A Different World
In his book Identity: Youth and Crisis, Erik Erikson reminds us that the world children live in is very different from our own, and that there is "a deep-seated superstition that (a) rational and practical man would lose his single-minded stamina if he ever turned back to meet the Medusa of childhood anxiety face to face again." It appears a man must actively overcome that superstition, must open both memory and imagination, in order to be fully useful as a father.
For example, a few years ago, when he was 6, my youngest child had a short run of night terrors, a syndrome quite different from nightmares since the child is partially awake when he experiences them. The first time Tim experienced them, he ran into our dimly lit bedroom as if on fire, his arms flailing, legs twisting, eyes darting about. He came near me, trying to speak but unable to utter more than fragments, and I remembered instantly how terrifying that had been when I had night terrors at the same age -- the realization that language could not carry any message about what was going on. Indescribable terror.
Tim wouldn't let me near him. "You don't have to say it," I said to him several times. "It happened to me when I was a kid. I know that you can't describe it, but I know what's happening."
He darted about, jerkily, as if dancing barefoot on glowing embers. When he finally found his tongue he said, "I'm going to die."
"No, no. You're not going to die. It's already starting to go away. Believe me. I've been there."
At last Tim could look at me and hold his gaze in one place. I kept talking, moving closer to him, listening to his breathing.
"What is it?" he cried "What is it?"
"Nobody knows," I told him. "Nobody knows what it is, but I know what it feels like."
Then he put his arms around my neck and held on tight as the terror waned, as the spiraling up ceased and the spiraling down began. He never knew how frightened I had been -- from the first instant of his scream -- not only for him, but for myself. Meeting the Medusa again. Really remembering, digging down, so I could try to help him.
One does what one does out of love rather than some notion of fatherly duty. Love is the engine, and what's interesting is that -- unlike the mother, who often feels an immediate physical connection with her infant -- the father has to come to love his child. The newborn is a tabula rasa for the dad, who may well be proud and anticipatory, but can't be said to actually love much more than the idea of the baby. Love arises as the father asks, Who is this child? What is he doing here? and watches attentively as an individual begins to emerge from the seven or eight pounds of potential.
Perhaps love between father and child starts in mutual curiosity, but wherever it comes from, it quickly grows, if all goes well, to a force as powerful as anything a man will ever experience. A true solace against loneliness, against the tyranny and emergency of self.