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Link Was My Paternity Leave Wingman

How one man's paternity leave took him to Hyrule and back.

Before my son was born, I talked to a few dads in my office about what was coming. Their advice was largely vague and forgettable, but one co-worker, who had had a very recent newborn, told me to get a Nintendo Switch and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That was different so I asked why. He looked at me and said nothing.

Trusting him, I secured a still-rare Nintendo Switch from Amazon. And, in a flurry of HDMI cable–rerouting that I think my wife viewed as a manifestation of late and possibly misguided dad-nesting, I hooked it up to my TV in preparation for, well, something.

The week my son was born was adrenalized and busy. Our 24-hour labor was kind of hairy. My wife, who had a C-section, was in the hospital for about five days. Since we weren’t able to get a private room, I couldn’t stay in the hospital. Every morning and night, I went back and forth from our apartment in Prospect Heights to the hospital in Lower Manhattan. On the subway, getting coffee on the way, I still felt part of the thrum of city life.

Then we came home and everything slowed way, way down. Here’s one thing that none of the other dads I’d spoken to told me, at least not before the fact: Having a newborn can be pretty boring. In retrospect it seems self-evident: The kid eats, sleeps, poops, and cries. Since my wife exclusively breastfeeds, I’m excluded from one of those straightaway. Sleeping is by definition a non-interactive activity, which leaves cleanup and crying. I have changed a lot of diapers and been exceedingly soothing over the past month, but when you go from working 40+ hours a week and having a social life to being at home basically 24/7, you start to lose your mind.

So I played Zelda. A lot of Zelda. I generally got in a good hour or two of Zelda in daily, which is, for a grown-ass man with a newborn, a lot of Zelda. Another thing that happened–causally or correlatively I can not say–was my brain started to melt.

Pre-kid, I was voracious. I played a lot of Magic: The Gathering, which is a super-complex fantasy card game. I regularly read The New Yorker every week, generally with a book or two going at the same time. But immediately post-kid,  I couldn’t process those inputs any more. I cast about for a book to read, but came up empty.  I had no desire to play Magic, possibly because I knew my brain wasn’t in tip-top shape, what with even my relatively light sleep deprivation, and I hate to play Magic when I know or feel that I’m just going to lose.

So Zelda it was.

The game is very soothing. Completing fetch quests—those are missions in which  someone asks you to find something for them, you go find it and bring it back—shrine puzzles, and gear upgrades, these were the sort of comfortable errands that occupied but did not tax the mind. You can pause it whenever. It auto-saves forgivingly. It does not rely on reflexes or speed. It’s just about getting by. And so it’s the ideal game to work around the predictable yet unscheduled tasks of early parenthood.

Lately, as my parental leave approaches the end, I’ve been playing less Zelda. The fetch quests — as they often do — have started to feel rote, and the initial magic of the game has faded a little. Probably more saliently, as my wife heals we are tentatively venturing out into the world with our boy. First we took short walks and then longer ones to baby showers and barbecues and kid-friendly bars. As Zelda fades into mundanity, the mundane has become magical.

Yesterday, I took him out for the first time by myself, with his first bottle in my pocket. We walked to Prospect Park, purposely getting lost in some of the more shaded and winding trails. He slept on my chest in his Ergo. I walked with him and talked to him as he slept, asking him if he could smell the air and the trees, if he could see the chipmunk scampering along the trail and smell the barbecues on the great lawn.

Wide-eyed and close to my chest, my boy collected the sensations of the park and I collected the memories of us in the park together. Zelda’s fetch quests were no competition at all.