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Roundtables

New Fathers

For some reason not involving pods or alien harvests, a number of our writers are about to be fathers, or have recently become dads, and it seemed appropriate to convene a meeting of minds. A discussion of fears, frustrations, and why the name you’ve picked out for your kid will inevitably be mocked.

Contributing Writer Kevin Guilfoile is a Chicago writer and Creative Director at Coudal Partners. He and his wife Mo are expecting their first child in January 2004.

Contributing Writer Kevin Fanning lives in Illinois and writes at whygodwhy.com. His son Raimi is 10 months old.

Contributing Writer Matthew Baldwin lives in Seattle and maintains the site defective yeti. His first child, a boy, is due February 21st.

Frederic Bonn is a Frenchman living in Brooklyn and working as a designer in New York City. His son Léonard is 10 weeks old.

This roundtable is dedicated to the wives and partners of our participants.

 

TMN: To begin with, when did you know you wanted to be a dad? Did it just happen, or have you always wanted to be a father?

KF: We had sort of talked in general terms about having a kid one day, and although I never really imagined myself as someone’s parent, I gradually became amenable to the idea. We never decided to actually try to have a kid, we just decided to stop not trying. And then one day Rosalie came to see me at work and pulled me into a conference room and said she was pregnant, and it was the most scary and exciting moment in my life. A short while later, she had a miscarriage, and going through that, realizing that I wasn’t going to be a parent, that I wasn’t going to get to share my life with this child growing inside her, that’s when I realized that I wanted to be a father.

KG: I have always wanted to be a dad, but we took the scenic route to parenthood (Mo and I have been married eight years) and that might be because our parenting jones has been fed by eight awesome nieces and nephews. Nieces and nephews rule. You can be the biggest goof in the world and they think you’re the greatest. Unlike your own children, I suspect, the stupider you act, the more nieces and nephews love you. At my brother’s house last summer I got four days of high-tension hilarity/drama out of a constant threat to jump into the pool with my clothes on (although the kids were also aware that I can’t swim very well so, like all kids ages three to nine, they might have been just curious about what a bloated corpse looks like).

MB: I know a big factor in my decision to become a father was my need to have someone around the house to bamboozle. My wife never falls for anything anymore.

KF: Early on a few people asked me why we were bringing a kid into such a fucked-up world. But it wasn’t something we struggled with much; yes, the world is pretty much a mess, but having a kid was sort of like our promise that we’ll do whatever we can to try to make it suck less. And also, having a kid makes you appreciate things that you didn’t before. Despite all the nightmares on the news every day, the world is full of little miracles, and watching your kid stare out the window at the morning sun, or trying to catch the water that falls out of the faucet, makes you appreciate the little things.

MB: Yeah, back in high school I was of the ‘I would never bring a child into this world’ mind myself. After all, the world was poised on the brink of environmental disaster, just seven or eight childbirths away from ecological collapse. This was a position that I not only held, but also lorded over others. While others were fawning over Earth In The Balance, I was saying, ‘I don’t see how anyone can seriously consider Al Gore to be an ‘environmentalist’…let’s not forget that the man has four children!’

In the decade that followed, however, a couple of factors combined to change my mind on the subject. I spent a few years in the Peace Corps, which effectively leeched away about 80 percent of my youthful idealism and self-righteousness. Upon my return to the U.S., I discovered that my cousin (10 years my junior) had turned into a pretty awesome kid, the likes of which I could envision myself wanting to raise. And then, a few years later, a buddy of mine up and sired the most adorable little girl ever to grace God’s Green Earth. (This is not an opinion; it is verified, empirical fact. I have photos.) One look at this twerp and I was, like, ‘Dude, I gotta get me one of those.’

Of course, the biggest factor of all was that I not only lucked into having a wife (?!), but wound up with one that should make for an excellent Mom. In high school I felt pretty safe railing against the evils of children since, despite my best efforts, I wasn’t engaging in any activities that would result in them.

So my wife and I picked up a couple of those Practice Babies—whattayacallums, ‘cats.’ They seem pretty easy to take care of, so after a while we figured we’d give this whole Having A Child scam a try. By our reckoning, if we teach the kid to use the litter box, feed it kibble, and put one of those tracking microchips in the nape of its neck, we won’t have to alter our lifestyle in the least.

