This is a newsletter about parenthood, specifically fatherhood, specifically fatherhood of a boy, which is the only kind of fatherhood with which I have any salient experience. The internet is one of the worst things to happen to nervous parents (which is to say: parents), because it is filled with the musings of malicious strangers who are insecure or mean or just stupid, and these people live to tell other parents that their precious darlings are going to die of an obscure illness because they went without a bib at dinner one evening.
As a result of this ambient terrorization, one of my least charming habits is that I now aggressively poll fellow parents for gory childrearing stories, the more blood and broken bones, the better, because their kids have turned out fine, and I want to be able to say to myself and other concerned friends, “Well, Mark’s little boy had a seizure at the park when he was eleven months old and he’s FINE.” So in the interest of fairness, I have included some of my own here, mostly the scary ones but also a couple that are funny.
So: Here is a list of the helpful things I can think of to say to dads of boys. Moms and parents of daughters, things are different for you both because of biology and because girls and women are socialized differently from boys and men, but feel free to read along, since some of these may be universal.
- Mine does that, too.
- That’s normal.
- Did he cry immediately? Then he’s okay.
- Was it the same kind of cry you hear from him usually? Then he’s okay.
- Does he have a bump on his head? Then he’s okay.
- Oh yeah, the whole daycare had that and the three of us all got it one after another. For about two days I thought I was going to be the only one who didn’t get sick, but I was changing a diaper on the morning of the third day, and I had to run into the bathroom and choose between barfing on the floor or trying not to shit my pants. I pulled my pants down, sat on the toilet, changed my mind, got on my knees and then barfed in the toilet so hard I burst a blood vessel in my eye and, simultaneously, pooped so hard I had to clean if off the bathroom door, and managed to shit my pants despite the pants in question being several feet away from me, which I hope you’ll all agree is impressive.
- Feel free to just go to the ER, he’s totally fine but I’m sure you’ll feel better. We did it once for what turned out to be no reason and once when he turned out to need some albuterol for a bad cold.
- He was fine.
- He’s great.
- I cut his finger with a pair of nail clippers when he was just a few days old and made him cry and wanted nothing more than for someone to send me to prison.
- Here’s the address of a good ER in Brooklyn:
Address: 83 Amity St, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Phone: +1 646 754 7900
- In New York, get a pediatrician within walking distance of your home.
- Get a dentist within walking distance of your home.
- Go to the park as often as you possibly can. Get up early to do this. Become an expert on the weather.
- Plan around naps.
- Make your peace with $20 an hour for a good babysitter. Don’t bargain-hunt.
- For some reason the loveliest people I know have suffered prenatally from the intense fear that they will not feel a deep enough love for their children. This is a completely understandable fear and the reason no one ever addresses it is that it vanishes in a puff of smoke as soon as the baby comes out. You forget you were ever worried about it. So if this is you, relax, this will not happen.
- If you accidentally get water on the umbilical stump, it starts to bleed, which is scary. Dry it off and the bleeding will stop quickly and it will be fine.
- This woman, Freda Rosenfeld, is a lactation consultant in Brooklyn. She is wonderful and kind and makes house calls and is worth every penny.
- My son did not say anything at all until he was 18 months old. Don’t know why. Don’t care now. Scared the hell out of me.
- If you think his runny nose has gone on for too long, take him to the pediatrician and don’t try to ride it out, they have tiny little airways because of their adorable noses, which they have so they can nurse and breathe simultaneously, and they get ear infections like *snaps fingers* that.
- Use the Fridababy snotsucker thing liberally, even if they hate it. Get the doctor to give you a nebulizer and a prescription for vials of saline and just do it a couple of times a day every single time they get a runny nose until it goes away, it’s easier than trying to rearrange schedules around the pediatrician and better for them than round after round of antibiotics. The pediatrician will just hand you a nebulizer from a closet full of them if you so much as mention it in passing. I promise. They give them away like candy.
- Kids don’t ever do what you tell them to. They just don’t. Sorry.
- They *do* listen to absolutely everything you say and sometimes you’ll hear them imitating you and be embarrassed and sometimes you’ll hear them imitating your spouse and it will be hilarious and you’ll learn a ton about yourselves and each other.
