What The First Week of Fatherhood Did to Me

I wrote this essay over five years ago, in 2015, when our first child was born and we were living in an apartment above the Bronx Documentary Center in the South Bronx. It’s wild to look back and see where I was at then. I’m in a much different place, in mindset and place (we live in Oakland, CA, in a small and cozy house with a wild and lovely back yard). I’d say I have a lot more peace. If anything, being a Dad has brought me closer to many more new and interesting complexities of our shared humanity. I feel my work and process has improved, my ability to connect to people has been expanded by being a part of one of the biggest clubs in the world — fatherhood.

We have an in house comedian of Winston, now five years old, in the daily hustle/party of pandemic living. This Sunday, after finishing several hours of pulling ivy from the backyard and planting new native bulbs, and then swimming in the Bay, a beer is cracked as a pink orange sunset stretches across Oakland. The Dells or Ahmad Jamal or J.J. Cale or Stevie play on the record player. Winston and I play hoops on the indoor mini hoop or the couch becomes a pirate ship, the carpet the sea, and the kitchen an island full of coconuts and treasure. A stack of newspapers and magazines beckons but will have to wait til after bedtime, and my wife and I, a middle school visual art teacher in Oakland, recharge for another week of creativity.

As we get ready for baby number two, it’s funny and nice to look back at where we were at when we first became a family.

When our first child, Winston Roscoe Hoyle, slid into this world, on Sunday November 8th at 6:59pm on the 12th floor of Roosevelt Hospital overlooking the twinkling Manhattan skyline, I lost my mind. For two minutes all I could say was “Oh my Goodness! Oh my Goodness! Oh my Goodness!” over and over again. Each “Oh My Goodness!” had a slightly different emphasis, as a lot was happening. First this alien-looking head poked out of my wife, swiveling round like a manic cartoon periscope with a face. Then he burst out and did a breakdancer’s slide and turn on his side, punctuated by a trill of pee, a vigorous flexing of his arms, and a hearty yell.

The yell gave way to shrieking, as if to say, “Who the hell are all these people? I’ve been stuck in a tunnel so small my skull had to partially collapse to fit through, and I get out and it’s just bright lights and commotion? You know where I just came from? The ultimate little Mancave with nothing but sweet amniotic fluid on tap 24/7!”

I couldn’t keep my eyes off him, and wanting to soothe him, I said, “Hey Buddy, it’s your Dada. It’s going to be ok. It’s going to be all right.” And then suddenly he stopped crying, and looked around the room, peacefully surveying everything, before looking directly in my eyes, and doing a slow, sweet blink.

As I stared at him, I slowly processed that all the generations of our families are represented in him. And when he kept looking deep into my eyes, a look of pure innocence, even bashfulness, it was as if his eyes were a portal back to the beginning of humanity. Newborns bring some piece of that with them, and give it to us in those first few hours and days, when they are not yet marked by the world.

His arrival has completely changed my perspective, as if I’ve been given new glasses and all the colors have changed. I have urges so strong and counter to what has governed my life previously, I know to be suspicious of them. I’m a searcher and an artist, an actor and playwright who finds inspiration for characters and stories from conversations with strangers and the clamor of a metropolis. But as soon as Winston was born, I was not living for myself anymore. So my impulse was to flee. Take to the country, a little cabin in the woods or by a meadow, where we could walk off the porch and into nature every morning. Jettison career and ambition and subsume my energy and identity in family.

I’m wary of this impulse. My friends and I derisively call it “checking out.” I recognize the false selflessness of those who say they are “just living for their kids” — since they are of you and by you, in a way it’s an extension of a parent’s ego. I believe in the common good, and respect the difficulty of staying engaged as a citizen and humanitarian amid the inevitable inward-turning of creating a family. The night after Winston was born, a particularly bedraggled homeless man came through the subway panhandling. I decided to give him some change, partly as a challenge to myself to continue staying engaged with wider society in my new life as a dad. (I know giving a homeless man change is not necessarily “being engaged,” but I hadn’t slept in two days, so bear with me). When he accepted my self-involved donation, I saw there was dried blood on his hand. I waited a few minutes, and then reached for the hand sanitizer in my backpack, glad that this time I wasn’t carrying Winston and his fragile immune system in my lap.

