In a recent issue of Time magazine, author James Poniewozik reviews a number of shows that tackle the topic of men taking care of babies. “Much dad humor today is based on the premise that it’s unnatural for men to be good at caring for kids,” he writes, and as one example, he looks at a forthcoming show called Baby Daddy wherein a new father changes his first diaper using goggles, duct tape, rubber gloves, and tongs. Along with the writer, I scoffed at this trivialization of me and my kind.
Then a few nights ago, I was left alone with baby G and had an experience where I could have used all that apparatus and more. It was after dinner and I was going to take G for a walk in the jogging stroller when I detected an unsavory whiff and peered down the back of his diaper to see a loose stool. I took him back in, laid him on the floor, took off his diaper, and cleaned off his butt. That part was simple enough. I’ve done it hundreds of times, and although it’s never an enjoyable practice it’s old hat by now.
As usual, I let him crawl around for a few minutes sans diaper when I noticed him strain for a moment. “G, what are you doing?” I asked, and he smiled at me and crawled to his right. That’s when I noticed a small mocha-colored puddle next to him. Then he strained again and I raced to grab him but when I reached down somehow some of the poop was on his shoulder. I tried to get his shirt off him as deftly as possible but when I pulled it off he now had a wet patch on the side of his head. The poop was everywhere.
My upper stomach grew tight but I fought back the impulse to wretch as I wiped off his butt and legs and then picked him up to take him upstairs to bathe. But as I walked across the carpet I stepped in something wet, a brown dollop I’d missed. With G in one arm I took a baby wipe and scrubbed off the bottom of my foot, then the rug, and finally upstairs and in the bath.
The crisis was finally over but when I was in the thick of it there was no time to grab tongs or goggles, I just had to roll with it. That’s where pop culture depictions of dads get it wrong. Rather than dress us up in a homemade hospital scrubs, just present us as we are, neck-deep in baby poop and other situations that are absurd enough without duct tape or goggles. Reality is poignant and funny by itself.
Over the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the differences between my newly four-year-old B and my almost one-year-old G. For instance, G has more of a sense of humor than B did at that age, but B also seemed more independent at that age. When you spend as much time with your kids as I do it becomes almost an anthropological thing.
Regardless, it hadn’t occurred to me until a few days ago how I might be different, too, how I might have changed as a father. Perhaps that difference is even bigger than the one between G and B as babies.
When I was put in charge of B almost four years ago I had absolutely no idea what to do with him. I knew where to stick the bottle, and how to change a diaper, but that was about it. And I really hadn’t been around a baby in decades, but like countless parents I just found what worked for the both of us, and I have to give credit to B. I threw a lot of stuff his way that a lesser person might have wilted under, but he’s a tough little cuss, maybe because he had to be.
This time around, I kind of have a “eff it” attitude. All the stuff that you have to deal with a baby just isn’t phasing me that much anymore (although, admittedly, every thing with the four-year-old is). In fact, I find myself often just telling the baby to calm down. “It’s not that big of a deal, man,” I say as he loses it at every little thing. Four years ago, I was like him. I might have had a near stroke as I tried to get B to stop fussing.
How will that affect G differently? I think kids really feed off their parents’ energy. As little beings trying to figure out their way in the world, they are trying to not only survive but also thrive and as a result condition themselves around the major influences in their lives, in my kids’ cases, some big man with too much anxiety and hair on his face, and a smaller, kinder woman. A more calmer me might mean a more balanced child.
At the same time, I don’t want to overstate my place in my kids’ lives. Heredity plays a big part, too, and perhaps that’s one reason G has stressed me out a lot less. I think B might have too much of me in him, and maybe that’s why we’ve always butted heads. Lord knows one of me is enough.
At 7:30 this morn, on my way home from SEAL Team PT, I got this text from the old lady. “B pooped in the potty. Make a big deal when he shows you.” This was exciting news. We’ve been trying to get B to poop in the toilet for a while. He’s been urinating on his own, sans diaper for weeks, even months, but when it’s time to defecate he demands we throw a diaper on him. So when I walked in the door, I was prepared and he charged out of the living room to tell me. I followed him in the bathroom and peered down into the bowl to see his triumph, not much of a poop at all, a rather loose looking stool, but a seminal moment in all our lives.
A little while later he announced he had to poop again and wanted a diaper. Whatever, one step forward, two steps back, but we’re moving in the right direction. Thirty minutes later, though, and I was wiping up diarrhea that had squirted out of his diaper onto the living room floor. The highs and lows of parenthood are swift and brutal like this. One minute riding into the sun, the next on your knees scrubbing feces out of the cracks of the hardwood floor, but then it all comes back around again.
I got everything cleaned up when the old lady walked in the door after taking G for a walk. She took him out of the Baby Bjorn and put him on his little play-mat. I went in the other room when I heard screaming, “He did it, he did it!” I ran back in to find G had rolled over for the first time on to his stomach. We put him back on his back on the mat and sure enough he did it again, a full month before B did when they were the same age. Success. I celebrated then sighed. Mountain, valley, mountain, all in the space of an hour or two.