Friday, January 18, 2008
About a year and a half ago, I took a long trip. It involved one of the world's lengthier voyages by air. When I returned a few weeks later, after a cramped period of imprisonment in a poorly-ventilated aluminum tube, full of annoying adolescents, a few suffering toddlers, and a missionary or two, I muttered to my traveling companion, as we collected our bags, that I never wanted to have children.
"Guess what?" asked my wife, as soon as we met outside customs, on a fine summer morning at O'Hare International Airport. "I'm pregnant."
A year and a half later, or about a week ago, we celebrated Spot's first birthday, in the depths of the Chicago winter. To mark the occasion, she baked a dozen cupcakes. My wife and I then ate them all, mostly while Spot was sleeping, which is still most of the time. Of course we offered him one, but as is the case with so many things in life, what we hoped he would want, and what he truly did want, did not quite match. He took an experimental bite for the camera, and then resumed his project of obsessively gnawing a ceramic egg purchased by his grandfather in Poland.
Looking back on that moment at the airport, one thing now seems clear. I was a fool. I probably still am. But now at least I know I was a fool to have muttered to my travel companion, as I did by the baggage carousel, that I never wanted to have children.
My companion on that trip happened to be my father. At one point, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, I asked him why anyone would want to have kids in the first place.
"Because," he answered with great philosophical wisdom, "it's fun."
I should make one thing clear. It's not foolish to want what I thought I wanted: to remain an unencumbered adult, childless. What was foolish was to think that I knew what I wanted at all. It's a realization that gets beyond the issue of parenthood and children, because it could apply to anything. We thought Spot might want a cupcake. Instead, he wanted a ceramic egg. My wife frequently reminds me that she had no intention of marrying someone like me, and I usually return the compliment. The point is that many decent and intelligent people can go for a long time believing that they have themselves, the world, and what they want, like, and dislike all figured out. Without having really experienced much of it.
And then things change. And there is no way they could possibly foresee what comes next.
I have to give my dad credit. It's something I do a lot now, since I'm at the stage in life where he's reaping interest on all the credit I denied him when I was 13. He was right. It is indeed fun to be Spot's dad. Spot cracks me up, and he can't even talk. I don't know why I never saw this possibility. For all these years I've been so wrapped up in my own recollections of childhood that I haven't troubled myself about what it must have been like to be a parent.
Well, now I know a little bit more. It's a lot of work, and a tremendous adjustment, but it's endlessly entertaining. It's also fun to be the husband of Spot's mom, and watch her be a mother; it's fun to be a family; to be friends with other families; a parent with friends who are not parents; to be the apprentices of empty-nesters and advisers to the newly-partnered; and to be the bearers of a priceless gift to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and to strangers at the play park. It's so much fun, in fact, that I can't imagine how I could possibly have come close to letting myself not go down this road.
It only now occurs to me that my father's reply on the airplane was a sort of compliment. He hadn't become my father because he was naturally appointed to be the highest authority on earth and the ultimate framework of the universe. He must have grown emotionally through parenthood, and enjoyed it. But I'm not sure if I would have understood it that way, if my wife hadn't had some news for me at the airport, news that a few months later sat up and looked at me, laughed, and forced me to change the way I think about myself, the way I must have done to a different set of parents 38 years before.