KG: I’ve never given a thought to the idea that we might be bringing children into a fucked-up world. Hasn’t the world always been fucked up? Isn’t fucked-up the world’s point of equilibrium? My wife was at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and I think about what it would have been like to have lost her every single day, but I’m also old enough to remember when the Soviets were going to blow us up any time and that was way worse because we didn’t have TiVo.

FB: I didn’t really know that I wanted to be a ‘father,’ but I knew I loved children, and that I wanted to have some. I think wanting to be a father came when I knew I found the mother. I actually wanted to be the father of our kids before I even wanted to marry Zöe (my wife now). On New Years Eve 2000, Zöe and I were in San Francisco, and at midnight she asked me what my wish was for the year to come. I told her I wanted to have a baby with her, but her wish was for us to get married. (I never really wanted to get married, none of my friends were married, some had kids, what was the point, I thought you didn’t need that ‘contract’ to be in love with someone and to have kids.)

As rude as it sounds, I didn’t say yes, I actually didn’t say anything, I was stunned…getting married…really. She didn’t even think about kids at that point, but she wanted to get married, only a year after we met? It took me some time to think, analyze, turn the question upside down, and change that a priori I had about marriage. I didn’t want to say yes just to please her, and then one morning a few months later I did say, ‘Yes, this is the woman I want to marry, this is the women I want to have kids with.’

TMN: How has the pregnancy changed your relationship with your partner? Is your partner even aware that you’re talking about this on the Internet? Do you feel closer to your partner now, or further apart?

KG: Wow, that’s a loaded question, isn’t it? Before we were having a baby my wife was the most important thing in my life by a factor of about a million. So to say we are closer now that we’re having a baby together would be true, I guess, in the same way that Paris and Nicole are closer having spent a month together on a farm. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t love each other lots before. Of course, very soon there will be this other person in the world whom I will love just as much as I love my wife and that’ll really be something. Hey, wait a minute. Is that what you were getting at? Very clever, question boy.

When you first find out you might be pregnant, there’s elation, sure, but it’s more the self-satisfied kind like you’re lab partners who successfully determined the density of a rubber stopper by measuring water displaced from a beaker. It doesn’t seem real at first. Very soon, it occurs to you that what’s happening is amazing. We’re making a life here. A baby’s going to come out of your belly. This is unbelievable! It should be front-page news except for the fact that everybody does it the same way. No screw that. I don’t care if everybody does it. This is incredible. That feeling is intense and you share it only with one other.

But there’s another thing too. She’s doing all the heavy lifting. Literally. It’s not helplessness that I feel exactly, and it’s not guilt. It’s more like worshipfulness. Like I can’t believe she’s going through all this for the three of us.

MB: Yeah, in my mind, bringing a kid in the world would be like moving a couch: each of us would lift an end, and success would depend on our joint effort and cooperation. But now I realize that an unborn child is less like a couch and more like a box of books: very heavy but too small to be ported by more than one person. Essentially you wind up with one person doing all the work while the other ‘supervises’ or just flutters around saying, ‘Jeez, I wish I could help!’ and occasionally opening a door.

I’m looking forward to the day when the box of books my wife is carrying transmogrifies into a couch and I can finally pick up an end. Among the other novel emotions I am feeling these days, for the first time ever I am actually looking forward to the time when I can stop slacking and start doing some work on a project.

KG: We’re taking a birthing class—nine hours in total—and there are basically three things they’re trying to accomplish: The first is to walk you through what’s going to happen so you don’t freak out; the second is to teach your wife things she can do to distract herself from the incredible, searing pain of transitional contractions; and the third is to fool the father into thinking there’s something for him to do. The last of these is a big joke, really. It’s all busywork. This baby is being born with or without me. But I’m grateful for the busywork, nonetheless. I’m like the butler in Buckingham Palace who makes certain the breakfast tablecloth is exactly 40 centimeters from the floor. Queen Elizabeth won’t notice one way or the other, but it is my honor to serve.

