One of the things I am sometimes shocked at and marvel at is the physical contact. When I put my boys to bed I lie down between them while we say our prayers, read, sing, or maybe just talk about life's mysteries. Depending on their mood, the two boys will be hugged up on me, or grabbing my arm or hand, or kissing me while I'm lying down like this. Beyond this I often find myself throughout the day hugging or kissing or playing drums on their back or just squeezing them. It's a level of physical contact and intimacy you don't really find most places except between parents and children. Even lovers (hopefully) aren't just randomly squeezing each other all the time--that would be a bit weird and intense. But with your kids it's within the realm of normal, even in public places where you wouldn't be expected to be playing kissyface with your significant other.
I wonder how this might be different if I was the father of girls and not boys. Obviously pedophilia is a very different thing from normal sexual orientation, but even so, I think we are collectively conditioned to find it suspect when a heterosexual male is too physically close and affectionate with a little girl, even (or especially?) if it's his daughter. I am lucky then in that I can be this close with my boys, admire their physical beauty, without setting off alarm bells (for myself or for others) as to whether there might be some inappropriate sexual sentiment there. It's actually a whole new experience for me--most of my life I have been able to find physical beauty mainly in the female form, which means it was always a mix of honest-to-goodness aesthetic appreciation, with a lot of sexual attraction mixed in. There's nothing wrong with this, it's just that it meant I wasn't very good at appreciating the physical beauty of at least half of the population around me (and I was conditioned not to do so lest I be labeled gay or effeminate). Admiring my boys' beauty has opened me to a type of physical admiration that I hadn't really felt before, and now I find myself better able to admire the beauty in their little friends, male and female, and even in adults of both sexes, without the sexual or romantic component so mixed in.
This reminds me of a blog I read recently from a dad trying to cultivate his son's more sensitive side. I have to admit that, while I try to fight gender and other norms that make life worse for everyone, I also tend to be a personally conservative, no-nonsense kind of guy. So I'm not too crazy about nail painting and long hair, in my boys or anyone else. Some of my tensest moments in my stepdaughter's upbringing have revolved around the pervasive stench of acetone when she was bored and would paint and repaint her nails ad nauseum. All this is to say that, while I will grudgingly and conditionally accept when my kids (or more often, my family members or the kids' teachers) want to paint their nails or let their hair grow out a bit between our regularly-scheduled buzz cuts, I prefer more active, constructive ways of challenging toxic male stereotypes. My boys have become crusaders to speak out whenever someone makes a stupid comment about what boys or girls should or shouldn't do, what colors they can wear, what emotions they can have. Both of my boys have been in ballet class for years now, and it seems like something they might want to really pursue as a calling. My older guy was the star of his school's end-of-year ballet show, and multiple people at their schools have thanked us and them for opening their minds about who could and should do ballet, what options are appropriate for boys, etc. That seems much more worthwhile to me than painting your nails, but I recognize that there's a place for both the trivial and the transcendent in our lives.
As you can see, I've been very centered on my two older boys. We're playing more board games now, watching classic movies like Labyrinth and the Dark Crystal. They've also been spending lots of time with their grandmother, who is in town for a month to help us with everything. The end of the school year has brought some wonderful shows in areas like folkloric dance, ballet, and a Mother's Day rendition of Marvin and Tammy's Ain't No Mountain High Enough. It just makes my heart melt to see my boys and all their classmates intoning such sweet notes.
As I've been taking care of the two older guys, I've made a point not just to cover the practical things like feeding and bathing them, but to really enjoy the moment for myself, and to make life fun for them. I've been trying to goof around and play more with them, which doesn't always come natural to me. I've even gone so far as to obtain a parenting book called Playful Parenting. Reading any sort of how-to book, especially for parenting, goes against my very nature, but I really want to do the best I can for these kids. My newborn helped me to think of this; I had been melancholy before his arrival, thinking that I wasn't going to have any more babies in my life, and when we found out he was coming I committed myself to making the most of this last infancy. Now I'm also applying this carpe diem attitude to my older kids. As we've spent more time together and they've gotten more comfortable and confident with me, the two older guys are now inured to my occasional scolding and barking, which are incidentally becoming less frequent.
So that's sort of the natural division of labor my wife and I have adopted around the arrival of our newborn. My wife is obviously a natural choice for taking care of the baby since she is the exclusive source of his nourishment, so I take care of the two big guys. It's gotten to the point that I'm not even that aware of all the things my wife has to do around breastfeeding, breast pumping, sterilizing and using bottles when she leaves the baby with a babysitter, etc. It's like we inhabit two different worlds sometimes, or at least there are parts of our lives right now that the other spouse isn't very involved in. This contrasts a bit with our prior babies, when I was on top of bottle detail. But of course back then we didn't have a four-year-old and a seven-year-old to take care of! I am proud to say though that I have maintained my role as the go-to diaper washer.
This isn't to say I haven't been paying attention to my little guy. Granted, hanging out with a newborn is like learning a new language. Tiny babies are like little aliens. They can't talk, or even see or hear or process information the same way we do. My baby boy can't exactly respond or reciprocate, or think of others. We just care for him, like a weird podling. And we can't ever know what his world, what his unique way of thinking is. It's like an extension of the mysterious place he was at in the womb, and even before conception. We gradually force him to conform to our language, our way of doing things, even our way of counting numbers, such that by the time he can communicate with us in our terms, he's lost the ability to remember or evoke that other way of being that was, that is right now, in this moment of his life.
But I have fun goofing around with him, roughhousing, having one-sided conversations with him. His face is usually locked in an expression that mixes inborn dignity with perplexity at being this little helpless baby, in thrall to his gases and poops and bodily functions. He kind of squints at the world, as if concentrating really hard to understand it. I play records for him; I'm learning to finally distinguish between the Duke Ellington pieces Prelude to a Kiss and Solitude, which I always listened to as a kid on an album that played them in quick succession. I frantically step with my baby to Caravan, then slowly, romantically swerve with him to Prelude to a Kiss. I read him the Aeneid, and sadly muse that its vision of cataclysmic destruction of a city followed by aimless, indefinite wandering through hostile wastelands is likely a fitting allegory for how the world may be during poor Frankie's lifetime.