The precision of new parents
I still hadn’t walked into a bar up to that point.
Prior to our new baby, aiming to arrive somewhere at half-past-seven meant one long “whenever is good with me”. Just donning the right attire at quarter-to-nine meant the night would go swimmingly.
But it’s different now—we’re ever more adult now, and not just ordinary adults but baby-wielding, spit-up sopping, diaper-rash ameliorating parents with Purpose. I presume we flash a label of Responsibility in society because we have a baby and are mostly well-put together. And it occurs to me, right or wrong, that we’re supposed to feed the common notion that good parents are on top of their game.
We depart from home at quarter to eight. Magic.
Rolling out of the driveway, I sense hints of pained anxiety flutter about my chest that cause me to play make-believe that somehow my heart is failing, but only because I see mortality anew in view of my baby. I have to be there for him, and because my age tells me my life is not just ripe, but overripe—if not outright disintegrating based on the ruinous state of my knees—I tend to ponder about life and death a little more than your average first-time dad.
But those bits of anxiety swell and dissipate as quickly as a heartbeat, so all is good. I’ll be good for the night.
I sit in the back next to little Leo and Katie takes the wheel. I like to see his face when we drive, and it almost always tilts at what would be a crick-inducing angle for all us non-pliant sorts. Within minutes, he’ll be asleep. The continuous movement of this vehicle is enough to induce a heavenly lethargy, a skill that I lost so many years ago. Not even a trans-Pacific flight keeps me asleep for more than an hour at a time; there are too many things even in a dark plane cabin that clamor for my attention. If only I could switch my mind to newborn mode the same way I switch my phone to airplane mode to cut out the busy-ness of the world, I would eliminate my near-infinite sleep debt.
Light from passing cars and lampposts beam through the windows in sheets that flash across our SUV’s interior and Leo’s face. I wonder if he sees all these things as one magnificent light show, illuminating a darkness he has yet to internalize.
As we close in on our destination, finding a convenient parking space creeps up into our more anxious concerns. It crowds out other more sensible tensions, because trotting out Leo in public is tactical with strategy and logistics for our three-person, baby-led invasion. We like to have easy access to change the little one or grab some sundry baby-soothing item that we can’t fit into mom’s outsized baby bag. This bag, by the way, is one of those endless ones that can fit everything from burp cloths to high chairs, I gauge. If ever Katie were stranded with baby, I’m certain that rescue teams could lollygag for weeks and Katie would still have a stash of diapers remaining to soak up at least a month’s worth of toxic waste from our little power plant. We’re well prepared. Except for burp cloths. But that’s what t-shirts are for.
We find a parking space in a row closest to our destination. Divine luck.
A baby fit for a venue
We’ve been headed to where brass taps pump in hypnotic cycles to fill the greater intoxication of camaraderie, revelry, and cheeky trivia night amusement. Strangely enough, yes, we’re at a bar with baby. Of all the confounding places we go with our three-week new Little Newbie, this one I think most people would find peculiar. But we’re not going to get the baby anything but milk drunk, I tell you.
I don’t even know at this point if they’ll card him at the door.
The occasion is a birthday celebration for two classy gals from the local church group, one of whom is a new mom still hopping about with a five-month preborn in her womb. This fact caused a few chuckles between myself and the wife; we guess some friends simply love the scent of ethanol-temptation on a Monday evening. Or perhaps she’s just reminding herself of the spoils in which she can indulge after another four months. (For those who might inquire, she bought a non-alcoholic brew that night, though because she was showing she found the dew-dripping, amber elixir a bit nervous to hold amid the random glances of other patrons.)
I see our small cohort of friends gathered at the metal-fenced, covered patio at the fore of the bar, though these things often appear constructed more like a corral if you look closely enough. But the image of it being a “Carousers Corral” probably doesn’t best speak to the dignity of the patrons.
The sight of familiar faces gives me a notion of relief. Getting somewhere first, let alone getting there with a squirming gnome in my arms, makes me uncomfortable for as-yet unknown reasons. I like knowing a setting is already settled in, I guess, the same way people usually want to be anyone but first in line for holiday dinners. Things that are a little traveled, vintage, or broken-in always have a superior appeal, be they shoes or basketballs or furniture.
