Oliver Zheng

Becoming a Father, Part 1: What Matched Expectations

November 22, 2020

My son is almost nine months old. The word life-changing does not capture the scope of what changes or the degree by how much. Having Matthew unlocked a set of experiences that I could not have grasped prior to becoming a dad. Friends with kids didn’t convey their experiential reality at full fidelity with the exact phrasing that distilled it for me; how dare they cheer me on knowing full well what would happen.

People with kids and people without kids live in two parallel universes that just happen to intersect in the same physical mesh we all walk around in. It’s unfortunate that telling people without kids what it’s like having kids mostly comes across as preaching. Of course I selfishly want my friends to have kids so I can share this somewhat twisted experience with them. So I’m hoping it’d be useful to document this in writing so that, with no one in particular to send parenting memes to, I’m allowed to be honest with myself.

There’s some point on a bell curve where I’m equally attached (and detached) from both lives to be able to dispassionately diff the two. I’m likely right around that peak now, before the holidays kick in and we start sending our first newsletter and establish a routine we’ll grow to enjoy the hustle of until one day suddenly it disappears when we realize Matthew is all grown up and ready to be on his own. But more on that later.

Besides documenting what my former self could not have reasonably conceived (ahem, dad joke), I want to start with the life changing bits that went according to expectations I had prior to embarking on this one-way journey.

Sleep sucks now. Getting the obvious out of the way.

I’m more constructive and forward looking. I expected to want to be a better person. I’m not automatically a better person now but I desire to be. Specifically, I desire to want to figure out what better means in a way I previously hand-waved away by assuming I knew what better meant. Matthew provides a bigger-than-me reason to base my hopes and dreams on. Seeing his cute face daily gives me confidence that there’s a solid foundation that I can build a ladder of celebrations and experiences to look forward to. It’s a great defense against aimlessness or cynicism.

Less existential dread. My monkey brain is satisfied now that I have offspring. This was likely amplified by my upbringing where it’s generally expected people have kids. It’s less that I’ve ticked off a checkbox drawn for me by my environment, and more that I no longer need to consider a set of questions that I didn’t want to answer. What if we couldn’t have kids? What if he wasn’t healthy? Would we adopt? At what age would we tell our adopted child? Now that I have the confidence a king has knowing he can pass down his empire to his heir, I want to say that we would have found our way in time regardless of what happened. But I honestly don’t know if that’s true and secretly feel incredibly lucky that we didn’t have to find out.

I like him a lot. I expected to like Matthew a lot, though maybe only in a more intense way compared to other people I like a lot. Instead, it’s a lot simpler of a relationship than with my wife or friends or parents. There is no expected reciprocality or dynamic to establish, rapport to build. He likes me because I happen to be one of two adult humans around him that helps him survive and I like him because I’m biologically wired to help him survive without conditions. I imagine this is what having a dog is like. I don’t have a dog, but I’d think the reliance on his side and lack of expectations on my side makes this a strong stable bond. The hormones probably kick that up a notch though.

All this is to say he makes me smile and melts my heart a lot.