Labor of Love

Some dads need to build like women need to nest.


Just like all elaborate home projects, this one started innocently enough: My son’s first birthday was approaching, and I wanted to give him a special gift, something that wouldn’t be outgrown

in a month or ruined by drool.

With a half-formed plan to piece together a pull-toy out

of scrap wood, I surfed a few woodworking Web sites for inspiration and ideas. Most hobby sites now have photo sections where people can show off projects they’ve built. And it was there, among the bookcases and Adirondack chairs, that I found a staggering assortment of cribs, cradles, changing tables, toddler-size chairs and more—all made by hand, all products of countless hours of meticulous work.

The descriptions of the projects revealed glimpses of their creators: a father who’d built an elaborate bassinet for his newborn daughter; a man who’d crafted an elegant maple cradle for his first grandchild; one guy who must have spent months carving a 5-foot-long dresser/toy chest in the shape of Noah’s ark, using nine different species of hardwood. Making it probably took him more time than Noah spent on the original.

All of this got me thinking about what drives men to create—not just provide—for their progeny. Some sort of nesting syndrome? An urge to connect, maybe, or to express affection through Herculean efforts to create an enduring object? If guys truly have a difficult time sharing their emotions, these theories make a lot of sense.

I ended up spending the better part of two months building a rocking horse from solid cherry wood. Ironically, I almost became an absentee father doing it. Sure, I’d sneak my son out to the shed I use as a workshop and hold up a work piece next to him to check the fit. I’d (very carefully) let him grip the handles of power tools that would give his mother hives if she knew what they were capable of. “Router” was one of his first words. But toward the end, I was eager to finish and return to being Daddy.

One day, with the horse almost done, I began to realize that my labor of love was the opposite of my wife’s pregnancy and delivery. Her experience started subtly—a plus sign in the test-kit window, the whispery tickle of the baby’s first kick—and built to the crescendo of full-blown labor, sudden eclampsia and a hurried C-section. Mine began with the ear-splitting whine of a table saw and worked its way down through less violent tools and finer carpentry techniques as the horse took shape.

Eventually, with each pass of the sandpaper more gentle than the one before, the surface became almost as smooth as the skin that would rest against it. Is that so different from an expectant mother tenderly caressing her swollen belly? Blame my reverie on the mesmerizing effect of rubbing a piece of sandpaper back and forth for hours at a time. Or just call me sentimental.

We named the horse Cherry. Sometimes I notice a crusty substance on his muzzle, as if someone’s been feeding him oatmeal. On the underside, he’s engraved with the date and the inscription Happy 1st Birthday to Dylan. Love, Daddy.