Until I became a father six months ago, 4:30 a.m. wasn't part of my life. I recognized that 4:30 must have occurred as I was sleeping, but that's all I knew. I didn't know what my apartment or my street looked like at that hour. I didn't know what I looked like. College students may have been partying. Matt Lauer may have been showering. But I was sleeping, and I was happy. Until my son was born.
He begins whimpering around 4 every morning, and only gets louder from there. The problem wasn't that he woke my wife and me up, but that we were only hearing him after he'd reached Full Despair. For a baby, crying at night is opera. It starts out quiet, and then crescendos into a dramatic aria. We were only hearing the dramatic aria. I needed to start hearing the early part.
I don't know how it happened (I must have triggered the internal alarm clock that wakes you up before an early-morning flight), but I started waking up at 4:15. At 4:15, he's cooing, grunting, mildly protesting. When I pick him up, he looks like he's about to give me an award. If he could talk, he'd say, “Thank you for sparing us both the indignity of my anguish.”
After I feed and change him, we just hang. I use two cushions (and the laws of physics) to prop him up on the sofa. First we stare at each other. Then we read the news. (I pull up the New York Times on my iPad. He arbitrarily bats at headlines.) Then we play a little guitar. (I hold the instrument up to his feet.) Then we smile at each other. It's the tenderest smile I've ever seen. It's the same smile I get before bedtime. I don't think I'd get that smile if we hadn't bonded pre-sunrise.
It seems like hearing the early part is the way parenting should work—no matter how old a kid is. The early part involves being curious about their lives, being involved, anticipating a problem. The early part is an opportunity, a preemptive strike. It's you requesting their time, instead of them demanding your care.
Sure, I'd rather be sleeping at 4:30 in the morning, but if my son wants to hang out for a few minutes before getting down to the business of babyhood, then I'll make the best of it. I look forward to it.
4:30 is a gift—one I didn't know I wanted, but I'll take it.
Ross McCammon is the assignments editor for Esquire. He lives in New York City.