Confessions of a First-Time Father

How we survived the first week after the birth of our twins.

The writer and his wife, Lisa Stachler Volk, with their new twins.

The twins were born, and just a few days later I had 1,000 stories. I could tell you about my wife, who did 12 hours of active labor, without the benefit—or risk of complications—of an anesthetic. As she shouted and ululated, I repeated the phrase she told me beforehand she wanted to hear. “The babies are coming.” But the moments that stay with me are when she could barely go on, her body wracked by contractions, and the doula whispered in her ear—in some small space underneath my wife’s moaning—“You’re a warrior.”

I could tell you about Eli, the boy showman who, weighed in at six pounds, one ounce and emerged face up—the most stunning “Here I am!” entrance I could imagine.

I could go on about how the relationship with my kids started before they were born. On our doula’s advice, I sang to the babies from about 24 weeks of development, in Lisa’s womb: “What a Wonderful World.”

“I’m telling you,” she said. “They will come out knowing your voice and you’ll see them react, right away, when they hear you sing.”

So, on night one, when nothing could seem to calm Jack—a fiery, wiry four-pound, 13-ouncer—I hauled out what by then was a hoary old chestnut I had performed about 100 times. His eyebrows wrinkled. His screams suddenly quieted by half, then ceased altogether. By the time I finished he was out for the count.

I’ll be concerned about my ability to do this job, probably forever, but this little episode boosted my confidence so much, and I was so grateful for it, I wound up crying all the way through the small hour I had in which to sleep before the twins needed to be fed again.

I could tell you about the bottle of champagne my sister, Kathy, brought into our hospital room to celebrate. Our mother had bought it a few years before she died and gave it to Kathy, who had never opened it. Kathy had also just been published, for the first time, by Family Circle, our mother’s favorite magazine. “I’ve been waiting for the right time,” she said.

I could tell you about the surreal sleeplessness. We are lucky, right now, to get two-and-a-half hours of sleep in any 24-hour cycle. If that rest came in one restorative stretch, we might be doing all right. But for the most part we are grabbing sleep in 30- and 45-minute increments throughout the day. As a result, our emotions are close to the surface. I’ve burst into tears in front of pretty much all my co-workers, several cab drivers and a couple of cashiers by now, among other intimates. And being reduced like this, so quickly, has made Lisa and I hugely grateful for any bit of help we get.

I literally don’t know where we’d be without my father or Kathy right now, who have shopped non-stop for all the things we hadn’t supplied for ourselves in advance. And one of this city’s literary celebrities was particularly generous to us on our first full day at home. Liz Spikol (who writes for the Philly Post) and I first met while working at Philadelphia Weekly. When the twins were born, she sent me an email offering to help with anything.

We asked her to please do some work around the house while we tried to rest. What transpired was the sultriest scene I imagine I’ll be treated to in quite some time. As I lay beneath a thin sheet, shirtless and exhausted, Liz used every inch of her lithe frame to push a Dyson Ball vacuum cleaner around my marriage bed. Was it hot? About as hot as it reads. Liz also built a fountain for my cats.

We’ve cried a couple of times now simply because numerous friends of ours had babies, and we did so miserably little, if anything, to help. We didn’t get it then. We do now. This is terrifically hard. And at this point, I better recite the mantra new parents have to repeat for fear of being admonished: You know, millions of people have had children. You’re not the first …

So, let me say that, yes, I do understand: Everyone who has children goes through this. But in this case, it’s the commonality of the experience that makes it so remarkable: This is how we enter the world—squawling and crying and subjecting our parents to the most beautiful form of torture, filling them up with love and a cruel sleep deprivation at the same time. This is how our species survives. By the millions and billions, the laziest among us—and yes, I’m looking in the mirror—have found energy as parents, even when there was no energy left to find. And I’m just getting started.

The hardest months to get any sleep, so I’m told, are the first few. As I write this, the boys are not even a week old. And I know, better than ever, that I have no idea what I’m talking about. But at the moment, I only hope that these kids will keep right on doing this job: Hone me to a fine point. Blow away all my bullshit, and make me a father.