Teach Me How to Huggy
Written March 18, 2015
The night after my daughter was born, I had an urge to call my brother with a warning. An order, really.
Find a baby, I’d hiss into the phone. Change its diaper. Do it again and again and again. Do it until you are good at it.
And then, I would hang up. If my brother was smart, he’d walk to the nearest maternity ward and get started.
Before that day, I’d never changed a diaper. I had no experience as a baby sitter. Even when merely holding a baby, I was incompetent. I’d sort of hug them at chest level like I might hold a greased duffel bag full of sand. My wife, Angela, with seventeen nieces and nephews, was an old pro. I figured I’d watch her for a few years and by the time I got the knack, my daughter would be driving herself to the store for diapers.
A C-section nixed that plan. Angela now had orders to stay in bed, and you know, take it easy. “Just take these here pills and groove,” the doctor said. “Let your husband do all the diaper changing for the first few days.
For years, I likened a parent at a changing table to Ricky Jay with a deck of cards: It was more fun not knowing how it was done. Off goes the dirty diaper, out comes the baby wipe, the ointment, the clean diaper, the Jack of Spades, and a rabbit. The dirty diaper disappears, the ointment is recapped and reshelved, a dove pops out of a handkerchief, and the baby is back on the shoulder peering about like nothing happened. All the while the parent is telling a complicated and witty story while maintaining eye contact with me and hundreds of other adults. I always expected the parent to reach behind my ear and say, “Is this the diaper I just took off?”
Suddenly, with my wife on injured reserve, it was like someone handed me a top-hat and a wand and said, “You’re on.”
For some reason, the Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, Illinois does not supply baby wipes to incompetent new dads, so I improvised some out of paper towels and a bedpan of water. The water was a necessity, since the towels had the same texture as used sandpaper.
The first few diapers were merely wet. I found them tricky but manageable, and only took twenty minutes to change each. This dad stuff was a cinch, I thought. I’m crushing it. Bring it on.
Just after midnight, it was brought. I was roused from something akin to sleep by a seven-and-a-half pound stranger named Maggie. Like a seasoned veteran, I said, “She probably needs a diaper change. I should know, from experience.” And then I took off her diaper…
Son, let me tell you about the first poo a baby takes. It’s called meconium, and it’s made up of the last meal the baby ate in utero. The upside is there is no odor. The downside is everything else. It has the consistency and color of tar, but unlike tar, it comes out of a baby’s butt.
Maggie kicked and cried and jumped as I struggled to do what literally billions of parents had managed before me. I was frantic. This meconium had bested me like no other foe. From her bed, Angela told me to relax. “Take your time,” she said. I cast a jealous glare wifewards. She gets to lay about and do nothing just ‘cause she had surgery. Total bullshit.
I took what was probably my twentieth towel, dipped it in water and then, forgetting to squeeze it out, started to wipe Maggie with it. I got water all over her little legs and soaked her little crib. Maggie screamed. “Hog tie her! HOG TIE HER!” Angela shouted, but it was too late. Maggie kicked the dirty diaper and got meconium all over her feet and the crib. I wet another towel and Angela told me to squeeze it out. I did, out all over the floor. And the next one and the next one. A puddle formed at my feet.
My wife started to cry. She felt horrible, helpless, stuck in that bed and unable to help her baby. And I, who had not just given birth, felt useless. Angela kept crying. Maggie kept crying. I cursed.
Finally, I got a fresh diaper on Maggie. I gave her something like a swaddle, swayed her back to sleep, and laid her down in a partially soaked crib. I leaned over Angela and gave her a hug. I promised I’d do better with the next one. At last, I lay back down, stared out the window into the night, and thought of my brother.
Someone needed to warn him.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a rich man and a beggar named Lazurus. The rich man lives large, eats fine food and wears expensive clothes. Lazarus begs at his doorstep. He’s covered in sores and starving. They both die. Lazarus goes to heaven, and the rich man goes to hell.
As he lay in the netherworld, the rich man realizes that he could have been a better person. He cries out to Abraham, “I beg you, father, send [Lazarus] to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.”
In the coming weeks I made that analogy when I told people about my midnight urge to call my brother. I was the rich man who wanted to save someone else before it was too late. It was a comic analogy, but it was sincere.
Still, the analogy is obviously wrong. The rich man was in hell, but I was in heaven. For four days I lived in a room with my wife and our baby girl. Family and friends stopped in to meet Maggie, to drop off hot food and cute onesies, and to be with us while we celebrated the gift of life. When they left we slept and ate and stared at our little girl.
So no, I was not the rich man in agony. I was Lazarus in bliss. I lived in a world of love, a kind of heaven where you still have to do chores and wipe butts, but heaven all the same. A little cherub hugs you for warmth and comfort and depends on you for everything. Sure, they occasionally pee on your hands and spit up all over your chest. But they’re cherubs.
(ARTISITICAL-MYTHOLOGICAL ASIDE: technically they’re putti, those little wingéd babies slouching back in renaissance paintings digging the Euclideanly perfect scene. Cherubs, aka cherubim, are bad-asses who carry blades and do not give a damn. Consider Genesis when Adam gets bounced from paradise: “The LORD God therefore… expelled the man, stationing the cherubim and the fiery revolving sword east of the garden of Eden, to guard the way to the tree of life.” So there. But I can’t exactly say, “Maggie is a putta,” and expect everyone to be like, “Oh right, the Italian feminine-singular for one of them Raphael babies that people from lesser Ivies call cherubs.” END ARTISITICAL-MYTHOLOGICAL ASIDE.)
In the six months since Maggie was born, I’ve gone from sub-amateur to master baby-wrangler. I can recite “Goodnight Moon,” “Go, Dog. Go!” and “Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?” from memory. I have competed in professional swaddling tournaments—and won. I can even change a diaper while driving. The fact that I of all people can manage fatherhood should be an inspiration to useless men everywhere.
Yet though I admit that I am more Lazarus than the rich man, I stand by my warning: Fellas, y’all need to find some babies and get cracking. Because diapers? They ain’t no joke.