Waiting for my second child to arrive, a girl this time, I find myself saying all the expected things an expecting father says. “I hope she’s healthy.” “I wonder what she’s going to look like.” “A girl? What’s that going to be like?” “Sweet sleep, your days are numbered.”
But there’s one standard expression I’m no longer able to say—I’m going to be a father. The truth is, I already am one. The toys scattered across—on a bad day, littering—the living room floor tell me this. The photographs on the fireplace mantle tell me this. The Play-doh stuck in the carpet, little toothbrush and bubblegum toothpaste in the bathroom, primitive drawings on the kitchen table, miniature bicycle in the garage, cartoon voices and sound effects blaring from the TV, child seats set up in both cars—these and a hundred other details say to me, yep, you’re a father.
But when did it happen? When did I go from not being a father to being one?
Technically it happened when my son Leo, now late in his fourth year, was born. I’ll never forget the moment I saw him for the first time. No father, no parent, forgets this moment. My wife Mayu was having a C-section, and we were in Japan, where fathers-to-be are kept a safe distance from this particular birthing procedure. In fact, because my Japanese ability was so poor at the time, I didn’t even know the C-section had started. I was asked to wait for what I thought was a kind of prep time, standing there by myself, looking through the receiving room glass at a few babies asleep in wheeled beds, waiting, like a man from my own father’s generation, for my son to be born.
And there he was suddenly, held up to face me by the short, brisk, astonishingly capable midwife who carried him into the receiving room from some mysterious inner-chamber. Through the glass I saw him as the midwife presented him to me, one strong hand under his bottom, the other supporting his neck and head. He was moist-looking, that wrinkly water-logged newborn look, but thankfully cleaned up a bit. Wailing. Squirming. Squinting. Clipped umbilical dangling. My son.
Was that it, then? The first time I saw Leo and acknowledged to myself, in a giddy, shocked sort of way, that he was my child—was that the moment I became a father? It was the beginning of fatherhood, I can say that much. The beginning of a process. The process of becoming responsible for a new human life.
Before I had a child of my own, I had not held many babies. One or two perhaps. The opportunity comes rarely for people without children. Family get-togethers, for example, are classic arenas for baby-holding. But for men, especially the ones who are not fathers, life can be a baby-holding desert. So many times I saw women passing babies, like flour sacks, amongst themselves, most of these women already practiced mothers. The sight of a woman accepting or taking a baby, any baby, into her arms seemed so natural, even aesthetically pleasing. As if every woman was at any moment ready and able to manifest the eternal spirit of motherhood. But I couldn’t imagine it, holding someone else’s baby, much less bouncing or rocking it or whatever people did while holding a baby. And it was rare that a mother turned to me and asked, “Do you want to hold her?” And of course I never extended the request (or offer) myself.
But when I held my son Leo for the first time, at that same maternity clinic in Japan, it felt completely natural, if also a little new and strange. At nearly ten pounds, he was quite a bundle. But it was no burden, this living weight in my arms, no awkward imposition. I didn’t fear I was going to drop him—maybe at first I did—and I didn’t find myself searching the room for someone to pass him off to. (Only Mayu was available for this, and she looked, well, like she needed a rest.) He was warm and soft, and I liked the way he smelled. “This isn’t so bad,” I remember thinking. “I kind of like this.”
Whether or not holding a baby comes more naturally to women than men, it does take a little practice, I think. And most men have a deficit of such practice by the time they become fathers. Even after I had held Leo many, many times, I was still not the expert that Mayu was becoming. A stay-at-home mother, she spent hours and hours with Leo, getting to know his every gesture, sound, and habit, including of course how he liked to be held. “He doesn’t like his head on that side,” she might say, or “Hold him a little bit lower.” Sometimes I would in fact decide to pass him off. “Here, you hold him,” I would say. But more often I was becoming deeply interested, not just in how to hold any baby, but in how to hold this particular one, my flesh and blood.
“Don’t try to hold him like I do,” Mayu once said. “You have to find the position that works for both of you.” This was one of those simple but profound statements that Mayu periodically throws out there for me to contemplate. Yes, I realized, holding a baby was not a one-way street. It also included the baby being held, two points of view. Once I understood this fact, that holding Leo was not an act, a task, but rather a relationship, the whole enterprise was much more successful.
