Andrew Cotto loses his son in a museum—and finds a new approach to being a good dad.
Upon hearing that our second child would be a boy, I walked out of the doctor’s office, crossed 8th Avenue, and stepped into a Mexican restaurant to drink something with tequila in it.
Then I drank another.
My wife would have joined in the drinking, but she was far enough along in the pregnancy for a penis to show up on a sonogram. So, I drank, and she inhaled corn chips with guacamole.
We knew that mommies and daddies can make both little girls and little boys, but we hadn’t seriously considered the possibility of having a son.
We already had a girl, Sophia, who was three years old. And she was perfect—dimples, curls, and a sweet little voice that said sweet little things.
When my wife became pregnant again, neither of us said aloud that we were having a girl. We just figured that we would; by some genetic predisposition, we made girls. It was the house special.
As the father of a little girl, I’d grown not to care for little boys. They were loud, needy, and restless. On the sidewalks, they ran wild with no consideration for other people, unmovable objects, or moving traffic. In the park, they flung themselves from dangerous heights, or chased after balls like dogs. They puffed out their chests and waived sharp sticks, then cried to high heaven at the sight of a scratch.
Socially, they were hopeless: no eye contact, no hellos, no listening, plenty of boogers. Bookstores have entire sections dedicated to tomes on raising boys. The multitude of volumes and approaches speaks to the complexity of the matter; boys are just harder to raise.
It would be on me, more than anybody else, to raise him right.
Before I knew it, the kid was growing up. Soon, I was not just his major male influence, but his primary caregiver. When my wife went back to work, we had two choices: drop most of my adjunct-teaching pay on a nanny, or teach night classes while handling mini-me during the day.
Actually, we had no choice. The arrangements were made. And, apprehension aside, I was eager for the opportunity to help shape my son’s growth.
I decided to take my knowledge of storytelling and apply it to our scenario. It would be our story; Julian and I would be the main characters. Our motivation would be to bond while exploring the city.
Nothing would stand in our way. The themes would be fatherhood, love, and character. Our routine was set: We’d drop Sophia off in the schoolyard, then head home to regroup. By regroup, I mean Julian would watch “Dora the Explorer” while I wrote or graded papers. After a snack, we’d hit the streets. We’d be the explorers.
At first, the adventurers had a hard time making it beyond the local playground. Julian insisted: a little bit of climbing, a short swing session, follow a ball, take a toy from somebody else, (eventually) give the toy back, cry about it, run into something, find an out-of-the-way spot to squat and wreck a diaper.
Most days, I’d be cranky and tired before lunch. After a nap (for both of us), it would be time to pick up Sophia in the schoolyard, which would lead to more time in the park. Was it possible that I actually looked forward to going off to teach composition classes each night after dinner? Yes, it was.
Eventually, I got the adventuring started. By leaving straight from the schoolyard, we could be on a subway or a bus and off to a destination with minimal fuss. I’d done my research. There were parks, museums, and fantastic sights everywhere.
We’d hit every borough, and eventually, we’d both be connoisseurs of the city. We’d bond, too. Along the way, my son would become perceptive and hip and expandable—just like I wanted him to be.
Our trips, sadly, weren’t that inspiring. After all the rigmarole of getting there—trains and buses and strollers being carried up and down and on and off—the destination ultimately seemed like a letdown.
Still, I talked a big game about where we were, what we were seeing, and how lucky we were for this opportunity. This usually led to a diaper change or a request to go home.
It was starting to dawn on me that my adventure plan was flawed, but not before we hit yet another children’s museum.
The one in Manhattan had a Dora exhibit! How could that be bad? (It was.)
Thankfully, on another floor, there was a fireman’s pole. Julian slid down forty-two times in a row. Then I asked him to come with me; the next room had a movie about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.
We’d walked the actual bridge plenty of times. It is, by far, my favorite New York landmark. Seeing it being built might be a seminal moment in Julian’s development—this might be the day he decides to become an architect. I yanked him away from the fireman’s pole and plopped him in front of the film.
The grainy black and white footage may have scared him. He wanted to leave—desperately. I held him by the wrist. Tough love. Make the kid smart. He leaned into my leg and begged to go. Fine. Go. He walked away, but I kept my eye on the film for another fifteen seconds, tops.
I believed I was setting an example. Just for a few seconds, tops.
When I got to the fireman’s pole, he wasn’t there—or anywhere else in the area. “Julian,” I called out.
My head was instantly on a swivel, searching every direction. “Julian!” I yelled this time.
I thought of my wife. I thought of my daughter. I thought of my son leaving the museum in the arms of a stranger.
“Julian!!” I yelled without restraint.
A woman with blond hair streaked with black walked away. Everything seemed sinister, small details that would need to be recalled later to a detective. I found an employee, a kid about sixteen. I told her I’d lost my son. She reported a missing child into her headset.
People were gathering around us, holding their children close. My stomach felt stapled, and my head swam with the idea of life changed forever. I remembered the helpless desperation of almost drowning as a teenager.
Then the woman with streaked hair came back. I saw her cut through the crowd, waiving at me. She had my son by her side. He was crying. She’d seen him in the hallway, down at the far end, when she’d come in. I may have thanked her—I don’t recall. I now knew why he’d been so desperate to leave the movie: He needed an out of the way spot to squat and wreck a diaper.
I think we both needed a change of undergarments at that point.
Julian slept the whole way home. I kept his stroller tucker between my legs and watched him sleep. I hoped he hadn’t been too scared. I hoped he hadn’t thought for a second that I’d left him. I hoped I hadn’t traumatized my poor son with that flawed agenda of mine. We weren’t partners. This wasn’t our story. It was his story. I was there to support him, keep him safe, fed, and comfortable. I was to encourage his growth, not dictate it.
He will become who he becomes and I have a supporting role in that story, not a starring one. And, if I could remember that—to keep my ego out of his life—he might just have a chance at becoming a man on his own terms.
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Published on The Good Men Project: Finding Julian