I woke to the sound of my daughter crying, coming from the bedside monitor. My wife was still asleep, exhausted. I'd been up till 1 working. I got up and stumbled to Ellie's room to check on her. I didn't want to coddle her--we were trying to get her on a sleep schedule, but she needed a diaper change and was probably hungry. I turned on the closet light with the door mostly closed, so just enough light leaked through to see what I was doing, but not enough to keep Ellie from sleeping. I turned to the crib. When Ellie saw me, she smiled and giggled, and wiggled her arms and legs. Her whole body tensed in joy. I stood over her and just took it in.
Before Ellie was born, I always felt like there was--forgive the cliche--something missing, like I was an ill-used toy limping along minus its shed parts. A lot of this came from a childhood spent witnessing my mother's prolonged illness, growing up in an economically devestated area with few prospects of escape, and watching a lot fo my friends fall by the wayside due to drug abuse and hopelessness, among other things. The long and short of it has been that I've spent most of my life feeling like I was pretty much on my own. I spent much of my time in my own head, rather than focused on the negativity around me. But having a child forced me--forces me everyday--to be "here." It's kind of like having a little drill instructor screaming in my ear--sometimes, literally like that. Sure, I'd like to sit around all morning, but the baby must be fed. And she's not going to nap if she doesn't get some exercise and some kind of stimulation, so she needs to go for a walk. And if I want to get anything done for myself, I better prioritize and work efficiently.
Of course, it would be easier to just be a bad father. I could ignore my daughter or pawn her off on my wife. I see it all the time. But the real question here, is which is more rewarding: sleeping a little longer, or getting to see my daughter smile up at me at 4 a.m.? I've slept at least a little just about every night for the past 35 years. I only have so many opportunities to spend time with my daughter.
My daughter makes me be a better person. This is because she calls the bluff inherent in the chip on my shoulder. It's convenient for me to blame certain problems on others, on my environment, on whatever. But what about Ellie's problems? I'm the only one to blame if she has problems, other than physical issues beyond my control. Therefore, it's up to me to be a good father and, by default, a good person. I want to do well at my job so that our situation is secure. I want to drive safely so there's less of a chance of her being injured. The ramifications are far reaching and surprising.
But I'm not just talking about guilt; guilt will only get you so far. When it's 4 a.m. and I see my daughter smile and reach to be picked up, it doesn't matter that I haven't slept. When I see my wife playing with our daughter, I envy her. I want to be part of that.
* * *
Now, it's some time after five. The sun is just starting to add gray to the black pallette of the room. I've fed Ellie, and she's fallen asleep in my lap. Technically, this is a no-no. We're supposed to put her back in the crib before she falls asleep. But my wife is asleep in the other room. I've got a pillow propped against the wall to lean against. I can barely see Ellie's face; she looks tense as though she's considering a difficult problem. I touch her face, caress the space from the top of her nose between her eyes. She relaxes and exhales in a sigh. I've got work in a couple hours; I'm not going to sleep tonight. That's okay. Who needs sleep?