People who know me or my work know that my past includes sketchy behavior on some of the most violent blocks in America: in and out of destroyed, abandoned homes; encounters with racist police and open-air drug markets where I stared down the barrels of guns; fighting my friends and fighting with my friends; selling crack during the semi-automatic era. After losing too many family members and friends during those years, I was lucky enough to make it through without losing my mind. My life is stable now; good, in fact. But now that I'm about to become somebody's dad, I find myself more scared than I ever was back then. Nothing in my dangerous and chaotic past prepared me for what's coming next : this tiny, delicate, very scary baby.
Being in control of someone else's whole life — where they live, what they eat, how they're socialized and educated, their health, their influences, their safety — without instructions is the scariest thing I have ever faced. This unborn baby's wellbeing owns my thoughts. When I wake up, while I have my eggs and coffee, while I'm at work, after work, during dinner, and before I fall asleep, I'm preoccupied with everything unknown about the baby that scares me. What will the baby look like? Smell like? What if the baby won’t eat? What if I take the baby with me to the coffee shop and have to use the bathroom, do I leave her with a coffee shop friend? Are they really my friends or are they baby snatchers? Now all of the people who hang around my coffee shop have started to look like baby snatchers to me.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m so happy to be in this situation. The only way I can explain these new and confusing emotions is by naming them as fear — the best fear I’ve ever experienced, the only good fear I’ve ever had.
My wife Caron has a permanent smile. Even on bad days, she still cheeses. On good days, her smile expands so wide that her nostrils flair and her eyes disappear and you can see each and every tooth in her mouth, even the third molars tucked all the way in the back.
I’ve been getting that expanded version of Caron's smile a lot lately because I’ve been doing all the things that good husbands do: listening, taking responsibility for my goof-ups, opening doors, setting up date nights, sending just-because roses to her office, more dinner dates on nights that aren’t designated as “date-night,” and watching Lifetime movies without even complaining about watching Lifetime movies, even though the plot is always same — some creepy white man wreaking havoc on a flawed and damaged lady who realizes just in time that she isn’t damaged, that she has strengths buried in her flaws that she can use to defeat the creep and live happily ever after with a guy who really should be in the friend zone instead.
So when Caron walked into my little makeshift office that doubles as a sneaker room and stood in front of the TV, struggling to hold up that eight-pound smile, all I could think was, why am I so good at romance? What great deed did I do now?
“Baby,” she said. “I am — we are — we are pregnant.”
That was the moment the fear kicked in, though I wrapped my arms around her as if that fear didn’t exist. She cried tears of joy even while she maintained that impossible smile. She probably also said some deep, memorable things that I should’ve been listening to or even writing down. But I didn’t really hear anything after “we are pregnant.”
Not because I get weirded out when couples say "we" are pregnant — as if men have to deal with swollen feet, picking up an extra 30 pounds, craving tuna mixed with chocolate cookie dough, and having to prepare themselves mentally and physically to push out a small, slimy, breathing human that they carried around for 9 months. The fear just drowned out everything that came next. This is our first kid, and we don't really hang out with parents. The unknown is a scary thing.
Even though I’m on the wrong side of 30 and she’ll be there in a year, we weren’t yet actively planning on a pregnancy. Sure, we'd talked about it, but nothing was etched in stone. But we had laid some pretty heavy hypothetical plans, in that way you do when it's all still hypothetical. As parents we decided we'd be loving and caring and yet still open and fun — parents our kids would want to hang out with and even dress like, the parents their friends would want to hang out with. We'd be the parents who would make reading and math fun, spinach and lima beans cool. The parents who would make all the other parents say, "You want to stay over at the Watkins house again? Are they starting a cult over there? What are they slipping in your almond milk?”
Before we were expecting, my wife and I would joke about that over half-eaten plates of food and empty red wine-stained glasses. With our feet kicked up and our egos as full as our bellies, we’d go on and on, because we just knew that if we had kids, we’d be the parents they could bring any and every issue to without fear. We'd be the parents whose kids — from infancy through teen years — had zero effects on our romance. The parents who would never have disagreements with our kids, even, because our family would be so perfect.
It’s funny how people without children are always experts on parenting. But now that a baby isn't hypothetical but an impending reality, we have to try to become those impossibly perfect parents, and that scares me.
My wife, for her part, has a great relationship with her parents. They're cool, progressive, balanced, educated. She was raised in the church and in a single-family home. And while I’m sure everybody would jump at the chance to edit pieces of their childhood, hers sounds like it was pretty cool. Being the impossibly perfect parent may even come easy for her, because she understands structure, the power of education, and how functional families can thrive.
My parents are great people too. But we had it rough. They split up often, so I didn't grow up with that model of what a united front looks like. While Caron was in church taking communion and learning the Lord’s Prayer, I was in and out of trouble, causing a strain on everyone who tried to rear me, including my teachers, grandma and older siblings.
Looking back, I think I lashed out because I didn’t feel protected at home, or wherever was living at any given time. Hugs and hearing “I love you” were rare. I’m definitely telling my child “I love you" every day.
The chaos made me develop a hard exterior to make myself believe that I wouldn't be a victim. And yet that hard shell ended up making me even more of a victim. I became a kid who loved to fight. I'd throw anything out of a window that would fit, from dining room chairs to Easy-Bake Ovens. Disruptive behavior, like riding a dirt bike up and down Ashland Avenue, through Miss May's back door, only to spin around in her kitchen and wheel back out down the steps, was normal for me. I thought no one cared.
My parents were young, uneducated, with no connections or resources. They did what they could and I don't blame them for my behavior. But I hope I am able to make sure our child always feels protected, so that they won’t act out like that. And if I’ve passed some of those demon-child tendencies on to my own kid? (I should probably invest in a helmet.) That thought is scary too. I don’t believe in hitting children, so how will I discipline effectively, and with love?
As I think about the reality of discipline, the fantasy of being an effortlessly cool superhuman parent starts to slip away. Now, I take my vitamins and garlic pills. We decided not to have a microwave. I eat oatmeal almost every day, and sort my trash like those bearded man-bun guys in the new Brooklyn. I find myself ready for bed by 8 p.m., even on weekends. I’m also extra over-protective of Caron and the baby in a way I could have never imagined and the kid hasn't even been born yet. This is not to say that didn’t care about myself or the world before I found out I was going to be a father. It’s just that everything changed in an instant with those three words, and now the world looks and feels different to me. The scariest thing I've ever faced is also my greatest blessing, and nothing in my life up to now could have prepared me for it.