Being there

How does a man learn to be a father? For this dad it was by...

The thought struck as the big day neared. For weeks my wife had been making all the calls, like a field general: crib here, formula warmer there. The apartment was filling up. Then the sudden worry: Was there any place for me?

So far my role in pre-parenthood had been to open doors, carry heavy objects, do the grocery shopping, make endless pots of herbal tea and always be ready with a compliment when my wife caught sight of herself in a mirror. The problem, as I now saw it, was that a good New York doorman does most of the above in exchange for his holiday envelope. If more of the same was all there was to being a dad, then I could see why a lot of fathers of my parents’ generation spent so much time out on the golf course.

When Rory arrived, my worst fears seemed to come true. I overexposed the film in the birthing room. I could barely hold the squirming bundle without getting a prickly, panicky feeling all over. I kept sticking the adhesive tabs of his diaper on his leg or butt, drawing the reproachful glances of my mother, mother-in-law and wife. Worse, however, was the feeling of being left out. The women jollied and jiggled Rory, cooing to him and trading bits of expert wisdom with one another. But as soon as I approached, they froze up: Look out, their body language seemed to say. Here comes Conan the Barbarian.

Of course, when midnight rolled around, and no one was particularly eager to get up and warm those chilly little plastic bags of expressed milk, guess who got the job? I don’t remember volunteering, yet I decided I liked it the night Rory beamed up at me after drinking his bottle — and threw up on my bare chest. Call it an initiation rite, but after that I wanted night duty.

For fathers, finding time that is your time with the baby seems crucial. Those nights when I sang a complaining Rory back to sleep (“Poppa’s Gonna Buy You a Mockingbird” should be in every father’s repertoire) gave me a chance to attune myself to his rhythms and feel and, yes, smell. It gave him a sense of me, as well.

Coming home after work, on the other hand, was a most difficult transition. Part of me (make that most of me) just wanted to slide into our lone overstuffed chair and hunker down with the newspaper to enjoy some peace and quiet — a peerlessly selfish instinct. Yet this was the very hour when my wife was at her breaking point, too, after hours of meeting the baby’s needs. So once again I made lemonade. I discovered that the moment your child lays eyes on you can be the high point of your day, and nothing — not office gossip, not the tedium of your commute, not even good news — should ever get in the way of this moment. Lying down on the rug, I’d plop Rory on my chest and let him tug and tweak my nose and cheeks to his heart’s content.

From there I made rapid progress as a father, and a funny thing happened: Suddenly I could read the parenting column in the local paper without feeling an overwhelming need to turn to the sports page. (I also learned exactly where Dr. Spock and The First Twelve Months of Life fit on our bookshelf.) Venturing to the local park one weekend, I was met by a bench full of guys with strollers: “Welcome to the Saturday Dads,” they said as one. Ten years later we still exchange advice and pass the time, except now the talk’s about soccer matches and homemade-pizza recipes and strategies to cut down Nintendo time.

Forming a community is a natural and important part of fatherhood. Pitching in to paint and decorate a basement playroom in our apartment building, getting to know the baby sitters at the park, petitioning the local seminary to open its grounds to children: These were opportunities to improve Rory’s days but also to solidify the society around him.

Being involved meant involving myself with everyone, from the little old lady who (annoyingly) always wanted to know where his mother was to the counterman at the Greek diner who, without being asked, whisked pancakes and sausage his way — and extra napkins. It was through the community that I learned the etiquette of making play dates, the hours the library was open, the best museums to visit. Watching children older than Rory, I began to anticipate how I would deal with situations that might arise — from his breaking another child’s toy to trying to jump off the slide like Batman. Watching Rory from afar, I realized one day that I could gauge from his body language whether he needed assistance or just someone to admire his latest feat of ingenuity.

It was then that I knew I’d passed some sort of test. I trusted myself! You’ve come a long way, baby, I thought. Somebody really ought to buy you a mockingbird.