2016-06-07

Fatherhood As Expanded Human Experience

When is a towel animal more than a towel animal?
Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

I'm always trying to describe what it feels like to be a father. On Facebook, I recently said something to the effect of, "Fatherhood is meeting the coolest person you've ever met, and then realizing that they will be one of your closest friends for the rest of your life." That's saccharine, heart-warming stuff worthy of a Facebook post, but probably not a blog post.

Over the weekend, though, I had a longer-form thought about how to describe parenting. People always say, "Everything changes when you have kids," but they don't often describe what that feels like. The best they typically offer is a description of how "priorities" change, and more specifically, how the pursuit of entertainment changes as we go from young people who enjoy young-people-things to being young parents who would often prefer to just stay home and spend time with the kids. And, as I've written about before, these statements are typically wrapped up in the separate issue of having less free time once our families expand.

So what starts off as:

  • "Everything changes, for example I would rather stay home and teach my daughter new words than go out and watch a local band with my buddies. If I had more free time, I'd probably set aside some of it to see local bands, but since I don't, I choose to play with my daughter."
somehow becomes:

  • "Everything changes, I'd love to go out and see a concert with you guys, but I'm busy with the kiddo tonight."
Needless to say, something important is lost in translation. By the mere act of writing what I've just written, I've helped decode some of the loss, but that wasn't the thought I had over the weekend. Something else occurred to me.

It happened while staying at a hotel. Often, some hotels' room staff will leave towels on the bed, folded in the shape of an animal. In this case, it was a cat, and my daughter loves cats. When we first walked into the hotel room, I made the cat "meow," and say hello to my daughter, which made her smile and laugh. She played with the cat for a short while, and then the day went on.

At a certain point, I decided to go running while my wife and daughter opted to do something else. When I got back from my run, I went into the room to take a shower and change my clothes, spotting the "cat" on the way in.

My thoughts turned instantly to the way my daughter had played with the cat, the things she had said, how she held it, how she chose to animate it. My whole perspective on the cat had shifted from "towel animals are things that hotel staff leave in rooms as a little greeting to their guests," to "I remember the way my daughter plays with towel animals."

It's a lot like what we experience when we first fall in love with someone. Often we'll see something, and our thoughts turn to the other person. We think to ourselves, "Oh, she would think this is so funny! I can't wait to tell her about it."

So, parenthood is a little bit like that, except this happens with your relationship to the whole universe. The interesting thing about towel animals, now that I am a parent, is only how my daughter will choose to interact with them. Likewise, spinach is no longer just a delicious vegetable to me, but a delicious vegetable that my daughter doesn't want to eat. A rainy day is no longer a boring day spent inside, but a chance to sing "Rain, Rain, Go Away" together. I can't even see the color purple anymore without hearing her voice say, "Pur-ple!" It's her favorite color, but I'm ambivalent toward it.

I have both thoughts about everything now: What I think, and what she tends to think. I don't mean that I can read her thoughts or that I've become less of an individual. It's a supplement to my previous existence. I think all of the same thoughts I always have, only now, they come with an additional set of information: what she thinks, or at least what she has managed to communicate to me.

That's a higher plane of empathy, and one that can't easily be described to people who don't have children. I think it probably also has to be experienced in order to be properly understood. However, hopefully I have come at least somewhat close.