Can I Be a Dad AND a Mountain Hero?

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In some of the more romantic fantasies I’ve had of how my life might look, I envision myself standing on a mountaintop, triumphant after a long struggle, the camera slowly zooming out with some dramatic music in the background, maybe rotating a little bit as if the footage was being shot from a helicopter, showing an ocean of mountains surrounding the summit I was standing upon.

I have been fortunate to have put myself in that actual fantasy, in mountains all over the Lower 48, and a few in Europe. Sometimes I’ve had skis attached to my feet, sometimes a climbing rope is coiled and draped over my backpack, and sometimes a pair of running shoes are the most technical thing I’m wearing. Every time I do it, it’s a dream come true.

I never dreamed about pushing a one-year-old baby around in a Target shopping cart, him facing me, calmly taking everything in, swiveling his head 180 degrees to look at the bright objects on the shelves and the people walking by, as we roll from the baby formula aisle to the Fritos aisle to the toilet paper aisle. I hand Jay an unbreakable item to hold onto as we cruise, a plastic tube of puffed something or other crunchy things for babies, and he understands the importance of his job, gripping it with both tiny little hands, and hey, do you want to see a 10-second video of my kid holding onto a thing while he sits in a Target shopping cart? Because let me tell you, I have more than one of them. I have somehow become a guy who takes videos of his kid in a shopping cart in Target and videos like this now outnumber photos of me on mountain summits, and I have watched them all at least five times.

A few months before our baby was due, our friends Mike and Katie were over at our house with their infant son, and Katie asked, “Brendan, do you like kids? Have you spent a lot of time around babies?”

I said something like: Oh, no, I don’t like kids.

Which was true. I mean, I don’t dislike kids—I’m not the guy on the airplane sighing loudly and staring at the parents with the crying baby. I just prefer to hang out with adults. We have more in common, they throw less food at me, and are usually less prone to outbursts that interrupt conversation.

I thought of something our friend Kelly said once: “People ask, ‘Do you like kids?’ No, I don’t like ALL kids. I don’t like all adults. Why would I like all kids?”

I told Katie: “I guess I’m hoping it will be different when it’s my own kid?”

Around that same time, Rivka Galchen’s book Little Labors made the journey from Hilary’s bedside table to my bedside table, and in the middle of reading it, I encountered a passage about people like me—or, rather, guys like me:

Excerpt from Little Labors

When we found out in fall 2021 that we were going to have a baby, I started making a list of friends who were dads, and a few months later, I started doing one-hour interviews with them. I asked the same 20 questions, everything from “Did you take anything from your relationship with your own father, if you had a relationship with him?” to “What’s something your co-parent/partner does that you’re grateful for because you can’t do it/don’t know how they do it/would have never thought to do it?” to “How many diapers do/did you change, percentage-wise, when your kids were in diapers?”

Looking back at my list of questions, it’s clear that I was a little anxious about the whole thing.

Jay was overdue by 10 days, and when Hilary finally went into labor on July 3, 2022, she was pretty sick of being pregnant, but we were also, of course, not ready. The birth, like everyone else’s, was not like it is in the movies: Hilary was uncomfortable—like more uncomfortable than she had been the past several weeks of lugging around a 40-pound belly, having acid reflux, not being able to drink coffee, sleeping with seven pillows, but also not sleeping that well. I mean, 40 pounds! Of course Hilary was quick to point out that all 40 extra pounds weren’t in the belly, but still, that’s basically the threshold of maximum weight of a backpack I want to carry in the mountains.

I mean, I don’t ever want to carry a 40-pound pack, but when I lift up a 40-pound backpack to put it on, I start saying things like, “Are you sure we need a bear canister/tent/food?” But in pregnancy, that weight is mostly on the front, and Hilary has confirmed that it was more pleasant to hump a 40-pound backpack across the Wind River Range than have a fetus and placenta jammed up against her digestive organs and lungs. If she were to sign up for one of those GoRuck events, her normal body weight would only require her to carry 20 pounds.

