AH, THIS AGAIN. Once more, a friend has interrupted our phone conversation to put his adorable toddler on the line. "You want to say 'hi' to Uncle Fef?" he'll say, handing adorable toddler the receiver. What follows is an interminable minute of me blathering idiotically into the phone, met with gurgling and/or silence by said toddler, accompanied by expressions of delight from the proud parent in the background.
This is precisely what I don't want to be—the guy who puts his 2-year-old on the phone, the guy who thinks every senseless burble from his offspring is going to be as thrilling to others as it is to him. I want to be a father, I think. And yet I can't help being horrified at the cluelessness that afflicts these parents. Sure, I know it's us single people who are supposedly lost in vain, selfish pursuits—and there are plenty of times when I feel that way—yet just as often, I feel like it's these parents who have lost all grip on the world outside their little nest.
I'm 37, so I've had plenty of time to observe the transformation in my friends and co-workers. In some cases, it couldn't be more inspiring: I'm amazed at the way parenthood has given them so much depth, maturity, joy. That smile when their kid is around is like no other smile I ever see. I'm blown away by their easy, instinctive way of parenting, the way they've integrated a child into their life, the way it's expanded them as people. I'm a little awed at a parent's knowledge of life at its most elemental and most miraculous.
And yet there's also that small number of former friends with whom I've been unable to have an adult exchange of any duration since the day they reproduced. These are the kind who cannot pull their attention away from their precious darling for even the two minutes necessary to make a little small talk. "No, Samantha, we don't put the crayons there. Yes, I know, honey, Mommy will be off the phone in a moment . . . " as you wait there, holding the phone, as if the child were going to go up in flames if Mommy stopped interacting with her for one instant. Of course it really isn't the child's welfare that's at stake. It's Mommy who's going to go up in flames, Mommy who's so dependent, so hooked on being needed, that she can't let it go for one moment.
Other parents seem so beaten down, so ordered around, so flummoxed at the effort to cater to their child that they've lost all sense of themselves as independent people. I watched one former colleague literally get smacked in the head, repeatedly, by his little bruiser, and I thought: That's not love, that's being a moron.
Some of my friends have started sending out holiday card family portraits in which they themselves do not even appear; I'm simply presented with a photo of their kids. It's like these kids are the newest model of Mercedes, something to show off—and also something to hide behind. It comes off as a little creepy, almost aggressive.
Still, I am jealous of those friends, who once kept me company in being dissatisfied and self-involved, who now no longer worry about their purpose in the world. It has become clear and automatic: They're raising a kid, and that is so immediately demanding, so all-consuming, and so clearly important—more important than anything—that they no longer need to entertain such bothersome questions, even if they had time to schedule it in. Frankly they seem rather relieved, and rather patronizing toward me and my adolescent angst.
Certainly my life, my tired single guy's concerns, can seem trivial next to the epic grandeur of caring for and raising an unformed human life. I get embarrassed about looking overly fit, for instance. Guys my age aren't supposed to be fit; they're not supposed to have time for their own pleasures. They're too busy being providers, too busy rushing home to meet the august, and clamorous, challenge of fatherhood. They're wearing big-butted Nautica pants from the Bon. Whereas I increasingly feel like an involuntary ward of gay culture—the world where men my age have time and money to spend on themselves, the world of trim-fitting pants.
Perhaps my friends really have found the answer. It may well be that the feelings I sometimes experience of being lost, without any valuable purpose, are there precisely because I'm supposed to be—biologically, psychologically—raising a child right now. I should be tough enough not to be charmed by the little kiddie chain gangs that go back and forth to the day-care centers downtown, but I'm not. The fact is, there is nothing in this world that more instantly and reliably pulls me out of myself, and out of a foul mood, than the sight of a cute little kid. I'm wired for it, just as we all are.