- They’re not short, defective adults. They’re their own people, and they know even less about themselves than you do about yourself. You are teaching them about themselves.
- I didn’t smile once between moving into the hospital room from the delivery room and getting home, I was so scared I couldn’t think straight. There were other dads at the hospital who were laughing and slapping their relatives on the back and I was happy but I was also completely terrified. For weeks I was nearly catatonic thinking “what have I done? what have I done? I have no idea how to do this and this little person is totally dependent on me for everything and can’t communicate at all beyond crying.”
- Fatherhood is not actually fun for several weeks. You don’t sleep and you can’t talk to the kid and your wife has undergone an enormous hormonal change equivalent to puberty in the moment of childbirth, and you are in charge of them both. He’ll eventually start to smile and it’ll all be fine. I obsessively texted an ad hoc network of dad buds who’d had kids recently and they were so kind and generous and decent at all hours of the night and morning that my heart gets full thinking about it.
- When my son was a few months old, we had a lazy plumber cut open a lead pipe in our apartment with no remediation and the place was filled with metal dust while my son was still crawling. He tested positive for high lead levels at the pediatrician—high enough to get a letter from the city—and we bought a $700 vacuum cleaner and the lead levels went down almost immediately. He is fine, the lead is gone, he has no cognitive impairment at all and could name every letter of the alphabet by 30 months. I hope that plumber dies.
- They love you *so* much. Holy shit, do they love you. It’s like they’ve never loved a person before in their lives, which they have not. This is the horrible and fucked-up thing about parenthood: You are teaching them how to love someone, and who is worthy of love. They start from the null proposition that you are right about everything, even if they disobey you. They are watching you very carefully to see if you love them back, if they can make you love them more, if they can make you stop loving them, if being angry at them or frustrated with them or made to cry by them is a sign that you don’t love them any more. They will say things like “I don’t love you” to see how you react. They are conducting a gigantic, years-long experiment to understand how best to love and be loved, and once they have the results of said experiment, they will go out and start loving other people you have nothing to do with. It will be hard for them even if you do everything right, which you won’t, and all you’ll be able to do is watch and remind them that you really do love them.
- Our society is not set up to care for kids and a lot of the oases for parents who need help with childcare are traps for either the parents or the kids—efforts to recruit them into one organization or another, or to get them to perform some kind of work.
- The supposedly “low bar for dads” is not real. The reality this phrase inaccurately describes is depressing as shit. What it actually means is that you are being actively discouraged from fathering a child beyond your biological contribution and monetary investment, that the only thing you should do with him, from the point of view of a society that, again, does not particularly like your child, is play sports or video games. It means that every stroller will be six inches too short for you and there will be a society-wide effort to emasculate you for hanging out with your baby or toddler, taking paternity leave, working from home, changing diapers, picking out clothes, wiping his bottom, feeding him, and anything else to do with his actual well-being. All of that has been feminized and is socially off-limits to you. There are mommy blogs, but not daddy blogs. You’re expected to provide conduits for his aggression, and work all the time, and when your heart breaks into a thousand pieces because you missed the most important thing in life, you’re expected to have a cheap affair or buy a sports car or get hair plugs and it’s all played as comedy. This is called “patriarchy.”
- Don’t fall for any of that shit. Let him help you remember what it was like being a little boy when everything was too big and at just the right level to whang your head painfully and people talked for hours about stupid stuff that had nothing to do with Bugs Bunny or cars or dogs and you always had to leave the bouncy castle before you even got started having fun. Then act accordingly. Do not pay attention to anyone but him. Do funny voices in public. Chase him on the playground. Buy him a dollhouse and play with it. When he winds up to throw a fork at your head and throws it on the floor instead, tell him how good that was and how glad you are that he didn’t throw the fork at your head. It’s not about any of those other people, who just want your son to contribute to state oppression or capitalist overreach or institutional misogyny or something else that will immiserate women and brown people and burn down the planet.
