A Father’s Birth
A series of articles on becoming a parent from a Zen’s priest memories, guts, and imagination
Part 6: Confidence
It was our first night home. I was exhausted to the point that unconsciousness would better describe my state. Somewhere in my sensory fog a voice was calling, but I couldn’t be sure where it was coming from or if it even concerned me. ‘Wake up! Please wake up!’ I recognized the distant voice as my wife’s voice. I asked myself, What does she want? Doesn’t she know I’m sleeping? I’m so tired. I want to go back to sleep. But no. Here comes the voice again. “He just finished nursing. Could you please change his diaper?” He? Nursing? You? Diaper? All the words came together and I woke up fast.
I sat up and looked around. The room hadn’t changed except for one thing… there weren’t two of us anymore. There were three. And Zen priest or not, I was suddenly scared out of my wits. ‘Take him,’ my wife said. ‘His diaper needs changing.’ She held him up and I knew that I had to take him from her, so I did and was shocked to find him so light… weightless. All this commotion for weeks and days, and here was this little creature that was the cause of it all. I held my arms out and held him in my hands; and suddenly I felt like a bear holding a squirrel.
My wife and I had made a deal. She would feed him and I would clean up the results of that feeding, i.e., change his diaper. I took him into the bathroom and put him on the changing table. I unsnapped his pajama bottom and pulled them off. So far, so good. I found the diaper’s adhesive tabs and pulled them, and then like a bizarre flower the diaper opened up and the poop I expected to find wasn’t there. Instead my little son had filled his diaper with something that looked like crude oil or greenish tar. It was dark, thick, sticky stuff. I took a baby-wipe and tried to clean it off. I was fully awake now, and being so, I began to remember what the nurse at the Birthing House had said. Then it had seemed just a casual comment; but now it made important sense. Meconium. ‘For the first few days, the infant will excrete all the contents of his intestines… everything that had been ingested while he was in the uterus.’ She said that it wouldn’t smell funny at all; and in fact, it didn’t. She had said that it would be different from normal poop, and it was. So I had learned Lesson #1. And my son had passed the first test. If he had excreted this meconium while he was still in my wife’s uterus, he might have ingested it; and that would have made him a candidate for some very serious problems. The nurse had told us that people used to think that this meconium was sterile; but, in fact, it isn’t. Researchers in Spain tested many samples and found that half of them contained E. coli. Uh, oh. I used a second wipe on his behind… and then a third. I wanted to be sure I got it all off.
Where, I wondered, did people get the idea that changing a diaper was just a simple thing? Changing a tire is less hazardous… and less complicated! When I was certain I had gotten his bottom clean, he peed in a pretty golden arc. I stood there speechless and watched him. He gurgled or giggled. I couldn’t be sure, but it certainly seemed that he was laughing happily as if he were really having fun. I knew only that this whole messy experience was absolutely beautiful. Now I was giggling, too. And I got wipe #4 and did my duty.
Naturally, I thought about Zen Masters who take their turn with the “Shitstick.” There was a time that monasteries would be built in rural areas and, since monks are human beings, they went to the toilet regularly. Disposing of this waste was usually accomplished by diverting a small stream into a sluice that depended on gravity to get it down to wherever the waste would finally be deposited. Often clumps of waste would get stuck in the sluice, and the monks had these paddles that they used to push the waste down so that it didn’t form a blockage that would dam-up the flow. It wasn’t a pleasant job; but the Masters would demonstrate that they were no better than the lowest monk when it came to these human necessities. There is no place for an ego in the act of eliminating waste. The Shitstick united the master with the novice. Titles cannot separate us from our common humanity. And I learned something else, too. I was due to officiate at an Ordination ceremony. This would be an even more awesome experience since now I was aware of the hazards and complications none of us ever imagines will occur, but they do. Human beings make mistakes and they also are simply ignorant of things that they will later need to know. It is scary to take on such responsibility; but if, like those masters who took their turn in using the Shitstick, we remember our common humanity and keep our ego out of the process, we can prevail and share a happy experience instead of showing disgust at actions that we decide are beneath us.
So there I was… a dad… like a doctor or a plumber or a grocer… putting a clean diaper on my boy. His bright eyes looked at me. I don’t know what he saw, but I saw an adorable face that radiated a kind of confidence in me and an approval of what I had done. I had begun the task, shocked to see what looked like lava that had erupted from his behind. And then with just a little knowledge and, I suppose, a lot of instinct, I had wiped away the tar and the urine and in this act, I had joined the rest of the world’s dads.
My transition to fatherhood had begun.