Can You Be a Dad and a Dude?

So I’m a new dad. In March, my wife Alison gave birth to our first child, a gorgeous little girl named Maddie, on a day that at once seems like yesterday and a year ago. I am the first of my close, local friends to have a child, which makes me feel old at the least and disconnected from them at most. The latter emotion often triggers a wistful yearning for the days when I was just like them: free and wild, when a Tuesday happy hour might last until 4 a.m., just because.

Am I in denial? No. It’s impossible to be a parent in denial. Babies snatch denial and crumple it like a beer can. In fact, I consider myself a good father. I play with Maddie. I sing to her. I often sleep downstairs with her, feeding and changing her so that my wife can have a night of uninterrupted snoozing. I take her on dad-daughter dates, either in Manhattan or in the Jersey suburb where I live. I know which restaurants have changing tables in the men’s room (Five Guys) and which will allow me to use the table in the women’s room (Chipotle).

Still, there’s something emasculating about it all. I’ve seen many young parents quickly become fuddy-duddy schlubs whose life is a yawning rotation from bed to work to the diaper table to a Black Label rocks on the couch, watching half the ballgame before they can’t stay awake. (I’m guilty of the last act.) They suffer from unending colds. They don’t spend, uh, quality time with their wives unless it’s a “date night,” which requires so much planning and coordinating and efficiency that it feels like rushing for a flight.

Look, I get it: A baby’s schedule is the schedule. Parenthood is about sacrifice. It snares most of us, sooner or later. But you can fight it, right?

So far, my remedy has been to take out my daughter. Mock the Baby Bjorn if you will, but you can actually do quite a lot with one. I’ve taken her to happy hours, to food fairs, to steakhouses. It’s not that hard, when they’re so young. I feed her when she’s hungry, change her when she’s fussy, and hold her as she scans the room in awe. I limit myself to one drink. I’m not partying, I’m not out late, but I am out. Though people smile and tell me that I’m a “cool dad,” sometimes I don’t feel so cool. Maddie is learning what life is; I’m holding onto what life was.

A few weeks ago, my family visited. They complimented me on how I handled the mundane details of keeping the house going, washing dishes, caring for and nourishing Alison, and watching Maddie—really watching her, so that I know her little rhythms and needs, the tiny changes in cries or patterns that only parents notice. It was a test passed.

On my family’s last night in town, we went to dinner in New York City. Then they went home and Alison, Maddie and I went out. One of my favorite restaurants—not for the food, but for the memories—is called Elaine’s. It’s known for its literary clientele, and when I was in college, my friend Wright and I ate there repeatedly. We wanted to be writers, and that’s what writers did. Well, now Elaine’s was closing, and Wright, along with a few other friends, flew into New York for twelve hours to dine there one last time. Neither I, nor Alison, nor Maddie could miss this night—a celebration of what once was—even if we only planned to stay for an hour.

And that hour went fast. After a round of drinks (Our table finished Elaine’s supply of Jack. Like, forever.) I leaned over to Alison and said, “I’m having fun.”

“I know you are,” she replied.

“Do you mind if I stay?”

“Not at all.”

After she and Maddie left, it was weird: I instantly missed them, but I suddenly felt like a guy. Not a cool dad. A dude. I called a cab to pick me up at 11:15. Then, I pushed it to 11:45, then 12:15, then 1, then 1:15. I stumbled into my house at 1:30 and fell into bed.

Man, that 6 a.m. alarm hit me hard.

I hopped out of bed to drive my family to the airport. I checked myself in the mirror: Not too bad, I thought. My eyes were a little pinker than usual. My hair was messy, which exposed my grays—not a lot, but enough that I had given up plucking. All in all, I felt fine. I slammed a Gatorade and ate an apple and called it another victory against time.

We piled into the car for the 30-minute ride. On the way, I began to feel…off. As I’ve entered my mid-30s, my hangovers have morphed from heaviest when I wake up, to unbearable about an hour after I’m into the day. In the car, my hangover had a life of its own, eating me from the inside. I cracked the window, I shifted in my seat, I concentrated my breathing through my nose, all in vain, like a Band Aid that won’t stay on. Less than a mile from the airport, my mouth started watering, and my stomach freaked out, and I felt as though I was clutching a basketball, trapped in the corner, with three defenders in my face and the shot clock ticking down. I pulled over, said, “I’m sorry,” opened the door, flopped my head out, and spewed.

On the road.

In front of my family.

On their trip to see me as a father.

Gotta say, they handled it with class. My mom even wanted a kiss goodbye. Before she boarded, she said, “I’m proud of you.”

It hurt more than it helped.

 

First photo by Alison Overholt. Second photo by Wright Thompson.

 

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