Jack (foreground) smiles for the camera.
In the run-up to having twins, I spent about half my time thinking about the adventure my wife and I were starting. I spent the rest worrying.
I bear the great misfortune, and blessing, of hyper-vigilance.
The upside is that when something goes wrong, I am rarely caught entirely unaware. By the time anything goes wrong I’ve usually figured out all the painful possibilities. The downside, which occurs more frequently, is that I worry about events that haven’t happened yet and, usually, won’t. Meditation, which I learned while writing Fringe-ology, helped tremendously. But watching my wife’s belly swell with our twins overwhelmed me to the point that focusing on my breath, or observing my thoughts and letting them pass away, often proved impossible.
In the weeks and months before the children were born, I worried that they might have some birth defect. My wife and I were both around 40 years old, increasing the chances something would go wrong. I feared becoming responsible for a baby that might never grow to be responsible for itself, and worried that my anxiety somehow reflected a small heart, a diminished capacity for fatherhood.
I also spent a lot of time worrying about the changes in my own life. I love my work, writing and reporting, and feared giving up my ability to drop everything and get on a train or plane to go conduct interviews. I’ve always held that being a journalist is a rare privilege, and the thought of giving up some of the adventures the job provides scared me. These thoughts, too, suggested that I might not be cut out for this—that having kids might turn out to be the biggest mistake of my life.
I’ve been reflecting on this period of time a lot lately because Lisa and I were fortunate enough to have two healthy boys, fraternal twins we named Jack and Eli. They turned two years old at the end of July, and their vocabularies seem to expand every week.
Most of their speech is primitive. “Daddy—milk,” means “Give me milk.”
But recently, I learned just how much they understand beyond what they can say.
Because the boys are fraternal twins, they do display strikingly different personalities. Eli, for instance, is pretty much oblivious to cameras. From the beginning, however, Jack stopped whatever he was doing as soon as he saw us pull out our smart phones. The result is that a lot of wonderful moments escape into memory. The time Jack walked with one of my shoes on one foot and one of my wife’s slippers on the other? Gone forever. The time he sat on the couch with his stuffed monkey encircled in one arm and a toy car balanced on his head. That’s gone, too.
For parents, these are the every day joys we want to capture on film, to look at—and cry—after our sons leave for college. But Jack prevented us from taking so many pictures that I took to referring to the sweetest things our children do as “Bigfoot sightings.”
Whatever pictures we did get were too blurry to discern, as Jack waved his little hands furiously in front of his face.
“No picture!” he shouted. “No picture!”
Finally, I was so frustrated enough to try something radical: I talked to him about it.
One morning, as I sat with my sons and ate some eggs I’d fried up for the three of us, I started the conversation.
“Jack,” I said. “Do you know how you always stop mom and dad from taking pictures?”
“Yes,” he said, still chewing.
“Do you know why mom and dad want to take pictures of you and Eli?”
“Yesssss!” he said again.
“I’m not sure you do,” I said.
I paused for a moment and checked to see that both boys were listening.
“Mom and dad take pictures,” I continued, “because we love you and Eli so much. And we think you’re so cute that we want to be able to look at as many pictures of you as we can, forever. Some day you’ll ask to see them, too, so we want them for you and for us because we love you that much.”
“Yessss,” Jack said.
“So Jack,” I said, “will you please let us take pictures of you now?”
“Yesss,” he said again.
Intellectually, I wasn’t sure if the conversation worked. He is on the early side of two, after all. But emotionally, in what passed between my gaze and his, I felt a shared understanding click into place. I leaned over and sealed the deal with a kiss I planted on top of his head. Then I kissed Eli. A few minutes later, I started taking pictures. For the first time ever, Jack looked right into the camera and smiled.
A few days later, Lisa told me the conversation really worked. She showed me a bunch of pictures she shot in which, she said, Jack “cheesed for the camera”—smiling as broadly as he could.
This talk with Jack taught me a lot. Our boys are two now. They are past infancy. They understand a lot of what we’re saying, and as parents we need to respect that.
That talk also filled with me with that sense of satisfaction so peculiar to parenthood—when a small, private victory fills me with an almost otherworldly sense of accomplishment. This particular little expression of love and understanding showed me how far I’ve traveled in a very short time.
Before Eli and Jack were born, I worried mostly about escaping them—about finding time to carry on my career, about finding some way to bear up under the weight of caring for them till they’d grown. Two years later, I no longer worry about getting away. The time apart comes when it’s necessary. And when I am out of town, I feel a small ache. I wish I could reach out and touch them, could see them and confirm their happiness. I still worry. But now I worry about deepening our relationship, about making sure they know I bear the responsibility of their care gladly. I can see the toddlers they are, the infants they were and the adults they’ll become. And I worry about preserving our memories.