Late one night, during Sprout’s first months of life, when I should have been getting what little sleep I could, I rolled over in bed and confided to my wife something that troubled me deeply.
I was afraid I didn’t love Sprout enough.
I want to be clear about what I mean here. I was awed by Sprout. Proud. And during those first few months, when my wife was still home on maternity leave, I marveled at the deep well of patience that had opened inside me, for which there was no precedent in my life, as if the sight and smell of Sprout’s tiny, vulnerable body had softened my perception of time.
But I was intimidated by my wife’s visceral bond with our child and the urgent rushes of maternal energy that seemed to compel her to pull Sprout close. Not knowing what else to call these surges, I called them, simply, “love.” It seemed as obvious as the reflexive curl of Sprout’s little fingers around ours.
And I didn’t feel that kind of thing.
As a first-time dad, I had no clue what my love for my child should feel like, if not like my wife’s. I feared that I was deficient as a father and as a man.
I worried that part of me was missing.
No one knows in advance what it will feel like to parent a first newborn, but culture supplies images and narratives that shape our expectations. Some focus on the frazzling rigor of sleep-deprivation and late-night feedings. Others profess the revelation of a new kind of love, the depth and texture of which no new parent could possibly have imagined previously.
Somewhere along the way, I got it into my head that the birth of a child transfigures a man’s soul and cracks it open, raw with loving feeling. This idea has many sources, I’m sure, but the image that stands out most for me is the final scene of Coupling, the British comedy series. A brand-new dad narrates his disorientation as doctors perform a cesarean section on his wife; the strange vision of the placenta; not feeling what he’s “supposed” to feel when he sees his child’s little red body for the first time; his initial confusion at the baby’s closed eyes. Then, with his hand, the dad blocks the bright light of the examination lamp that shines on his baby’s face. The baby’s eyes open. “And then he looked at me,” the dad narrates, “and oh my goodness me, I became someone else entirely.”
Watching that powerful scene, years before becoming a dad, I assumed that the new dad’s transformation could be fairly and recognizably called “love,” albeit in a new and startlingly propitious form. After all, how many times had I heard older adults, in my own life and in the wider culture, talk about the sacred and unique thing that is the love of a parent toward their child?
As for my own first child’s arrival, I remember being in complete, defamiliarizing awe before my wife and our baby. I remember clearly the sound of Sprout’s entry into the world: the sudden flush of fluids and flesh. That inimitable sound swept aside my former life and announced, in no uncertain terms, that things would never be the same. Then, I remember Sprout’s near-obsidian eyes looking into mine, while the doctors and the doula attended to my wife.
Next, I remember practical duty. I supported my wife. I held Sprout. I logged every diaper on the chart the nurses gave us, thankful for the structure and the routine; thankful that someone knew what we should do. Within days, a cell phone app replaced the chart, so my wife and I could share data on inputs and outputs, document our difficulties and our progress in feeding Sprout, and coordinate our actions. The app became a framework for interpreting and responding to our new world with something resembling reason. It remembered things when we, deprived of adequate sleep, could not. We did everything we had to do, and we made it work, even though it was exhausting.
Then, weeks after the night I’d finally uttered my fear aloud, Sprout and I were making each other smile from across the kitchen, while my wife and I prepared lunch.
This was the most ordinary kind of social play between a parent and a very young child. But it was notable for me because my smile and I have not always had a close relationship. Indeed, various adults in my childhood spent a lot of time worrying about my smile, mostly unbeknownst to me. According to my mother, my unsmiling disposition was a frequent topic of parent-teacher conferences in elementary school. (“Does he like school?” Yes, I loved it.) Later, a middle-school history teacher referred me to the assistant principal for a conversation. The teacher worried I didn’t smile enough, though she never talked with me about her concern directly. I remember receiving the color-coded paper summons from the school office and sitting before the assistant principal, who suggested that smiling more should be my special goal for the rest of the school year. (She never followed up on my progress, thank goodness.)
So there we were, Sprout and me, batting smiles back and forth across the room. And I noticed something interesting: only some of my expressions brought a broad, joyful smile to my child’s face. Others did not. I began to pay attention to what I was doing when Sprout responded most joyfully. I noted the position of my cheeks; the feel of the shape of my mouth; how I felt inside.
I became aware, in that moment, that something profound was happening: Sprout and I were teaching each other how to smile at another person. I was learning to tailor my smile in anticipation of Sprout’s smile, and Sprout was doing the same for me. In this way, we were both discovering greater freedom as social beings.
