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When I returned to work after the birth of my second child, I ran into a new instructor I hadn’t met. He introduced himself as Daniel, and I said, “Oh, like Daniel Tiger?” Later, walking down the hall, I called an instructor I’d known for several years by the wrong name. At the time I was openly singing the Jumperoo song. That is, I was singing the song the Jumperoo made when my first child jumped up and down in it, which for a time was the only thing he did other than scream.
My teaching assistant — someone whose duties did not, in fact, include teaching — taught my memoir writing class the day I was in the hospital. She reported, cheerfully, that the class went well. The students used my absence as an opportunity to verbalize the things they didn’t like about the class, mostly the reading, not the content so much as the excessive amounts of it. In the hospital, I read excessive amounts of Chekhov while my wife and baby were sleeping because Chekhov knew everything, and suddenly I knew nothing.
If I lived somewhere Scandinavian, I likely would have received paid paternity leave, but most of the fathers I know live in the United States, and I don’t recall anyone receiving anything. Fathers today might differ from their fathers or grandfathers by attending their kids’ births, but very shortly thereafter, it’s back to the mill. On one hand, this makes sense: People say “we’re pregnant,” but the reality is that only the woman undergoes the physical trauma of giving birth followed by the physical trauma of having given birth. On the other hand, I was responsible for many students who expected my brain to work, and much of the time it didn’t because I was never sleeping.
There are a couple of ways to respond. One is to agitate for paid paternity leave. Long-term this feels like a just cause, the sort of thing that might even come up in the presidential election. It’s easier to support than, say, institutionalized xenophobia. Short-term I have one concrete piece of advice to fathers going back to work, which is to give yourself and everyone around you a lot of slack, more than you were planning on giving, because everyone is going to need it, and this generosity will make your own failings easier to forgive.
This will make you angry at the injustice of not being entitled to feel angry. Am I describing the model employee or what?
You can’t expect your mind and body to function normally. People will ask to see pictures of your baby, and you’ll prove incapable of this, even though there are several thousand pictures on your phone. Instead you’ll show pictures of rugs you took at Lowe’s for your wife to reject. You’ll sit down to read a slightly complex paper, and it will seem impossible this was ever a thing you knew how to do. You’ll get mad, really mad, and think to yourself: I deserve my anger! Then you’ll remember it’s way, way worse for your wife, and also worse for the baby, that you in fact have it best of everyone, and this will make you angry at the injustice of not being entitled to feel angry. Am I describing the model employee or what?
If you’re fortunate, as I was, nobody will make you feel incompetent. If my students noticed a change, they pitied me and my spit-up-stained shirts secretly. The other professors in my program never questioned my inability to operate the photocopy machine, which I routinely almost exploded. In my experience, having a kid brings out the best in others, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Certainly, do not be hard on your wife or partner or whomever. If you have other kids, you need to remember they’re going through an unprecedented paradigm shift. I spent my son’s birthday at the hospital. Now he and my daughter have the same birthday, which should be fun for a few years before blossoming into a nightmare.
I don’t have anything useful to say about work-family balance, except that when you have a newborn, there is no balance. There’s just getting to the next baby-work-baby cycle. Strike the word balance from your vocabulary for a minimum of 4 months. According to somber notes I don’t remember writing, things get better after 4 months.
Occasionally, I see a new father in the hall. He doesn’t look tired so much as stricken, as though he’s just been in a car accident and is waiting for the police to arrive. I offer a knowing widening of the eyes, or the possibility of getting a beer, which we each know isn’t going to happen. What I want to do is give him the keys to my office, so he can inflate an air mattress, lower the industrial shades, and play whale sounds on the old-fashioned stereo my students use as evidence I’m 500-years-old. I want to tell him to make coffee when he wakes up in 3 days. This must be what they do in civilized Sweden. But I can’t do that, so I answer when he asks me every day what courses I’m teaching. We sing the Jumperoo song together.
Kevin Clouther is the author of “We Were Flying to Chicago: Stories.” He lives in New York with his wife and 2 children and teaches writing at Stony Brook University.