San Antonio -- IT IS 2 a.m., and I am running down the checklist of possible reasons for my 2-month-old daughter's deafening shrieks. Is she hungry? No, she has guzzled from her bottle until she could guzzle no more. Wet? Nope. I think we have been through a tractor-trailer load of diapers since noon.
Hannah's round face is the color fire engines used to be. The sound she is making, too, is pretty similar to the angry sound they make when they are racing off. This is a notable change from the sound she made two hours ago, which was sort of like a car alarm.
I hate car alarms.
Welcome to paternity leave, that modern corporate symbol of equality and family values. Actually, in my case, it is two weeks of vacation.
My wife and I agreed early on that when her six weeks of combined vacation and sick leave expired, I would take an additional two weeks to postpone that other, inevitable modern corporate symbol of two paychecks: day care.
In the next room, my wife, Gloria, is sleeping. I wonder if her sleep is tinged with mild guilt, as mine was when she would rise dutifully to take care of Hannah. I would bury my head beneath the pillow with the rationalization that I had to get up for work the next morning, while Gloria and the baby could sleep in (an argument I am now finding full of holes). Plus, I was not equipped for lactation.
Gloria, who like me is a reporter, has been talking about how pleasant a change it will be to engage in adult conversation when she returns to work (I am vaguely unhappy with the insinuation; what have I been providing, dog conversation?). Still, it is clear from her eyes and voice as she has cradled the baby in the waning days of her leave that it will be difficult to make the separation.
Hannah and I are rocking in my Eames chair (the only surviving piece of furniture from my bachelor days permitted in our living room) and flipping through the channels with the remote control.
A couple we know, who also had their first baby in the past year or so, wrote a little joke on the card attached to their gift to Hannah -- something about Australian-rules football being on ESPN at 4 a.m., a secret known only to new parents.
I understand now how desperation might prod someone actually to watch it. Springsteen was right. Fifty-odd channels, and nearly all of them devoted to hourlong commercials at this time of night.
Sometimes rocking calms the baby, sometimes it does not. This morning it does not. I rise and walk around the living room, bouncing her gently on my shoulder. This is our other trick, and it, too, is failing to stifle the cries.
In one of his books, famous baby doctor T. Berry Brazelton says not to feel guilty if you have tried everything you know and the baby continues to cry.
I interviewed Brazelton several years ago; sat face-to-face with him and talked about babies. I am filled now with an odd desire to punch him in the nose.
I am told by well-meaning folks that it is good to have your children later in life, as I have done, because you have developed maturity and patience. I am half a year from my 40th birthday, and while I may be willing to concede partly that this is so, I also am filled with gloom at the disadvantages. For one thing, by the time Hannah really gets up to speed, I will be too old and tired to chase her.
But I am far from alone in this. Nearly all our friends have had their children at or near our age, having been preoccupied with careers and other matters until now.
It is good, being part of this thirtysomething parents' group, because advice is plentiful and trustworthy -- far more useful than what is contained in the stack of books we brought home during Gloria's pregnancy.
It also has saved us thousands of dollars. Baby clothes, I am
learning, should come with one of those checkout cards you find inserted in library books. They only pass through your life briefly, then go on to some other family's baby closet.
Suddenly at my shoulder comes a series of rapid, exhausted gasps and sputters -- like a car engine running out of gas. My daughter has cried herself out and has fallen asleep. This sound is more heartbreaking than any of the sounds that preceded it, and I am filled with an emotion I cannot describe.
But already her tiny face is peaceful, and in a few hours she will awake again, wide-eyed and astonished by almost nothing.
As I lay her in her crib, within reach of our bed, my wife's eyes open briefly and I am granted a look of shared experience I would never otherwise have earned. Something like sisterhood.
Don Finley wrote this for the San Antonio Express-News.