Jay was five-weeks-old the first time I remember cursing in front of him. I was carrying him on my chest while I did the dishes after dinner when I dropped a glass in the sink. “Fuck,” I yelled, not six inches from his little newborn ears.
Right afterward I felt ashamed: Since becoming a father it had seemed important to me to try to be a better person and in that moment I had failed. But a second later I was soothed by the thought that Jay was too young to have registered my temper tantrum (or at least he was too young to let me know that he’d registered it). He wasn’t going to ape the word back at me and he wasn’t going to cast me a glance that said a hero had just fallen in his eyes. He just slumbered on all the same against my chest, and I exhaled like a man who’d managed to go to the bathroom behind a bush without anyone seeing him.
In some ways, the first year-plus of Jay’s life felt like a kind of dry run for the years ahead when the way I act with and around Jay is going to carry a lot more consequence. During that first year, whenever I’d lose my temper in front of him, or Caroline and I would have a tense exchange, or I’d fail trying to do something cool like juggle two apples and a banana, I’d think to myself: By the time Jay is old enough to really be paying attention I’ll have all the kinks worked out.
Well, it hasn’t worked out that way of course. I still occasionally curse in front of Jay even though I know that he has a two-year-old’s gift for seizing on the one word in a sentence I’d rather he forget. As in, yesterday morning a slice of bread got caught in our toaster as I was making breakfast and I exclaimed, “Piece of shit.” Jay didn’t repeat “piece” over and over again—he said, “shit,” perfectly annunciating the “t” at the end, all the way to school.
The bigger challenge recently, though, is not what I say in front of him—it’s how I act towards him. All told an infant as an easy kind of person to conduct a relationship with: They need you to rock and coo and make silly faces in front of them, but they don’t require (or demand) any particularly nuanced type of interaction.
Toddlers, however, are a different story. By naptime on any given day Jay has already exhibited a range of emotions to match any adult’s. He’ll be alternately elated, frustrated, hyper, deliberately annoying, tired, bored, charming and wary. It’s up to me and Caroline to calibrate our behavior to Jay’s emotional state, all the while pressing ahead with things that need to get done in a day like brushing his teeth, changing his diaper, making dinner, etc.
And sometimes I miss the mark.
Last night after dinner I was in a bad mood for reasons that seem trivial when they’re listed out, and which of course at no point meant anything to Jay: It was hot in our apartment, Wally was crying on the bed, a bag of really foul trash had just split open as I’d brought it out to the curb, and I couldn’t find the key to my neighbor’s house which I needed because I’d agreed to take out his trash too while he’s on vacation in Greece.
As I searched through my desk drawers for the key, Jay—who was in a fragile mood of his own—decided to climb up on a chair to retrieve a notebook which was buried beneath a stack of papers. As he pulled on the notebook the papers flew everywhere and in that moment it felt like one more suboptimal event than I could handle. I grabbed Jay beneath the arms and pulled him off the chair. “I told you not to climb up there,” I said as I angrily deposited him on the floor. For a second Jay was stunned. Then his face broke. I grabbed my neighbor’s keys and headed out the door as the first wail escaped from his trembling open mouth. When I came back a few minutes later Caroline was trying to comfort Jay, who was struggling to tell her between each heaving breath that he’d only wanted the notebook so that he could draw.
Caroline put Jay to sleep and for the next couple hours I felt about one-inch tall. Then just as Caroline and I were getting ready for bed Jay woke up crying in his crib. I went in to comfort him, eager to atone for the way our day had ended. He lay on his stomach, sniffling into his crib sheet, as I patted him on the back and told him everything was okay. Eventually his breathing began to slow. Quietly I crept out of his room. As I closed the door behind me I thought what maybe is an obvious thought: Jay has gone completely live, and everything I do around him counts.