On July 3, she woke up at 5 a.m. with contractions, and was determined to spend as much time in labor at home as possible, so she walked around the house, sat at the kitchen table, sat on the backyard deck, in general discomfort punctuated by contractions every hour or so, a sensation I will never personally experience. At 3:45 p.m., still no baby, so I went for a 3-mile run around our neighborhood, carrying my phone and staying within a half-mile of the house. At 6:35, we finally left for the hospital. Before we got out of the car, I took one last photo of our family of two, before we became a family of three. Turns out there was no rush on that photo.

Photo of the author's family
(Photo: Brendan Leonard)

In everything I read about childbirth, and all the people I talked to about it, there appeared to be somewhat of a spectrum of How Things Might Go At The Hospital:

illustration of timeline between feelings about childbirth
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

In adventure terms, it can be pretty similar to the Three Types of Fun:

Illustration of the three types of fun
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

As is the case in adventures, things can also go way past the Type 3 Fun end of the scale into tragedy, which no one plans on or wants. A couple months before our due date, someone told me, “As long as you go home with a healthy baby and a healthy mom, you win.”

The delivery room was dark, lit by a few machines and the battery-powered candles our doula, Cerise, had brought. Instead of a playlist of songs on one of our phones, we listened to the YouTube audio from old Major League Baseball Games of the Week from the 1980s, which was kind of the perfect white noise, and would not taint any of our favorite songs with bad memories of, say, a long labor, which is what we got.

The first photo I took of Jay was at 4:55 p.m. on July 4th, in a room full of people who had just come together with the efficiency of an Indianapolis 500 pit crew to anesthetize, stabilize, and incise Hilary, pull out a baby, and then stitch Hilary back together again, handing me a four-minute-old human so I could theoretically keep him safe for the next twenty minutes of his life, which was also the longest I’ve ever held a baby in my entire life. I kept looking around wondering who put me in charge, but no one seemed worried, so I just kept talking to him and hoped he wouldn’t cry too much because I wouldn’t know what to do. In the computer, his name was Jay, decided upon by two parents who had spent their entire lives correcting people who spelled their names wrong. Hope you like it, kid. You can change it when you turn 18. Or when you turn five, really, it’s up to you.

Somebody told me that for about the first six months, if your baby is breastfeeding, and you are not the parent who produces the human milk, you’re more of an assistant. I don’t know if that’s the case for everyone, but it seemed to be true for us. So I did my best to keep Hilary comfortable.

Triangle of care among Brendan, Hilary, and Baby
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

We went home from the hospital four days after Jay’s birth, and Hilary of course was not supposed to go up or down stairs, or even really leave the bed much, for several days. We had a brand-new human who would cry when he was hungry, when he had peed his pants, when he was tired, without any regard to what time of day it was or how little sleep his parents had gotten in the past 24 hours. It was sort of like crewing for someone running an ultramarathon, except ultramarathons are usually finished by the end of the weekend.

Occasionally, during the first 16 weeks or so of Jay’s life, someone would say something like “How’s your little bundle of joy?” and I’d say to Hilary, “Less like a bundle of joy and more like a time bomb we have to continually defuse.”

Illustration of a baby bomb
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Everybody knows that when you have a baby, you don’t get much sleep. As a longtime insomniac, I figured I’d either adapt fairly easily or crumble. The actuality was somewhere in between that, but closer to crumbling, if I’m honest. We woke up every two to three hours to Jay in the bedside bassinet, and we were fine for a while. I started to say things like, “I could see the advantages of having a baby at 33 years old instead of 43,” and “I understand now why sleep deprivation is used as an interrogation tactic.”

People say, “You have to sleep when the baby sleeps,” but then in the morning, you feel like you should drink a bunch of coffee to wake up, and when the baby goes down for its first nap, you’re wired and can’t sleep, and also, when the baby is sleeping, you finally have a chance to get stuff done, like answer some emails, run to the grocery store, or scrub diaper blowout liquid feces out of tiny baby clothes with blue Dawn dish soap and peroxide, I am a fucking expert at this now. And then the baby is awake again so you drink more coffee, and so on.

