands all of the attention and care that any newborn needs. Four days in which I do not have to change any diapers; I do not have to monitor onesies for the dried milk deposits of spit-up; I do not have to swaddle and re-swaddle flailing limbs; I do not have to coo, coax and convince a baby to sleep. As several people have said to me, “You should sleep well at night.”
Except that I didn’t sleep well last night. I drifted off about one-thirty and slept fitfully, stirring a few times and beating my alarm awake by a half-hour. I kicked around the house all day yesterday like an unemployed stoner, trying to decide if I should do more laundry, reorganize the playlists on my iPod, or try mastering the drum part to “Teenage Riot” on Rock Band. I wasn’t just floundering in the doldrums of boredom, though; I was really missing my baby.
When everyone left yesterday, I strapped my beautiful daughter into her car seat and kissed her goodbye. She didn’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary. That’s okay; my feelings weren’t hurt. But I was seized with the strange thought: I won’t see you for four days. And for a moment, my breath caught in my throat and my chest seized up and I felt homesick. I’m sure that my little girl has been perfectly happy away from home. She’s with her mother and surrounded by a much larger network of family than she’s used to; there have probably been several people at a time jockeying for their turn to hold her. Her food supply is readily available and her grandparents had a crib waiting for her. Does she miss her daddy? I doubt it. And again, that’s okay; I don’t hold that against her, she’s only seven weeks old. But damn do I miss her, and something fierce.
Why is that? It isn’t that I’m itching to change a diaper. I can watch all the TV I want. And it isn’t as if I miss talking with my little girl, given that she hasn’t really developed the capacity to converse with me. When my wife is away, I miss her, too. But I miss her because we do things together, and without her certain activities are less fun. If anything, I would argue that the activities I enjoy are more fun without my baby daughter, since she isn’t crying or fussing or distracting me. I miss my wife because we talk together, and I get a little stir-crazy when I can’t converse with anyone. But my little girl doesn’t talk to me; she only looks at me maybe half of the time when I’m holding her. I miss my wife because she’s my life partner, and we’ve spent the major part of lives together for the past decade. But my little girl, well, I’ve only known her for seven weeks, and, well, let’s face it – she has less capacity for interaction with me right now than our cat did.
But the attachment I feel to her is overwhelming. What causes this? Is it that she shares my DNA? Is it that I watched her enter this world, completely helpless and dependent? Is it because of all the prayers I’ve said for her, not just in the past two months, but for years now? Is it because I’m responsible for her safety? Is it because she’s just so adorable and nothing else in the world could possibly impress me as much as she does when she smiles at me?
We understand who we are based on our relationships. No element of our self-identity is independent of the other people in our lives. Our jobs, our family, our community: we understand who we think we are (whether realistically or not) in contrast to the other people in our lives. My little girl is a person, although still very early in the stages of becoming a person, but I have discovered suddenly and powerfully how fundamental this new relationship is in defining who I am as a person. I’m a dad. A parent. This is a completely new thing, a whole new way of being in the world, of looking at myself. And the only thing that makes me a parent is that eight pound bundle of loose, wrinkly flesh. Without her, well, I’d just be the guy I was a year ago.
So who is this new person I’ve become? Hell if I know; I’m still figuring that out, and I think it changes every moment, just as my beautiful daughter is changing every moment. Of course, her changes are far more definitive than mine. On a purely cellular level, she is undergoing more radical changes than I can conceive of, and her body is building itself into the miraculous machine that is a human being. But who am I now?
When the car drove away, my little girl strapped safely into a car seat and surrounded by her mother and grandparents, I breathed no sigh of relief. Which seemed strange. After all, I was being freed from the responsibility of taking care of her for four days. If anything, I could rest assured knowing that some major liabilities were temporarily removed from my concern. But I think I miss that liability. Because I’m discovering that all of that responsibility is somehow transforming me. When I hold my beautiful daughter in my arms I am forced to admit my helplessness. I’m also forced to admit my contentment. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing any more, but it’s cool. She is growing – she eats, sleeps, and poops, all without me doing anything. (Well, sometimes I help her sleep by singing to her, but that’s for a different post.) I am powerless, but I’m not afraid. And in some strange Zen-like feedback loop, I actually am less afraid the more powerless I feel. That’s what my beautiful daughter does for me: she makes me be in the moment, to just be present to her and to myself and let go of the need to control things.
Obviously, this state of being comes and goes pretty quick. Parents actually work most of the time to control a lot of things, and I’m no different. After all, my parents drove over from Tennessee solely to ride over with my wife, so that she wouldn’t be alone in the car for three hours with a seven-week-old infant. I mean, that’s some control. But there are fleeting flashes of this freedom when I’m attending to my little girl, and without her, well, without her here I’m just flung back into my old self – needing to be entertained, needing to pass the time, needing to feel in control of something.
I have no illusions that parenting is some blissed out state of spiritual freedom and that I’m close to middle-class suburban nirvana, freed from the trappings of bourgeois striving. Now that I have a child in my care, I have exponentially multiplied the things I can reasonably be anxious about. But there is a very real possibility of letting go of all that, if only for a moment or two at a time. Because when I watch my beautiful daughter sleep, the world stands still. And when I can’t watch her sleep, even knowing that at any moment she might kick her legs and snort and demand to be unraveled from her blankets for the replacing of a dirty diaper, then I just lie in bed and listen to the fan turn. Maybe there’s a peaceful Zen to be found in the turning of the fan, but it isn’t anything compared to the soft skin and tender hair of my little girl.