I was never particularly interested in having kids.
I liked them in an abstract sense, in the same way that exercise seems appealing but, in practice, utterly tedious. When friends came over with their kids, I treated them like radioactive material: Tolerable for short periods of time. Prolonged exposure would have unpleasant effects, like hair loss, or inexplicable stains on the sofa. The problem is, I never appreciated the pull of gravity:
You have a girlfriend, and everyone asks: "When are you two getting married?" So you get married. You're married, and everyone asks: "When are you two going to have children?" So you have a child. You have a child, and everyone asks: "When are you having the next one?" GRAVITY.
When Loulou was born, I was in the delivery room watching the whole thing.
I remember two things: The sun, rising over the East River, filling the room with a shimmering gold light. And Loulou, being pulled out feet first, like a prize flounder.
I leaped to my feet and uttered a phrase of Churchillian heft: "Bloody hell, she's enormous!"
It's odd. There's how you feel, and then there's how you think you should feel. In the movies, when people have kids, they're welcomed into the world with a cracking fusillade of manly backslapping and tears. It's one of life's BIG events. I just felt weird.
How could I be a father? Wasn't that something that happened to other people? To adults?
Was I overwhelmed in a tsunami of love? Not really...
I resented the cultural pressure that demanded only one response from me.
When I told people I didn't like fatherhood very much, their faces would wrinkle like a walnut. They'd look at me as though I'd taken off all my clothes, and the results were slightly unpleasant.
It wasn't that I didn't feel responsible for Loulou. I was there to change diapers, to get up in the middle of the night, to do whatever needed to be done. But I felt no emotional connection. It was like trying to have a relationship with a sea sponge, or a single-cell protozoa. She didn't DO anything. Or at least, nothing I could understand.
And then there was my wife, Carla...
I missed her and me, together.
The infinite space we seemed to have. The silence. The casual elasticity of our lives.
I could turn around and see it, dwindling, small, behind us.
I had been downsized...
Meet my replacement: The alien.
Everything Loulou did was utterly incomprehensible.
Take eating, for instance. It was like watching a wildlife documentary. She'd savage the nipple (rubber, or Carla) with a crazed animal ferocity, and then slip into a deep opiate slumber, mouth agape.
I imagined myself doing the same at a dinner party, slumped over half-eaten meatloaf, a thick rope of drool gently swaying from my bottom lip.
The first time I heard Loulou sneeze, I was so happy.
Something human, that I could relate to!
Even our dog had no interest in Loulou, except for when she was eating. Then George was utterly mesmerized. She would vacuum up every morsel of culinary shrapnel in the fifteen-foot blast radius.
Handling a baby? More like explosives:
I would lower Loulou gingerly into the crib.
The slightest movement and....BOOOOM!
I'd be frantically looking for a way to defuse the infant:
GREEN WIRE OR RED WIRE?! WHICH ONE DO I CUT?
I would fly into a multi-armed panic: Does she need milk?
Has she pooped her pants?
Is she too hot? Too cold?
WHAT'S WRONG?! SHE WAS JUST SOUND ASLEEP!
I remember mentioning to Carla that the screaming was making me crazy. She said, "I know, doesn't it just break your heart?" I meant throwing the baby out the window crazy.
Some men deal with their baby rage by drinking. I made plates. I thought this was high comedy, but Carla was not amused. For a long time, when people asked to see a photo of Loulou, this was what I'd show:
Weather forecast: 100% chance of precipitation.
Almost worse than the screaming was the anticipation. Especially when you're lying in bed at 2 a.m. Was that snort the beginning? Would it last ten minutes, or two hours?
Apparently one of the reasons women can handle the awful din is that nature provides them with some lovely anesthetizing hormones that make the cacophony not only bearable, but a bloody delight! Surely a pharmaceutical conglomerate could make a patch for men to wear on their arm, so we're less homicidal when the siren goes off?
Let's not forget the baby industrial complex.
A baby-wipe warmer? Would Loulou sue her parents later on because she'd been emotionally devastated by the use of room-temperature tissues on her (admittedly cute) gluteus maximus? Don't forget the baby-bottle sterilizer, the only defense against a Mongol horde of enraged germs honor bound to infect the baby with explosive diarrhea. Even worse were the product-zombie parents, who swore that their child would not be alive today were it not for the "Yoga for Toddlers" DVD boxed set.