Coffee
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

After a few weeks of rapidly aging, losing brain cells, and forgetting how to do everyday tasks, Hilary presented me with the nine most beautiful words anyone has ever said to me: “Why don’t you go sleep in the guest bedroom?” Her rationale was that there was no reason for both of us to be completely trashed by sleep deprivation when only one of us could actually soothe the baby—since he was refusing to take a bottle so far—and I should get a night of rest.

I did just that, and it was incredible. I felt guilty, like I was cheating on my wife. I was not. I was just getting seven and a half hours of consecutive sleep for the first time in months.

You may have seen a movie in which the lead character puts their own life on the line to save someone else, jumping in front of a bullet, or otherwise sacrificing themselves so that their loved one or loved ones may continue living. That’s nice and all, but most of us are never going to be in a situation like that. If you don’t have the chance to shove Ben Affleck out of the airlock so you can take on the suicide mission of blowing up the asteroid yourself, a la Bruce Willis in Armageddon, please allow me to gently suggest that you should focus on something more realistic but equally heroic, such as enabling your spouse to sleep. That’s love. Or one way to love, anyway.

A 2015 study found that people who were sleep deprived were 4.5 times more likely to sign a false confession.

We figured it would not help to throw our hands up and scream, “How much longer can this go on????,” but instead, to just focus on what was right in front of us. My friend Ed, who has, like me, run a few ultramarathons, suggested the metaphor of just getting yourself to the next aid station: Don’t think about it as running 100 miles. Just run the next five miles to the next aid station, and the next seven miles to the next one, and so on. Just get the little guy to the next nap time, and the next feeding, and the next nap time after that.

I don’t know that humans have really worked out a standard interpretation or definition of the word “love.” You can love someone who doesn’t love you back, you can love someone who is terrible to you, you can be totally smitten with someone and love them and you can say you love someone even though every minute you’re with them you’re miserable.

So when I talked to people about having a baby and they said, “I love my kids,” or “my relationship with my kids is a completely different kind of love,” I still didn’t know what they meant. Or how I might feel about having a kid. So far, though, the best definition, in my opinion, came from my friend Mike, who was quoting Dan Harris, author of Ten Percent Happier, who was quoting someone else, who said something like: “You don’t care for something because you love it. You love something because you care for it.”

Illustration chart of must-have toys for a baby's first year (entirely composed of common household objects)
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

One of the interview questions I asked all the dads I talked to was: “Did you have any fear that you were going to lose your time, or your freedom, or your identity, or anything like that, when you became a dad?” I think I asked that because, again, I was worried about losing my time, my freedom, and identity.

A year later, I have indeed lost time. Or, more accurately, my time is going somewhere else. One friend I interviewed, in response to that question, said: It’s not that you had more time before you became a parent—it’s that you have no idea how inefficient you were with your time.

I am technically self-employed, or a freelancer. I feel fortunate to be in this situation right now, to be able to work from home, or be able to shuffle my schedule around in order of priorities, i.e. do I absolutely need to sit at a desk and write something for the internet RIGHT NOW or can I sit on the floor and make sure the baby doesn’t pull a bookshelf down on his head and/or lick the bottom of those boots and/or pull an extension cord far enough out of an outlet that it still conducts electricity but also has enough room for a baby finger to slide in between the prongs?

I guess inside me there are two wolves:

Illustration of stick figure with two wolves inside
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

This guy with two wolves does a lot of work after 7:00 p.m. on weeknights, and on weekends.

When talking to my friend Glen, I worried aloud a little bit about how having a young child to take care of was going to affect my career as an adventure writer, when I would probably have much less time for adventures for a few years. He said: “Your life’s an adventure. You’ll figure it out.”

