And that's the problem. When an anxious father is home alone with his infant daughter for the first time, who's the one who needs nurturing?
ST. PETERSBURG - Like so many new dads today, I wanted to be more involved in my child's first years than my father's generation was.
Diaper changes. Late-night feedings. The Cat in the Hat until our eyelids slammed shut. My wife would have a full partner in parenting.
And when Rebecca's 12-week maternity leave expired, I would, bosses permitting, codify my dadly goodness by staying home with the baby every Monday for six months. I couldn't help but daydream about the Brady Bunch episode when Marcia secretly nominated Mike Brady for Father of the Year.
My airbrushed reverie ended at precisely 5:10 a.m. on Jan. 14, when Dahlia Rose Barancik, abruptly plucked from her liquid utopia, unleashed a piercing string of baby expletives into the antiseptic ether.
In an instant, I saw how unfit I was to play Daddy. Could a 39-year-old cynic, prone to the blahs, preach optimism? Could a person who loathed school and anything else requiring discipline help his daughter develop good work habits? Could a man used to indulging only himself learn to indulge a helpless newborn? Could a baby, in effect, care for a baby?
During Dahlia's first weeks, I stapled a grin on my face, hoping true confidence would follow. Neither of us was fooled.
Within seconds of taking her in my arms, Dahlia would begin squirming, then caterwaul. My hands might as well have been branding irons. Unable to decipher her pitiable cries, I was powerless to console my own daughter.
My first and only evening alone with Dahlia, then 7 weeks old, was a fiasco. The moment the front door slammed behind Rebecca, the baby began a four-hour crying jag, culminating with a choking sound that had me poring through our pediatric books for a diagnosis and contemplating a 911 call.
Students of a psychological concept called "learned helplessness" can probably guess the rest. The next time my wife left the house for a breather, I lasted just 20 minutes before calling to beg her to return. It was about that time that I began setting my parenting sights on the toddler years.
Not that I didn't already adore Dahlia. Her first smiles were a sublime joy. I watched her morning wake-up routine of stretches, yawns and gas with glee.
But the idea of spending 11 hours alone with her one day a week had me contemplating his-and-hers diapers. I envied Rebecca's hard-fought bond with Dahlia, a bond so strong that Rebecca literally got sick the first time they were apart a full workday.
We had a sitter that day. I prepared for my first Monday with Dahlia as best I could, arming myself with fatherhood guides, a T-shirt infused with Rebecca's scent, and an increase in my "happy pill" dosage.
As the handoff neared, I felt like a model-airplane enthusiast about to be handed the controls of the space shuttle.
On my first day alone with Dahlia, I had no choice but to fly the plane.
5:30 a.m. Rebecca hears Dahlia crying and goes to calm her. I volunteer to guard the bed.
6:09 a.m. While Rebecca showers, Dahlia resumes crying. Because our dog, Hope, is busy licking herself, it's up to me to act. Stomach knotted, I walk into my daughter's bedroom and reinsert her pacifier. Approximately 14 reinsertions later, I conclude that Dahlia doesn't want her pacifier.
I change her clothes. To distract her, I turn on the lava lamp while croaking a goofy song. Dahlia neither cries nor smiles during the diaper change - a point for Dad, in my beginner's rule book.
6:22 a.m. Rebecca nurses the baby, then kindly sends me and Hope back to bed for another half hour. We graciously accept.
7:08 a.m. Rebecca leaves for work. I take Dahlia to our bedroom, sit on the bed, and lean her back against my knees.
Ten hours to go.
7:09 a.m. Dahlia begins to cry. I resist the temptation to chase down Rebecca's car. Then I remember one of Rebecca's Ironclad Rules of Parenting: Don't let the baby go two hours without a nap. Back in the crib, Dahlia falls asleep with merciful speed as I lightly stroke her back.
8:00 a.m. Apparently I am on edge. The squirrels kibitzing outside our bedroom fool me into thinking Dahlia is crying. Twice.
