Fathering a Korean-American girl, two years in

I wanted to be a father.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I had to be a father, to realize a subconscious image of myself: the vital Dad, in the midst of his loving and active family.

But my mind was near capacity, with little room for fatherhood duties. I spent more time preparing for job interviews than I spent deliberately preparing for fatherhood. Still, I felt pretty sure that fatherhood — like marriage — is what you do, if you’re an upstanding gentleman. And I sure wanted to be one.

I decided we would have two kids, for two reasons: One, I was raised in a two-kid family, which was — in retrospect — a not-too-chaotic family unit. And Two, from an Earth-stewardship perspective, replacing myself and my wife with two equally-fantastic specimens was an attractive plan. A pathway to a kind of conservation of cosmic energy. Soon after my daughter was born, a third reason to stop at two kids revealed itself: childcare is exhausting.

On the spectrum of fatherhood, I gravitated towards a more-involved Dad image. “Naturally I’ll be better at it than my Dad was,” I thought smugly. I don’t know what led me to believe this, as my Dad was already ahead of his time in the 1970s. His résumé included fathering two kids, a stint as a widower, and then a second stint as Dad, fathering two more beautiful kids. He also helped to found a children’s puppet company in the 1980s, a fact that instantly differentiated him from the other dads.

My own kids would come, I figured, but I wasn’t in a hurry to initiate the process, content instead to enjoy the freewheeling DINK lifestyle (Double Income, No Kids) with my wife. She wasn’t anxious to start popping out kids either. She was smart, driven, and determined to bring home income — fast. The end of graduate school and her entry into the workforce brought a welcome spike in that regard.

My specs for the Dad role looked good on paper: married, MIT graduate, healthy (at least physically). But I had zero years of experience. I spent zero time visualizing the real nature of the work: sleepless nights, long days hanging around the house, and frequent bouts of in-law exposure.

Before my daughter was born, I didn’t appreciate the many ways a father can provide for his kids. A counselor once told me — in a manner clearly unperturbed by political correctness — that a man’s role in the family is threefold: leader, provider, and protector. “So old-fashioned,” I thought as the counselor tried to drill those three words into me. Try as I might, I couldn’t dismiss them outright.

My wife and I were active DINKs, and her pregnancy barely impacted our social schedule. Some days she didn’t feel great. Other days she had oddly-specific cravings, like the day we went to the farmer’s market and she spotted a big, expensive jar of pickled purple cabbage that she had to have.

The B.C. era (Before Child) continued regardless: domestic and international trips, fooling around now and then, and eating out at top-rated restaurants exhaustively researched on Yelp. Sex during pregnancy was awkward (though not much more so than usual). Maternity clothes hid her belly most of the time, but it wasn’t all that big to begin with. She seemed to expand in all the normal places.

I was nervous around my in-laws from the beginning, for reasons perhaps only a student of Korean culture can fully appreciate. I became infatuated with Korean culture and my wife around the same time. But as years passed, my gaze settled on certain imperfections in the culture. One was the honorific form of speech used by younger Koreans to address their elders. It was a product of the hierarchical Neo-Confucianism that dominated Korean thought throughout the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Honorific Korean was designed to create distance between people. My rudimentary understanding of the language only made the perceived distance between me and my in-laws greater. When the right words didn’t come, I tensed up. I didn’t hear their jokes half of the time, and the rest of the time I didn’t get the humor. I was stuck in a cultural limbo. So when my in-laws arrived to help out three weeks before the baby’s due date, a new layer of anxiety descended onto my already-thin skin.

I read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”. Cover to cover. My wife read just the most relevant sections (did I mention that she’s smart?). I also spent undue time attending classes and reading parenting blogs — time I wish I could get back. To pass the time in waiting rooms, I started creating new titles for “What to Expect”, like:

“Well, It Could Happen…”
or
“Developing Your Pregnancy-related Anxiety for Dummies”

If you feel your life is lacking in anxiety, I recommend that book.

I enrolled us in a couples’ program called Centering Pregnancy at Kaiser Permanente hospital, because I thought it might be fun to experience pregnancy in community with other couples. Each Centering session started with quick individual check-ups with the OB/GYN in a private cubicle, followed by an interactive class and forum for the couples to ask questions. It was fun, for the most part, to commiserate and laugh with some new faces instead of doing all the doctor’s visits just the two of us. The excruciating part was listening to endless pregnancy-related hearsay from the other couples.

