Hopefully love is just proximity plus time.
They’re all liars.
I’m pretty sure they’re all liars.
Walking through the hospital’s revolving door, I’m more anxious than I’ve ever been. This is surreal. It’s early February—a Monday evening. Outside, it smells like it might snow. Potential-snow has a distinct aroma, I think. At least in the places I’ve lived it does. Here on Chicago’s north shore, it smells like a slurry of manure and apprehension.
My pregnant wife is overdue by a week, so she’s been scheduled to be induced for labor tonight. Our first child will be born sometime tomorrow morning—a girl, to our silent disappointment. We’ve decided to name her Mathilda.
We walk in to reception and check ourselves in. The doctor will arrive shortly to get things moving, we’re told. Looking around, the delivery room isn’t what I was expecting. It’s oddly large, anchored by an ominous bed near its center. No curtains or bright lights. Nothing like how people describe. Seems odd. In the corner sits a solitary, oversized armchair. I suppose that’s for me. Behind the armchair, a couple of large, seemingly-flimsy windows look out over a dark courtyard. In case the chair gets uncomfortable, I think.
I can actually feel my blood pressure beginning to increase.
Over the past few months, my wife and I have received the expected questions.
Are we excited? Are we ready? Do you think your heart will just explode at the moment of your child’s birth and you’ll be forever, magically changed?
I haven’t been sure how to respond.
Oh yes, very. I think we are, yah. It just might—we’ll have to find out.
I’m only responding in the way I think I’m supposed to, though.
Excited? I’m terrified. Ready? How would I know? Exploding hearts? I hate you.
The nurses hook my wife up to an intravenous. The doctor arrives and administers the pitocin. She tells us that the drug should work quickly—usually within six-to-eight hours. My wife is instructed to get some sleep. The doctor will be back later to check on her.
Eight hours. I start calculating at what point I should start looking for coffee. Or should I go home and come back? I don’t know; the whole situation is confusing. The armchair beckons so I take a seat and then ask my wife is there’s anything I can go get for her. She tells me that I’ve done enough. The air still smells of snowy bullshit. I look out the window. Big flakes have started falling.
In the quiet my mind starts to drift. Never a good thing.
Lately I’ve been perceiving this new thing in the world around me. It’s in regards to expectations and our reactions to “big moments”. I think, only recently, that people have begun to react to things not in the way that they actually feel, but in the way that they think they’re supposed to feel. There’s probably a fancy name for it. It’s like… planned exhilaration. It’s very strange. I don’t remember it always being this way.
For example, there’s these cell-phone videos of groups of people watching the ending of big sports games. The person holding the camera—selfie-style—glances back-and-forth between the game, the group, and the camera. Watch this. Watch how excited I’m about to be when the quarterback throws the game-winner. And then as the game is won at the buzzer, the group erupts—as expected—and the person holding the camera captures what’s supposed to be this genuine moment of victorious enthusiasm. He or she screams into the camera in total disbelief. At the end of the video a friend inevitably asks, “Did you get it?”.
I always wonder what that guy does with the video clips when the game ends on an incomplete pass. It must be such wonderful disappointment. I’d love to see that—the quick release of that shutter. Maybe next time.
I spend the next eight hours watching videos on my phone, bugging my wife while she tries to sleep, and wandering to the nurses station to find more coffee. It’s the longest night of my life. I should’ve gone home. Maybe next time.
Morning comes, afternoon passes, and evening approaches. We’ve been in this room for nearly twenty-four hours and still nothing. This Mathilda is either stubborn-as-hell or impervious to modern medicine. I think I’m going to like her either way. On her third or fourth visit, the doctor’s patience finally runs out, so she breaks my wife’s water. Just like that. As if popping a balloon. Again, surreal. Remind me why we decided to do this?
Things get blurry, fast, and the next few hours fly by. At least for me. They must be a slow-burning hell for my wife, as she forces this lump of skin and hair from her body. She actually falls asleep a couple times during the delivery; she’s as exhausted as I’ve ever seen anyone. All I can do is stand here and offer untimely words of encouragement. Every so often, I wipe her forehead with a scratchy hospital washcloth.
I decide that I don’t care about the product of this ordeal; I just want Erin to be ok.
The doctor finally pulls Mathilda into the room with us, and one of the nurses whisks her away to a little table they’ve brought in. My eyes follow my naked daughter moving through the air and landing on the examination table. Then they immediately turn back to my wife. I completely forget about the new person now in the room with us. My wife looks up at me. Her face is glassy and sweet. Relieved. I choke up and kiss her forehead.
Go see your daughter. My wife reminds me that I’m a father now and that our baby is over on that table, there. She tells me to take a photo. I should do what a new dad does. Do I take it selfie-style? Show some victorious enthusiasm? I should have planned these emotions more carefully.
As I walk back through the revolving door and step out into the February air, I notice the snowfall has slowed. Even though it’s nearly two-o'clock in the morning, the moonlight reflects off of the freshly powdered ground and lights up the world around me as it were only dusk. I walk over to the maternity ward’s bike rack and unlock my winter beater’s big u-lock. I’ll like riding in this fresh snow, I think. It hasn’t had a chance to ice over yet, and my studded tires will stick to the road as if it was merely covered in soft felt.
