Many people wished me a happy “first” Father’s Day yesterday, but that’s technically not true. I’ve been counting last year as my first official Father’s Day, since Maddie was already cooking this time last year, even though you only knew I was a Dad if my seven-months-pregnant wife happened to be standing next to me.
That said, yesterday was my first official Father’s Day with a child on the outside, and it was obviously quite different from last year. I remember marking the occasion of my first Father’s Day when Maddie was still just a surreal stomach-thumping, ultrasonic presence. Everything was still so clouded in mystery back then. I would hear her heartbeat at the monthly checkups and feel her nightly dance parties. Throw in a little nursery assembly and that was about as far as my efforts to earn a Father’s Day card had gone. I had theories on how life might be after Maddie’s arrival, but those were based solely on a couple books and blog posts I’d read, pop culture stereotypes and TV shows, and the testimony of family and friends who had already experienced this rodeo.
But none of that prepares you for the actual reality of being a father. On Maddie’s first night in the hospital, I set the alarm on my phone to wake her1 up for a feeding a couple hours later2. I remember waking up with a start to the sound of the alarm, seemingly seconds after falling asleep on the barely comfortable hybrid couch bed in the hospital room.
I peered into Maddie’s little bed on wheels, marveling anew at how this swaddled human being could be so tiny and once again awed by the fact that I had helped to create her. I gently brought Maddie over to Theresa for what was only the third feeding of her life. This is fatherhood, I thought. This girl is counting on me now. I’m all in.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but there was no burning bush that appeared in that hospital room with stone tablets containing the 10 Commandments of Effective Fatherhood. When our stay was concluded, we got in the car, put Maddie in her carseat and embarked on the beginning of our new family life. So far fatherhood has been a process—like so many of life’s most meaningful experiences—of figuring it out as I go along. Perhaps the greater realization has been that all parents are just figuring it out as they go along. The greatest parental improvisers are the ones who make it look and sound like they’re playing off of sheet music, when most of them are just quickly playing the best notes they can, hoping the final composition is as beautiful as they had hoped it would be when they started the song. My song for Maddie has just begun, but each new day requires me to play a few more notes, as Maddie continues her transition from newly arrived baby to curious and mobile toddler.
Yesterday morning, Maddie, Theresa and I were scheduled to kick off Father’s Day by running a 5K together, and we had to get up early to get to the race site on time. I awoke with a start to the sound of my phone’s alarm. I walked into Maddie’s room and peered into her crib, marveling at how peacefully she was sleeping on her side and awed by how much she’d grown in a year’s time. How is it possible that this is the same girl who was hosting those utero dance parties?
As I rubbed her back and softly spoke her name, she stirred awake. She saw my face and smiled brightly. After her usual routine of wakeup stretches, she showed off her new trick of going from her stomach to a seated position. She smiled again and looked me in the face. “Da-da,” she said, clear as day.
This is fatherhood, I thought. What a joy.