Another reason I wanted to interview friends of mine who were fathers is that you never know what a dad means when he says he loves having kids. Like, are you doing any of the hands-on stuff? I’m not making any assumptions about anyone, but when a wildly rich celebrity in their 70s or early 80s fathers a child and says “I love being a dad,” I kind of wonder how many diapers they’re changing, or if they’re cleaning pieces of sweet potato off the kitchen wall, or doing that awkward twisting bend to place their baby in the car seat—or is someone else doing all that stuff? “I love being a dad” seems to cast a pretty wide net, is all I’m saying.

In other words:

Kurt Vonnegut, from Hocus Pocus:

Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.

Or, Ronnie Coleman:

Everybody wanna be a bodybuilder but don’t nobody wanna lift no heavy ass weight.

As a not-really-into-babies-in-general person, I assume that people do not want to hold the baby, hang out with the baby, or look at any of the thousands of photos and videos of the baby that I have on my phone. With a couple of exceptions: A goofy selfie of six-month-old Jay and me, standing in front of a piece of graffiti detailing the private parts of the male anatomy, and, as I started to refer to it, “a video of Jay eating a tortilla and shitting his pants while listening to jazz at the dinner table.” I sent it to a couple friends who had met Jay, assuming they might get a kick out of it, but assuming no one else would be into it, especially if they didn’t have kids. Until I found out our friend Forest had been showing it to other people. Which made me realize it might have a bit more universal appeal than your standard baby photos. So I got a bit more free with it. In one exchange, I emailed it to my friend Jason, who, among his many talents, is a brilliant cartoonist, and was also working on a new book about parenting. He confirmed that the video was, indeed, funny, and sent me back “something from the drawing board,” which is now framed on our kitchen wall:

photo of an illustration of a baby
(Photo: Brendan Leonard; Illustration: Jason Chatfield)

Years ago, I got invited to a dinner with a bunch of climbing writers, and a friend of mine was telling everyone about a recent several-weeks-long climbing trip in the Sierra he’d done with his wife. He was enamored with the area, and said, “I could go back there every year.” One of the writers, who was a decade and a half older and at least three decades wiser, said something like, “You say that, but you’d be lucky to get back there again at all.”

I thought he was being a little pessimistic, but a decade-plus later, I think I finally get what he was saying. You think you’ll have more time later to finish a climb you bailed off of, or spend a couple more days at an alpine lake, or run a trail again. The mountain will most likely be there for a while, much longer than any of us, but you might never get back there again for whatever reason, life happens, and you have to look back on that one trip and be grateful you had those days there with your friends, back when you didn’t know it would be the only time.

Now, as a new parent, I’m always aware that this is a one-time deal for us—each time something happens for the first time, it’s the only time we’re going to go through it. There’s something bittersweet about that, but it also forces me to be present, to put my phone down so I don’t miss it, whatever Jay does that day that we’ll probably forget about in two weeks but right now seems like the most exciting thing in the world.

Am I now, officially, one of those people who goes completely batshit while watching their baby learn to clap its hands together for the first time? Yes, I became that person a few weeks ago. Look, I have a pretty great life, but like most people around my age in the internet era, many of my days can feel a bit like the same thing over and over, or a to-do list I never finish, and some days, there’s not a lot of novelty. But now I have a roommate who had, as of very recently, never been down a slide before, and although the Little Tikes Easy Store Large Slide my parents bought him has only about a three-foot drop over its five feet of length, providing maybe one half-second of actual quasi-flight feeling, well, let me tell you. I would love to be some sort of Big Deal and/or Change The World and/or create A Piece Of Art That Defines A Generation or something like that, but I have zero fucking problem right now with a one-year-old’s delight at going down a slide being the best part of my day.

I know there’s going to be a day, hopefully not very soon, when Jay doesn’t just smile at me with absolutely pure joy, no reservations, no awareness of any reason he shouldn’t just smile with his entire body. So I’m trying to be here now. Even if we’re just having a chill time in a shopping cart in a big box store.

Jay turned one year old this month, and I couldn’t believe we’d made it a year. I thought of a question I should have asked all the dads I interviewed: Did it ever start to feel like you knew what you were doing? But I think I already know the answer to that.


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