KF: I think it’s definitely made us closer. It’s like any incredibly stressful event where you have to rely very strongly on each other in order to get through. Thanksgiving, for instance.

FB: The pregnancy in itself was not something very stressful for either of us, but pregnancy in a foreign country is something you definitely need a partner to face. The American healthcare system is not something we’re used to, and spending only two minutes with the OBGYN because 15 other patients are waiting is not really ‘French style.’ But worse is spending two minutes and then being told so many medical words that you have to spend a whole night on the web translating and trying to find more information about what they mean exactly (‘The baby has a what? An ‘echogenic focus’? Let me look on the web, oh, OK, it’s just a marker for down syndrome, nothing to worry about, really…’). We also got closer as we were getting more excited, talking all day long about him, wishing to see his face, and as the belly was getting bigger thinking that it is unbelievable that a human form could grow inside (and as Kevin says, yes, everybody does it, but it is still incredible).

TMN: What did you do, as a couple and by yourself (and maybe, for yourself) to prepare for the big event? Who did you turn to for advice? How many baby/parenting books have you bought vs. read?

FB: Suddenly, I got excited about baby clothes and couldn’t stop looking at babies on the street, looking at other pregnant women, try to guess how far they were in pregnancy (ok, so maybe pregnant women are sexy too). We didn’t buy any books in the U.S.—we asked our family members to bring some from France: one book about pregnancy, J’attend Un Enfant (I’m expecting a kid), which is the French bible for pregnancy, and a few other books from a famous French psychoanalyst who wrote many books about kids. Pregnancy websites and French forums (magrossesse.com) were also a great help. Because when you have people looking at my wife drinking a glass of wine as though she was doing a shot of heroin and drinking a bottle of vodka while filming a gang-bang, it was good to have a second opinion. (OK, maybe not that far, but that was just to see how far this site could go before being stopped by parental control filters.)

KF: What’s great about pregnancy, aside from the heroin and gang bangs, is that after the initial ‘Are you freaking kidding me about this baby stuff?’ moment, you have nine months to prepare yourself, mentally and otherwise. You sit with the idea for a few days, then you start reading books, then you start working on wishlists, then you start building cribs and decorating rooms, and before you know it you’re sitting around staring at your watch, going, ‘What the hell is taking so long?’

MB: Ugh, tell me about it. My wife is in her seventh month, and I can barely remember a time when she wasn’t pregnant. Yesterday we were trying to recall what we did on New Year’s Eve 2002, and when we finally remembered the party we had gone to we were both, like, ‘That was only 12 months ago? Christ, it seems like that happened in a previous lifetime…’

KF: The most helpful books were The Birth Book by Sears & Sears and The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy by Vicki Iovine. Everyone also reads What to Expect When You’re Expecting, a.k.a. The Book of Fears. But don’t read that book unless you have other books to simultaneously consult. Any question you have, it makes you assume the absolute worst and is just not conducive to a pleasant pregnancy.

There are many books about pregnancy written for fathers, but most of them suck on the order of ‘Now that you’re wife’s pregnant, don’t tell her she looks fat. Also, try to help out a little bit around the house.’ The only one that I thought was helpful was The Expectant Father by Armin Brott.

MB: My wife is a scientist by trade and, as such, is an obsessive researcher. Our library contains an ‘X For Dummies’ book for every major project we have ever undertook: Weddings For Dummies, Personal Finance For Dummies, Housebuying For Dummies, etc. I like to joke that she could do brain surgery on you if you gave her two-weeks notice and a library card.

So before she got pregnant, and in the early months of the pregnancy, she was reading a lot of volumes in the ‘What To Expect When You’re Expecting’ mold. I read some of them, too, but, sadly, they rarely had any real advice for fathers-to-be. There would always be, like, one chapter at the end of the book titled ‘Fathers Are Parents Too!’ or something, that basically said that while your partner had to stop smoking and stop drinking and give up coffee and start eating insanely healthy in preparation for conception, the male pretty much just has to keep his testicles away from gamma rays and heavy machinery. And once conception takes place, it’s like KF says: most of the books just recommend you ‘help out around the house.’ It’s curious that while all these birth books are all very progressive in their feminism, they assume a readership of empowered women who somehow wound up married to insensitive clods who need to be encouraged to ‘chip in’ on housework and who, when they think about their wife’s pregnancy at all, are basically, like, ‘my work here is done.’

