Becoming a parent for the first time can be a befuddling — and beautiful — experience. In this essay, adapted from "Crawling: A Father's First Year," new dad Elisha Cooper writes about the adjustments, sacrifices and ultimately the wonder that comes along with learning to be a parent.
Before my daughter Zoë was born, a friend said to me, “Go to all the movies you can now, since you won’t be able to later!” I found this irritating. Not only because it sounded ominous — I love everything about movies, from counting the number of previews to arguing about the film afterward — but because everyone was telling me the same thing: You can’t go to movies, you can’t go to parties, you can’t eat out, you can’t take trips. They were all variations on the same sad idea: “Your life as you know it is over.” I would nod at these people, seethe inside, and think, “Watch me.” And I made plans to do all the things these people said I couldn’t do, refusing to entertain the possibility that they were right.
So here we are at the movies. Tonight’s film has lots of explosions and car chases. Some people in the audience are screaming, and some are crying, though not in the way you might expect. We’re in Oakland, Calif., at the Parkway Theater, which looks like it was cool in the 1930s. It has an old marquee, and some guy climbs a ladder to hang individual letters each week.
Above the marquee, the “PARKWAY” sign flashes in green Art Deco neon. Tickets come ripped from a wheel. It’s the type of place where the experience of going to the theater is often better than whatever’s showing. Every Monday night, the Parkway opens its doors to parents and their newborns. They call it “Baby Brigade.” There’s only one rule: The baby can’t walk. Parents who come early grab the couches near the screen; latecomers take the lounge chairs in the back. The theater soon fills with baby seats and toys and a low-level babble. Parents walk around with infants on their hips, greeting friends from birthing classes or mothers’ groups.
In the red-carpeted lobby, a line forms for pizza and beer and wine. The lights go down; the babbling continues. After a taped announcement from the Parkway’s owners, urging us not to leave dirty diapers in the beer pitchers, the movie starts.
The films are only a few months past release (admission is $5), and R-rated ones are fine. As nudity and violence unfold on the screen, fathers stand in the back and bounce their babies, or hurry to the bathroom to change diapers, with a stop in the lobby to get a beer. Everyone is a bit tipsy — except the babies, unless alcohol converts into breast milk that quickly — and drunk on the intoxicating fact that we are here, at a movie!
Each week a babyless couple shows up not knowing it’s “Baby Brigade.” They swivel their heads — surrounded and confused — like a pair of spring-break vacationers who’ve wandered into a gospel tent revival. They were looking to make out and have a romantic evening, and what the hell is this? To us, this has become normal. We’re regulars. Good movie, bad movie, doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s better if the movie is bad because then we don’t care if we miss dialogue when the baby behind us screams.
Zoë likes the car chases. Comedy, however, seems to freak her out. And romance, with its long, meaningful pauses and slow kissing scenes, is the worst. Romance drives her nuts. I’ll be watching two attractive actors making out in a stylish Paris apartment and find myself wishing that a SWAT team would crash through the window, because if nothing else is blowing up, Zoë will.
Tonight, in the middle of one such explosion, I take Zoë out to the lobby, past the row of fathers bouncing their babies, to get another glass of wine. On my way back, I spot the babyless couple. I had noticed them earlier. The man was thin and handsome, with trendy glasses he kept taking off to wipe clean, as if he couldn’t believe what was going on around him. The woman was blonde and curvy and slumped low in her seat like she wanted to disappear. They weren’t touching each other at first, keeping some space between them as if they might conceive if they got any closer. But now they’re making out. They’re hardly watching the movie. Her hand is playing in his lap; his hand is slung around her neck and moving lightly over her breast, fingering the top button on her shirt.
I look at them and think about the nights my wife, Elise, and I went out before we had a child — and in that brief moment I envy the babyless couple deeply. I envy their ability to sit in the dark and grope each other, to not be balancing another person, to go home and make love without putting someone else to sleep first.
And then, in the same breath, I don’t envy them, or at least I’m not bothered that I envy them. I think about how Elise and I have done what they are doing, and now we are doing something else. And how that something else — going to a movie with a baby — is pretty cool in its own right. Something we can do precisely because we have a baby. And as I move on past the babyless couple — they’ve come up for air, the guy has moved his hand to the other breast — it occurs to me that they might be on the same hill as us, just a bit further up the slope.
I return to our couch and hand our daughter to Elise and ask her what I missed. "Not much," she says, smiling. I put my arm around her shoulders. Zoë slips a hand up her shirt. We sink into the couch, all three of us intent on the flickering light of the screen.
Elisha Cooper lives in Chicago, Ill., with his wife and two daughters. This essay is adapted from "Crawling: A Father's First Year," from Pantheon.