The paternal instinct hides like a mutant power inside each potential father. Once unleashed, it is impossible to turn off and sometimes difficult to control. This has come as a surprise to someone who’s been anti-fatherhood for the majority of his life. I’ve never pictured myself as the knight protectorate of the household—I still don’t. But I can’t ignore my new, sometimes hyper defensive stance in the face of domestic snafus. What’s even more unexpected is that the urge to nurture and shield doesn’t stop with baby Felix—it covers S too.
We spent the past two weekends seeing the grandparents, and during both visits ran into the same problem. At home, the little guy sleeps near us, but in his own room with a set of French doors that muffle his night noises—the soft coos and the animalistic grunts and the occasional chill-you-to-the-marrow shrieks. (What dream could cause him to scream like this? A floppy tit that produces powder instead of milk? Or does he have nightmares of being trapped inside of S, struggling to breathe? We’ll never know.) At the grandparents’, he was right there at the foot of our bed, and each nocturnal outburst awoke S. She spent half the night tossing and turning, cursing whatever instinct it is in her that responds to his every cry.
Fortunately, (and some jaded readers might add, typically) this instinct’s paternal equivalent is not quite as sensitive. I actually slept better with the little guy right there, because—ever the neurotic—I could always hear him breathing.
S ended up sleeping in a separate room from Felix and me for both visits, though not before blowing the majority of the first night tossing and turning. The next day she was wasted, her nerves stretched taut as she tried to fulfill the roles of mother and daughter or daughter-in-law as best as possible while running on vapors.
This got that protective instinct I was talking about tingling. While the sensitive old me would have been like “have some coffee and deal with it,” the new, paternally powered me became upset and unsettled. S—the baby’s food source and my partner in care-giving—was off her game! I needed to help her recover so that she could care for Felix. After all, I am, at this point, just the sidekick of this dynamic duo. (And we all know that Robin, despite the cute suit, never pulled equal weight to Batman.)
I’m only partly joking. I know it’s ridiculous—S was tired after all, not in any danger, and we had grandparents more than willing (hungry, in fact) to hold and play with the little guy—but I worried that my wife’s exhaustion and mood might rub off on Felix or slow down her milk production. The fear was baseless and made no sense. I mean, if mothers couldn’t produce milk when they were tired and cranky, then many newborns would never be fed. And S’s factories have never had a production problem (knock on wood).
Ah, but such is the double edge of the parenting instinct. It brings enhanced emotional sensitivity and reserves of strength, optimism, and affection, but can also make smallish things seem enormous and scary. Like how, if Superman couldn’t control his super hearing, he’d be deafened by all the sounds he could pick up. So I found myself tense and full of worry that S somehow wouldn’t be able to mother Felix because of her sleepiness.
All for naught, of course—the grandparents took great care of us and S had no trouble nursing Felix to contentment. This was, after all, the woman who hobbled out of bed eight times a day to feed him while he was in the NICU. Talk about some super powers! Next time the paternal alarm bells start ringing, I have to remember to stay cool under pressure, instead of letting the little things trip me up.