When I was a kid, everything made me cry. My feelings poured out in ways that felt like they were branding me. It was too easy, and it would last. As a young man, I didn’t love this. In my mind, my parents, my classmates, my teachers, they all saw me as “a crier.” One year, in a letter accompanying my Easter basket, the Bunny told me he thought I was a “cool dude” but that I “shouldn’t cry so much.”
Embarrassing. But more than that: terrifying. In a few years, when I would be old enough to try out, how would I make it through the basketball season? I cried on the way home from games is how. I cried on the bench once, too—the day I looked into the stands and motioned to my mom that I was going to quit the team. I cried when I told the coach later that week, too. And again when I ran into him at a graduation party that summer. Seventeen years a crier at that point.
When I do it now, like I did recently while reading a story about a woman who lost her twin brother on 9/11, or the day before that, when a bad meeting at work filled me with dread, it lasts a few seconds. Like a passing storm cell in the Caribbean, it comes and goes, albeit fiercely. It’s almost more like a long sneeze. Of late, it most often happens in front of my computer. Head in hands, I make a few weird noises, wipe my face on my T-shirt, and the tension is released before the next email comes through.
In early June of this year, I finally had that long cry, though. It happened after I asked my now-fiancée, Kathryn, to marry me. The following weekend, when she and I were driving back home from a week with her family, I made a confession about something that has eaten away at me for years.
I’m an only child, but Kathryn is one of four. Her oldest brother is married with three kids and they live in London. In our three years together, I’ve looked on in admiration as she obsessed over her niece and nephews. FaceTimes and shared photo albums abounded, and I peered over her shoulder at these adorable, amazing little kids and grew to love them. But every time they called, my excitement felt inadequate to me. None of her other siblings had kids yet, and so these three little humans became the centre of Kathryn’s family’s universe. And then there was me, with only myself at the centre of mine. I have three step-sisters, who each have two kids. I love them all, for sure, but I’ve always lacked that insatiable appetite. The one that kept the FaceTimes coming and the shared albums filling. And it bugged me.
It wasn’t just her aunthood I didn’t feel I could live up to. It was her passion—most people’s passions—for having a family of their own. I never spoke about it in therapy, or to my parents, or to anyone at all. But in the back of my mind, I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t yet become an eager future father, let alone an eager uncle.
When I could, I tried to ask friends who were dads, and friends who I knew wanted to be dads, about this. I’d chalk it up to still being young, wanting to live my life, my dedication to my career. Stuff people would understand, stuff that felt temporary, stuff that didn’t sound anything like the unthinkable: “I’m not sure I want kids.” I wasn’t even sure that I wasn’t sure, to be honest. I just struggled with the idea that I wasn’t already fucking amped to surrender my energy to putting a little one’s needs ahead of my own. I am constantly anxious. It takes all of me just to get through each day and be present for the people around me—my partner, my parents, my colleagues. The person I put pressure on myself to be, someone that others would feel grateful to have in their lives, took every bit of mental energy I had. It felt hard enough to maintain that. Often it didn’t feel like I was even succeeding. How could those efforts not deteriorate with my attention diverted by a playdate in the park or a middle-of-the-night cry?
When my mom told her boyfriend, my dad, that she thought she was pregnant, his response was “I hope so!” They went to the jewellery store and he got down on one knee. I always admired them for this. That even though I was going to change everything, unexpectedly, they felt something that encouraged them to push forward. But they never had another kid, so I never had a brother or sister. Whoever I wound up with as an adult would be my only source for that sort of familial structure. My parents both had siblings who had kids. A lot of them actually. I’m the only child who tells you his cousins were his brothers and sisters growing up. They certainly felt like it. How was I to know otherwise? There were things I would just not get to witness first hand, like being around when my parents decided to have another. I suppose their path to parenthood felt most realistic to me.
Of course, there were plenty of other examples around me of people who had kids on purpose. I’ve found myself standing in the living rooms of my friends’ parents, envying the family photos framed in their hallways. Weddings and anniversaries, nephews and nieces and grandkids, all one solid team, displayed for everyone to see. I still feel jealous of those units. But ultimately, that conscious decision, to start a family and feel ready to manage it until forever, was just something other people did. I didn’t have a front-row seat to that show. It felt foreign. Like everyone else was a few laps into a race I hadn’t even trained for yet.
