How one father learned to care

I was headed to grad school when my ex got pregnant. But one lowly night job taught me all I needed to know

Published June 15, 2014 3:00PM (EDT)

 (<a href=''>julief514</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(julief514 via iStock)

The spring of that year I was living in the Italian Riviera, housesitting an 11-bedroom villa for the BBC chef Valentina Harris. My sole responsibility, as house sitter, was to see to it that Fletch, a mischievous Jack Russell terrier, was fed two scoops dried kibble, one can cat food, and one apple per day. The rest of the day I devoted to pleasure; morning swims in the river under the 14th-century mill, games of cards out in the apple orchard with friends, meals that stretched into the evening dark. Calls from Columbia University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago had interrupted several dinner parties to offer fellowships to graduate school.  I felt a certain wealth and ease for the first time in my life, and it seemed possible that it would hold out.

But by fall I was living in the back bedroom of my ex-girlfriend’s house in California, and she was pregnant with my child. I’d scraped up a day job doing yard work, and then at night I’d walk the few blocks to where I’d found a second job as a night attendant for a disabled man.

Dave’s studio apartment was in the middle of a complex busy with the joyous hoots and hollers of undergrads. His meals were not as lavish as Fletch’s had been. He took 14 pills each night, crushed into a pink or white dust and administered with the stale applesauce I retrieved from his bare fridge. I spooned it into his wet mouth, wiping a bit off his chin, then raised his straw to his puckered lips under his mustache. His eyes would bulge as he labored to drink his iced tea. Then I would follow him into the bathroom that had been modified to accommodate his wheelchair. I pulled down his damp sweat pants as he jerked to raise his hips up. Dave breathed ferociously through his nose as I put his soft, bunched penis into the urine bottle and stood looking at the wall as I listened and tried not to smell the urine.

I did not like to brush his teeth, and that was what came next. He contorted and twitched at the stabbing, no matter how delicately I carried it out. Then, if it was shower night, I undressed him out in the living room where he watched the Oakland Athletics over my shoulder. His chair creaked as I lifted his humid body, small and vulnerable but with a grown man’s hair matted to his pale skin, into his plastic shower chair. I stood outside of the shower trying not to get my pants wet. And when I washed his hair he surged and gasped like a man surfacing from a great depth. Then he was fresh. Then he was new. I combed his hair. I held his face in my hand and turned it to be looked at as I trimmed his mustache, cleaned his ears. His skin was tight and flushed, and in his pajamas he was ready to be lifted into bed where he would wiggle like a child into his spot, his blanket up under his chin, and at the door I would turn out the light, feeling the California night air on my neck – “Goodnight,” I would say.


Walking home after work, I would feel all right, though the soles of my Italian shoes were thinning. I’d made some money. There were people getting in and out of cars at the curb outside restaurants, and walking among them made me feel as though it was a life we were sharing. But that’s all I would feel. It seems impossible to say that at no time during the course of the pregnancy did I ever wonder, fantasize, experience terrors, or even think about being a father. But I didn’t. I thought about Italy, and about my Italian girlfriend who would nap with her hair lashing in the open window as I drove the narrow roads to Cinque Terre in our little car. Or I would think of Fletch feverishly paddling with his slender head just above the water in the pool.

The baby grew from a zygote to a blastocyst to an embryo. She sounded, when the doctors described it, like she was part of another galaxy. And in that galaxy she began to swallow, she could hear her mother’s heart and voice, she learned to blink in the pink glow of the womb. She was quickening. But because we didn’t want to know the gender and decided against even a sonogram, to us – or I should say to me, at least – the baby remained an abstract idea. If it took human form at all in my mind it was in the unhappy shape of its mother who seemed always to be in some doorway looking down at me as I tied my shoes.

Once a week, we joined a handful of other expecting couples in a storefront where Natural Child birthing classes convened on the thin carpet of what was, during business hours, a real estate office.

“So, dads – not to leave you out – What. In. The. World. Is your role in all this?” the frizzy-haired instructor asked. The pregnant mothers, some lying on the floor spooned by their lovers, others seated glowing and attentive next to their husbands, had been talking about sleep patterns (the misery), bonding with other pregos (the glory), and prenatal sex (the craving/disgust).  Outside a car splashed by in the rain, but inside one of the men came back stocking-footed with a cup of water for his wife and said, “Awe. I mean pure complete, unbridled awe and amazement and –”

“And fear,” another quieter, balding soon-to-be dad ventured.

