The earth has completed a full lap of the sun since I first looked upon the face of my son and was awarded the title of “Father.” And it’s taken about that long for the moniker to feel like it fits.
When word of our having successfully created a human leaked, people responded with lovely comments such as “Way to go, new dad,” or “Fantastic, Papa Jon!, or the less popular “Congratulations on your progeny, begetter.” Whatever form of address was used, I couldn’t help but wince away from it, feeling like I hadn’t earned it. After all, what had I really contributed to the process up until this point? A small amount of genetic material delivered in a rather enjoyable way and then it was all Alex from there. Her body housed and nurtured this fragile embryo, fanning air into the spark of life and providing the building blocks for each and every cell while I waved from the sidelines and occasionally massaged her feet.
A father was someone who worked and sacrificed for his family, but nothing had really changed in my routine up until that point. I still read fantasy books and watched sitcoms, played on my phone and ate an irresponsible amount of peanut m&ms. To try and wear the title of father felt like walking around in my dad’s suit, two sizes too big for me and loose around the collar, and expecting to be taken seriously.
I was a kid who had somehow found himself responsible for a baby and was winging his way through it, and the weirdest bit was everyone just went with it. Here in Austria, you first need to complete a course and obtain a “dog licence” before you can own a dog, but there’s no vetting process for making new life. You tell the world “I have decided to procreate” and everyone just pats you on the back. Thankfully, my wife felt the exact same way, so while we saw ourselves as frauds, at least we were frauds together. The other good news was that Roo didn’t know or care how we felt. He was just a baby, after all. He didn’t know much.
So there we were, the three of us suddenly sharing an apartment together, and figuring it all out together. We all started with the basics: keeping the baby alive. For Alex and I, this meant mastering how to feed, clean, and put a baby to sleep, while simultaneously feeding, cleaning, and putting ourselves to sleep. For Roo, this meant mastering the mechanics of sucking, a complex idea involving negative pressure and multiple minute mouth muscles, and one which he figured out, thankfully, almost automatically. I wasn’t sure what we’d have done if he hadn’t; how do you explain sucking, after all? Much less to a baby with no communication skills. I don’t think Alex would have appreciated me giving a practical demonstration.
After this first hurdle was more or less successfully leaped, with the skill of everyone getting sufficient sleep still a bit wobbly, we moved on to mobility. Alex and I took our first tentative steps outside wearing the hats of “mum” and “dad” (or, in Austria, “mama” and “papa”), venturing into the world with the new accessory of a baby. Given our insecurity in our adopted roles, this accessory turned out to bring a lot of undesired attention from members of the public who suddenly felt no compunction about approaching strangers to talk directly to their baby. As an afterthought, we were eventually addressed by these baby superfans, but only to enquire after the specifications of the baby — age, gender, bowel movement frequency — before they wandered off and we were left figuring this was simply a part of our new occupation.
Roo also acquired his own form of locomotion. This entailed the mighty effort of transitioning from his back to his belly in a rolling movement to the left. Always the left. Perhaps, having mastered this action, he saw no reason to deviate from a successful manoeuvre. Maybe he just liked rolling left. Either way, we were as proud as if he were a gymnast who had performed a perfect triple double, and cheered him on like the genius he was.
Six months in and the title of “Father” was beginning to feel less like a role I was playing and more like a part of my identity. When people said the word “Dad” I no longer looked around for Peter Robb, wondering what he was doing in Austria when latest reports had him on the other side of the globe in Australia, and realised they were talking to Roo about me. It helped that my earlier statement about nothing having changed in my life rapidly became untrue and I had successfully morphed into the perpetually tired, overworked, falling-asleep-on-the-couch state of being that all dads eventually adopt. While my phone, book, and TV time had definitely taken a hit, I did manage to maintain my habit of eating an irresponsible amount of peanut m&ms. This, coupled with no time to exercise, helped transform my physique into that of a dad bod, which assisted in me accepting my honorific. You have to look the part, after all.
Roo was also figuring out where I fit into his life and when asked “Where is Papa?” would think long and hard before eventually turning to me with a finger raised in my direction. This act of identification was equally celebrated as any of his world-shaking achievements, cheers worthy of someone having divined an essential truth of the universe, and evidence further tabulated into the genius column. It also caused me to realise all over again that in this child’s eyes, I was Dad. That for him I wasn’t wearing an ill-fitting costume and pretending, I just simply was Dad. This understanding was simultaneously venerating and terrifying. The power of a Dad is vast and a careless statement can stick with a kid for years. Who am I to be bestowed with this level of influence? And why is there no university course for this? It could be called “Introduction to Parenting: How Not to Fuck up Your Kids.” I believe enrollment numbers would be high.
A clarifying moment for me came about via a cliche. Roo continued to evolve at a rapid pace and before long he had transcended past rolling and figured out how to manipulate his limbs into the action of crawling. Within days of striking upon this groundbreaking act of forward momentum, he was slapping his way around the apartment, no longer confined to the metre patch of carpet we had laid him on. Alex and I watched on with pride swimming in our eyes and fear in our hearts as he barreled head first into anything and everything that was in his way, regardless of whether it was a battering match he would win.
The cliche that crystallised my status as a father was that of the male role model returning home from a long day’s work, hanging up his hat and jacket, and being greeted by his enthusiastic offspring. While I sadly don’t live in the fifties and own an era-appropriate fedora to hang on a hook, the rest of the tableau was fairly accurate. I turned the key and stepped into our entrance way, and from the living room heard the echo of my son’s tiny hands slapping the wooden flooring becoming increasingly louder. His face popped through the doorway at ankle height and he stopped to survey me before a giant grin swamped his features in recognition and he continued his journey, bum wiggling in excitement. As I swept Roo up from the ground and felt his weight and warmth settle into my arms, the bond of father and child felt entirely normal and natural, and a sense of contentedness spread deep into my bones. Roo then stuck his finger up my nose, but eleven months into the parenting game and this also felt entirely normal and natural.
I have an uncle, Darren, who throughout his life has worked a cornucopia of jobs across a smorgasbord of fields and his philosophy is that you have to first work in a position for a year before you can determine if it’s something you like, something you can do, and something that fits.
On the occasion of Roo’s first birthday, as Alex and I presented him with his cake and we watched on with joy and pride as our little boy demolished his baked good with the exuberance and vigour of Godzilla attacking downtown Tokyo, I knew with certainty that being Roo’s dad was something I liked, something I can do, and something that fits.
Next week’s topic: Flying with a carry-on baby