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My Heart Belongs To You

Our columnist reflects on the uncertainty and emotion of parenthood.

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Last week, I tried to do a virtual indoor bike race. To paraphrase John Muir, when the dumb fake mountains are calling, I must go. I warmed up and turned on a playlist that featured Ludacris and Vanessa Carlton. Ready to go.

I quit on the very first imaginary climb.

As I took the click-clack of shame up the stairs from the basement gym, I was totally spent. Physically and emotionally kaput. I wasn’t even in the saddle long enough for my perineum to give the gently pressing feedback that I did some work. 

I took out the frustration on my wife Megan.

“You didn’t support me enough,” I exclaimed. Yes, I was referring to a fake race in a sport I don’t even care about. But I meant business and I wasn’t calling off this fight until the judges ruled in my favor. “I NEED YOU TO CARE!”

To summarize Megan’s response, I was being a punk-ass bitch. Over a dumb little imaginary play session in the basement? What the hell?! Especially with what I knew… that she had been unable to sleep the last 2 nights… 

Checking to make sure our 2.5-month old baby Leo was still breathing… that his heart was still beating.

Don’t worry, Leo is totally great. But we didn’t know that then. We were waiting for results of his most recent heart scan, wracked with uncertainty. Why haven’t they updated his health portal yet? Is this what they do when the results are bad? Those questions sprinted around Megan’s head, preventing more than fitful sleep. It took my dumb fake bike race for me to realize that it was getting to me, too, as much as I wanted to be “tough.” As soon as my heart rate hit 170 beats per minute, I felt like crying more than pedaling.

Two options: express emotions openly and honestly, versus express emotions rarely and primarily related to stupid sports that don’t matter. My choices were either yelling at football players on TV or yelling at Megan after getting my ass dropped in a bike “race.” I don’t make the rules.

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I was never sure about becoming a father. 

I have places to go and people to meet! Yes, the main place I had to go was the basement, and the people I needed to meet were virtual avatars on fake bikes, but still. A baby would make everything so damn uncertain.

Then Leo was born on October 28, 2022. And something surprised me: for the most part, I didn’t mind the uncertainty. It turns out that one way to enjoy becoming a parent is to expect to hate it. When he first plopped out, I loved him because I love Megan, and he was an extension of her, like a kidney stone that I could expect to gradually gain sentience. As the days turned into weeks, I found myself getting excited for all the different ways he was going to fuck up my plans. It was all so uncertain, but in a playful way. He was like a comedian, with one killer punch-line: spraying us with urine. While I can’t prove it in a court of law, I am almost positive that he was intentionally aiming at my face.

Over those first weeks and months, I saw him looking at this new world and feeling the same thing I did: uncertainty in everything, everywhere, all at once

There wasn’t a moment that I suddenly loved him with all my heart. Honestly, when he came out, I was still petrified, like being dropped into a Class-V rapid without kayak experience. But over those first weeks and months, I saw him looking at this new world and feeling the same thing I did: uncertainty in everything, everywhere, all at once. Where I filled in the gaps with fear and planning, though, he filled them with curiosity and openness. I guess you don’t have much of a choice but to be open when your only options for expressing yourself are crying or peeing with reckless intent.

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He rolled over at two weeks, clearly so freaking proud of himself. He laughed at two months, looking for every new excuse to practice (which was good, because it was a C-minus laugh at best). I spent decades trying to control every little thing, from my training plans to business plans to life plans, and in that journey, I had turned most types of uncertainty into demons that could be purged if I just worked hard enough. Leo showed me that I was wrong about parenting, and probably about those other things too. I slowly realized that the tiles of fear that I used to fill the uncertain gaps just needed to be turned over. What was on the other side? 

The whole time, what I thought was fear of becoming a parent was just the flip side of surrendering completely to love. We love Leo so much that it’s absolutely horrifying.

The whole time, what I thought was fear of becoming a parent was just the flip side of surrendering completely to love. We love Leo so much that it’s absolutely horrifying.