(Exception that proves the rule: the aforementioned Expectant Father.)

At some point I kinda gave up on the pregnancy books and switched to childrearing books. So, since we know we’re having a son, I’ve spent the last few months reading books with titles like, Girls Are From Venus And Boys Are From Hell: Why You’ll Spend The Next Eighteen Years Cursing The Y Chromosome.

Beyond that I’ve been going out less often, drinking less alcohol, making trips to IKEA, and generally striving to become the unfathomably boring person every child should have as a role model.

KG: We just finished birthing class which was worth doing. There’s a certain comfort in knowing which doors of the hospital I should roll my wife through after her water breaks. We watched six too many videos of other couples’ births, however. Who allows themselves to be filmed at their most private and joyous and unflattering moments so the footage can be screened for expecting strangers around the world? This is a real scandal, I think. These people are freakish exhibitionists. I felt like I was sitting through court-ordered aversion therapy for my porn addiction.

Also what’s with the militant breastfeeders? This is a subculture I was completely unaware of. They’re like Skull and Bones: ‘If you breastfeed your son until he’s three years old we promise he’ll be a Cabinet Secretary by his 45th birthday.’ Why do these people care so much how we raise our child? I mean if our kid is stupid because he’s formula-fed, shouldn’t that mean a better spot on the SAT bell curve for their kid in 17 years?

Other than that, I’ve read a few magazine articles and Mo (who reads about nine times faster than I do) has been folding corners on magazine pages she wants me to get to. I think she’s nervous about getting me up to speed because I’m basically going to be a stay-at-home dad. Come to think of it, I should be nervous about that, too.

Mo has What to Expect When You’re Expecting at her bedside. Many nights she will put a hand to some part of her body and get a concerned look on her face. Then she’ll open the book to the appropriate page, read a few paragraphs and set it back down again, relieved. They ought to title it Am I Dying? because I know that’s what she’s thinking every time she reaches for it.

I think part of me is afraid that reading too much about fatherhood will ruin it for me. Like Seabiscuit.

KF: Classes are the way to go. Taking all the preparation classes our hospital offered was probably the most important thing we did during the pregnancy.

TMN: What are your feelings about finding out the gender of your child before it’s born? Have you (or, in Fred’s or Kfan’s case, did you) found out?’

KF: I was all for finding out ahead of time, because I don’t like surprises. But it didn’t really matter, because we had purposefully picked out a gender-neutral name, and studiously avoided gender-specific clothes and room decorations.

MB: If I know I want to see an upcoming motion picture, I will studiously avoid exposure to any media concerning the film. I won’t read reviews, I won’t look at stills, I won’t watch television commercials advertising it. If I’m in a theater and they show a trailer for the movie, I will avert my eyes and try to mentally distract myself to a degree that prevents me from really hearing the dialogue.

So you can probably guess my views on the ‘know now/wait and see’ issue.

My wife on, on the other hand, (1) wanted to know, (2) was going to find out with or without my consent, and (3) can’t keep a secret. So, yeah, I know. Y’gotta pick your battles, and this was one I knew from the onset that I wasn’t going to win.

FB: I wanted a girl. Boys are just too stupid, they play with gun and start wars. My wife wanted a boy; according to her, girls are stupid, they like pink stuff, Barbies, and makeup. This is why I wanted to find out the gender, but Zöe originally didn’t want to know. As we were approaching the 21st week sonogram, however, we decided it was important to know; we didn’t want to be disappointed. (I felt guilty enough being disappointed to find out it was a boy, I can’t imagine how guilty I would have felt if I found out at birth.) So, it was a boy, and, after all, not all guys are stupid, so our quest for a name could really start, and I also could ‘materialize’ this little creature (the first time you see it moving and kicking, it looks like that scene in Alien, it is quite freaky) and talk to him, sing him songs.

