If you want to drive, you study, fail the driving test, pass the written test, retake the driving test, pass it, then get a license. If you want to teach school, you get a degree, get certified, start teaching, and then sit through hour upon hour of workshops and seminars to maintain that certification.
Every real responsibility carries some kind of need for credentialing, some kind of recognized proficiency or expertise before you’re trusted to tackle it. But not parenting.
Sure there are classes you can take, but you absolutely do not have to meet any standard or maintain any record of continuing education to have and raise a child. And that’s sobering. Scary as heck. Humbling.
I never really prepared for my oldest son’s birth, but it’s not like it’s possible to do that anyway. It’s just a waiting game full of nine months-worth of hopeful anticipation and comforting the wife until her labor kicks in. And then, when those count-and-breathe pangs do arrive, you just have to let everything change. Everything.
And I know how clichéd “everything” statements can be, but it’s true: absolutely every piece of your existence that you had let remain unexamined for the last two decades leading up to this moment gets called into question: Who are you? Why did you get yourself into this? Like, this is a real little human? My little human? Am I capable of doing this? Don’t you have to get some kind of license for this? What is that … who … how did that…?
With our firstborn, his arrival took more than 12 hours, but when the rush of it all had ended and we settled into the stillness of my wife’s room in the women’s center, we didn’t really know what to do next. We hadn’t read any books (well, I hadn’t … but she did, so, whatever). We hadn’t gone through any classes, or sought out mentors. For us, the parent title just fell without merit.
“So, are they going to tell us what to do next?” I asked my wife as she held the sleepy, likely-traumatized little lump of fresh humanity. “Or are they, like, just going to leave us here to figure this out?”
“We just take care of him,” she said, smiling despite my refusal to accept anything that simple.
I grew up an only child. Granted, I have three brothers, but they’re all much older than me, so by the time I knew what it was like to compete for my parents’ attention, I had already gotten it all by default. I wouldn’t say that I got spoiled, but everything in my life certainly got taken care of. I didn’t have to worry about anyone or anything else.
But then came the eight-pound screaming glob called “son” who forced my hand.
I immediately had to learn how to not live like the center of everyone’s universe that I thought I was. But that wasn’t something I knew how to do. So, naturally, I turned to Amazon. Someone out there was bound to have a detailed, twelve-step, $44.89 curriculum that walks new fathers through self-denial for the sake of a child, right? The kind with a ritzy, printable certificate of completion and a companion course on diaper changing for a simple $4.99 upgrade?
Like, I should have been able to purchase my way to perfect fatherhood. It’s only fair.
Dad books abound, but none of the generalities contained within their pages can ever credential a man for what he faces when he looks into the fiery little eyes of an infant who carries forward into the world part of his own soul. Something spiritual happens in that moment, and, for just a second, father and child both become the center of their own really big universe that no one else has the privilege to occupy. Everything dad’s ever been, everything his child will be, every beat of the clock across the past and everything categorized as “coming soon” tumble down into that moment.
And that’s where the only thing that looks like “credentials” comes from. Looking into those little eyes turns you into something much the same as receiving a diploma turns you into a graduate, only this time it’s like you get the diploma as some advance guarantee. The tests come later when you try to make this little thing grow into something, yet there’s no real way to pass or fail because, in the end, you’re really just improvising without a rubric. Or, at the very least, the only rubric you have is the one that kicks around in your chest and always seems to say, “No, you probably shouldn’t let the kid [insert dangerous activity here].”
And then, at the end of the day, the human you’re attempting to create has as much (if not more) say so over what she or he turns out to be than you do, which scares the crap out of me for more than a few reasons. But still, it’s not like the credentials ride on it or anything.
Those just lie in loving the little glob of humanity from the first look onward.