In Korea, where Mayu was born, they start counting a child’s age from conception (or thereabouts). That is, when a baby is born, they consider it to be already about a year old. This view makes perfect sense to me. When I look at our growing baby’s ultrasound images, I know I’m watching a person moving through the earliest days of her life. Later, I feel her moving, too. She kicks and rolls like a little astronaut in her dark space capsule. And though I can’t do much for her yet—from here on planet Earth—I already feel very much her father. “How’s she doing today?” I ask Mayu, looking at her belly. I put my hand on what might be the baby’s knee or her bottom. I get close and hum some made-up song. I say, “Hey you in there? Everything Okay?” When her orbit is complete, and she finally makes her landing, I will indeed have known her for about a year. “So that’s what you look like,” I’ll say. “I expected you to be a little taller.”
Those first days in the maternity clinic, breast feeding did not come easily to Leo and Mayu. It didn’t help matters that Mayu was recovering from a C-section, which made handling Leo, born at nearly ten pounds, a difficult routine. So, concerned about Leo’s nutrition, and in response to what clearly was a very hungry boy, we went along with the clinic staff’s recommendation to feed Leo formula.
I was conflicted about this choice, probably more than Mayu, since I had time on my hands to research the topic on the Internet, usually a bad idea. “But it’s going to alter his digestive system,” I ranted. “He’ll have the same stomach enzymes as an adult!”
“He needs to eat,” was Mayu’s common sense reply. And I couldn’t deny that both mother and child benefited from the relief a simple bottle of powdered nutrition (I hoped) and warm water could bring them. I stopped visiting the websites.
The choice to give formula to Leo was good for me, too. Eventually, he and Mayu found their breastfeeding groove, which continued for nearly two years. But Leo was indeed a hungry kid, and there was never quite enough breast milk to satisfy him. So I helped out by feeding him from the bottle whenever I could. It was a welcome break for Mayu, and for me it was a chance to be the provider of sustenance that perhaps many fathers can’t be. Holding Leo in my arms while he suckled at the bottle’s nipple—the relaxing rhythm of liquid drawn through that tiny rubber aperture—I looked into his wide, beautiful eyes and felt close to him, connected. He looked at me, too, thinking or feeling whatever a baby does in such moments. “This is nice. I know you. I’m sleepy.” Maybe it was something like that.
While Mayu and I were trying to bring a second child into our lives, I had a dream. I was standing somewhere, I don’t remember where, talking to a girl who seemed to be about eighteen years old. She had dark, thick, straight hair down to her shoulders. Her face had an Asian appearance, soft and oval-shaped, pretty. I don’t know what we were talking about, only that we were very close and that some boundless love existed between us. I do remember saying to her, “I’m so proud of you,” and hugging her as a father might his daughter. She hugged me, too. Then the dream observer, that part of our mind that watches and thinks about the dream but is not really participating in it, not an actor in it, said to itself, “This is my daughter.” When I woke soon after, I felt warm and exhilarated, like I had just been reunited with a loved one after many, many years. “I have a daughter,” I thought to myself.
I had a similar vision years earlier, during one of the first conversations I ever had with my future wife, Mayu. I was working at an English tutoring center, and she was one of the students who came their to study and practice. This particular conversation meandered into the topic of children. “Do you have children?” she asked me. “No,” I said. Indeed, at that time, I was as far as anyone could be from having children or thinking about children. “Do you want children?” she asked me. I had been asked this question before, but only now did I hesitate before giving my answer, which should have been no. “I’m not sure,” I found myself saying. “How about you,” I asked, trying to regain my pedagogical footing. “Yes,” she said. “I’d like a family.” And suddenly, looking into Mayu’s face, wanting to touch her hand, I experienced a brief fantasy in which she and I were together, and around us were our children. Somewhere in my mind and heart, welling up like the realization of a long-forgotten happiness, was the certainty that one day I would be a father.