Now he is born, I don’t even know why I wanted a girl so much, because of course, he is the cutest baby ever!

KF: Same for us. We were fairly certain we wanted a girl, but now that we have a boy we can’t imagine it any other way. Especially since we dress him mainly in pinafores.

MB: Weird—we were the same way: wanted a girl, got a boy. What’s up with everyone having boys all the sudden? I mean, wasn’t everyone having girls, like, two years ago? It’s like the magnetic poles have switched, or something.

FB: Also, there is something depressing about baby clothing stores. They’re divided into two areas: the pink one, and the light blue one, that’s it. You would think things have changed and color choices are broad, but not at all.

KG: We don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl. That’s partially because we want to be surprised and partially because we want to have something interesting to announce besides the baby’s length and weight. I mean length is a totally arbitrary statistic to be putting on a birth announcement, but other than penis/vagina, it’s just about the only quantifiable thing we can say about a baby at that point. We could give you the circumference of his or her skull and it would be exactly as meaningful. If God were funnier, all your baby’s physical traits would be as random as the sex. Then sisters and parents of the new mom would be in charge of putting a giant wooden stork in your front yard announcing, ‘It’s an Asian!’

There’s something weird about asking the doctor to keep a secret from you, though. I kind of like it. I think I’m going to ask my regular doctor to stop giving me his diagnoses. If you find something wrong, write me a prescription and tell me what foods I can’t eat, but don’t tell me what diseases I have. I don’t want to be burdened with that crap. Hell, that’s what I hire you for.

FB: The bigger and taller your baby is, the prouder you are (I was really excited to announce he was 8lb 14oz, which I thought was incredible!), a stupid instinct that might make you think size matters.

MB: Finding out the sex of your child in advance is like opening Schrodinger’s box and sneaking a peek at the cat. In S-dinger’s famous thought experiment, he envisioned a cat in a box that remained both alive and dead, simultaneously, until someone observed the animal, at which point reality would collapse into one state or the other. Until you know the sex of your child it’s both a boy and a girl in your mind. But as soon as they tell you which it is, you can sort of feel reality collapsing into one state or the other. One minute you’re trying to decide if you like ‘Sarah’ or ‘Rebecca’ better, and the next you’re resigned to a lifetime of shouting ‘JAKE!’

KF: Actually, how the baby’s name sounded when shouted was a key factor in our decision-making process. Anytime we had an idea for the baby’s first name, middle name, and last name, I would shout the whole thing and append it with ‘…get down here this instant!’ just to try it on for size.

MB: We considered ‘Max’ for a while, but at some point it occurred to me that ‘Max’ is too close to ‘Matt.’ I didn’t want to spent 18 years feeling that sickening ‘Oh shit, what did I do now?!’ dread every time I heard my wife in the next room shouting ‘MAX BALDWIN, GET IN HERE RIGHT NOW!’

TMN: Well now that we’re talking about gender and names, are books of baby names useful, or just garbage? And, would (or, did) you consider naming your child after yourself?

MB: Volumes of baby names are interesting only insofar as that they are the only kind of books where you can find yourself hating every single word in them. (I’m omitting, for the sake of argument, books written by Ann Coulter or Michael Moore.) When we took car rides together we would sometimes bring along a book of baby names; the passenger would read off the names in alphabetical order, and the driver would just go, ‘No. No. Not on a dare. No.’

We never considered naming the kid after ourselves. We did, however, entertain the notion of having several children and naming them all ‘George Foreman,’ just for kicks.

FB: There are two things to consider when choosing a name: make sure your kid won’t become the classroom’s scapegoat because of his/her stupid first name, and, make sure the same won’t happen because of his/her first name and last name together. In addition to that, we also had to find a name that wouldn’t sound terrible in English and in French (the latter being the reason why we didn’t go for ‘Rosecrans’). And about calling our son after myself, it is just something that you don’t do anymore in France, so it never came to my mind. And I’m not so crazy about my first name anyway.

My wife and I used a French website containing thousands of names, and we both made a list of our favorites. Once the list was done, we compared each other’s and kept the names we had in common. Her list contained nine names, mine had 14, and we had four names on both: Celestin, Emile, Joseph, and Léonard. The list quickly went down to two: Joseph and Léonard.

