Nipples, rejection and gift-wrapped Huggies
Learning from your child how to take life a little easier, and the hidden biological function of the male nipple
Scientists have long believed that the nipples on human males are vestigial, that they serve no biological purpose, but I’m glad to report I have discovered an important use. Let the lab-coats—nay, #allmen—rejoice.
Your infant, upon sensing his mother is busy in another room, usually chooses this moment to pretend he is starving. It’s hard to say whether he is motivated by boredom or whether he sees you at your desk and has a heartfelt desire to destroy the brief spell of concentration you’ve been able to muster. He has just been fed, so you can’t take him back to his mother. As you lift him out of his cot and cradle him in your arms, murmuring and swinging gently side to side as he likes, he will squint once or twice, side-eye you, then turn his face to the right and make a desperate attempt to clamp two toothless gums down on your own breast. Men, I hope you’ve been rejoicing, because you can fool him for at least 2-3 seconds this way. Clearly, this “no biological purpose" theory is the work of some secret feminist mafia. Then he starts wailing again.
I thought rejection would come much later. When he’s 14 or 15, and I’m 97 (in his mind), he will no doubt storm out of the home one evening, kicking over a potted plant, cursing me to the stars, finding solace and comity in his friends. It’s a rite of passage, after all. But I was hoping for a good few years before that. Years where we might actually get along, where we might learn from one another. What I didn’t understand during my own teenage rebellion, half-hearted as it was, was that fathers are basically preparing for that moment from the time of your infancy. You first push your father aside and focus on what’s important (boobs!) as a baby. Your teenage years are simply a reprisal. But this time Papa is ready.
It can be alarming, the speed with which my son lets me know I am roughly of the same importance in his world as our cats, but I’ve learnt to get used to it. Like everything that comes from nature, there is rhythm to this and reason. For one thing, my wife barely acknowledges I exist either. When she does notice me hanging about the place, it’s as if she doesn’t really see me any more—she sees one of those inflatable dolls that were sold in the toy stores of our childhood, the ones that came up about knee-high, with the cute red clown nose that you could punch as sadistically as you liked and as often as possible, only to have it spring back up every time, grinning an insane grin.
There isn’t actual domestic abuse yet, but I’ve begun to fear for my safety. As a father, because you don’t have all the biological and instinctual equipment a mother has, it’s pretty hard not to make mistakes. Don’t slam the door, my wife will hiss, just after I’ve shut it so delicately that I could have been using tweezers. My nappy-changing skills remain below par—though I’ve been deemed competent enough to empty out the diaper genie, which is a handy contraption that stores your child’s faeces, gift-wrapped in Huggies, for days on end. Funnily, though she hardly knows I’m here, I’ve learnt that I better not make any plans to leave. If I happen to venture out of the house on a social engagement, I should be back before actual enjoyment is possible, or I get the cat-bed.
I’m learning a great deal from my child already. For one thing, to take life a little easier. We try so hard to make our parents proud. Well into adulthood, and now approaching—still far off in the distance, I assure you—middle age, I continue to send my mother and father almost every article I write before it’s published, hoping, I suppose, that they’ll be proud.
But now I think: Perhaps they’re already proud. The other day my child was in my arms, and I felt this surge of satisfaction, a welling of pure pleasure, because he had just rumbled out a long and tremendous poo. He had literally taken a dump in my hands, and I couldn’t have been prouder. I felt honoured by the benediction. Look how comfortable he is, he chose to poo in my hand, what a wonderful day. For a thrilling minute, I was higher in the pecking order than our cats. Then he squinted, looked at me sideways, and tried to clamp on to my nipple.
I know I have made it seem as if the early experience of fatherhood is all rejection, interleaved from time to time, I might add, with drives to the kiddie clinic, where you will smile in a distant, sage-like manner as the paediatrician kneads your wife’s breasts. But no, there is more to it than that. This morning my exhausted wife woke me up at 7.15 to take care of our son as she finally got some rest. He was having a troubled morning, for some reason, and I just couldn’t get him to sleep. I sang to him and walked him around, gurgled and pleaded, but the little chap seems to have a secret stash of Red Bull that he saves for occasions like this. He was also spitting up some of the milk he had spent the dawn hours consuming.
Over our morning together, we had one outfit change (him), one T-shirt was consigned to the dustbin (me), two nappies were replaced, and then, at 11.08, he yawned a couple of times, finally shut his eyes, and dropped off to sleep. Just before he passed out, he blinked and looked up, light-grey pupils locked into mine, and smiled in a somewhat sheepish manner, as if saying, “I’ve given you quite a bit of trouble, haven’t I?" I looked at him laying in my arms and thought, “Trouble? You’ve been no trouble at all."
Dad Goals is a monthly series on the pleasures and pitfalls of becoming a first-time father. Prayaag Akbar is the author of the novel Leila.