Friday, January 27, 2023 Jan 27, 2023
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Fear of Fathering

By David Ritz |

We were all sitting around Chelsea Corner throwing back drinks and waiting for D and the twins to be born. It was early September, 1974. Everyone was late – the magazine and the twins. And everything seemed uncertain. We had been looking at dummy magazines and testing direct mail promotions for the past year and a half. We were sick of it, sick of arguing about a name, sick of discussing layout styles and sizes of body type and borders, sick of being worried and sick of being sick. Six weeks before, my wife Roberta and I learned we were to have twins. I was shocked, thrilled, scared and very naive.

So that night, in the side room of Chelsea we sat around, waiting for the word from the printer that the first issue of D, this strange new magazine, was hot off the press.

Later that night we moved to another bar to wait, this time a honky-tonky joint next door to the printer and across the street from the Manor Bread plant. The smell was delicious – freshly baked squishy white bread, sweet as a bottle of cheap perfume. But the waiting kept us racked with anxiety until, finally, amazingly, at one or two or three in the morning, that first issue of D flopped off the press. It was astonishing.

Two hours later, in the middle of the same night, I found myself and my wife rushing to the hospital where we would again wait – and wait and wait – this time for 16 hours, until a nurse would wheel out a little incubator with two tiny infant girls inside. During those hours my wife and I talked and joked and timed contractions in the labor room marked, entirely coincidentally, with a large “D” outside. It was an exhilarating and wonderful two days.

The problem of bringing children into the world was a far more baffling one than having participated, to one degree or another, in spawning a new publication. It was Roberta, far more than I, who wanted children. We had been married five years, had traveled, had enjoyed a graduate school bohe-mian lifestyle and then an upper-middle-class advertising/pr job lifestyle. In one way or another, we had liked messing around, buying our first good pieces of furniture, putting together our first real house. We were free to play in what seemed an open and luxurious time in our lives. We bought records; we bought George Kovacs lamps to read by; we bought AR speakers to listen by. As my record collection prosperously grew I patiently categorized each new disc. My filing system was refined so I could put my anxious finger on any book or record within seconds. The teakwood table sat handsomely in the center of our separate dining room. We walked over dark-stained hardwood floors, carrying Colombian coffee beans to the espresso machine which was imported from Milan and purchased at Neiman-Marcus as a gift for my thirtieth birthday.

On Sunday nights, I would line up my shoes in front of the Sony and, while Bob Shieffer or Dan Rather read the CBS Sunday Night News between 10:30 and 10:45 p.m., I would shine each pair, painstakingly and, I must confess, lovingly. The espresso machine was cleaned weekly. The reading list in my mind was kept up with religiously. I had achieved a certain income, at age thirty, a certain style, a certain order. What did children offer us – or offer our marriage – that was not more demanding than rewarding? The question could only be answered positively in the abstract: there would be warmth and pleasure and sharing. But to answer the question negatively was easier and more specific: I would have my record collection thrown into chaos. My routine would be shattered.

But Roberta, an only child, knew the wonders of childhood. She spoke to children, related to them, with an intimacy and a natural ease. As I had always wished to engage lovers of jazz like myself in long and probing conversations, so had Roberta sought those same sorts of genuine encounters with children. She listened to them, remembered what they said, quoted them later, laughed with them and had no difficulty moving about in the world which they inhabited. To a large degree, Roberta’s attitude – from wanting a career (first and at the exclusion of a family) to wanting children – represented a dramatic change. She is competitive and interested in making it in the real world. She contains within her all the elements required to have constructed a strong anti-kid wall around us. That she didn’t remains a surprise to me.

We were both beginning to feel that the orderly life was no longer any good. We wanted more, we wanted the confusion of pregnancy and birth, and there was no going back. So we waited, fought with one another, felt lonely and even reached the point where we – the most garrulous of couples – would not mention the problem to one another.

And then early in the winter of 1973 I put down a copy of People magazine which I had been reading in the waiting room. Roberta approached me, and it was written on her face as she stood before me: she was pregnant.

From the start, it was fine and mellow. There were none of the traditional hassles, neither sickness in the morning nor olives and sherbet at night. We concluded that we had been blessed. The miracle was in the works. Roberta read literature on the subject matter at hand as though she were preparing for finals. We digested the books that college-educated couples digest these days. We knew what was happening and what to expect.