This brought a round of laughter. It was such an ecstatic thing to be afraid of, because the group feeling was, we really weren’t afraid – this was why we were here, after all. We were looking forward to this and wanting to know more and more about it. Well, they were. They were wanting to plan and run scenarios and trade the baby names they’d chosen. I couldn’t concentrate. I watched how the couples interacted, how they reached for and touched each other when one of them spoke, or how they helped each other take off their coats, or who spoke first when a couple was asked a question. And then I thought about work. I thought it would be 30 minutes back to Berkeley, add 10 minutes for the rain – I’d have to get the car while my ex talked about the mothering books after class with the other women, and then when I pulled up at the curb and sat with the wipers going I would see her precise pregnant shape intermittently and then it would be blurred by the rain and so would all of this: California, this pregnancy, fatherhood. It would all be wiped away, and then there again, whole, and then gone.

“Couldn’t you get a bit more excited about this?” my ex said in the car.

“I am excited.” I glanced at her. “But I think you just figure it out as it goes.”

This was not a good sign, to my ex – or to the birthing coach or the doula or the midwife/s. They furrowed their brows when my answers veered toward a wait-and-see method.

“Well, planning is key,” they said.

But I didn’t have much faith in planning anymore. I was 25 years old. A few months ago, I’d been on my way to grad school. Now I was riding the elevator to the apartment of my charge, Dave, with all the college kids who lived in his complex. I passed their open doorways where some sat at desks studying and others were gathered around a computer watching a video. I’d punch in the code at Dave’s door and find him watching ESPN.  “Did you see this?” he’d say, motioning to some play-of-the-day. I’d never told him I was expecting a child.

When I returned home I was supposed to be learning about fatherhood. But I couldn’t bring myself to read the books. The rules of thumb, the chapters on childhood behavior, the prideful arts and crafts projects for parent and child all struck me as being as impersonal and orderly as a sex manual I’d unearthed as a teenager, with illustrations of a stocking-footed man in beige slacks "digitally stimulating" a naked woman. The parenting books steadily collected dust on my nightstand.

The sound of my daughter is what I first recall of her. Her sputtering cough, then a purple squall, and she was hoisted into the air and laid on my chest as the midwife worked to stem her mother’s bleeding.

We had nearly two weeks together, where we were the only ones in the lower floor of the house. Her mother was put on bed rest in her upstairs bedroom, so this little creature and I explored the rest of the house. We trekked to the kitchen sink for baths, and up to her decorated room to change. I undressed her delicately and cleaned her on her back, her tiny limbs jutting out uncontrollably. I laid clothes out, pulled her chubby feet through onesies, and sat her up, smiling, for me to comb her hair with my fingers.  It all seemed so natural, so fluid. My hands knew where to go to support her. Here was another charge who jumped at sudden noises, who shuddered if my hands were cold, whose face I cleared of water as I washed it. My infant daughter, like Dave, could not control her arms and needed her nails clipped so she wouldn’t scratch herself. Her falling from the bed, like Dave had warned me he could, became a constant worry in my mind. But soon she learned to erupt with surprised laughter, smaller but not unlike his. The nights I worked for Dave, I often carried first her small body to bed, then, in an odd repetition, his.

And when it wasn’t peaceful, when she broke things or refused to sleep, or screamed, beet-red in the car seat, I knew that the trouble would not last. I could remedy it, I could work it out. The day I’d first come to interview with Dave he apologized but asked if it was possible, was there any way I could give him a shower? He looked at me to gauge if I understood. His lunch attendant had told him everything was OK, even as Dave knew he was sitting in his own feces. He tried not to be humiliated, watching the attendant leave. Outside the college kids were on the balcony with their feet up drinking beer, laughing. He waited through the change in the sunlight in the window. He waited through the sound of traffic picking up around 5. Then when I arrived, a complete stranger to him, he must have set himself to the task of asking for help. But what he didn’t know, was that he was actually helping me. He was teaching me how to take care.

By Chaz Reetz-Laiolo

Chaz Reetz-Laiolo's work has recently appeared in The Paris Review, Ecotone, Harvard Review, New England Review, Raritan, and the 2012 Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology. He lives in California with his daughter, Isa.

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Babies Caretaking Children Fatherhood Father's Day Parenting Pregnancy