A colleague and friend once told me that he wasn’t sure he was ready until it happened. And I’ve heard about the emotional phenomenon that occurs when you look your newborn child in the eyes for the first time. I’ll wait for that, I figured. Defer to the process, let it happen. It will happen. But then we’d FaceTime with the kids again, and my guilt and impatience would debilitate me.
The week after we got engaged at her mom’s beach house, Kathryn and I, after a week celebrating with ourselves, drove back down to the shore. Her sister-in-law and the three little ones were on their way from London, too. Every minute after our arrival was spent anticipating theirs. I was excited to spend the weekend watching them take swim lessons and building sandcastles. These kids no longer felt like strangers, but they still felt like someone else’s kids. Someone else’s niece and nephews. I wasn’t making any decisions about who could have a gummy worm before dinner or who could watch one more episode of Darkwing Duck before bed. I was just along for the ride, letting parents parent and aunts aunt. It couldn’t have been fifteen minutes after we arrived that it all changed.
That afternoon, Kathryn’s four-year-old nephew walked up and asked me a question. I don’t remember what he wanted, but I remember that he prefaced his question with two words that changed everything: “Uncle Ben.” I’m sure I said yes or answered his question or gave the same response I’d have given had he said “Hey mister!” but Kathryn was there, and she heard it and appreciated it for what it was, too. And when he walked away we looked at each other. Her face said “Aw.” My face said “Holy shit.”
“She must have talked to them in the car,” she said. Now that we were engaged, I wasn’t just Ben anymore, they were allowed to give me a proper title, we speculated.
And so then that was me. All week and right now. Uncle Ben. I had a nephew. And another nephew, who smiled every time Kathryn turned the corner into our room holding him. And a niece that, later on, called me Uncle Ben, too. One who was more or less attached to my shins and my shoulders the rest of the week. I watched the swim lessons and played Pete the Cat. But the eggshells beneath my feet were no longer there. I was their uncle. An uncle can sneak them candy without feeling like he’s overstepping. An uncle could, too, I thought, try to teach his nephew why cheating at board games is hardly rewarding. A lost cause I felt empowered to embark on. My first lesson! And after a week with my niece, she even told me she loved me. Someday when she can understand it, I’ll tell her how much that meant to me.
After our synchronised reaction to my nephew using the “U” word, Kathryn and I didn’t really talk about it much, but I didn’t stop thinking about it. The morning after it happened, I was woken up three minutes before my alarm to the sound of Nerf guns being locked and loaded at the foot of our bed. I woke up staring down the barrels of two armed and giggling toddlers. I grabbed my phone, snapped a picture, and posted it to my Instagram story. To one of the responses, I giddily replied with something about hashtag uncle life, a cliche that didn’t make me feel lame. It made me feel a part of something new.
At the end of the week, I told Kathryn about that something on the way home. We weren’t even out of the ZIP code yet before I broke down. I was driving, and it was that first long cry I’d had in a while. When I caught my breath, I told her that this silly little thing from day one had thrown me. I told her almost as much as I’ve written here, about the knot in my stomach, the guilt that had been gnawing at me. That one word, and the week that followed, was much more than a weight lifted. It felt like the beginning of a new life for me. I don’t fault others for their apathy toward having children. How could I? But mine had been erased.
The truth is, I told her, that somewhere along the way, maybe even during the beginning of that car ride, I realised the only thing that could have possibly made me feel more, was if I’d had those experiences with kids of our own. For the first time, after beating the hell out of myself in the space between my ears, I didn’t feel like I had to wait and see. That phenomenon, the one that only happens when you lay eyes upon your first child, for the first time, will still come when it does. I will feel things I cannot fathom and will not attempt to guess at. I knew it was possible now for things to change in an instant, because they just had. I still expect that moment to be revelatory. I did not expect to be snapped out of this funk by a toddler wearing velcro shoes. And yet I was. Becoming an uncle helped me find a step in the process I didn’t know could exist.
And so that was me. All week and right now. I’m Uncle Ben. But not just Uncle Ben anymore. I’m finally a hopeful, eager father. I’ll still never really know what it’s like to have a brother or sister, not really. But I don’t feel quite as peerless anymore. And I’m a lot less lonely now, too.
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