Reflections on six months of fatherhood

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To be fed from a spoon requires three distinct skills. First, you must open your mouth when the spoon approaches. Second, you must close your mouth around the spoon once it has fully entered the mouth (and not before). Third, you must swallow the food that remains in your mouth after the spoon is withdrawn, rather than spitting it out.

I know this because my daughter, who is six months old, did not possess these skills two months ago. She learned rapidly—ah, to possess the neuroplasticity of the young—but there was a brief period when she literally did not know how to be spoon-fed. (Note that I have not begun to describe the skills required to feed oneself with a spoon, in part because she has not yet acquired them.)

The first lesson I have received from fatherhood is that everything must be learned, or very nearly everything. Babies are born with a very small number of reflexes and instincts: to suck on whatever enters their mouth, to “root” around on mother’s chest to find the nipple, to cry when they are uncomfortable. Everything else is a mental step in a long, upward climb.

In the first weeks, both the parents and the child are focused on digestion. The infant is essentially an alimentary canal with arms and legs. (The limbs are superfluous and indeed get in the way more than they help; if children were properly engineered, they would be born limbless, and the arms and legs would grow in as they were needed.) The infant is learning to nurse, to sleep, and to poop, and that’s about all they do for a little while. Yes, they even need to learn how to poop, or at least that’s how the nurse in the maternity ward explained her grunting sounds and puzzled expression.

All capabilities come in the tiniest increments. At first she did not know what her hands were for, and was more likely to scratch her own face than to do anything useful with them. After a few months she started to realize that hands could grasp things, but not how to do so. She would pinch and grip randomly when something was under them. Just feeling. She started to hold the bottle when I fed her, but she made every conceivable mistake in doing so. She would put her hands on top of the bottle, rather than on the bottom or sides. (Gravity has to be learned.) She would try to balance it on her knuckles, to comic effect. She would get a grip on the bottle, then move her hands and lose her grip while drinking. She would hold the bottle very close to the nipple, giving her no leverage to lift it. She would squeeze it between her wrists instead of using her palms and fingers. (She still does that, actually, and she’s gotten remarkably good at it.)

At a certain point, she had learned that hands are good for holding things, but she would only grasp a toy if you literally put it in her hand. She would do nothing purposeful with it, not even look at it, and then drop it randomly, unconsciously. Later, if you held a toy out to her, she would stretch her arms out and reach for it. But she would not yet reach for a toy that was nearby on the ground. Then one day she started reaching for those toys, too. This was a triumph: her first sign of pursuing an object of her choosing, rather than one which was (literally) handed to her.

Gross motor skills, like fine ones, have also come by degrees. At first she could push herself half an inch or so along the ground by flailing her legs, not always intentionally. Then it was intentional. Quickly she realized that by combining half-inch scoots, she could travel a longer distance—maybe multiple inches. At that point she was mobile, barely. For a brief time she would crawl towards a toy she wanted, but only if the toy was within a foot or two of her. Soon she grasped the inductive argument: if I can scoot N inches, then I can scoot N+1 inches. From then on her range was unlimited. (Although she has yet to get up on all fours, and she crawls by dragging her belly along the ground, commando style.)

The crawling, and the grabbing, lead me to the other lesson I have received so far, which is that much of human motivation is curiosity and self-actualization, not mere comfort and pleasure—even at this very early stage. She has not yet said her first word, and yet already she seems driven by an insatiable desire to explore—to explore both the world and her own abilities. She delights in her toys but is not content with them; she wants to move beyond the delimited rectangle of her play mat, with its smooth, round objects of wood and plastic in bright solid colors. She seeks the world beyond the mat: to touch the carpet and the curtains, to crawl behind and underneath the chair, to handle a grown-up cup, to pull clothes out of the drawer, to grab at hair and glasses and clothing, to eat the tag hanging underneath the sofa.

She crawls towards objects of desire, but not all her motion is directed at a tangible goal in the environment. She climbs over cushions, or up a foam-block incline, or up my chest, apparently for the fun of doing so. The first time I helped her sit up, at a few months old, the look on her face was wonder and amazement. I’m sitting up! How did that happen? I didn’t know that could happen! Now when I offer a hand, she doesn’t just sit up: she stands. Sitting is for three-month-olds. She stands: wobbling, swaying, shaking, sometimes almost collapsing into a seated position, usually getting back up with the slightest tug. The look on her face is still one of exhilaration, every time.

If her utility function were purely based on physical comfort and pleasure, most of this would be inexplicable. She already has the cushiest life imaginable: she has servants to feed, clothe, and bathe her, to carry her from room to room, to soothe her to sleep, even to wipe her bottom; her slightest whim or discomfort is attended to quickly if she but makes it known. If the goal of life were to relax and take it easy, she would already be at the pinnacle, with nowhere to go.

But—as she reminds me, with every striving crawl across the room, with every curious coo at a strange new object—relaxation is not the goal of life. Not of hers, nor of mine, nor of humanity’s. Our lives are not complete without challenge, adventure, play, and curiosity. When the mere struggle for survival does not provide enough of that—and it has not, since hunter-gatherer times—we invent it for ourselves: through games and sports, through travel, through storytelling, through math and science. We run races, climb mountains, compose ballads, peer through telescopes. These things don’t put food on one’s table, a shirt on one’s back, or a roof over one’s head. That’s not why we do them. We do them in order to be fully human and fully alive. And so does she, even if, for now, she is climbing sofa cushions instead of mountains, and peering at a set of plastic measuring spoons from the kitchen rather than at the cosmos.

Daughter, that’s what you’ve taught me, just in your first six months. I only hope I can ever teach you nearly as much.