- Men get things I call “manhood points.” They’re allotted based on physique and attitude and accent and earning power and talent and a bunch of other factors that are inborn or otherwise hard to alter, and you can get more of them by doing “manly” things. The most popular of these are: being a shithead to women, starting physical fights, using slurs, mocking gay and trans people, mocking disabled people, shooting a gun, shooting a gun at an animal, shooting a gun at a person, going to church, taking a job like police officer, firefighter, soldier, or construction worker, and being funny. You spend them when you give someone a hug, call someone down for using a slur, back down from a physical fight, defer to someone of lower status at the office or in the classroom, enjoy fine art, clean up after someone else, go out in public with an older woman or multiple women and no men. You run out of them really fast; they’re like skee ball tickets, and you may find that you don’t have any left when you need them at work or church or school. They are not only redeemable among men; men can also spend them on some women, especially women who think they can run a con on institutional patriarchy for their own benefit. Teaching your son how to spend his manhood points and how to resist the temptation to earn them in easy ways is incredibly hard. I have no advice on this, except to take hard, regular looks at your own behavior.
- The subjects of contemporary media for little boys are: sports competitions and fantasy versions of military campaigns or police work. Beyond that, it’s explicitly for girls in a way that will cost your son some of the above manhood points if he wants to enjoy it. Progressive culture has been vigorously corporatized and one of its corruptors’ most important projects is sliming over everything that might challenge capitalism about feminism and calling themselves feminists for depicting all scientists and mathematicians and explorers as women. Because this is almost exclusively a project of men, and women who would rather exploit than abolish patriarchy, it leaves no progressive space at all for little boys, preferring to shunt them into regressive spaces or subordinate roles, which of course no one likes. Little boys can have old things, or they can have reactionary new things, but they can’t have new progressive things. This fucking sucks, obviously. We watch Looney Tunes (although I occasionally have to quickly stop them because there’s some awful racism shockingly late in the filmography) and Pee-Wee Herman, and we read old Carl Barks Donald Duck comics. He likes Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, too, which is contemporary. I’m trying him on Adventure Time, which I think is a bit too old for him yet.
- Little boys and little girls are different. I don’t mean that trans people aren’t real or that you should freak out if your boy wants to wear a skirt or tells everybody he’s a girl, or any of that bigoted shit. If he does any of that stuff, for god’s sake be nice about it. What I mean is that little boys get hits of testosterone randomly throughout the day, and little girls do not. They acquire language more slowly, and they get bizarre little erections for no reason and want to talk about them, and when they have a lot of energy they want to run around and throw things and push things over and be tickled and chased. Trying to stop them from doing this stuff is a fool’s errand and will just make everyone feel bad. Just babyproof everything within an inch of your lives and when he wants to throw shit because that’s how he feels, have little soft things he can throw. Ours used to turn into the Incredible Hulk and flip over his pack-n-play like a pro wrestler, which was kind of awesome to watch. It’s normal. Treat it like it’s normal. Treat it all like it’s normal.
- They don’t have sympathy for you. They develop empathy, meaning they understand your feelings, but they don’t feel those feelings by osmosis for a long time. They love you so much but when you are at the end of your rope and about to snap and any reasonable person would know not to mess with you and to let you cool down, they will keep on pushing, because they don’t know any better, and they want to know what will happen. What will happen is up to you.
- Don’t spank your kids, for heaven’s sake. Just don’t. It doesn’t stop the misbehavior and it makes them feel terrible and you’ll regret it.
- Bear in mind that you can always leave a situation in which your kid is making you crazy. You can put them in their crib or their bedroom or behind the baby gate and go sit in the other room and calm down.
- Don’t terrorize them, either. This was a hard thing for me—I didn’t want to spank my kid but I also didn’t want him to hurt himself so at first I yelled at him when he did dangerous things and it just made him cry. The honest truth is that there’s stuff that works in general like time-outs but it’s not a panacea by any means and most disciplinary measures are ad hoc and designed to get the kid away from the mess/fire/knife.
- There is no discipline. There is only behavior modeling. This becomes obvious long, long after it comes into effect.
- It’s wise to treat the whole thing as an improv game, where, unless the stakes become too high, you should always respond to your kid with “Yes! AND,” as in, “Yes, you are a dinosaur! AND it’s time for the dinosaur to take a bath.” If you don’t contradict them all the time, they will ideally get the idea that contradiction ought to be a last resort and their best hope for having fun is to play along with you.
