of water buffaloes and wingtips

From the mundane to the magical, fatherhood brings change.

Observing two friends this year — one who became a father, the other who is about to — I’ve realized that for men, facing up to parenthood is the last frontier. Even if you’ve survived every challenge, from stepping up to the plate in Little League to asking the boss for a raise, you’re still heading off into the unknown, with no idea of whether you’ll measure up.

In fact, the friend who became a parent this year didn’t strike me as a natural candidate at all. Sean is rigid and competitive, disciplined and hardheaded. One time when he visited us, our 1-year-old was gurgling happily on the rug, holding out his arms, and yet Sean ignored him. What stuck in my mind afterward was his shoes: gleaming black wingtips. Those gunboats seemed to epitomize his choice of career over family.

I was wrong. During his wife’s pregnancy, Sean shed his macho shell, picking out healthful foods, buying child-care books and acting as a willing (and goofy) participant in childbirth exercises. His imitation of a water buffalo doing Lamaze breathing was so priceless that we still ask for it, more than a year later.

Sean didn’t grow up so much as out. He relaxed into his anxieties instead of trying to beat them CEO-style. (He also started taking off his shoes when he came in the door.) I think Sean’s brand of non-hyperattentiveness — learn what you can, be prepared to wing the rest, and snort like a water buffalo when you’re confused — is one key to surviving fatherhood.

My other friend has never had a problem seeming relaxed. Harry is the coolest guy I know, with a soul-patch goatee and a foreign-correspondent résumé. He’s another one I never thought would go the fatherhood route, yet Harry, too, has surprised me. Recently, he went on about his intent to give his child the attention his father had not lavished on him. He confided his ambition to take his turn staying up for feedings and said he was giving up overseas assignments for jobs closer to home. For Harry, fatherhood had become a way to do something good for the next generation, and he was digging it.

When I kidded him about the change, Harry said he had an admission to make. I could tell it wasn’t easy for him, even though he could make being under hostile fire in Africa sound like a not-to-be-missed experience. “The thing about a baby,” he said, finally, “is that for the first time in my life, I’m responsible for something that’s not a cat. That’s awesome.”

My sentiments exactly.