I guess I like my social interludes to be as relaxed as the material goods of my life. I like thinking that I’m vintage, too.
I love being the one who holds baby as we approach our friends. I want to signal that this child is mine, but not because I like boasting about having achieved some incredible thing that billions of other people have done before me. Rather, I think I’ve stumbled upon a pleasant idea that he’s an extension of me, and not only in the “You’re half my DNA, little man” kind of way, but in that “flesh of my flesh” metaphysical way. It’s one of the greatest things in life to say, “This is my clan,” as we often do with friends in our juvenescence. My new family takes that notion to its pinnacle. The baby has given me my boldest society.
And people don’t know this, but when you have a baby you’re suddenly treated like a rock star, so you have to be bold. Everyone comes up to you and gets into your business. And with a joyful surrender to the idea that baby-in-public is actually communal property, you start telling people about family life and facts about babies that you would never tell someone about yourself, ranging from bowel movements to the content of spit-up/vomit that now clearly marks all of your best shirts.
And then there’s the holding crew: Everyone holds a baby. Extension of self or not, your baby will be passed around like a salad bowl and devoured with hugs and kisses and threats of kidnapping.
One friend to do so was a young woman with a newly-purchased camera: a nice photographer’s one at that. She wears it like a tourist, a fact that I’m not shy to point out. She’s a quiet type, but with self-sustaining joy if I interpret rightly her social mien. Never bitter, never a gossip, never it seems capable of thinking with cynicism or suspicion. Instead, she always seems eager to hear any comment that comes from my lips. She’s the type of person I meet once in a while who tells me who I need to be without saying a thing. Around her, I am and am not me.
She holds our child for a long time. A professional swayer of babies, I’d say. And the longevity with which she crosses her arms into a perfect baby-stilling cradle evinces an endurance that I simply don’t have yet. In my estimation of her general level of quiet, I wonder if she holds the baby to keep occupied in this loud atmosphere while others express a more jovial and garrulous attitude. But no, that’s probably just me projecting my own social awkwardness onto her.
Another young woman with curly locks, always so neatly put together in personality and attire, exits the bar in eager desire to meet Leo. Only now do I realize why women gush over children, or why women believe in love at first sight. That happened to me with Leo. And this woman was no different in her immediate reaction to baby. She’s a salsa-dancing young professional; a long-relationship-type who is single and doesn’t mind sharing exactly why. She claims her family is ostentatious and opinionated, and claims it’s the same for her, and that any man will need to get accustomed to it. I don’t see it. I’ve never run into anyone but a humble listener and self-appraiser in her, someone willing to stand on corners to invite people into our local midtown church during sidewalk evangelization efforts that extend past midnight. This will be the pinnacle of her attractiveness to the man she’ll eventually meet—at least, it’s the thing I’d find most edifying about her. I don’t think I got around to telling her that, by the way. I was too busy watching my baby sleep.
At a corner table in the patio, a small cohort of gentlemen gauge the value of stock investment or vacations on snowy peaks. The night kindles brightly in them, with their rarely-here always-there disposition fit more for conquistadors who used to scour this Florida paradise. To that end, they have found their fountain of youth—youth doesn’t fade when adventure is always a footstep ahead.
One of them holds my baby. Awkwardly. Like carrying a heavy bag of groceries. We both have a hearty laugh.
Later in the night, a young woman who has a certain fondness for bloodlusty, toothy creatures of the deep expresses how cute she thinks Leo is as she buries him in her arms. I have no idea if my baby is actually cute to other people, no matter what they tell me. Seems like most people have an obligation to compliment babies this way. All I know is that I was drawn to his face immediately and I have yet to find something more alluringly mesmerizing on earth.
But I’ll let her keep telling me these things. I think it lends her a necessary grace to commit verbally to a kind of tiny, inestimable and foreign beauty that every person knows applies only to babies. We should never be speechless around babies, because seeing a baby frees us to the most affirmative speech. To no one else in the world will we publicly proclaim—at first sight and with wide-eyed thrill no less—how adorable, cute, doll-like, tiny or precious they are. Only babies give us license to be in vocal awe of strangers.