We chose Léonard, but you have to pronounce it the French way: ‘Lait-eu-nar’ or ‘Lay-oh-nar,’ which is impossible for people here to pronounce. Plus he will be subject to mockery anyway because of his last name, just like I was. (French kids can find a lot of variations for ‘Bonn.’)

Léonard was in the one book we bought about names, and according to that book, our son will be really, really cool: ‘Léonards aspire to a life where men wouldn’t work…’ So according to this book, basically he will be lying around in a hammock all day smoking pot.

KF: I’m not sure books are actually that helpful; some fairly heated debates resulted whenever we opened a baby-naming book anywhere near family members. But in general it’s a fun part of the process, and books can help spur the thought process if you are having trouble thinking of anything. We never seriously considered naming the baby after one of us, but we had a list of other parameters to work within, i.e. the name had to be fairly uncommon, had to start with a certain letter, would ideally be unisex, and would preferably be related somehow to the time around the baby’s conception.

KG: Well, the ‘G’ names were out from the get-go: Gillian, Gregory, Gabrielle, Gilligan. With a last name like Guilfoile (pronounced ‘GILL-foy-uhl’ for those unfamiliar with the Gaelic) you’re sort of limited that way. My wife, like many women, has been thinking about what she will name her children since she received her first plastic urinating doll. After a few obvious vetoes (my side of the family has used up its allotment of ‘Toms,’ for instance) the list is still pretty long. I think we’re going to have to look the baby in the eyes before we can name him or her.

If it’s a boy, I never considered naming him after myself. My brother (one of the aforementioned Toms) did that and it kind of worked because you have Tom and then Tommy. Not too much confusion. There is no ‘Kevinny,’ however, so we’d be stuck with ‘Kevin’ and ‘Little Kevin,’ and that’s a little close to home in my case.

KF: The name Kevin totally sucks and no one should ever name their child that.

KG: That Wonder Years kid really ruined it for us, didn’t he KFan? But basically any name you pick will be ruined by the time he hits fifth grade. I am totally jealous of Léonard. That’s an awesome name. It sounds like the name of a genius. But if you raise him in this country, Fred, this is how it’s going to play out at recess: ‘Léonard. Léotard. Tard.’ Tard will be his name. Tard is every American boy’s name at some point. It’s just a question of how many degrees of separation from Tard you are. For me it went like this: ‘Kevin, Caveman, Neanderthal, Australopithecus, Astroturf, Astrotard, Tard.’ There’s no getting around it so you might as well not worry and name your kid Tad from the get-go. At least it will be quick.

If you go back a few generations in my family there are some great lost names, especially for females—Mabel, Leota, Wilhelmina. I was all for bringing them back. Then there were conversations like this:

MO: Wilhelmina? You want to name our baby Wilhelmina?
KEVIN: Not if you don’t like it, no.
MO: Isn’t that the female version of Wilhelm? Like Kaiser Wilhelm?
KEVIN: I guess.
MO: How about Benito? Do you like that? How about Idi?
KEVIN: Well, there’s Ben. And Edie. I’m only saying. If you wanted to get around the dictator thing. How about just Mina?
MO: You need to go now.

It’s possible our baby will be named while I am down the hall buying Skittles.

TMN: So in only three words, what has scared you most so far in this process, and what has made you the most excited?

FB: The delivery. The delivery.

KG: Raising punk teen. Being in love.

KF: The anticipation. Watching him learn.

MB: I can tell you what’s scared me the most so far, but I’ll need more than three words.

When we went in for the baby’s second ultrasound—the one where they make sure everything is working and in the right spot—the technician couldn’t find the heartbeat. He kept looking and looking and we got more and more stressed out. Finally he stopped and said, gravely, ‘Your baby is in a terrible position.’

We gasped and said, ‘What can we do?! Is he all right?’

And the doctor said, ‘No, I mean he’s in a terrible position for me—he’s turned upside down and making my job harder. But he’s fine.’

Three words for the ‘excited’ part are easy, though: Justified toy buying.

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