This piece first appeared on Matt Pearl’s “Telling the Story” blog at tellingthestoryblog.com.
Earlier this year, I sat in my living room at 3 a.m., feeding my daughter while contemplating my first Father’s Day as a dad, when one single moment crystallized my entire fatherly experience:
My baby spit milk into my mouth.
I couldn’t have planned it. I haven’t tried to replicate it. I had just pulled her bottle and perched her on my lap. I had patted her back to burp her, then clutched her against my chest to soothe her. We had sat silently, her head leaning against mine, when I turned my cheek to give her a kiss. As my lips puckered, my daughter swiveled her head my way and sent an ounce of milk fountaining from her mouth. Most landed on my shirt, some across my face. The rest settled inside my jaw. Dignity.
But it wasn’t her action that stood out. It was my reaction. I pffted out the milk, looked at my child, shook my head and laughed out loud in a pitch-black room. I wasn’t upset. I wasn’t grossed out. I felt grateful.
I’ve been waiting so long to be a dad, I thought. A little milk in the mouth is all part of the package.
I often wonder how my job as a journalist affects my outlook as a father, and it’s not always obvious. But in moments like the Great Spitting Incident of 2018, it becomes clear. Episodes like these don’t bother me. Neither do the middle-of-the-night feeds, exploding poops and impromptu workouts from carrying my child on my shoulder for 20 minutes.
I can shrug it off in Atlanta because I remember Sioux City.
Three months and 35 résumé tape submissions after graduating college, I landed my first job in TV news: a weekend sports anchor and weekday news reporter in Sioux City, Iowa, the nation’s 144th-largest market. As most of my friends started more conventional career paths, nestling in metropolises across America, I boldly (so I thought) broke from the norm and set forth to “make it” as a broadcaster.
Then I arrived. I drove in on I-29 and approached a sign over downtown that read “Welcome to SIOUX CITY” and seemed covered in 1930s-era rust. I inhaled a noxious, methane-esque odor that I later learned was a parting gift of the old pork processing plant that centerpieced the city. I shuddered. And while those initial repulsions soon receded – I made great friends, found enjoyable hangout spots and sank my teeth into my work – my apprehension persisted. Why? Because more than any career goal, I yearned to fall in love, get married and start a family. But I was in my early 20s and only dated within my religion – a religion with scant representation in Sioux City except for legendary advice columnists Ann Landers and Dear Abby, who grew up there during the Roaring ’20s.
My romantic prospects appeared null. And that cast a pall on everything else. I knew it would be years before I reached a city large enough to rekindle my familial dreams. Everything seemed uncertain in Sioux City. What if I can’t get a job in a bigger market? What if I’m stuck making sub-minimum wage my entire career? What if I don’t start seriously dating until my mid-30s? And most of all, what if I never fall in love, get married and start a family? I felt I was sinking way behind in life, but I had dreamed of this career for too long to change my path.
For the next half-decade, I barely dated. I spent two years in Iowa and four years in Buffalo, N.Y. I enjoyed both cities but struggled to find a romantic spark. I arrived in Atlanta, a city with extraordinary energy and an influx of young adults of all faiths and backgrounds, and still felt removed from others my age. For them, living in Atlanta seemed like a natural first step out of school or transition from another metropolis, not a hard-fought accomplishment through years of 50- and 60-hour workweeks and never-ending self-doubt. I still felt a pressure to seek and find love instead of letting it build organically. Only when I learned to relieve that pressure did I meet the woman whom I now call my wife.
Over the past few years, I have flourished in my career and settled into family life. I have achieved virtually everything I had dreamed. And I don’t take it for granted. Maybe that’s why Father’s Day felt so strange. I have always felt so detached from the “normal” path that I’m surprised to finally be on it. I’m a dad. And I’m doing all of the dad things: posting baby photos on Facebook, going for walks with my family, taking our daughter in a stroller when we go out for dinner. It’s positively standard. And I’m positively fine with it.
So when my baby refunds her 3 a.m. feed and lands some of it on my taste buds, I don’t curse. I don’t sit in disgust. I savor it. And I wonder if, on some level, that’s because of a career path I chose long ago. My journey in journalism snatched me from my comfort zone and goose-bumped me with doubt, but it instilled a personal ambition, gratitude and urgency that extend far beyond the stories I report. I can look into my daughter’s eyes, fresh off a post-feeding spit, and want to clasp her tightly and cherish her. I can clean her off, put her back to bed and try to hold off a tear before returning to sleep myself.
This is my world now. And I’m not fine with that. I’m ecstatic.
Matt Pearl is a solo video journalist and the chief of storytelling and development for WXIA-TV in Atlanta. He runs the Telling the Story blog and podcast, and in 2016 he authored "The Solo Video Journalist,' a how-to guide for TV multimedia journalists.