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Love and Horror

Suddenly, on a random morning a few weeks ago, circular welts started to cover Leo’s body. He looked like he took a nap in poison ivy! Which he could, because dude sleeps anywhere! Megan, being the brilliant doctor she is, immediately knew this wasn’t a normal skin rash. It was a rare manifestation of an immune response in babies when mom has an autoimmune condition, likely neonatal lupus, which should resolve by 6 months once babies clear mom’s antibodies. The big worry was that some babies who have these welts also have heart conditions.

Leo seemed like a fairy tale baby, coming in the midst of our own health concerns. But we all know that the really interesting parts of those stories don’t get told very often. What happens after happily ever after?

Here’s what I’d tell any new parent: having a kid is surrendering to an endless procession of uncertainty. I guess that just describes life in general. But with a kid, it’s all magnified. They are so fragile, so innocent, so full of possibilities. Also soooooo gassy, but in a cute way.

We always knew this would be a risk, one of a thousand to consider. This was his third heart scan, with the first at just 20 weeks gestation, and the second less than a day after birth. With each high-stakes test, we face the questions that anyone who has gone through health concerns understands. Expect good news, counting on optimism and odds? Prepare for the worst, to avoid being shattered by naivety?

I picked up Rob Delaney’s amazing book “A Heart That Works,” about his child Henry dying of cancer at age two. I read it in the sauna, unable to tell whether sweat or tears were breaking the binding. Rob’s family went through something like a comet strike that annihilates a whole planet, and I was just feeling something akin to reading a news story about a little asteroid that might strike but probably won’t. But his words helped me process emotions that I sometimes struggle with, unless maybe my sports team loses in overtime. 

“We’d listen to [musician] Asgeir and drift off and dream together. What I would fucking give to do that again. To sleep next to and dream with my beautiful boy. If I died tomorrow, those would probably be the greatest memories of my life. A boy and his daddy together, dreaming and sleeping. Sleeping and dreaming. A machine occasionally beeping. Nurses in the hallway. Maybe I’d get up here and there to suction his tracheostomy. But mostly dreaming and sleeping. Sleeping and dreaming.” 

What was Henry dreaming about? I bet it was something beautiful and bright, just like the light he brought to the world. 

Waiting for the heart scan in the hospital, we held Leo tighter than ever. He fell asleep (dude sleeps anywhere). What was he dreaming about? Probably about something unrelated to our fears. Possibly about peeing on us.

In those first two heart scans, we were on our own navigating the uncertainty, settling on hope. It was forced and it was scary, but the odds were in Leo’s favor. On this third scan, though, we had guidance. It wasn’t from medical charts and odds tables, the types of quantifiable tools I always use to try to purge uncertainty. It was from baby Leo, laughing through the placement of the electrodes. You could feel him saying: “What’s ‘tomorrow’ anyway? THIS IS SILLY!”

He’s coming into his personality bit by bit. And soon enough, he will know what tomorrow means. When that happens, I hope that we can give him as much courage as he has given us.

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We Are Love

Living with this love is simultaneously more wonderful and horrifying than I ever imagined. This little boy gives us superpowers–I can crush some virtual bike bitches when I know he’s safe. But the ever-present uncertainty is taking some getting used to. Sometimes it’s going to mean my mind failing when training gets hard, crying in the sauna, waking up at midnight to make sure he’s still breathing. Dreaming and sleeping. Sleeping and dreaming.

Now that I’m getting to the end, I realize that this article doesn’t really have a point. I guess I just needed to express that I’m not yet comfortable with love and fear being so interconnected. Thankfully, I have some help. Right now, I’m looking over at Leo and Megan as I type this conclusion, him laughing as she reads from a book: “Together we are love,” Megan sings. “My heart belongs to you.” 

Tomorrow will always be uncertain, I guess. But looking over at Megan leaning down to kiss his forehead, one thing is certain: Leo the Lionhearted will be facing that future with so much love. 

And at least for now, with one badass, healthy, perfect little heart.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they answer training questions in a bonus podcast and newsletter on their Patreon page starting at $5 a month.