Atomic essay #28 – meditations on fatherhood

My daughter was tiny, and her skin was dark purple. She lay squirming, her mouth open soundlessly, her eyes standing out. She could not breathe.

Atomic essay #28 – meditations on fatherhood
Photo by Liv Bruce / Unsplash

My daughter was tiny, and her skin was dark purple. She lay squirming, her mouth open soundlessly, her eyes standing out. She could not breathe.

An alarm was going off. The midwife had pointed to a big red button on the wall several hours earlier, when labour started, and said that if anything went wrong, she’d push this button and within seconds so many people would pour into this room.

She had, and they had. Legs, the rustling of scrubs. Equipment was rolled in. Gloved hands darted.

There was so much blood.

My daughter was dying.

I asked the doctor who was tending to her if she’d be okay and he told me he didn’t know.

Moments later, she was wheeled away to the NICU.

My partner was still bleeding and it wouldn’t stop. She remembers little of what happened; she was in and out of consciousness.

I was a father. I stood in the corridor, shaking, looking at where my daughter had been, feeling as though my whole self had become an absence.

She got better. I found out later that the doctor’s actions in the first few minutes had saved her life.

Why do I tell this story? To be honest, it’s the first time I’ve ever written it down. There exists now a dissonance between the little girl whom we nearly lost, and this vibrant, colourful whirl of a girl, now 21 months old, who does ballet in front of the TV, pretends to be a duck, and tries to steal other children’s biscuits. And yet I cannot escape thoughts of her fragility, and my responsibility to cushion against the breakages. I don’t think this is unique to me or my situation, but it’s true nonetheless. That moment I became a father saw the forging of a contract, one less real and yet more real than those of paper and ink.

What’s on that contract? I don’t think it can be expressed in words. This is often our problem. We attempt to pull language into all sorts of shapes, against its will, to describe the deepest and most real parts of who we are. The father-contract, for me, exists beyond language, but it is written in glances, in touch, in the spaces between breaths, in the potent electricity of a moment everyone else would miss.

Once someone takes up that loving space in one’s life, one’s greatest fear becomes that space emptying. I fell in love with my daughter the moment she was born, the first seconds of her breathlessness. And I continue to fall in love with her. Love is fear; paternal love is abject terror.

Becoming a father has made me look very carefully at myself. I’m now hyperaware of how my words and actions could be imiatated by or otherwise influence my daughter. There’s fear there, too – what if she learns something bad, inadvertently? But she offers me no such scrutiny in return; there is only love.

Why do I tell this story? There’s a myth that writing is a finished product. But for me, writing is thinking. What you’re reading here are attempts to make sense of fatherhood. And writing, too, is an act of desperate preservation. We write to keep something alive, to “snatch out of time the passionate transitory.” There’s so much to miss, so much to gloss over, so much to mistake. By writing, we can redress this balance, or at least seek to. I’m still trying to figure it all out, this fatherhood of mine.

So, why do I tell this story?

I tell it to make sense of it, or make it last.