Baby steps on the way to fatherhood


Book Review


A Father's First Year Elisha Cooper Pantheon: 168 pp., $19.95



By Brett Levy

Special to The Times



THERE is something about the way Elisha Cooper captures the first year of fatherhood in "Crawling" that rings true: the desire to continue eating out at swank restaurants; the guilt of being away from home even five minutes too long; the struggle with your kid when you must use the "snot-suction thing" ó that rubber bulb for cleaning out the baby's nose.


This basic struggle of converting a child-free life into one that revolves around a helpless, demanding creature can be as transforming for the parent as those first few months of life are for the infant. Cooper captures this metamorphosis in a way that does not beat readers over the head with overused parenting tips, drippy sentimentalism or gross tales about baby's first poop. Well, the snot-suction thing is pretty gross, but Cooper keeps that story funny, focusing more on the hassles of traveling with a young child and the futility of keeping her away from sick cousins.


Rather than following a structured story line, "Crawling" is a series of well-connected vignettes about the first year of parenthood. We start with about-to-be-born ZoŽ's head sticking out of her mother. "Anybody who says this moment is the most precious wonderful thing in the world is delusional," Cooper writes. "This isn't a miracle, it's assault. I'd call 911 but we're already in a hospital." Once the baby is safely swaddled in his wife's arms, however, he quickly realizes the miracle he beholds.


Cooper backtracks to explain that although he is a children's book writer and illustrator, he never liked children. "Like most men in their 20s, I would sooner have been handed a bomb than a baby," he writes. Parents are an even stranger, less likable breed. On deeper reflection ó and some prodding from his wife ó Cooper acquiesces and agrees to give parenthood a go.


Control issues arrive with the diapers. In the chapter "A Bunny Orgy," Cooper reveals he disposes of all toy presents deemed in bad taste, such as endlessly multiplying stuffed bunnies, and replaces them with those he likes. And as soon as Mom leaves the house, Dad changes ZoŽ's clothes to suit his tastes.


Those mostly benign battles over control are nothing compared with trying to deal with anger, which emerges when Cooper fails at enticing his breast-fed daughter to take a bottle. "Am I fighting my daughter or my short temper?" he wonders. "The answer is sad and obvious. It's me on me. I'm fighting myself and taking a pummeling."


Cooper also has a difficult time giving up his urbane Berkeley lifestyle, so he drags his daughter to all his favorite hangouts. ZoŽ becomes a regular at the Cheese Board, a bakery that makes Cooper's favorite blueberry scones. Unwilling to give up evenings out, Cooper and his wife discover "Baby Brigade" night at an old movie house. ZoŽ apparently prefers smashing vehicles to scary comedies.


At times protective, at others unsure of his fitness as a dad, Cooper grows as fast emotionally as his daughter does physically. Fueling this growth is a contemplated move to Chicago so Cooper's wife, Elise, can pursue an advanced degree.


The prospect of change has Cooper pondering mortality. "No man in his 20s thinks he will die," Cooper writes. "Then, in the instant a father first kisses his newborn's forehead this feeling of immortality evaporatesÖ. Death is certain. The baby proves it."


While Cooper evolves as a parent ó vowing to cut back on swearing and quickly falling in love with his wide-eyed, thick-haired daughter ó it is the move to Chicago that completes his transformation as a dad. Here he learns to trust his daughter's instincts on the city's playgrounds and to ingratiate himself with cliquish moms. But most of all, he learns how to trust himself.


Brett Levy writes about parenting, health and environmental issues at