Six weeks before the scheduled date of arrival, the doctor thought he heard an extra pair of feet kicking around. He had. The x-rays showed that Roberta was carrying twins. I was elated. Even more than my wife, I was overwhelmed. Still another blessing, I thought, while she, contemplating the practicalities, knew the full extent of the storm which was about to assault our house and our heads. Meanwhile, I read that twins occur but one in eighty and I felt satisfied with the knowledge that, at least once, our number had come up. I felt lucky, as though this were the first lottery I had ever entered and the first I had ever won. And I wanted two girls: absolutely now, I wanted both our children to be girls.

The pregnancy had been blissful. We sat quietly and listened. We traveled. We took pictures and walked across a shimmering white beach, pretending we were in some movie or TV commercial. We were not afraid. We were sometimes delirious with our inability to be patient, like children who couldn’t wait until Christmas, giddy with anticipation. Roberta grew more beautiful, more radiant – and sillier. She refused to play the part of the refined lady-in-waiting and that made it easier for us both. Even during the final months when the doctor, learning of twins, put Roberta to bed so that the babies wouldn’t drop out prematurely, she frolicked the days away.

Roberta became huge. We conjured forth, in our minds’ eyes, images of watermelons, then blimps, then the earth itself. She seemed a universe of unborn babies. Her stomach was tight as a drum and we would marvel at the skin’s tautness. Then on that crazy D evening, the tautness of the skin, which we had been rubbing and patting and pressing ears against for months, turned to mush. It was as though the ice had melted. We knew something was happening. And then – all according to the book – contractions dependably narrowed the distance between themselves until nothing was left. The process was long, but during it we learned that the preparation had meant everything and Roberta, who always had a low threshold for pain, sailed through that roughest of passages like a navigator who had dozens of times negotiated the Straits of Magellan, like a pilot who had flown through hurricane or tornado without blinking an eye; she sailed through; she floated through; she was lifted and tossed about and turned and pushed and pulled. But at the end, when the turbulence subsided and when another sort of rage was realized, I found myself looking at two tiny female creatures – Alison Rebecca and Jessica Nemeroff.

When I was finally able to let loose the fear and confusion and joy which had grown within me, it was much later that night, driving home from the hospital. And I found my head filled with a thought which, at least objectively, I would have disregarded as nonsense and sentimentality had it occurred to me the day before: I thought of what I wanted the girls to become. I was actually projecting, two hours after their birth, the oldest of the sins which parents visit upon their children. Still, the thought was there and, like it or not, it lingered on as I myself broke down and cried. I wanted the little babies to grow up and be great jazz singers in the tradition of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. That, I decided at that strange moment, would be the noblest of trades and pursuits.

There was never any question about whether or not the babies would be breast-fed. It would be something which would never cease to stir me: Watching one, watching them both feeding at my wife’s breasts, looking for all the world like mystical madonna-with-child portraits painted by misty-eyed Italian Renaissance painters. They were beautiful to the point where I felt incompetent to see and feel all that was before me.

Then they started moving about. One night I dreamt that their heads came unscrewed and fell to the floor. I woke up in a cold sweat, running into the room to make sure that it had not happened. In another dream, I saw myself dropping them, inadvertently, into a swimming pool. I saved one, but I could not find the other. And I imagined in another dream, three weeks after they were born, that they could talk, call my name and tell me that they wanted ballet lessons, that they wanted to play the piano and that they hoped that I would not be afraid of them because they would, my daughters patiently explained to me, like everyone else, have to die one day.

During the days, when they were real, they slept and looked helpless – helplessly lovely and small – as their heads kept falling back to the tiny crib mattresses. They had no strength. And after they were a month old, a frightening analogy stuck in my mind as I watched the struggling to turn and twist: Their movements, their daily battles with their own bodies, seemed a repetition of what my grandmother – my mother’s mother – had gone through the final year she lived with a cancer of the bone which slowly took the very breath from her and left her looking like an infant, asleep and helpless. She would have to be fed those final months, as Jessica and Alison were being fed, and then fall back into a state of rest. Food would tire her. And my grandmother, whose name was Rebecca and whose hair was red like my wife’s and my daughters’, finally, like a baby, had to be changed and watched over, bars extending above both sides of her bed so that during the night she would not fall to the floor.