This is the bustle outside the bar. But now the night is tired, and after a few hours spent in sweet social profligacy our Leo has his turn to control the night. I will slave for him gladly. His signs are simple: A lick of the lips, a stir of the arms, and the odors we all know portend a soon-to-be bottom-naked baby. Katie and I quickly convene and decide to change and feed him. Everyone knows, as if telepathically, that we’re not saying goodbye just yet. All those who held him recede and vanish back into the bar. We slip away to our nearby parking space. Perhaps we’re as stars at twilight that don’t seek to hide; we just are hidden in plain sight.
Grace transfigures the shadows of the night
We swing open our SUV’s rear tailgate. Baby is changed. Katie nests in the trunk, legs dangling out the back like a child in an adult dinner chair. With breast exposed to the night except for the latching lips of our baby, she locks her gaze onto the child who finds comfort in the nourishment and calm only she can give.
Mosquitoes otherwise absent tonight must understand that the Leo’s witching hour is also prime feasting hour. But none of us are bitten as they hover about us. The chirr of crickets roars in the forest of live oaks that surrounds these commons, singing a hymn of the propagation of life. It’s me, Katie, and baby—and a world that seems intent on making itself heard but resides otherwise in complete indifference.
A young couple pulls in two spaces from us. They emerge then converse behind their large pickup, rightly assuming that the twenty feet of space between us affords them privacy to their own matters. They mirror us, just younger and without tether, a reminder that all things are renewed. Strings of lights tie together two-story buildings, making the town square look like God took pinking shears to cut the night sky and didn’t realize he left incandescent traces of his handiwork. I spy into the dark suites on the second floor of buildings, imagining that some of them are for the office angels who roam above men during the holy hours of business.
This somehow reminds me of comments I heard long ago that my social life would disappear after having a baby. I’d be left slogging through what used to be an exciting life, what used to be an adventurous world of risk-taking, or what used to be a time to build joie de vivre through the simple companionship of my pre-baby clan. I’d have to leave all of that behind.
And yet here I am at a bar. Or a few yards from a bar.
On top of that, I was told by friends and relatives of how hard it would be to pray, how hard it would be to sustain a spiritual life with a munchkin munching away on baby food and my sleep-starved sanity. But it begins to dawn on me that these are false prophets. Here I am in the midst of a world attempting to sacramentalize itself. The people I have spoken with all seem to be attempting a greater self-actualization, whether through beer or conversation. Even the creatures and created things have divine interpretation tonight, being symbols of a divine plan that starts with my baby-led conversion. The world desperately tries to be its own Ark, its own Mother Mary—it strives to be full of grace. It is ready to produce its best imitation of the Incarnation and show us that no moment goes by without the divine hand meddling surreptitiously within it all.
I’ve read the poet’s words that the world is charged with the grandeur of God. I’m sure of that, but I’m not so sure it’s the standard course of things. Here, the world is charged with the gravity of God, where the lowly things and creatures of the earth, the meek persons who hold my baby, and even human construction testify that we are brought low to be raised up, to act out a continual chorus of a kind of Magnificat.
And I don’t mean this in any small way. This was a night of so many figures and sights and insights that the meaning of it all did not dawn on me until a final grace touched my soul and I was led to understand that there is a world beyond vocation. I am about to experience a little transfiguration.
Here we are, the three of us alone as gaiety and conviviality soak up the bar just yards away from us. I’m here where quiet could easily breed disquiet, where babysitting could lead to embitterment. I walk to stand in the middle of the road and stare at my wife, my baby, this glowing world, and the people in that silly bar, which now stands as a symbolic crossroads between two lifestyles that no longer compete but commingle. And then I give full attention to my wife and child, which causes my heart to swell no longer in anxious discord but instead gratitude for having seen my world anew. And maybe if I didn’t step back, I would have missed this last fact entirely:
I’m a dad. And my life is full of grace.
I never step foot in that bar. Somehow I’ve never been in need of doing so in my lifetime. I think I’m better off with the crickets, making a noise, but not one made with indifference to man: hopefully my noise propagates the sound of grace.
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