I have been posting a series of articles relating our experiencing while meeting and bringing home our daughter, Yoselin, from Guatemala in April, 2008. In the last post, I talked about waking up the morning after the first night with her, a night of crying and no sleeping
I have never felt so desperately scared as I did the first full day after we got Yoselin in Guatemala City. The night before had been an ordeal I never care to relive, and yet there was a calm, contented joy pervading our first morning as a family, even with the rumble and smoke of crowded buses on the boulevard outside and the roar of airliners taking off half a mile away. Still, as I sat in a chair feeding my daughter for the first time a feeling of quiet panic made everything in me shudder and quake. And it wasn’t even noble fear. I wasn’t afraid of being a bad father, or not providing or taking care of her, a fear driven on by great love and selflessness. I was horrified at realizing a phase of my life was over, and I was entering a stage that could not properly be called a stage because I would never again exit it. I would be a father for the rest of my life. We would do no more staying up at the house of our friends watching old horror movies till two in the morning, no more sex on the living room floor in the middle of the afternoon, no more freedom to run away for the weekend without extensive preparation. And holding this beautiful thing in my hands, as much as I was already attached, I was shaken by the realization that only eighteen hours in I could never take any of it back.
There is a scene in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation when Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s characters are lying in a hotel bed and she asks him if life gets any easier. In the course of telling her about what adulthood and marriage are like they have the following conversation:
Him: “It gets a whole lot more complicated when you have kids.”
Her: “Yeah, it’s scary.”
Him: “It’s the most terrifying day of your life the day the first one is born.”
Her: “No one ever tells you that.”
Him: “Your life, as you know it, is gone, never to return.”
I felt those words on that bright Sunday morning in April as I realized what I had gotten myself into. I said nothing of this to Lyndie, partly because it sounded treasonous and partly because it gave a false impression. I didn’t want to take it back, to give Yosi back, not at all. I was committed long before I saw and held our baby for the first time. But that didn’t change anything about the fear. The anxiety of new parenthood is not something you can really think through before you have your child in your hands.
What had I done? I knew in my heart it was the right thing, and I was happy to be a father, but the weight of it pressed in on me for the rest of the day. I had never traveled the world. Would I ever get to now? I had never taken the financial risk of quitting my job and starting a writing career or opening a bookstore. Would that ever happen? Would Lyndie and I ever have time together again? I wasn’t asking rhetorically. A couple thousand miles from home, in a hotel room with the two most important people in my life, I had no idea what to expect from the future.
After breakfast Lyndie busied herself with organizing the hotel room in preparation for the week we would be using it as our home. As she scurried about the room, I sat in the chair by the window with my daughter on my lap. Continents of doubt and fear that had been shifting imperceptibly in my heart for the last year had suddenly wrenched free from one another, and buildings were falling and people were screaming, and prophets were declaring the apocalypse, and impossibly photogenic CNN correspondents were reporting live from the blood-soaked streets. And that was just in one part of my heart. The other parts were screwed.
So I was a bit scared. The thing is though, it wasn’t a fight or flight type of fear. I had no desire to get out of it; I had no desire to give her back; I had no desire to leave. I just couldn’t believe all of the things I had not done in my life. I was aghast. How was this my first trip to another country? Why had I let my Spanish go? Why did I not have a college degree? Why was a book manuscript not finished on my desk back home? And would we ever see our friends again? Would we ever listen to music over a bottle of wine late at night again? Would we ever leave our house again?
I don’t know if these questions assault every new parent or not. I imagine they do most, though not all. It probably happens less often to moms, who are too drunk on hormones after the birth to believe the world isn’t made out of ice cream. But at some point, certainly, most parents have this session. I think.
I was terrified too of this thing that I was taking on, this thing I was so absolutely unqualified for. I can’t keep a hamster alive. But I was going to take care of a human child, going to bathe it and feed it, going to teach it to read and what to read, walk with it on my shoulders through snowy fields at dusk, walk it to school, unintentionally pressure it to be good at things I wanted to be good at, let it date, let it kiss a boy, let it move away, let it fall in love and marry and make another kid to do all these things again. I felt for the first time in my life completely inferior to the task before me. I’m an arrogant man, but I was undone as I held this little dark-skinned wonder who clutched the reins of my will in her clumsy little fists. I wanted to put her down, walk out on the patio, vomit discreetly over the railing, then come back in and set her back down on my lap as though nothing had happened. Then I would be okay.
In the months leading up to that moment in the hotel room I had been going through a pretty pathetic and desperate quarter-life crisis. I wanted to be younger, and have decisions ahead of me again. I wanted to be nineteen and leaving for college, or twenty-two and fresh out and heading to Africa or wherever the hell I felt like. I wanted us to swap places with the too cute to be allowed barista at our favorite coffee shop and her good looking fiance who were young and heading off to school in a gorgeous American city and then joining a worldwide Christian volunteer service. Those things were not options for us anymore. And I wanted to punch the people who quoted Nike commercials at me when I talked about these things, as though we should just quit our jobs and sell our house and live under a bridge somewhere with our infant, finally free. It doesn’t work that way.
So that was all running through my mind as I sat holding my daughter in the mid-morning light, the rumble of buses and cars streaming along out in the world I had never seen. But I loved her. This may sound treasonous, but I’ll be honest and admit that total love is more of a choice for the adoptive parent than it is for a biological parent. The bond is not immediate and absolute and intrinsic as it is the other way. It requires a decision, a conscious attachment of one’s instincts to this particular child. And I chose to love her. I had loved her for a year, before we even knew she existed, and I had loved her for eight months since she was promised to us, and I had loved her the first time I held her the day before and all night when she cried. But there was too much happening during those times, or not enough, to really stare things down and glue my resolve to this kid. So as I watched her sit placidly on my lap, as I smelled her hair and let her grip my fingers with her own, I told her I loved her. I weighed her against the things I had not done with my life and found, irrationally, that she was superior. I became a father at that point, for all intents and purposes. I would never be parted from her again.
In Lost in Translation, after Bill Murray’s character completes his statement about your life being over when your first kid is born, he says this:
“But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk, and…you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your entire life.”
She already was. She was ours.