8:11 a.m. Dahlia is up and alert. I lay her on her back and leaf through 125 Brain Games for Babies, by Jackie Silberg, for ideas. After one exercise, Dahlia kicks madly and smiles brightly. I'm dizzy with joy.
A few minutes later, we go outside to smell flowers and play with the wind chimes. Dahlia consents to sit on my head. I pray the Pampers people are as good as their word.
8:38 a.m. Dahlia is crying inconsolably. As a tear rolls down her cheek, I wonder if she, too, will be a Cubs fan. I also wonder which of us is more likely to end the day in the fetal position.
8:49 a.m. Dahlia calms herself by sticking her fist into her mouth. It's a therapeutic treatment I could suggest to several people I know.
We read Sandra Boynton's Snuggle Puppy. I make up an embarrassing reggae song about Dahlia's nose. She admires the ceiling fan. I hold a sliced grape on her tongue so she can lick it.
9:20 a.m. When Dahlia grows restless, I put her in the crib, spend a few quality minutes rubbing Hope's tummy and head for the couch.
9:29 a.m. Remote control in hand, I lie back to watch a tape of last night's Sopranos episode. I decide to check on Dahlia after each homicide.
9:30 a.m. Dahlia begins crying. Instead of falling asleep, she pulls her knees to her chest and flips onto her back. Shocked and immeasurably proud, I cheer. Dahlia smiles proudly.
10:00 a.m. A bottle of Mom's milk in tow, the baby and I head to the porch, where it's warm and windy. We listen to the birds chirp and watch Hope sun herself on the brick patio.
Between courses, I burp Dahlia, but she fusses. To distract her, I sing a burping ditty Rebecca made up, lightly smacking the baby's back on every syllable. The song is evidence, my wife and I know, that we have completely lost our minds:
(To the tune of Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel)
I had a little burpie,
I made it out of gas,
I hope it's not a wet one,
and doesn't come out my a-.
Oh, burpie, burpie, burpie,
You make me feel so gay,
Oh, burpie, burpie, burpie,
Please come out and play.
10:24 a.m. I kiss Dahlia's head and neck for what must be the hundredth time today. She is letting me be close, and I am soaring.
We stroll to the park. I settle Hope in the shade, remove Dahlia from the carriage, and place her in the toddler swing. The wind blows through what little of her birth hair remains. When she begins to cry, we head for home and crib, where she commences a long nap. Not bad, Barancik.
11:52 a.m. After hearing Dahlia cry, I find her sprawled across the width of the crib, safe but annoyed, her feet kicking uselessly like some cheap, battery-operated toy.
I turn her around. She sees her two crib buddies, a bunny and a teddy bear. Her tears melt into a big smile.
1:10 p.m. Back in the living room we enjoy a quiet moment. Dahlia surveys the room while holding my thumb and sucking on her pacifier, then falls asleep on me. I catch another 30 minutes of The Sopranos before she awakes.
As much as I'm enjoying this day, I find myself silently counting down the hours until Rebecca comes home. I don't know why. Maybe it's boredom. Maybe I'm starting to realize that incompetence is a handy excuse for evading responsibility.
1:56 p.m. Houston, we have a poopie.
2:05 p.m. Hovering over the crib while Dahlia squirms, I sing a pidgin version of Frere Jacque. Then I pull out my ace: John Archambault and Bill Martin Jr.'s Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, the heppest alphabet rhyming book on the planet.
4:00 p.m. After Dahlia wakes up, I set her up in the front yard while I pick up some branches. She stares up at the tree limbs, black against the afternoon sky.
5:34 p.m. From our perch on the couch, I see Rebecca's car pull up. I turn off the TV and prepare for the handoff. "How was your day?" she asks.
I know that Dahlia and I survived 11 hours together; that she drank 15.5 ounces of milk, pooped once, napped several hours, and baptized three of my T-shirts.
More important, the panic in Dahlia's eyes seems to have vanished. She smiled at me more times today than ever before.
But feeling anxious, I quickly hand her over to Rebecca.
It's time for me to take Hope, our easier daughter, for a walk.
Scott Barancik can be reached at email@example.com or 727 893-8751.