My relationship with my son Leo has always been pretty physical. In Japan, as soon as he could walk competently, he rarely wanted to be in a stroller. Usually the stroller would serve only the last leg of any trip through the city, when Leo had walked his toddler legs to their limit. Many times, out of convenience, we left the stroller behind altogether, and Leo would ride home in my arms when he couldn’t carry himself any longer. Before I became a father, I used to watch in vague envy at parents carrying their tired children through a shopping mall, a carnival, or some other communal, pedestrian setting. They looked so close and comfortable, one holding, the other being held, though it looked like a lot of work for the parent. It was indeed a lot of work lugging Leo, say, from the train station to our apartment fifteen minutes away. My father (maybe every father of his generation) used to yell, “Sack of potatoes,” humping around the house with me or my brother over his shoulder. Leo was more like a bag full of sand, I’m sure. My arms grew pretty strong during that time, enhancing my fatherly ego. But carrying Leo was also simply close and comfortable, just as it had seemed for those other kid-carrying parents. The warmth of his body, fast asleep by now, against my chest and shoulder, the gentle pressure of his hands on my arm or neck—it was always worth the strain (and sweat, on a hot day).
There was also the bedtime holding, when Leo was very small, as I paced our little Japanese apartment, bouncing him to some soporific song I had thrown together. And the table-side holding later, when he sat on my lap to eat a snack or scribble with a crayon. And the zoo, museum, and shop-window holding, when I lifted him to see what he couldn’t see from his natural height. This holding continues to this day, I’m happy to say, with Leo more able now to seek me out instead of passively being picked up and carried around. “Daddy, can you lift me so I can see that?” he might ask plainly. “Daddy, can I sit in your lap while I’m drawing this?” “Daddy, can you carry me on your shoulders?” In my tired, grumpy moments, I sigh inside at the thought of his 50 pounds pressing onto my thigh bones. But as always, once he’s situated there, talking to me and being with me, I’m thankful. Like all the other Leos I’ve known, this one will not last forever. Eventually, he’ll truly be too big for my lap and in any event won’t have much interest in being there. He’ll be a different kind of son, and in response I’ll need to be a different kind of father.
What kind of father am I? A good one, I hope. I try, anyway. I listen to Leo when he’s telling me something that seems important to him. I sit with him and build cities out of blocks, or play board games, or act out rescue dramas with his action figures. I jog beside him as he rides his bike through the neighborhood. We go to the library together and pick out books and DVDs. I give him baths and help him brush his teeth. I read him stories every night. I hug him and kiss him before I leave for work in the morning.
But it’s not always easy, when I’m being with Leo, to maintain a dependable level of joy and energy. A child’s stamina for play is difficult for an adult to match, especially for a middle-aged one like me. I can tag along for about an hour before my eyes start searching for a clock, or my mind returns to its backlog of adult concerns. “Now let’s play, Daddy,” Leo says, tugging my chin, whenever my attention wanders or I grimace from the pain in my lower back. It’s ironic that this part of fatherhood, being a playmate, can be the most taxing. Sitting on the floor, producing voices for stuffed animals, pushing toy cars from one end of the room to the other—these simple activities can leave me wanting a nap.
The challenge is not taking the nap. So far, I’ve been able to accomplish this feat. I hear of other fathers who, shortly after arriving home, recline somewhere, if not to sleep, then to watch TV, play video games, or retreat into a similar thought-silencing activity. Granted, some of these fathers appear to put in harder and longer workdays than I do, so their process for moving from work life to home life might be a matter of physical maintenance and mental survival. My own father was in this category. Owning and managing his own optometry practice, often serving as eye examiner, lens crafter, frame fitter, and all-around customer pleaser, he came home with very little left, of either energy or time, for us kids. I understand now, even if I still feel a little sad in my memory that we didn’t spend more evenings playing together.
All the same, I wouldn’t have wanted the half-hearted attention he could muster for me at the end of those long days. No, maybe I would have wanted it. Leo seems to want every minute I give him, even when my energy and focus are obviously compromised. His tenacity in wrangling my adult attention, a tenacity most children seem to possess, is impressive. And it never fails to reach my compassion, even if it has to push through layers of fatigue, worry, impatience, and—if it’s dinner time—hunger to get there. “Kawa-ee-so,” says Mayu, a Japanese expression that means, in this case, “Poor little guy.” She is ever Leo’s advocate in such moments. Ever reminding me that children, whatever their flaws and weaknesses, need us. And this need, above all else, more than the cuteness, the warmth, the flattering admiration, is what continues to make me feel my fatherhood. It’s a duty, yes, a responsibility, but also a beautiful reason to keep working and learning and desiring.
