Remembering my first child, 33 years later

When my first child was born, in 1981, I knew I wanted to be an involved father. It wasn’t because I thought that was best for Matt. I wanted to be involved because I thought this was about the most interesting biological experiment I could even be part of. Here was this little primate who—despite a limited vocabulary (none) and an apparent inability to do much but eat, sleep, and let his parents know urgently that it was time to eat or sleep—was endlessly fascinating. The downy hair, the sweet smell of his breath, the wide eyes, the tender skin, and the impossibly small, soft nails on his little toes all seemed to demand extensive investigation.

I didn’t have the direct, intimate physical connection with my son that his mother had when she nursed him. But I felt a powerful emotional connection. And I thought he felt it, too. Something about the way he would look me in the eye, or smile when I walked into the room or picked him up.

I took two weeks off from work after he was born, to help his mother recover from a Cesarean section and to spend time with him. I could hardly bear it the morning I had to go back to work, leaving at 7 am to catch the train from New Jersey to New York City. I don’t know what my son thought then, but his feelings were clear when he was a little older. When it was time to leave for work, I would give him a kiss and walk out the front door. As soon as the door closed behind me, he would hustle over to one of the front windows, climb up on a little box we’d put there, and look for me outside. As soon as he spotted me walking away, he would start to cry. When I looked back, I would see his little hands grasping the window sill, his head just visible above them, and his face, twisted in grief, as if it were the last time he would ever see me. He continued to cry until after I got to the end of the driveway and turned the corner, out of sight. This went on for months. I can still see that face.

I couldn’t quit my job and stay home, but what I could do was to make sure I got home every night before he went to bed. In those days, and when he and my other children were small, I caught the 5:47 New Jersey Transit train out of Hoboken every night, except for the rare occasions when a breaking news story kept me late at the Associated Press. I would get home an hour or two before the kids went to bed, time enough to wrestle on the floor, read a few books, and put them to bed. My wife was usually ready for a break by then, so I took over.

I remember a colleague at the AP who never left the office before 7 or 8 at night. He might as well have been a thousand miles away on the road every week; he saw his children only on weekends. I had other friends who saw little of their kids during the week (many of my neighbors commuted to Wall Street, famous then and now not only for outrageous bonuses but also brutally long hours). I didn’t want that. I liked my kids, and I liked spending time with them, even if I was more likely to doze off during our bedtime reading than they were.

I knew many other fathers who tried to do the same thing, limiting their hours so they could spend some time with their children every day. Being an involved father–or as involved as I could be, given the constraints of my commute—didn’t seem unusual to me. But to the psychologists of the time, it was. As unremarkable as my behavior seemed to me to be, fathers like me were not supposed to exist.

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The Beginning
About Paul Raeburn

Paul Raeburn is a journalist and blogger, and the author of Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked, to be published by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux for Father’s Day, 2014. He is the author of three previous books, including most recently Acquainted with the Night, a memoir of raising children with depression and bipolar disorder. His work appears regularly in The New York Times, Discover, Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, and others, and he is a frequent guest on NPR.

Paul also writes the About Fathers blog for Psychology Today, and he is the chief media critic for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker and writes regularly for Discover magazine.

He was the science editor and chief science correspondent at the Associated Press from 1981-1996, and a senior editor and writer at BusinessWeek from 1996-2003. He is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers, and a recipient of its Science in Society award, along with numerous other prizes.

A native of Detroit, Raeburn now lives in New York City with his wife, the writer Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, and their two children.

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