One of the things that I find myself thinking about when Father’s Day rolls around is how fatherhood has changed in my lifetime, specifically at the moment when fatherhood begins.
When I was born, a hair less than 40 years ago, the father was a nonparticipant in the big event, banished to pace nervously in a waiting room or wait for a call at home. My father, the late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., took my mother Alexandra to the hospital at around 5:30 one day in late June. He lingered with her at the hospital for a couple of hours but, he recorded in his journal, “was told that I might as well go back [home] and await developments. A few minutes before 11, Dr. Truppin called and said I had better come back to the hospital. Around 11:30 he picked me up in the lobby and took me to the second floor, where the offspring was revealed—a cunning little boy.” This came as something of a surprise to my parents who had gotten it into their heads that I would be a she, not a he, and they had chosen a name (Elizabeth, for my father’s mother) for the expected daughter. “I am already reconciled to this unexpected development,” he wrote, “and we can figure out a name tomorrow.”
When my wife Francesca and I welcomed our second child into the world last November, we had that potential problem solved: A boy would be Alexander and a girl Alexandra (for her father’s mother). The birth of our first son, Emmet, was attended by the unexpected drama of an emergency c-section; the birth of our second child was a near mirror opposite. Leaving Emmet (who is sitting in my lap as I write this) in the capable hands of Fran’s parents, we arrived at the hospital before the sun had risen.
What ensued can best be described as hurry up and wait. An epidural dulled Fran’s pain and the day passed in an endless stream of timing contractions (there is, it turns out, an app for that) and waiting for something to happen. My in-laws, having deposited our son at daycare, came (my father-in-law immediately grabbed my iPad and started watching TV on it, depriving me of my planned form of time-killing) and eventually went; when the day had passed it was time to pick Emmet up again. “Mostly things here are chill,” I E-mailed a friend in the middle of the afternoon. “I guess things are chill,” my pal wrote back. “Fran just confirmed me as a friend on Facebook.” When the main event finally arrived, it unfolded with surprising speed. The doctor put on a surgical smock, gloves, and the kind of clear facemask I would have associated more with riot police than with medicine. With me holding one knee and a nurse holding the other, Fran started pushing. Her first effort left the doctor unimpressed and she said as much. This aroused my wife’s competitive instinct and in short order the top of a tiny head, with a wispy patch of dark hair appeared, the patch growing larger with each successive push.
And then he was out. With a final pull, the doctor had brought our new son into the world. A single wondrous moment had changed our lives and commenced his. Where one minute the delivery room had been filled with the sounds of exhortation and effort it was now filled with crying: exhausted tears of joy from Fran and me at the revelation that we had another son, and Alexander expressing himself in the only way an infant knows how. “Odd how this is by far the most exciting human experience,” my father wrote to himself almost 40 years ago. He was of course correct. But I can’t help but think the conventions of his day, which kept him apart from the moment of arrival, deprived him of the full excitement of that experience. In this, I am lucky man indeed.