Hands-On Dad

One man learns the pleasures of holding a baby.


The baby cries and cries during my first extended experience holding an infant. Offering to give two friends a break, I had convinced them that I was the man for the job of baby-sitting their 3-month-old boy. My generosity sprang from self-interest. I wanted to have children with my wife, but she complained that my actions when babies were around made me a liar. As the youngest of four, I had no experience baby-sitting. When my wife and I visited friends with children, I wouldn't pick up the babies. "I'm always the one," my wife said, "who handles the babies." She issued a challenge: "If you want to be a father, prove that you know how to hold a baby."

So here I am, the parents long gone, their baby crying. I need to use the bathroom and am unsure what to do. Still holding him, I give him a pacifier and go into the bathroom. No matter how I hold him, the crying continues as I stand before the toilet. After a minute, I flush. Then, he spits the pacifier into the bowl. He wails as he watches his pookie spin out of sight. And I feel like a failure.

Ten years and two daughters later, family albums testify to my ability to cope. Books, magazines, videos, classes and the counsel of mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers and our first au pair — the oldest among 22 cousins in Brittany — these all taught me. But above all, as a father who was equally scared and astonished in the delivery room, I learned to hold a baby simply by holding a baby, starting with the fullness of father love at childbirth. When I held our first daughter after she was born, her skin touching mine, I realized that, advertising pitches notwithstanding, the words baby soft must be reserved for babies alone, rather than any manufactured product.

Family photographs document how rapidly father and child acclimate. In one picture, our 2-week-old stretches in my lap while at the piano I play Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." In another, I sit reading the newspaper with a cat in my lap; the baby sleeps on my shoulder, snuggled in a turquoise receiving blanket. Her head nestles in the crook of my neck. My hand wraps around her bottom. Then, in one of those Daddy's-doing-something-Mama-shouldn't-watch pictures, pingpong paddle in one hand and baby in another, I return service: point and game.

"I got a 10-pound sack of sugar, 10-pound sack of beans,'' I sang as I circled the house with our girls. Tufts of baby hair tickled my neck. I used a baby sling to carry my daughters and strolled them in carriages, too. Day and night, they gave me gifts to redeem lost sleep. They took me to see stars, crescent moons and nearby mountains at sunrise.

The good news is that newborns are small enough to hold while you hike, talk on the phone or chop carrots. The bad news is that they seem swallowed by infant seats, baby carriers and backpacks. This panders to parental insecurity. "Gosh, she's so little,'' a third-time mom said recently about her month-old girl.

As our first daughter approached toddlerhood, she defied fragility when she discovered our recycling bin and climbed in. To her delight, I pushed her around in it. Eventually, we crossed the safety boundary when I hit a driveway crack. She tumbled out, scraping her arm and bloodying her mouth, all to no lasting damage.

Whether we're handling a newborn or a toddler, mistakes will be made. "We all do things we shouldn't sometimes," says Leslie Richard, M.D., a pediatrician and mother of three in Pasadena, Calif. "But we're not going to break babies. Their necks aren't going to snap, as long as they're not dropped. They're resilient."

We've sworn off the recycling bin. But I do drag the girls in a sleeping bag, levitating it only when our older daughter is aboard.

The other day, friends visited with their baby, who was fussy after a nap. I picked her up and rocked her side to side, singing an Italian song my wife and I sing to our kids. Briefly, the baby slept. Then our daughters, ages 17 months and 5 years, chased the baby's 3-year-old brother through the house until raucous laughter woke the baby.

I handed the baby back into her father's waiting arms and then hoisted up my own girls, doing what I could to ensure that my neck didn't snap. As my older daughter climbed aboard, she shouted: "Daddy sandwich!"