Besides fatigue and sometimes boredom, the biggest source of fatherly guilt for me is my impatience, my anger. To some degree, of course, I’m just a typical parent who blows up on occasion, those moments when the kid pushes me to the limit. I’ve let my voice roar like a monster, my hand shove a little harder than necessary. I’ve thrown things I shouldn’t have and said things I regretted later. Fighting with our children, we sometimes become children ourselves.
Here, in my anger, I feel my own father most potently. “Your father and his Italian temper,” my mother used to say, diverting part of the accusation onto my father’s ethnicity. The truth was, my father could be scary. “I’m gonna kill you kids if you don’t shut up back there,” he said once, trying to drive while my brother and I horsed around in the back seat. He did get our attention, though. We shut up. But I’m sure he didn’t feel so proud of himself, seeing his children obey him out of fear. I’ve achieved the same effect with Leo, sometimes simply losing control, other times unable to think of a more creative way to direct my child. My clenched jaw is my father’s clenched jaw, my racing heart his racing heart, my desire to smash something his desire. Sadly, Leo’s style of getting angry, of losing his temper, is partly something I taught him.
So we try to teach our children patience, too, when we have it ourselves. “Settle down, Leo,” I say gently, hoping he doesn’t remember my tantrum from the day before. “Have some patience.” And we show them joy when we’re lucky enough to feel it. I see my father’s dark side so clearly in memory, but somehow it balances out with all the good memories I have of his smile, his laugh, his equally Italian love of life. Maybe Leo will remember me in a similar way, as someone who made him both laugh and cry, who hurt him and loved him.
Sometimes I think the most important thing I’ve done for my children so far is give them their names. Though Mayu is Korean, she never had a desire to give her children Korean or Korean-inspired names. “I don’t like that kind of thing,” she said. “Our children will live in America. They should have English names.” I was actually happy about that. I would have felt as much love calling my son Jin Soon as any other name, but still I wanted something more . . . familiar. At the same time, I didn’t want our kids to have names that were so foreign to Mayu that she would feel distanced from them. Pronunciation was important. Her tongue should never get tied saying the names of her own children. I asked Mayu if I could collect names for us to consider. “You’re the writer,” she said.
So I searched and searched, poring over name lists as most expecting parents do. My family name, McCurdy, is a bit long, so I wanted the name of our son to be short, definitely no more than two syllables. When I lived in Japan, I created product names for a branding company. Naming a new person was no different, I discovered, than naming a new sedan or household cleaner. The name should be easy to say, easy to remember, and possess a distinct flavor and character. And it shouldn’t have negative associations for the people who have to say it. When I came across the name Leo in my research, I knew it was the right one. It seemed to satisfy all the criteria. (And as far as I knew, Mayu had nothing against lions.) Plus it had the benefit of referencing my father’s true Italian family name, Leonetti, which had slipped away from his father through a history of adoption and name change.
Looking for a girl’s name was equally challenging, especially because I wanted the name to have only one syllable. Brian, Mayu, Leo, and X. Yes, the list had to resolve into a single syllable. Always the writer concerned about musicality. And the name couldn’t begin with a B, M, or L. I didn’t want this girl’s name to sound like anyone else’s in the family. Like a Joe father and Joe Jr. son. Or a Leo brother and Leah sister. No, none of that. The name had to be pretty but strong. Definitely not too cute. Couldn’t end with a y or an ie.
As with Leo, the name we settled on for our daughter felt perfect the first time I saw and heard it—Tess. I knew Mayu and I would have to discuss this name and compare it to the others on my short list (which included Kate, Skye, Jane, and Anne). But secretly I knew the decision had already been made.
As I wait for Tess to be born, I feel such anticipation and excitement. She will be lovely, I know, and I’ll hold her and feed her, sing songs and read books to her, do all those enjoyable parent things. I’ll watch her grow and change and become more and more interesting, as I’ve watched her brother these past four years. But most of all, I feel thankful for the chance to be yet another person’s father, and to have this privilege stretch out from now until the end of my own life. For fatherhood, once it comes to you, and no matter what you decide to do with it, never leaves.
Brian McCurdy lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. He’s been writing personal essays about anything and everything for more than twenty years. He is the author of Anatomy of a House and Portrait of a Vegetarian.