Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What's your definition of fatherhood?

The very first time I met my oldest daughter she was in an incubator in the neonatal intermediate unit (NIM).  I remember thinking: She is four weeks premature so this is the most logical place right? She was the surviving twin so perhaps she needs to be 'cooked' a bit longer. Yeah, that's it...then all will be right with the world.

As a first-time dad, my walk into that room was nerve-racking. One large room filled little plastic rooms of new babies. I was all alone because my wife had a post-c-section infection that kept her from spending the first 72 hours with our daughter.

The nurses treated me like the other young parents there. They were rude. They made me feel like her prematurity was my fault, like we had done drugs or something. Some eventually warmed up as they taught me new skills and witnessed my dedication to learning the business of fathering.

My first peer into that tiny isolette was our second meeting. The only thing I had noticed that was physically wrong with my new daughter was that she had a slight, upper cleft lip, which the nurses judiciously pointed out to me.

They would get excited because it gave them an opportunity to demonstrate their cleft-lip knowledge. They would tell me who is the best to fix it; what the feeding challenges might be; how surgeries would make her look totally normal again.

It was, however, at that very moment when I stared into the little glass house with two little hand-holes on each side, that I was profoundly changed. My daughter, all four-pounds, two-ounces of her, represented the purest and most flawless beauty I'd ever seen. I was head-over-heals-in-love.

As that love grew into form of inexpressible words, her cleft lip as “a flaw” (as it was first pointed out to me) become a faded memory. Despite the fact that she had been born 12 hours before, it was at that very point when I became a father.

I didn't have any clue that five months later she would be hospitalized for failing to thrive. No clue that after her cerebral palsy diagnosis I would make another life transformation into becoming the father of a child with special needs. No clue that she would eventually be defined as “severely physically disabled.”

Nearly nine years later, I'm remembering those early days not because I think they were better or because I was naive about the future, but because first and foremost, I defined myself as a father. I changed her diapers. I made her smile. I fed her. I removed my t-shirt, pressing her warm skin against mine until we became whole and inseparable by our exchange.

I never saw what the nurses had talked about. It wasn't that I couldn't see but rather because she was mine and I was hers. We defined who we were going to be to each other first, ourselves, separate but the same. It was much, much better than the love I had ever imagined.

In a world where nearly everyone has to have a scientific explanation, a definition or all of the answers for just about everyone and everything, I've learned a few lessons about the definitions of fatherhood:

  • I've learned that everything else, the medicine, the therapies, the causes and effects, the science behind it all, are secondary to the spirit of being a dad
  • I've learned that fatherhood will always be MY definition, just as my children are, not that of scientists, governments, insurance companies, healthcare facilities or other institutions
  • I've learned fatherhood is never as easy as I hoped it would be, but also never as hard as I imagined either
  • I've learned that defining myself as 'a dad of a special needs child' (or children in my case), is not what makes me whole, but rather just being a plain old-fashioned father like many other fathers
  • I've learned that acceptance as an act of giving into my natural role (and sometimes unnatural) as a parent is more important than any other definition in the world.

While I could endlessly write what my definition of fatherhood is I'm more interested in hearing about your defining moment as a dad or a parent. Feel free to leave it in the comment section below or on my blog.

You can learn more about Tim Gort here.

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