In my own experience, there is this feeling of anticipation throughout pregnancy that would suggest after the nine months or so, and that final challenge of the birth itself, the whole thing will be over. And you and your partner in this experience will, more or less, hug and kiss and pat each other on the back for a job well done. You'll wipe your hands and get on with your lives.
You have been patient as childrearing becomes increasingly difficult on your partner, and hence on you, and you are waiting for the big day — then it will be over. But you will realize this is hardly the end of anything. While she has been preparing for this day physically and emotionally, there's a good chance you have not. And as you pack up your hospital room and say goodbye to the nurses and buckle that little baby into your backseat and drive home, be forewarned — you will be hit with the startling question of "What now?"
This all isn't advice, per se, but it is about the only thing I could think to tell Kisses' Jesse Kivel some months back, as he and his wife (and bandmate) Zinzi Edmundson were waiting for their son, James Arthur Kivel, who was born May 28. It wasn't lost on him, but the little good these words may have done is indistinguishable. Even had I been equipped to offer more sage advise than this, what could be said in advance to help anyone realize the magnitude of new fatherhood?
"I can't believe I have a kid," Jesse confessed recently, mid-conversation over a cup of coffee at Cafe De Leche in Highland Park. We were talking about his new role as "Dad" but the way he brought it up was sort of non sequitur. "The whole birthing is gradual where the stomach is getting bigger but then you get a full sized kid. You don't get like a quarter of the kid, then a half, then three quarters — you just have a kid there, and it's like, 'What the hell is this kid doing here?' It's crazy."
My daughter is more than 2 now and the shock of bringing home a complete and new person has faded for me through the gradual assimilation to family man. As a relatively young dad and the first of our friends to have a kid, I mostly tempered these early days with long walks alone at night for peaceful reflection but also to chase some feeling of freedom, if even only for brief and fleeting moments. Hearing Jesse's talk about this same time for himself brought a rush of memories of those early days, but he also offered a unique perspective on the challenge we will now both face for the rest of our lives.
"It's so much more abstract than I thought, about why you have a kid," he said. "I think there's something maybe primitive in you that wants to have a kid always and do that, and then once the kid arrives... Well, right now it's tough because he doesn't acknowledge me personally. Our engagement is so limited that it feels like you're really both just figuring each other out, and it's like, ‘Who is this new person in my house?’ And it's overwhelming."
The thing about babies is they're really just little blobs of flesh. As Jesse pointed out, they are perfect unto themselves in that early evolution and you will love them, but they do not interact with you more than momentary eye contact and weird faces that have pretty much nothing to do you. But even though it may feel anticlimactic that they come this way, it's appropriate. In a sense, baby James Arthur is just a quarter of a kid — as Jesse alluded to earlier — and that’s about all a new parent is prepared to take on.
Even when you have one yourself, it's hard to quantify why anyone should have a child. The reasons against it are much simpler, and can be condensed down into a single word I mentioned earlier: freedom. Untethered to this little squirming flesh, one can reasonably do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. In Los Angeles, where young creatives rule, there is a riches of social engagements or nightlife adventures, of which parenthood will likely deprive you. Now, even meeting Jesse's twin brother Matt (the two played in Princeton together) for a beer down the street is not so simple, he noted, and recently had to be canceled.
"I'm trying to figure out, aside form him being adorable and there being affection and really nice moments, there isn't a clear thing like the kid will monetize in two years," he said. "Our minds have worked this way since being out of school, it's like you're pushing and trying to make things happen, and you wake up every day — if you're motivated — and it's like, to figure something out. But a kid is much more enigmatic. He's just there. And getting love from him is good, but I haven't been cultivating that part of my life. It's probably pretty stunted."
What you realize early in parenthood is that it's easier to sell the idea of having a baby and integrating him or her into your lifestyle than actually doing that, because — shocker — having kids is hard. You may present it otherwise, hosting parties or showing up all together as a perfectly assembled unit, like your life has not changed really at all, but the setup it took to get there is exhausting beyond what you had known before. Just leaving the house is hard to do now.
"It's interesting because I've always wanted to have a kid," Jesse said. "It was just in my mind that that would be the best thing. But what did I even know about it, having that sort of desire? Now that I'm in it, I'm realizing that I need to trust that I'm going to grow into this role. And right now, I don't know that much about it and I need to get to know being in this situation.”
As Jesse said earlier, we've learned to look for payoffs from our efforts. Similarly, we tend to look forward to end points that may mark our progress or allow us to move ahead with our lives. In fatherhood, and parenting in general, we have found these are not so simple. The payoff is often too complex to convey — some wholeness you had not known before, where time feels kind of non-linear and you have known each other forever. There is no end to being a dad — it has changed us and will always define us.
"The bottom line is I'm lucky and he's really cute," Jesse said. "There are moments where we're sitting and it's really nice and it's all of us together and I feel good about it, but the whole weird thing is I thought being a dad or having Zinzi being pregnant, I thought it would be so masculine. I thought I would feel more like a 'man.' But I don't. It doesn't feel like what I thought would be, ‘I'm a dad now. I'm gonna go change the thing.’ I'm in weird bodily worlds, it's just bizarre.”
I know this feeling well, I told him, and confessed almost daily something — from a radio report to a children’s movie —will nearly move me to tears.
"It's definitely an adjustment," he replied. "I've never done anything like it. Having a kid is clearly something different than anything that you've done before, where like, 'Oh you're so grown up. You live in a house, you're getting married, you have a dog.' These are all such bullshit compared to the kid. The kid is truly something that is just there. He's never leaving. And he's cool, but he has needs right now and they need to be met at all hours and it's definitely an adjustment."
On my side of the table, two years in, I can say it is still an adjustment. But perhaps the “manliest” feeling we can pull from it is in our small accomplishments and perseverance: There is no turning back, and there is satisfaction in that.