This is not how I imagined it. It took me a long time to feel ready to have kids. As a freelance artist, it is a nerve-wracking proposition. In the months before his birth, I was determined to “set everything up,” which ideally meant buying a house, acquiring a six-figure job with regular hours, writing that television pilot I’d been thinking about for three years, and installing the carseat. Instead, I put a bid on a house that sold for 263k more than my offer, sent lots of overly salesman-like emails to theater producers asking if they wanted to book my latest solo show, checked the S&P 500 five times a day, fretting that my diligently accrued savings would go kaput just as our child was born, and yes, one morning I installed the car seat. That was a good morning. The rest were pretty anxious.

Then Winston was born, and life got simple. My wife, Lyra, is the milk station, I’m the janitor (diaper changing, clean up), my mother-in-law is the mess hall cook. Being woken up at 1am, 3am, 5am, and 7am is a mind-bending experience. The fourth night Lyra asked me to make her a midnight snack of peanut butter and banana. “How?” I murmured. She stared at me. I could tell it was a dumb question, but couldn’t process why. “You put the peanut butter on top of the banana.” I nodded, grateful for the answer, but knowing something was wrong. Only when I trudged to the fridge and found it bereft of peanut butter from the night before did I realize that’s why I had asked “how?” It wasn’t the right question, but it was the best my brain could do.

Other middle-of-the-night conversations are only slightly more functional.

Me: Where’s the, um…the thing?
Lyra: The swaddle thing?
Me: No, the sleep thing for… when he goes in the thing.
Lyra: It’s in the top of the thing, under the… holder thing.
Me: No, I mean the um, the baggy thing.
Lyra: You mean the sleep thing?

Me: Yes, the baggy sleep thing.

And — oh the faces! My early favorites include the eyebrows-raised eyes-half-lidded Sleepy Nipple Lunge when he’s hungry but too tired to execute a focused attack. Or the Contemplative Professor face, refined and poised, his gaze focused on a point in the poignant middle-distance, right before he delivers a prodigious bowel movement. There’s the Buddha Baby face, when Lyra sits him up cross-legged between feeding sessions, and his belly sags out and, eyes closed, he beams food coma serenity. Sometimes, in a genre mash-up, an ooze of half-digested milk will quietly pour out, as in a horror movie death sequence.

On his third day of life, he did his special trick, of waiting till the diaper is off to unleash a shower of pee. Trying to cover up his geyser, and reapply his diaper, my hand was under his bum when he deposited a perfect poo directly into the center of the palm of my hand. It felt not just like a gift, but a sweetly delivered one. This is his currency, and he was handing me his shiniest nickel. Yes, I am that crazy to be enamored of being shit upon, but so it goes in the fog of newborn parenting.

Sitting with him asleep in my lap last week, as daylight dimmed and on came the night, I finally had a moment to sit with the significance of it all. I’m in the middle of a freelance career in the arts, which is filled with the unique experience of strangers standing up and applauding me for doing my job well, but also endless hustle to get seen by tastemakers and anointers. I also need weekly moments of true kinship with people, preferably strangers from different racial and class backgrounds — it makes me feel like I’m connected to the deepening of our shared humanity. So I am constantly wondering: am I hustling enough? Am I creating enough new material? Am I being open enough? Am I pursuing the right opportunities?

As our apartment darkened, I stared and stared at Winston’s sweet face. And then it happened. Holding my newborn son in my arms, I felt a tremendous sense of relief spread over me. Giving him love, yes, for now that is enough.

Actor, playwright, journalist, sports fan, politico.

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