Last night I watched, belatedly, last season’s finale of ‘The West Wing’. The episode first aired two days before Ian’s birth; I was working with our church’s youth group, and Kelly was home resting.
For those who don’t follow the show, this is the episode where Toby’s twins are born. He’s very somber, cynical, and brusque – probably my favorite character. He confesses to Leo that he’s worried he won’t be able to love his children as, so he’s been told, all new fathers do.
Before Ian was born, everyone told me that having a child would change my life. Nothing would be the same, my priorities would change, sleep late now, so on, and so on. Toby had heard the same things, but he was worried that he didn’t have the capacity for fatherhood. I just took them for granted. Of course having a baby would change my life. Of course my priorities would change. What sort of moron would I be to think that my life would continue as usual with a new baby?
When Toby visits the hospital to visit his son and daughter, swaddled in pink and blue, the first thing he says to them is, “I didn’t realize babies came with hats.” Such a mundane statement. So like a guy to focus on such an unimportant and mindless detail. When Ian was born, my first thought was, “Gee, what a little guy.”
But what we’re thinking – what we’re feeling – is impossible to put into words. It’s too much. How can a father accurately describe the experience of seeing his child for the first time? If we tried, we’d probably pull something. Which is why men say things like, “It’ll change your life forever” and “You’ll never be the same”.
I’m sure it’d be better if dads didn’t say anything to soon-to-be dads. Our advice comes across as naive and pointless, and all you can do in response is nod your head and say, “Yep.” But the experience of a child’s birth is so amazing, wonderful, awe-inspiring, miraculous, and a host of other inadequate adjectives, that we desperately want to share it with everyone we meet. We especially want to try and prepare soon-to-be dads for the sledgehammer of emotion that overwhelms you when you first see your son or daughter.
Which is why Toby’s banal statement made me cry.
President Bartlett asked him, “What do you know now that you didn’t know 45 minutes ago?” Toby replies, “Babies come with hats.” Bartlett chuckles and says, “Yes, they do.”