I write thrillers. I write about bad people doing bad things. Mostly, innocent people are victims in one way or another, but truth be told, I think fatherhood is the most thrilling thing there is. I think I write what I fear most and use it as a way to get the demons out in the light so they can’t scare me as much. There’s a cathartic element in writing what I do, but at the end of the day, it’s fiction, and we all know real life is more frightening. I write to entertain my readers, but I also write to quell the fear and helplessness I often feel as a father.
My oldest daughter, Mackenzie, was born in 2001. I was 28 years old and completely unprepared. Eight weeks earlier, my wife and I had been in serious car accident and though — luckily — both my wife and my unborn daughter were fine, the fear I felt in that moment gave me pause. I was just starting to get used to adulthood and all of a sudden I had a mortgage, more critically, these high stakes concerns outside of myself. How did this happen? It felt like only yesterday that I was hitting the bars with friends after work discussing handholds on the corporate ladder and spending weekends doing what I wanted when I wanted to do it. Now I was painting a nursery, putting together a crib with nothing but a pair of scissors and a handful of screwdrivers, folding onesies, and storing diapers in the closet. Jarring, to put it mildly.
The next shock was more pleasant. I felt unconditional love for my child the moment I saw her, umbilical cord still attached, eyes not yet open. But even the beauty of that moment was mediated by fear. I was unprepared for the unrelenting wave of fear that washed over me with the sudden realization that this child’s safety and health and well-being and happiness were all directly my responsibility. The day we brought her home from the hospital, I was so nervous. Where were the nurses and doctors to show me what to do and validate that what I was doing was right? My wife was a champ. I was a mess. We were alone with a helpless human being.
That first night, Mackenzie cried to be fed. My wife got up to feed her. I got up to vomit.
I was right to be scared. Fatherhood is hard. When Mackenzie was just old enough to roll over on her own. I placed her on my bed and turned around for a second to hang up my shirt. She rolled off my bed and hit the back of her head on the floor. Thankfully, the bedroom was carpeted, but she was crying pretty hard and my wife was at work so I did what I thought was the logical thing to do: I called 911 just to bounce this off of them and see what they thought. I wasn’t panicked. Totally calm and rational. I explained that she fell, hit her head, but the floor was padded and carpeted. She was still crying and I just wanted the operator’s opinion on what she thought I should do. The operator told me she’d send someone by just to have a look. I thought that sounded like a good plan: a quick once-over to make sure all was okay. Yes, let’s do that.
One police car, one ambulance, six volunteer firefighters, and a small emergency fire truck later, neighbors were pouring out of their homes to see what was happening. By the time the first person arrived – the police officer – Mackenzie had already stopped crying and seemed fine. The rest of the responding units agreed. I was embarrassed — perhaps I’d taken things a bit too far on this one — but I don’t know that it was the wrong thing to do. Better to overreact than to underreact (for the most part).
My youngest daughter, Jillian, was born four years later. I was 32 years old and still completely unprepared. This unpreparedness didn’t stem from being a first-time father. I’d already been down that road. I’d been puked on and peed on and gotten poop under my nails. I could change a diaper faster than a rodeo cowboy could tie down a calf. I’d been through the feedings and the crying and the bottles and the fear and the panic, but I’d also been through the smiles, the baby laughs, the joy of a first step, and the excitement of the first word (“dada,” natch). I’d survived a 911 call and moved past the relentless teasing from friends and family. This particular unpreparedness stemmed from when the doctors told my pregnant wife that one of the tests came back positive for Down Syndrome. This would turn out, after we decided to proceed with the pregnancy, to be a false positive, but the point is that there’s always something new to fear — rationally or not.
All that said, I now have two beautiful young daughters in my life who are growing past the point of needing their daddy. I’m fine with that. I’m proud and happy for them. They’re growing into wonderful young women. But I’m also scared to death. I guess what I’m saying for all you dads out there who are at different phases of fatherhood, you’re never prepared for any of it.
Today, I’m 46 and my eldest is 18. I’ve taught her how to act as a person and how to be kind to others. I’ve taught her about the darker side of life and tried to instill in her the values my father instilled in me. And she’s taught me things as well: How to love unconditionally, how to control my anger, and how to pay attention to my joy. She taught me that I can do the fatherhood thing. She taught me how to laugh in new ways. She taught me to live with anxiety. She taught me to feel like I’m living in a thriller and cope with it.
It’s been 18 years since that first night home when Mackenzie cried and I puked, but it feels like it was yesterday. My baby girl will be leaving for college this year.
I’m completely unprepared.
Matthew Farrell is a Washington Post and Amazon Charts bestselling author.