Looking at my children, who had only a wisp of reddish hair, I saw my grandmother who finally was left bald by a disease that seemed to have taken a seventy-year-old woman and brought her to an infancy, a place to stop rather than a place to begin.

Strange little grins would break over my grandmother’s small face during those last months, faint smiles, futile attempts to reach states of large and more extravagant emotions which I would recognize on the faces of Alison and Jessica as they reached the ages of two and three months. They, too, sought physical comfort and relief from their own waste and primal fears. They, too, sought love and company. They could sleep and eat, defecate and be held, cry and whimper. Their eyes, like my grandmother’s, would, after a meal, glaze over and gently close. The three of them could not speak articulate sounds; they moaned. I wondered if and what they dreamed. Staring at them in their cribs, sitting next to my grandmother as she slept in her bed in the old age home, they seemed, at ages of four months and seventy years, in a state of grace. The knowledge which rushed over me, the immediate sense of living and dying, was calming and terrifying, all at once. It was there to be seen and felt; there was nothing I could do but try not to be scared.

And then I surprised myself on a Sunday afternoon when, after a shower, I returned to the bedroom to see both girls simultaneously nursing at my wife’s breasts: I was jealous. I resented the children. Watching them closely, the act seemed strangely sexual, sensual; they couldn’t get enough into their greedy mouths; they huffed and puffed and slobbered over the food. When they were removed from the breast, they bawled their heads off. It was a cruel interruption. They shook from want of the milk, from hunger, and when their mouths found their way back to the source, an expression of worried satiation passed over their scarlet complexions. The most intense of unions between parent and child had literally nothing to do with me. Even more complicated, I realized, was the fact that where they rested their heads, I had rested mine only months before. Not only did they not need me for nourishment, not only was my body useless to them, but they had taken my place in bed and their passion, for food and womanly shelter and softness, was being attended to while mine was something which needed to be checked and controlled. Penis envy, I thought to myself, was always a concept I questioned with skepticism, but now breast envy, as funny as it once might have seemed to me, was something absurdly real.

I liked changing diapers. I never realized how immediate and physical a chore it was. And trying to stay in touch with the way I felt while I was fooling with Pampers and Baby Wash Cloths, it occurred to me that the act was also a sensuous one. Jessica and Alison loved being touched, carefully and tenderly; they cooed when their small bottoms were being cleaned and refreshed; they appreciated the attention to details of their skin, to their crevices and their folds. And I will not believe any father of girls who tells me that he has not been fascinated by the small genitalia of his daughters, by the sweetness of their sex and of the softness of their backs and thighs and puffy hands and cheeks. It is pure pleasure of the flesh, a remarkable way of knowing your children.

At six months, Roberta stopped nursing and I could feed the kids myself. It was difficult; they screamed and wiggled and spat creamed spinach into my face. I felt even more inadequate. My wife and I fought among ourselves like cats and dogs. What could I do? What did I want to do? I had to travel on business and would be gone for weeks at a time. Fifteen hundred miles away, in a hotel room in Manhattan, I realized that I had fallen in love with my daughters much the way in which I had fallen in love with my wife eight years before. I missed them like a teenage boy misses his sweetheart. It was immediate and painful. I bought them bibs at a fancy linen boutique. I might as well have been buying roses. Their faces appeared before me as I tried to sleep at night; their eyes, startlingly blue and clear, drilled a hole inside my head.

With this issue of D, Jessica and Alison (and the magazine) are a year old. What can they do? Walk a bit; crawl a lot; fall, stumble, demonstrate enormous love and some fear. We have learned to be somewhat less afraid of one another. We play crazy games. It’s still all new. I continue to worry about my occupational obligations and satisfactions which often run counter to jobs and feelings I have as a father. It is demanding and most of the time difficult. My wife and I continue to struggle to relocate our love and need for each other in the faces of two new lives. There are fine moments – on Sunday mornings or after feedings – everyone playing together on the floor, climbing over one another. There are dreadful moments – the invasions of privacy, the constant chores, the fear of the kids hurting themselves.

But the newness, the infancy, theearly groping, is in itself glorious.Twelve months later, looking at thetypewriter this afternoon, I know Iwould have had it no other way. Andeven considering the confusions anduncertainties, the day seems brightand the birthday happy.