In reflecting on this experience, I began to understand: the love I had feared was missing in me already thrived in the dance of our gestures, in our daily practice of responding and growing together. This practice was love: not a feeling, but a journey of growing confidence, conversation, and intimacy. This journey was the cause that gave meaning and coherence to all the smiles, all the lost sleep, all the diaper changes, and all the rest.
bell hooks has written several powerful books on love as an ethic for living. In All About Love: New Visions, she argues that love should be understood as “the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth”with “care, respect, knowledge, integrity, and the will to cooperate.” Love is not merely a feeling into which one falls, overwhelmed, whether the dizzying high of a new flirtation or the flurry of oxytocin within a nursing spouse. Such rhythms of feeling do exist at some times in some relationships, and popular romantic culture teaches us to seek them out as peak relational experiences. But love, properly understood, is the journey of tending and becoming attuned to another’s growth and one’s own in common cause, including all the bliss and pain entailed therein.
A great deal follows from this. Loving means assessing our behavior honestly, taking emotional risks, and being vulnerable, with and on behalf of our beloveds. And in a truly loving relationship, we undertake these risks with trust that our beloveds will affirm our inherent value and worth unconditionally. This is hard work: we must learn how to love. But taking that risk, hooks says, reveals that “when we let our light shine, we draw to us and are drawn to other bearers of light. We are not alone.”
My fears and harsh judgments about my supposed “lack” of love were a sad cultural misunderstanding: I had been alienated from the truths of my own action. Thankfully, Sprout, not yet steeped in the same self-negating myths, saw me clearly and smiled, until I could see myself, too.
Activist, filmmaker, and civil rights lawyer Valarie Kaur writes that love is “sweet labor”—“a choice we make over and over again” that “can be taught, modeled, practiced.”I’d gone into parenting knowing, at least intellectually, that parenting would be hard work; that every choice I make will teach my kids what is possible and worthwhile in intimate relationships. But I’d not even begun to glimpse how my kids would teach me about the same. Sprout taught me that loyalty to the cause of our common growth is love, and Sprout and Cub are still teaching me as their needs change. Although there are pivotal events in our journey of learning, as when Sprout and I batted smiles back and forth across the kitchen, there is no single transfiguring event, at least not for me. Now, I interpret that beautiful scene at the end of Coupling, wherein the dad gazes into his new baby’s eyes and knows he has become something different than he was before, not as a revelation of love per se but, rather, as the moment of awe and accountability that opens the dad to his journey of sweet labor and learning.
I remember driving Sprout home from the hospital as a newborn. Sprout seemed impossibly tiny in the infant car seat we’d purchased, and we struggled anxiously with the five-point harness in the hospital driveway. Driving home, I was intensely aware of how smoothly (or not) I accelerated and braked, and I maintained a generous space between our car and the car ahead of us.
In this state of hyper-vigilance, I began to notice the people on the sidewalks as we drove by, and I was struck with awe once again: that a union of sperm and ovum, nurtured within a uterus, had produced both the mysterious new person in our back seat and every single pedestrian alongside us; that this process of conception and gestation worked at all; that every one of these pedestrians had begun exactly as Sprout, in radical dependency, unable to wipe the first, gluey meconium from their own tiny bottoms, much less secure food and shelter and watch out for traffic and stoplights. We should all be dead, and none of what we’ve built should exist. Yet, here we all were: sentient flesh in a built world of steel and asphalt, founded on intimacy and love.
Looking back now, I understand: the steady, practical devotions of those early months were the irreplaceable medium through which Sprout and I discovered my own capacities for care, respect, attentive knowing, promise-keeping, and cooperation. These were the opening through which my child came to know me and I came to know my child.
Or, as Sprout would write later, in a first-grade poem on the subject: “Love is the way you should always be facing.”
By the time my second child arrived, I was indeed a different man, just as everyone had said I would be, though I’d not understood at first what that would mean.
A second flush of birth threw me from the familiar. But moments later, my senses reassembled, I knew where answering that call of accountability would lead me: into loving relationship with the mysterious new being, Cub, whom we’d just welcomed into the world.
I even knew how to smile—just in time to enjoy Cub’s capacity to light up a room.
By then, however, that deep well of patience that I’d known during Sprout’s earliest months of life had been depleted. Too often, anger filled the void. Recovering that well within myself became fundamental to my ongoing journey of loving. But more about that later.
An early version “Learning To Smile” first appeared in STAND Magazine, Issue #8, Winter 2018.
“Nine and a Half Months,” Coupling, written by Steven Moffat, directed by Martin Dennis, BBC Three, June 14, 2004.
bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions, New York, NY: William Morrow, 2018 (originally published in 2000), pg. 6.
Ibid., pg. 101.
Ibid., pg. 101.
Valarie Kaur, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto Of Revolutionary Love, New York, NY: One World, 2020, pg. 310.