The classes ended and our daughter was born, and then a weird thing happened: I became obsessed. The build-up to labor and conversations with friends and family had convinced me (at least intellectually) that it would be a life-changing event. But I was unprepared for how much I loved my slimy frog-of-a baby, and I wanted to protect her. At times I even felt an urge to protect her from her own mother. (Mother bears have been known to consume their young, FYI.) I became defensive about every little thing grandma and grandpa — or, in Korean, Hammi and Abua — wanted to do for the baby. Hammi wanted to co-sleep with her every night, and I resented being ousted from the protective role. When the umbilical cord fell off, my wife and Hammi wanted to wash the little pink nub every day. I just kept my mouth shut.

I couldn’t get used to the sound of my baby crying. It stressed me out beyond belief, a dull heartache lingering after every crying session.

My wife pumped and breastfed and pumped again. It was brutal. In the maternity ward, our daughter’s postnatal weight had dropped by more than the allowable ten percent, so we met a lactation consultant. She stressed the urgency of getting our daughter to feed at the teat. Ah, the lactation consultant. A midwife, with a very particular set of nipple-related skills. When I was born, a solitary midwife helped my mom to deliver me in our own apartment. At Kaiser hospital, there was a baby-measuring nurse, a bathing nurse, a lactation nurse, and a nurse named Wilma, to hold mom’s right leg in the stirrups.

When we first came home from the hospital, I had watched with Hammi and Abua, fascinated by the sight of my wife and daughter wrestling each other. Two weeks after breastfeeding began, I was 99% desensitized to the sight of my wife’s breasts. We stopped fooling around, but I didn’t mind for the first two months. I wanted to care for the baby.

So I learned how.
It was mostly about being present and committing certain movements to muscle memory. I learned to change diapers. First, the disposable Pampers at the hospital, and later, the cloth tri-folds we bought to reduce the guilt of watching disposable diapers pile up in the trash can. Rather than admitting when I was ignorant, I felt obliged to stand on a pedestal and criticize. (After all, I read “What to Expect” cover to cover). It seemed important to confidently proclaim a hodgepodge of facts acquired from the pregnancy books and blogs, because that’s what our other childless friends were doing.

I wanted to protect my daughter from harm, and also from stupid parenting trends. To that end, I prepared diatribes on various topics, but most them proved useless as the Koreans seemed to have studied from a different parenting manual entirely. Some of their methods struck me as odd and I watched disapprovingly, occasionally summoning the courage to voice my concerns. For instance, Hammi believed that after childbirth, my wife should eat miyeokguk (Korean seaweed soup) at every single meal — including breakfast — for approximately two months straight. When my wife’s breast started hurting, the baton passed to my father-in-law — and then to me — to administer a vigorous breast massage, the assumption being that a clogged milk duct was causing the inflammation, and massaging it would clear the blockage. I grabbed the flesh reluctantly and started to mash it between my hands, administering the cruel and unusual punishment like a lowly soldier ordered to torture an innocent civilian.

My family came for a short visit, and I relished the chance to relax and reconnect with them. The baby’s routine relaxed in kind.

Our simple rancher house, chosen to optimize cost, comfort, and commutes, was transformed into a Worry Zone, its air polluted with excess anxiety. I inhaled too much perhaps, and soon found myself plagued by health issues. Morning vertigo episodes floored me for a couple of hours at a stretch, until the room finally stopped spinning. I entertained the romantic notion that I might be suffering from Couvade syndrome, also known as “sympathetic pregnancy”. But in reality there was no “sym” and the pregnancy was over, which left… “pathetic”. I began sleeping on a single mattress pad on the floor, because I couldn’t handle the stress of waking up every time my wife awoke to breastfeed with her mother in the other room.
I know what you’re thinking. Poor you.

One night, I awoke around 3am and puked into a trash can beside my bed. I hadn’t been drinking since before my wife got pregnant. Quitting drinking was a good solidarity move, and in my early thirties alcohol had stopped agreeing with me anyways. My wife and her parents began to worry about me almost as much as they worried about the baby. “Take a rest” became their mantra during the first few months. They didn’t intend to ostracize me, and yet I stewed on the sidelines, looking for outlets for my blame. The language barrier had seemed a minor hurdle, but it suddenly transformed into a high-jump bar. I could barely express my desires for my daughter’s care in English, let alone Korean.

