The most difficult days of my life involved death—my mother, a brother, a brother-in-law who was like blood family to me, a pair of miscarriages. Then there is August 16, 2012. The date will likely fade from my memory, but the feeling of leaving my wife and new baby boys to go back to work will remain.
My wife and I had acted as an excellent team over the last 15 days. And I absolutely had to hold up my end. With twins, there is no way for a new father to hide from his shift in status, so I’ve been co-parenting through somewhere between eight and 10 feedings per day. The diapering, dressing, swaddling and ushering them into sleep was mostly on me. The babies, born late pre-term, are still too weak to feed at the same time, which means Lisa spends her time providing or pumping breast milk. This means I also kept Lisa fed and the house sort of running.
It’s been stressful—and something much more. “If it wasn’t for the sleep deprivation,” I told Lisa, about seven days in, “this would be like a second honeymoon.”
That might sound crazy. But for sheer intimacy, physical closeness and emotional bonding, tending to a pair of relentlessly needy newborns is not entirely unlike walking along the water, holding hands. The view—my wife, the babies—is spectacular. The difference is that, somewhere around day 11, I started feeling myself weaken. I started wishing it was over, that they would grow suddenly big enough to allow us longer rests between feedings. Or that someone would tend to the babies for a few hours—or six—and let us sleep.
I’ll write more about this in a column somewhere down the line, when these most difficult days are over, and explain how the hole went deeper than I suspected it could. For now, though, just know that every bleak moment was followed, closely, by a restorative vision. I would catch 10 minutes, 30 minutes, of sleep. I’d shuffle, foggy and a little nauseated, to the bassinet to make one of the boys ready for another feeding. Then … Jack’s puckered lips and raised eyebrows. Eli’s hypnotic, glowing moon face. Lisa, any part of her. Something, some perfect thing, would catch my eye. The misery would drop away, 1,000 feet beneath the clouds I just crested. But now, I’m back at work.
How did this happen? And how can I process so many conflicting emotions?
Leaving that morning, I felt guilty, like I was abandoning Lisa and the boys. I also felt relief, to be liberated from living life in the 150-minute increments of the newborn. And I felt lost.
Well, over the last couple of weeks, my life shrank down to a very small, specific set of concerns: Keep the babies warm, fed and comfortable. Ease my wife’s pains. Then I felt the rest of the world tugging at me, eager to collect its due. As the last couple of days of my leave wound down, I started wrestling with ugly questions: I’m 43. My oldest brother died at 36, and my brother-in-law died at 46. How old will the boys be when I die? Can I usher them, solidly, into their 30s, their 40s? I know how much I need my own father now. Will I be there when, if, they have kids of their own?
What about work? I love doing journalism. But the entire industry is crashing down around my ears. It has been for almost a decade now. Can I make my career pay, to the degree I need it to, for the years I need it to, in order to support these kids?
What about those dark moments I already had, when I wondered if I could keep going? Right now, these boys are somewhat oblivious. But within a few months they will sense every shadow that crosses my face. Will I have it in me to be the ever cheerful, smiling, loving father I’d like to be?
In days past, I would have written that questions like these kept me up. But these days I’m already awake, feeding or dressing or soothing the boys. The questions lie on my bed, heckling me. And, yes. August 16th was difficult. One of the most difficult days I’ve ever faced. But not at all in the same way as those deaths in the family.
When family died, I felt hollowed out and empty, the world tightening around me, my circle diminishing.
The 16th was very different. It was about expanding. That day, I was glad to be at work. I just couldn’t wait to get home.