I understood that babies like bright colors...or at least toy companies think they do. But are there any toys available that don't make you feel seasick, or make you convulse like a landed flounder? Does your child's future hinge on what choice you make every time you buy her a toy? Would buying the "incomparable baby-genius mobile" versus the "astonishing-prodigy infant squeeze ball" really make the difference between Harvard and rooting about in the trash for a half-eaten tuna sandwich?
Why do babies really need so much stuff? What's wrong with a stick? Or a nice bucket of dirt? (When you've only been alive for five months, isn't everything entertaining?)
Having said that, let me just contradict myself by saying that I would have done anything, BUY ANYTHING, if I thought it would have made Loulou sleep more and scream less. I used to look down on parents who would put their kids in front of the TV, just for a moment's peace. I have a quite different opinion now.
I was born in England, so I'm not frightened by death, or the shame of a large urine spot on my trousers. What scares me: Making a scene in public. So you can imagine how I felt traveling with Loulou. What if she went full Placido Domingo on the plane? Suddenly, I'm the buffoon with an air-raid siren for a child. Everyone staring. And me, grinning idiotically like a circus chimp mumbling, "Sorry, sorry, sorry."
Loulou's arrival really made me consider my own mortality.
When she turns 20, I would be 60. Would I seem like an old man to her? Confused by what she wears, how she talks? Would she roll her eyes, and say, "Oh dad…" Or would we be friends? Drinking cups of tea in the kitchen, talking about the latest boyfriend?
Both of my parents died in the last four years. In fact, my father died four months before Loulou was born. Oddly enough, her arrival has made their absence even more tangible.
There are so many things I wish I could ask my mother: How was I, at her age? Did I do this? Did I do that? I just wish she were here to explain the inexplicable. To tell me that everything will be OK; that I'll understand, in time. And of course, I think about my father. He loved children so much, and Loulou would have filled him to the brim.
When you have a child, she becomes your past, present and future. I not only see myself and Carla in Loulou, but I see my parents too. It gives me such joy, to see them alive, in her.
It's sad, but I realize as I get older that all clichés are true. I started doing something I said I'd never do: Take baby photos. It's really quite embarrassing.
When I meet other parents, I lunge for the iPhone. I can't WAIT to bore people: "Look, I know you don't like baby pictures, but Loulou is different!"
I look back at all these photographs, and see how they reveal my slow and inevitable metamorphosis: From detached observer, to eager participant.
From photographer, to father.
At the beginning, I spoke about gravity. Love also has its own gravitational pull, and naturally, it was inevitable that I would succumb.
When people told me that when Loulou would start to smile, my life would change, they were right. Humor is how I connect with the world. It's my language. So when Loulou began to speak that language to me, it was pretty extraordinary. The first time I teased her, and she teased me back, I cried. We understood each other.
It amazes me. There is such a sense of love in these pictures that wasn't there before:
Iwant to end with an apology to Carla.
I know that my candor was often hard to hear. I was so committed to the idea of honesty that I forgot about her truth. The marvel of Loulou. The unalloyed joy of being a mother.
Also, I want to apologize to Loulou. One day, she'll see these photographs, and read these words. I want her to know that even though I found the beginning of her life quite bewildering, I'm so glad she's here now. I love you very much, Loulou.
And to my parents: I wish you'd gotten a chance to meet your granddaughter. I miss you both, and I tell Loulou about you often. I think about all you gave me, and hope that I can give the same to her.
"I give my daughter cookies while my wife isn't looking." What's your #dadconfession?— People magazine (@peoplemag) February 18, 2014
Phillip Toledano is a New York–based artist and photographer and the author of five books, including
The Reluctant Father, seen above, and Days With My Father, a photo journal of his father's last years.
Check out these other inspiring true family stories, then share your own parenting confession:
Woman expecting triplets has a surprise—a fourth baby! http://t.co/SDNhsZGE08— People magazine (@peoplemag) February 18, 2014