Mine is the only bicycle on the rack. I don’t wonder why.
Mathilda was taken to the hospital’s nursery for the night. My wife is resting. I’m headed home to gather a few things and drink beer in the shower. I’m disappointed I only have a couple miles to ride home and only a couple of beers left in the fridge. I throw the lock heavily into my pannier and shove off. One of the nurses from the delivery room is outside, sucking on a cigarette; she nods in condolence as I ride past.
Riding a bicycle in snow—in the middle of the night—is silence. There are no cars; there are no pedestrians. Just the cold in one’s nostrils and a rare peacefulness. Nothing to do but think and churn. As I pedal, I start drifting again.
I’m either insane, or they’re all liars. 50/50 on that one.
I can’t speak for the mothers. The ones who grow the babies in their bellies and deliver them into the world. They might be telling the truth. They might have felt something towards their children when they were born. But the fathers? They’re all liars. I’m pretty sure.
Tears of joy? Life-changing pride? Instant love? They didn’t shed or feel any of those. They thought that they should, though, so they faked enthusiasm. They wanted the occasion to be life-changing, and so—later on—they described it as such. Took a few photos to prove that they were there. Experiencing something.
I get it. And I’ll probably do the same. It’ll be easier to lie. It’d be hard to admit that—during your first child’s birth—the only love you gained was for your wife’s effort. That the only explosion you felt was one of consolation.
As I arrive home, I notice my blood pressure has steadied. Dismounting my bike and leaning it against our garage door, I’m more relieved than I’ve ever been. I’m glad my life wasn’t changed in an instant. I’m glad Erin is ok. I’m glad I’m still me.
I sneak inside, grab the last two beers from the fridge, and head up to the shower.
Two years have passed. My wife and I have moved ourselves (and our daughter) to Oregon.
It’s Christmas eve. Outside, the sun is setting quickly and it smells like it might snow. In Portland, potential-snow smells faintly like the remnants of an overambitious carnival. A touch sweeter than Chicago’s air, but still just as crappy.
I’m down in my studio above our garage, putting the finishing touches on Mathilda’s Christmas present. I’ve built her a little balance bike. The kind with no pedals. The frame was fillet-brazed together and sanded as smooth as glass; the fork crown was thinned just so. I handbuilt custom, 12-inch wheels for it out of expensive parts made for adult-sized racing bikes. It was painted by the best custom bicycle painter in the country. In all, I probably have thirty-hours of work and a week’s earnings in the thing. I’m pretty sure there’s not another toddler bike in the world like it.
As I wrap the little, custom handlebars with cotton tape, an album slows to its conclusion in the background and my mind starts to wander.
These past two years have been conflicting. When Mathilda was born, I didn’t feel drawn to her at all. The fact that we shared a few strands of invisible DNA wasn’t tangible. It certainly wasn’t a magical connection of any kind. When we brought Mathilda home, it felt like we had invited a mute alien into our house. I wondered why, daily. It was odd and completely impersonal. It seemed a pointless disruption. It certainly wasn’t love.
Over the last couple of months, however, Mathilda has started to become more... interactive. She exhibits preferences and intelligence—memory, even. She gets excited at the prospect of a hike or a bike ride; she gets upset when I leave for “work-work”. She asks me, daily, to build her a “big house” out of her chunky-toddler-legos.
And she knows her colors. And she’s stubborn as hell.
I’m warming up to her a bit.
Most importantly, I’ve become pretty sure that eventually I’ll feel something for her. Love her, even. I wouldn’t have spent the last twenty-five evenings making her a thing if I wasn’t pretty sure that I’d love her, someday. I’d describe that as optimism, though I understand that it wouldn’t come off that way if I let anyone in on this secret. Until then, I won’t; I’ll just keep the lies flowing.
I thump in the final bar-end plug and it’s finished. I give the bike a quick wipe with a rag to remove my greasy fingerprints. I take a photo to prove that I was here, experiencing something.
Locking my studio door behind me, I ascend the stairs up to our house, carrying the little bike with me. Once inside, I place the balance bike in the back room so Mathilda won’t see it when she wakes up.
As I set the bike down and turn back towards the kitchen I remind myself not to be disappointed when Mathilda prefers the made-by-someone-else, disposable toys that she’ll also open tomorrow morning. The ones under the tree, wrapped in purple paper. I’ll hide those in the corner, anyway. I’ll make sure the bike is always nearby.
Hopefully love is just proximity plus time.
Whatever the reaction, it’ll be honest. If nothing else, Mathilda is incapable of lying. She doesn't care about the world around her. Her enthusiasm (or lack thereof) is genuine. It’s admirable. I’m so envious.
I grab a beer from the fridge and head upstairs to shower. As I do, I notice that—outside our window—the snow has started falling.
This project started out as a way to practice my metalworking skills. I had some scrap tubing lying around, so I built our daughter this little balance bike. It turned out nicer than I anticipated, however, so I decided to have it painted by one of the best bicycle painters in the country and build it up with nice parts.
In short, yes, it is ridiculous. But no, I don't care. Mathilda looks at it daily and says, "Nana's Bike. Purple. Poppa fix." and that's worth every penny/hour spent.