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A few years back, in a cabinet at my parents’ house, I found an old VHS tape labeled “Camping Trip 1986.”
The footage was grainy and saturated only the way home movies can look. I was 5, walking around the campsite with my favorite coonskin cap, talking nonsense, firing acorns from my slingshot. (I once beaned a squirrel in the skull from 50 feet, on the run. No shit. It was my proudest moment. The next thing I remember was mom’s left hand across the back of my head. She was an animal-lover, above most everything else).
Mom’s on the video, too. But not the same mom I remember from my childhood. The mom I remember hung on every word I spoke. She wanted me close. She spoke soft and sweet and cried when I went away. But this mom seemed frayed around the edges. Her voice was heavy and impatient, as if to say she’d been pushed far enough.
I desperately wanted to know, before I actually became a dad, if the good outweighed the bad. If it was actually worth it.
And she had been pushed. She had 2 kids with 2 different fathers. They both split. We were poor, or so I’m told. For a while, it was just us 3, with grandma and grandpa sleeping over when mom had to work the late shift. But we did OK. A man, a rare, impossibly decent one, stepped in and stuck around. Today that man is just dad.
Twenty-five years later, watching the tape from my parents’ living room, mom had trouble recognizing her younger self.
“I don’t know what my problem was back then,” she told me. “I was working the night-shift and I was just … tired.” It wasn’t what she said, so much as how she said: She felt shame. She wanted that time back. She’d missed the moment.
I haven’t thought much about that old movie until tonight, as I was tucking my daughter into bed. Lucia is 2 now. She’s just finding language, which is something to watch. Every night, my wife and I lay with her and sing Twinkle Twinkle or ABCs — or ABCs to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle. Lucia will sing along, sort of, in broken, misplaced syllables. It’ so sweet it breaks my heart.
It’s been a long weekend. Lucia is constant. Every minute goes to her. My wife and I watch so she doesn’t get another raisin stuck up her nose, or put the fork in a socket, or fall down the steps. We make sure she’s smiling and clean and fed and entertained. And it’s all so draining. Sometimes, come Monday, I’m relieved to get back to work. Lucia’s at daycare. I can breathe.
Being a dad means living in constant fear.
I now understand the woman I saw in that home video, even if my mom has forgotten who she was.
The work — this is the part that you don’t always hear before you’re a parent, or if you do, you can’t imagine. Before Lucia was born, I asked every parent I could find: “What is it like, exactly, having a kid?”
Of course, I never got a great answer. I usually heard some version of “parenting is one of those things you have to experience to understand.” Bullshit. I never bought it. Someone, somewhere, in the history of the human race, has to be able to articulate what it’s like to be a parent. I desperately wanted to know, before I actually became a dad, if the good outweighed the bad. If it was actually worth it. Nobody could tell me.
Yet, here I sit, alone at the computer on a Sunday night, a 2-year-old asleep in the next room, and I’m speechless as the rest.
Lucia was born 5 weeks early weighing just under 5 lbs. She wasn’t pretty. She scared me — all bones and pink skin. They placed her on a table and handed me a scissors, which I think I used to cut the umbilical cord. A lot of that moment is lost in haze. But I do remember the first second I saw her: I recognized myself in her eyes. I knew immediately, on some primordial level, that she belonged to me. She was mine. There was no question.
Some nights, after we tick off the lights and everything’s quiet, I feel so much I suddenly realize I’m crying.
It wasn’t love, I don’t think. Not at first. I spent the first few months afraid I’d hurt her if I held her wrong. I cared, from a distance. Over time, that distance closed. I stopped minding having to clean her poop. I found how to hold her when she cried. When she wants to be hoisted up, she reaches her arms up straight, then curls her legs around my torso like a koala.
I also learned that being a dad means living in constant fear. Due to dumb, random chance, or a second’s negligence, my entire world could implode at any moment. She could be electrocuted, shot, run-over, kidnapped or poisoned. She could get leukemia. It’s all there, just waiting to happen. Each week, the fear seems to grow.
During the day, I keep these emotions contained in wire mesh. I can see the feelings. I know they’re there, behind the wire. But I ignore them. I focus on work. At night, that wire mesh falls away. It’s just my wife and Lucia and me, singing Twinkle Twinkle or ABCs — or Twinkle Twinkle to the tune of ABCs. Some nights, after we tick off the lights and everything’s quiet, I feel so much I suddenly realize I’m crying.
It’s only now that I realize the question of whether it’s all worth it, being a parent, misses the point entirely. It’s not a matter of weighing pros against cons. There are no clean lines. There is no balance sheet. There is only love — which is really just shorthand for all these feelings at once — and getting to know the person you’re helping to create. And this love, for lack of better word, it grows every day and every year. Until, 20 years later, you can look back at a home video and not recognize the person you once were.
Mario Koran is an education reporter for Voice Of San Diego.