The male characters of Mad Men say things to each other that you rarely hear on television. Roger’s insensitivity (“There’s a line, Freddy. And you wet it.”), Lane’s outrage (“You grimy little pimp.”), and Pete’s ambition (“A man like you I’d follow into combat blindfolded.”). They are all laid bare for us without nuance or apology. Often I hear a line and it resonates with me, like a truth I’ve known internally but that’s never seen the light of day.
So it is with Don’s monologue, as he explains that he did not love his children the moment they were born:
“I don’t think I ever wanted to be the man who loves children, but from the moment they’re born, the baby comes out and you act proud and excited. And you hand out cigars. But you don’t feel anything.”
“Especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them, but you don’t, and the fact you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem.”
“Then one day they get older and you see them do something and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have. And it feels like your heart is going to explode.”
I had the same feelings when my children were born. My first was delivered in the afternoon. There were late complications and my wife was whisked off to emergency surgery, leaving me alone in the birthing center, watching the double doors slowly flapping as she was rushed to the ER. I found my way to the waiting room, where I made small talk with another soon-to-be father. After a while, a nurse came and got me and led me to the nursery, where my daughter was naked, behind glass in her plastic shoe-box sized container from Island Plastics. My waiting room buddy stood behind me and said, “Ah, you got a girl.”
And I thought to myself, how does he know that? A few minutes later I figured it out, but it was all too much to take in. A baby, my baby, she was just this pink blob of hair and closed eyes (and labia), still with a screw in the top of her head where they’d placed a monitor. I couldn’t even get my head around the idea of her.
But I never told anyone. I thought it was this unique flaw only I had, maybe because of my own difficult childhood. So I pretended to dote on her every soiled diaper, burp and spit-up. I inhaled that new baby smell until the formula washed it away. I carried her around, showing her off to friends and family. But I didn’t feel love. I thought there was something wrong with me. Fortunately fathers are overlooked, starting with the announcement that you’re expecting. This period lasts until, I don’t know, the father-daughter wedding dance maybe. It’s pretty easy to hide something when you’re the dad, because no one really expects much of you.
After The Flood I went to Wikipedia and looked up “Human Bonding” and found paternal bonding:
“In contrast to the maternal bond, paternal bonds tend to vary over the span of a child’s development in terms of both strength and stability. ( . . .) In general, paternal bonding is more dominant later in a child’s life after language develops. Fathers may be more influential in play interactions as opposed to nurturance interactions.”
And now I know this is a thing. I thought it was only me, but my time with other dads indicates it’s something that happens to fathers quite a bit. My younger daughter, born six years later, is a case in point: once her older sister left for college, our bonding time began. Our weekly time together was finally all about her. Whether that time comes in a child’s first six years or when she’s a bright and goofy middle-schooler, maybe that’s what it takes for a father to fall in love: Six years.
This delay isn’t a flaw. It isn’t bad parenting. It is how men often pass through the portal and find their way to fatherhood. On this Father’s Day let’s remember the words Don Draper said and celebrate all dads, however they get to that place in their lives.
P.S. As for my older kid and me, we figured it out.