I have raised five children. But I have never felt this pure, unfettered happiness. by Jim Sollisch /NYTimes 8/2/2021
I never thought I could hold a baby for an hour — my head a few inches from hers, hanging on every sigh, waiting intently for the next scrunch of her lips or arch of her barely visible eyebrows — perfectly happy, an idiot entranced by a magic trick. But there I was on my granddaughter Avery’s first day of life, so happy I didn’t recognize myself.
I have raised children. Five of them. I have held my own babies in their first minutes of life; I have felt that shock of recognition — this is a version of me. I have kvelled (a Yiddish word meaning a giddy mixture of pride and joy) at the things my babies did that all babies do. But I have never felt this thing that stopped my brain, that put all plans on hold, that rendered me dumb.
O.K., I’ve had glimpses of this thing. But this was my first uninterrupted hour of it.
In the first moments of my own children’s lives, I couldn’t turn my brain off. When will we be able to leave the hospital? Is his skin sort of yellow? Will she take to the nipple? Did my brother feed our dog like he was supposed to? Should I get my parents from the waiting room now? Does my wife need another blanket? Does the baby look like her brothers? Does she look like a Zoey?
And more existential concerns: What the hell were we thinking?
Becoming a father was a lot like becoming a German shepherd if German shepherds were capable of constantly calculating the risks of SIDS and peanut allergies.
I worked part-time for the first two years of my firstborn’s life. I got to spend a lot of time with Zack. He had terrible colic. I became a one-armed man: By the time he was 2 months old, I could do almost any task with Zack cradled face down in the crook of my arm, where his own weight applied constant, soothing pressure to his sputtering digestive tract.
Then the ear infections started. One night when he was 4 months old and had a high fever, I went to check on him in his crib. His face had a bluish cast, and it appeared he wasn’t breathing. The paramedics assured us that it was just a febrile seizure, benign, except for the permanent heart damage it causes parents.
Sure, I spent time staring at Zack’s beautiful sleeping face. But my joy was always crowded by more questions, namely, “What are you going to throw at us next, little guy?”
When my second child, Max, came, I should have been more relaxed. After all, Zack had somehow managed to live till his third birthday. But whenever I held Max, whenever I started to get lost in his impossibly perfect newness, I’d remember that his older brother might at this very instant be about to fall off a bookcase and split his head open, which is exactly what he did a few weeks after Max was born.
Worry, vigilance — these are the things that keep us from experiencing rapture. These are also the things that keep children alive. But that’s not my job with Avery. It’s her parents’ job.
Oh, I’m sure I’ll have lots of chances to exercise my highly advanced worrying skills, but I will always be the second line of defense, a bench player. Her parents will watch her sleep and weigh the newest research on side sleeping versus back sleeping. They will never have a moment as free as that first hour I had with her.
But in keeping her alive, they will become fully alive. They will feel the awesome power of joy tinged with vulnerability. Only when you have everything to lose, do you have everything.
That’s what parenting teaches you.
Now that I am a grandparent, I look forward to learning more about this other kind of joy.