I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t indifference.
He held our baby, of course. Posed for pictures, face-to-face with our squishy newborn, smiling. Changed an obligatory diaper here and there, and napped with the baby on his chest, as most dads do. But I couldn’t shake the gnawing feeling that my husband wasn’t as in love with our child as I was, and it planted a seed of fear that he wouldn’t be the kind of dad I’d hoped he’d be.
Maybe I was paranoid, having grown up largely without a father myself. For my children, I wanted a hands-on dad, the kind who would teach them how to ride a bike and take them fishing while dispensing tidbits of fatherly wisdom. My own father, before he decided he was tired of the role and split, was pretty much just a fixture — a placeholder in the traditional “Dad” slot, the breadwinner, the dude who changed the light bulbs and unclogged the toilet. Never the type I’d confide in or even hang out with. Hugs — or any outward demonstrations of parental love, really — weren’t his thing.
But my kids, I vowed, would have a real dad. The kind who would show them every day how important they were to him. The kind who was present, and involved, and active. Like the dads on TV. Like the kind I always wished I had. And when I decided I was going to commit my life to the man who would be my husband, it was partially because I saw in him the potential to be that amazing sort of father I wanted for my future children.
Yet here we were with our newborn son, whom I had loved instantly, from the moment I saw his puffy little face. I was smitten. I could have stared at him for hours, and I did sometimes, absorbing every detail of his long lashes and his miniature fingernails. My husband wasn’t nearly as infatuated with him. He was supportive, helping with whatever I asked him to help with, but I got the clear sense that it was coming more from a place of duty rather than the desire to care for his baby.
The weeks ticked by. Months went past. I was disillusioned. Maybe that’s just how men were? Maybe I had it all wrong, this idea of how fatherhood was supposed to look. Or maybe I had just inadvertently continued a pattern by choosing a man like my father, aloof and uninterested. I was scared and stressed.
But after a while — I’d say around the six-month mark — something shifted, and it was like my husband’s relationship with our son just sort of took off. He discovered the most surefire ways to make him laugh and delighted in the fact that the baby’s laugh was a tiny version of his own. From that point on, they were like two peas in a pod, to my profound relief, and I realized something: My partner, fatherhood-wise, was just a bit of a late bloomer. He had only begun to bond with our son when the baby was old enough to demonstrate something tangible in return — a smile, a laugh, reaching out his chubby hands.
It makes much more sense to me in hindsight. It might be easier for moms to be invested in the baby from the start. We’ve got nine months of physically experiencing its growth, and the intense work of labor and delivery, and the help of maternal hormones flowing through our bodies to kick off the bonding process. Dads just get to watch it all happen to someone else and show up when it’s time, and are expected to be automatically devoted simply because, well, they’re the dads. And some dads are instantly in love with their newborns. For some, though, it just takes more time, and the ability to get something out of the emerging relationship. But since they can’t really say, “Hey, I’m not all that into this baby,” (I mean, can you imagine the reaction?!) they have to go through the motions until the day comes when they’re genuinely able to enjoy their child.
We’ve been through four newborns together now, and I can tell you that my husband was the same distant way with every one of them. He held them, kissed them, helped with their care and feeding, but mostly just went through the motions. That is, until they got a little bit older, a little more interactive, a little more sturdy. Then it always changed. Their relationship seemed to soar after that point.
I asked him the other day why it always took him so long to warm up to our babies.
“Because you can’t wrestle with a newborn,” he joked.
Some guys, I think, are like caterpillars in a cocoon. You wonder if they’ll ever fully emerge into the world of fatherhood. But when they do — once the metamorphosis from “donor” to “Dad” is complete — it’s a fascinating, beautiful transformation. They turn into the type of dad who will watch his children sleep and marvel at how tall and long-limbed they’re getting. The type who will hug and give advice and piggyback rides, and yes, wrestle. The loudest cheerer on the sidelines.
That’s my husband now.
The last to bond, maybe, but the first to come through for his kids — no matter what.