Agony and ecstasy for a first-time father

    My 4-month-old daughter, Lyla, has a cold (her first!). As a result, she’s on the cranky side. My wife and I, however, are destroyed physically and emotionally. We were both waylaid for days after catching her weird daycare-snotty-face-poopy-pants disease, and have not slept more than a few hours a night as we’ve continually tried to sooth our moderately irritable daughter.

    I know, I know — “welcome to fatherhood,” “just wait ’till she’s a teenager,” “try having two sick kids and a barfing cat.” I know. I expected this but was completely unprepared. And this isn’t the only part of fatherhood that has taken me by surprise.

    What I heard over and over again, when my wife was pregnant, was “sleep while you can,” because we wouldn’t get much rest after the baby was born. And of course that was true — everyone knows new parents get very little sleep. But it wasn’t the lack of sleep that was shocking. I can budget for not sleeping. I can plan for not sleeping. What’s maddening is the unpredictability of the sleep.

    And really, it’s not so much my sleeplessness that’s difficult, it’s the sense of failure from not getting her to sleep. Every time I hear a whimper or rustling from the baby monitor, after having just put her to silent, peaceful rest not 10 minutes before, a small piece of my soul dies. I’m one for to-do lists; I operate on processes and routines. Putting Lyla to bed is like hammering nails into a board and then watching them spontaneously pop out. It shatters my ordered world and leaves me confounded, angry and questioning everything I once thought concrete and real. (“Try and make a to-do list for a 3-year-old!” Yeah, I get it. I’m unrealistic. Shut up.)

    Emotionally, what’s surprised me is a new acute sense of self-consciousness and insecurity that insinuates itself into every social interaction. Going to the supermarket comes with an internal monologue: “I swear I’m a good dad. Look how healthy my shopping cart is!”

    Walking in the park: “Don’t worry, I’ve got 15 lbs of supplies strapped to my body to handle any contingency!”

    Getting coffee: “Please-don’t-cry-please-don’t-cry-please-don’t-cry — dear god — please-don’t-cry-please-don’t-cry.”

    Not that I’m a stranger to anxiety or worry — I am an expert — but self-doubt and second-guessing have now exceeded normative levels.

    What I also find hilarious — in retrospect — is how trivial some of my concerns were, pre-birth:

    “What if she likes crappy top 40 pop music?”

    “How am I going to manage her online presence in a digital world?”

    “She’d better have a realistic idea of what to major in at college.”

    Online presence? College major? Ha! Get that girl to sleep through the night first, Cliff Huxtable (is what imaginary present-Me says to sulking imaginary past-Me). 

    Although, if I’m honest, I still do this. Last night I lay awake wondering which she would prefer to learn more: the guitar or the bass.  I mean, every band wants a female bass player, but what if she’s in an all female band? Then she’d be the bass player … Then she woke up crying, and would again and again every hour, as if to remind me “This is what’s important right now.”

    Finally, I was surprised at how I felt at the first sight of Lyla. This might come off as utterly naïve, or arrogant, or I don’t know what, but I really thought that I would have some basis for knowing what it would feel like when she finally came into the world. “Joy.” “Overwhelming Happiness.” Whatever those things mean is how I figured it would be. It’s not that I wasn’t excited; I just figured I had an idea of how it would feel. I didn’t.

    At the risk of simplifying it, it was like the exact opposite of how it feels to get horrible, life-shattering news. I felt it, physically, like a punch, in the same place behind my chest that is usually reserved for the worst, most painful possible feelings — only this was the opposite of that. I didn’t even really know that feeling existed. And it was the most wonderful surprise of my life.

    New dad John Sheehan is an associate producer for WHYY’s “Fresh Air” and the producer of “Fresh Air Weekend.”

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