Before the baby was born, I had asked my boss what to expect, since he was Dad to two grown kids. He said he remembered driving people around a lot. Sure enough, I took charge of carting everyone to Korean stores (and American ones) to buy ingredients, medicines, and other infant-related gear. My father-in-law went to the gym regularly in Korea, so I got us both memberships at 24 Hour Fitness during his stay in the U.S. Despite his kind disposition, my father-in-law still gave me agita, a feeling that diminished only slightly when he came to the U.S.

Five months after our daughter was born, the grandparents returned to Korea and I took over daytime childcare duties. Airborne anxiety levels decreased measurably at home. Still, the in-laws’ childcare style left an indelible impression. My wife and I exhausted ourselves for the first week after they left, trying to maintain the same standards. Then we gave up, and cleanliness at the dinner table — and pretty much everywhere else — dropped a few pegs. The nervous feeling of invisible Korean laser beams on the back of my neck lingered, because we still spoke with the grandparents daily on Facetime. As we fed the baby her dinner, the grandparents watched, chiming in in Korean. “Give her some water, please.” “What’s that on her chin… Can you wipe it?” I had inculcated in myself a Korean-style absolute filial piety, and yet I had to pause sometimes, allowing my individual will to surface for air. My backbone — not particularly stiff to begin with — seemed as soft and malleable as the baby’s.

I spent a lot of time watching my baby girl. The nice part about watching her all day — besides the angelic moments — was discovering (and learning to accept) my parenting style. Some dads are content to work for the boss, I think, while others are more entrepreneurial. Watching the baby on my own, I observed the following differences:

Quicker house entries and exits.
More time outside at the park randomly exploring, blissfully unhindered by contingencies.
More naps.

Our daughter didn’t sleep as much when the grandparents were around, perhaps because they were light sleepers themselves. But during full days with Daddy, we napped. Hard. I needed the naps to relieve that first-time-parent tension caused by the problematic pair: inexperience and overambition.

My image of dadhood was relaxing in the living room, laughing, singing, and playing games together. That came much later, around the time our daughter turned two. Before two, it went something like this: Find the nearest wet wipe and clean baby’s nose. Change baby’s diaper. Change baby’s clothes. Prepare baby’s food. Prepare a contingency bag. Struggle to put baby into the car seat. Hover around baby at the park to make sure she doesn’t hurt herself. Coax baby into leaving the park before she gets too tired and starts wailing. Put baby to sleep, without putting yourself to sleep in the process. Forget the idea of working while baby sleeps, and pass out next to her. Take pictures and document everything for your spouse and extended families. Deal with the guilt of missed picture opportunities. A benefit to staying at home with my daughter was having some additional time to observe and master my guilt. Now I take pictures when I want to.

After tending to our daughter all day and making dinner on my assigned Daddy-dinner nights, I was too tired to devote much energy to my wife. Many nights we watched one short TV show and then slept, or caught up on chores.

It’s said that women begin to nest after giving birth, and in our house the twigs and leaves (i.e. hand-me-down toys and clothes) piled up rather quickly. In an unexpected twist, the owners of the house we were renting decided to sell it, offering it to us directly a few months before our lease was set to expire. After much deliberation, we bought the house from them before our daughter’s first birthday. In less than a year, I went from freewheeling DINK to frightened dad with an adorable little creature to protect and a big, ugly structure to maintain. My wife would probably be happiest in a brand-new house, airlifted straight from the factory to an empty plot of land on our move-in date. But instead we got an old, post-WWII rancher that scores high on location and “character” — and I love it.

My wife and I have different priorities about what needs to be fixed. My wife: “The sink is not draining fast enough.” Me: “I think we need a tree house.” Don’t get me wrong, I like fixing stuff when I’m able. It’s the satisfying part of an otherwise thankless job.

My wife’s the primary breadwinner in the family, but I still believe that fatherhood is basically a leadership position, as that counselor hammered home to me years ago. I am starting to get the hang of the leadership part. I’ve also started to accept that my daughter is a reflection of me. She’s a sponge and she learns everything by example, so caring for her and caring for me are inseparable tasks. In those moments when vertigo put me out of commission I missed out, but so did she. Other times, I relaxed, laughed, and connected with her at a deeper level, and she fed off of my energy. There are many ways to provide for your child. She needs food, sure. But she also needs energy. She needs Fun. Smiles. Confidence. Direction. Clearly-articulated Positions. All things that I — the Dad — can provide.

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