10/23/2014 01:11 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Ready Or Not -- Fatherhood's Unexpected Life Lessons

My wife Ceci and I had been together 10 years to the day when our daughter Cali entered the world with the assistance of a midwife. Her entry was dramatic. Ceci had had 12 hours of active labor and then a difficult transition. Her strength was already at an ebb when Cali got stuck in the birth canal. That put pressure on the umbilical cord, and slowed down her heart rate. The midwife called the Labor and Delivery ward on the floor above us. A gurney was rolled into the room so my exhausted wife could be transferred. A C-section seemed inevitable. Somehow, just then, Ceci mustered the strength to make one more big push. Next thing, our baby was crowning. Ceci pushed once more. Cali swooshed into my welcoming arms. Our drama queen came out a tad bluish, and perfect, and with her right arm extended -- that's why she'd been stuck -- waving at the world.

Cali is now 8 years old. Once every week or so, she and I have a standing date. We go to a restaurant of our mutual choosing. Over the course of our meal, we convene a mini-Socrates Café. The questions Cali poses are as varied as they are provocative: Is it better to want something or need something? Why are there words? Would life be better without time?

I share the philosopher Karl Jaspers' bemusement that, when a child comes up with "really serious questions," many adults assume that "the children must have heard all this from their parents or someone else." He is amazed that it doesn't occur to them that children are quite capable of coming up with jaw-dropping queries without any outside assistance. After all, it's part of their makeup.

Recently, Cali asked me, "Daddy, was becoming a daddy always one of your goals?"
I didn't know quite what to say. I'd been content as a childless hubby. Then one day in early 2005, over dinner, Ceci told me, "I want to have a child." One look at her was sufficient to know there was no room for debate. I stumbled for a way to convey that I wasn't sure that parenthood was the right path for me, for us.

Still, parenthood intrigued me. Friends with kids had made it an unsolicited point to share that they've gained so many fresh insights, from the theoretical to the practical, the ethical to the metaphysical, since becoming parents. And after that one-sided conversation with my wife, I started daydreaming about what it would be like to be a dad, carrying a little one on my shoulders, going to the playground, having great conversations like the ones Cali and I now have.

But making the real-life transition to "daddy" was far more challenging than I'd imagined. As much as I thought I'd readied myself for life with a bundle of joy, it turns out I was pretty clueless about how to deal with the quantum change. When Cali entered the world, I had been juggling the writing of a new book as well as a doctoral dissertation. All of a sudden, I could not, did not want to, do my work. I made feints at writing at the start of each day. But all I wanted to do was stare at my baby girl, watch her every drool and gurgle, revel in her company as she slept or screamed or pooped or fed at mommy's breast. I missed deadlines for the first time in my life. Both my book editor and my dissertation supervisor read me the riot act.

Over eight years have passed since she was born. I finished the book, Constitution Café, and my doctoral dissertation, becoming "Dr. Phillips." Along the way, I came up with a new writing routine. My most productive work time had always been in the tranquil morning hours. Cali, though, is at full volume from the moment she wakes up -- and no matter how early I start my day, she somehow senses it, and insists on greeting the day with Daddy as he savors his first cup of coffee. Now I do the bulk of my writing after she's asleep.

We named our daughter Caliope, after the ancient Greek muse of wisdom and poetry. And what a muse she is. Her questions, and answers, often inspire my own work as a "professional philosopher." They stay with me, continue to command further consideration.

One question of Cali's that took me a while to wrap my mind around was: "Why do I get so upset when things that aren't real are suffering?" Once at school, Cali had been given a book with a character who had a zipper for a mouth. She decided to make her own booklet. In her version, the character had a normal mouth. When she showed me her own creation, she explained, "People are always saying, 'zip up your lips.' But you should never put a real zipper on someone's lips."

Cali felt that the character was suffering needlessly. She knew he wasn't real, yet to her, suffering is suffering, whether a real person or a fictional character. She feels the pain of imagined characters and real people - like her daddy -- and if it's in her power to alleviate it, then by golly she will.

Whenever she sees a look on my face that appears to be of self reproach over something I've said or done earlier in the day that has to do with her, she takes my hand and says simply, "Daddy, nobody's perfect."

She is a practitioner of Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith's description of empathy: "We enter as it were [another's] body, and become in some measure the same person with him."

What I become ever more appreciative of is Cali's role in helping me become a better parent, a better person. She is in many ways my teacher, my guide.

I look at my little muse with the enormous heart. She is still waiting for an answer to her question, about whether becoming a daddy was one of my lifelong goals. And I tell her with all honesty, "I realize now that it always was, even if I didn't always know it."