“Do you love him yet?” my dearest of friends Vance (not his real name) asked me over the phone. If you’ve ever had a friend who knows your secrets and actually prefers your dark side, then you have an Vance in your life. I have no reason to fear being honest with him. I was a month ahead of Vance into fatherhood and he was home only a few days from the hospital with twin boys. He was referring to my first-born Zander. “No,” I answered without hesitation.
There was a long pause during which I imagined Vance looking around to make sure no one could hear him. “What a relief,” he sighed.
When my wife Aimee learned she was pregnant we were at the beginning of an eight-year renovation of an 1890 farmhouse Victorian. She sat on a rolled-up carpet that, many months later, would cover the floor of our bedroom, and cried. I was excited. I had long assumed I would be a father and had looked forward to being one. Aimee also wanted children but later when we had doorways and the saws were out of the children’s bedrooms. I eagerly called our parents to break the news while she silently wept.
Weeks later she accidentally touched an uncovered light switch (it really was a project) and got shocked. In a panic Aimee searched the internet to see if she had hurt her baby. Watching this display there was no doubt in my mind she loved the creature growing inside of her. Equally clear was that I did not feel the same way. Despite her growing belly, the kicking of tiny feet on the wrong side of a human body, the cleaning and painting of the child’s bedroom, and the assembly of furniture, paternal love proved recalcitrant.
Wanting something and having it are two very different things. When Zander was born I did not have buyer’s remorse, I merely had a different set of emotions than I had expected. At each of those life-defining moments—leaving the Marine Corps, graduating from college, getting married, and yes, the birth of my first child—I have not experienced a sense of profound change, more that I have something else to do. My chores are different, not my life.
Our culture has a different take. Baby movies like Nine Months and Knocked Up portray a normative version of childbirth in which, after the crazy moments, mom and dad uniformly bond with their progeny. This is simply not a universal experience. There are seven billion ways to circle the sun and we all do it differently. It is absurd to think every parent is going to react the same way. And not just fathers. When I told a female friend I was working on this essay she shook her head and said, “I felt like I was acting for the first two weeks after my first child was born.”
So many love affairs begin with infatuation. That’s a different emotion, one that is needy and desperate. Genuine love is generous and enduring and the lucky couples move successfully from the former to the latter. I believe most marriages that fail—especially in the early years—just don’t cross that channel. Becoming a parent is to have a brand new person in your life. Infatuation does not apply and new parents are under tremendous stress. Love can take time.
And what of the new born? Is a baby born loving his parents? Having literally been attached to the mother, having heard the constancy of her heartbeat and the cooing of her voice from the inside, having suckled at her breast, I think the likelihood is high for her. But for dad this is hard to say. My sharpest new-dad memory was when my son was about six months old. I was rocking him to sleep in the dim nightlight of his room, staring in each other’s eyes in the way only parents and their babies can comfortably do. He reached up and touched my face and in his incipient speech said, “Da-da.” I do not recall the moment I knew I loved Zander but that dawning realization had been reached months before, and in that moment I knew Zander was there too.
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