- It’s fine to lose face in front of a toddler. They will not think less of you.
- It’s fine to compromise with a toddler. Compromise all the time. Give them five more minutes to play. Let them eat french fries again. Take the bus and then the train and then the bus again.
- They will learn what kinds of behavior are messy and annoying, what kinds of behavior are cruel and unkind, and what kinds of behavior are dangerous and terrifying, and your reaction to each kind of behavior, and they will use the difference to fuck with you.
- If you’re “not a scheduling person” or “just disorganized, lol” or have a shirt with that Marilyn Monroe quote about how if I can’t handle you at your worst I don’t deserve me at your best, or “always late, sorry” or whateverthefuck, grow your ass up and get a therapist or some exercise or whatever it is that you need—and I recommend starting with the therapist because often you don’t know what you need—and take care of that shit because if you don’t, your halfassery will put pressure on your spouse which will wreck your marriage which will wreck your relationship with your child which will wreck your life.
- If you don’t do this before becoming a dad—which I, for example, did not—you will be forced to. And that’s okay! Sometimes people are absolutely certain they’re the exception to the rule until it’s proven to them in harsh terms that they’re not. I am like that. You might be, too. It’s okay. Just know that it’s going to happen and make your peace with it as quickly as you can when it does.
- Nothing else is important. Nothing. It’s all bullshit. Kids are the only real thing.
- Work culture is a huge scam run on millennials and zoomers by Xers and Boomers to trick them into thinking that their abusive relationships with their supervisors are familial, but they’re not. No one is your friend based on what happens in the office; you can *make* friends there, but you can’t build friendships. The good ones know this. The bad ones will try to trade on it to make their own lives easier.
- Leave the office when you need to.
- Work for people who also have kids if you possibly can.
- Take all the time anyone will give you. Be incredibly greedy with your PTO, leave the office at 5:00 every single day, do not get to work before your first meeting, work from home as often as you possibly can, stay up until 2 a.m. drinking water or seltzer to keep awake and do the shit that absolutely has to be done, and spend every other waking hour with your kid, even when it’s boring, even when you’re exhausted. He will eventually be a teenager who doesn’t like anything or want to talk to you. Get in as much time as you can before then.
- Get your spouse to spell you and take breaks. Take the breaks for yourself and do not use them to do work. Go to the movies or read Batman or Stephen King over a cup of coffee or something. See a friend.
- Taking your kid to see another friend’s kid is really fun.
- I have also known people whose kids were not fine, who came down with vicious disease and obscure cancers. Those people, too, love their children and long to be the one with the blastoma or the vestigial heart valve. There is a feeling, I think, among people whose kids are hale and hearty, that if a neighbor or family member’s child is dying, dead, or imperiled, it is in bad taste to remark on how cute or clever or funny they are—that it’s poking at a sore spot. Not so. The sore spot will be an open wound until time stops. The most generous thing you can do for these people is spend time with them and their own children, listening to remembrances of them if they are gone or patiently participating in the perverted routine of caring for the endangered child and observing how big he’s getting, how smart he is, how much his eyes look like his daddy’s. All any parent wants, including you, is for their child to be okay. Failing that, all that remains is for everyone else to know how special and perfect that child was.
- I think that the reason parenthood is fun, which is separate from the reasons people have kids—who knows why that is, probably none of us—is that you have that automatic, endocrinal love for your child so suddenly. It makes everything they experience amazingly vivid, and of those experiences, people talk and write about the dramatic and the horrible most regularly. But the lapidary, mundane things are far, far more important; they are the water and air of parenthood. For years, you are constantly watching a little person exactly as complex as yourself take a bite of a first strawberry, find an acorn and decide it is the most valuable thing in the world, swing on the swings for the first time, laugh until he hiccups at a funny face, go down a slide, squish a handful of peas, get a haircut, splash in the bath, name his toys. So… look forward to that. I still do.
- for the love of god get them their vaccinations or I’ll come to your house in the dead of night and attack your whole family with a syringe full of Tresivac.