The hardest part of fatherhood is taking it easy on yourself. That’s a lot to ask given how, as dads, we’re constantly comparing ourselves to the man or men who set the only examples we know. It’s like cleaning gutters or contracting someone to do complex indoor plumbing. The first handful of times, you’re peering over your shoulder or at the person you’ve employed and waiting for someone to see right through your inadequacy.
Changing diapers and enrolling in daycare, or just helping a toddler feel unafraid to stand on their own two feet, isn’t that different. You can feel unready, until you stop looking back and channel the reassurance your child needs to move forward. Kids can be perceptive, but they’re not interested in or intuiting whatever inner narrative you’re working through. Their only expectation is that you teach them how to walk, play, poop without shame and take literal baby steps so that, one day, they can emerge grown up and consumed with their own legacy of papa issues.
I can only speak for myself as a relatively inexperienced father to one 13-month-old son, but having been spared (or evolutionarily omitted from, depending on your yen) the maternal mandate of pregnancy and delivery, my preparedness was truly put to the post-natal test. In ways that are aptly metaphorical to early development, this past year-plus has challenged me to wean off the teat of self-analysis and allow my son to interact with his surroundings, unaffected by my psychology.
More to the point, I became less self-involved. January 30, 2013 (said infant’s day of earthly entry) granted me a license to engage the world less wearily, without the cynical adult entitlement that so often makes us feel neglected and inclined to project tyranny onto our children.
Keeping my historical bogeymen at arm’s length, I’ve found comfort in my father’s legacy of instruction.
That confidence and compassion had actually been instilled in me for decades. I just took it for granted as it gathered, until recently, like a letter I’d been asked to keep unopened until the time was right. Which, in terms of my father as beneficiary, meant never saying I told you so. As he knew all too well, life and understanding has a way of bearing itself out. My biological father is still alive and well, but our history is spotty. He’s a good person who made bad choices that led to divorce, which created a space for my mother and stepfather−the one I’m acknowledging here−to meet. They married when I was four. He’d already raised two daughters to college age and just signed on to bring up my sister and I, if not from scratch, then at a very vulnerable point.
It took several years for all those sensitive personalities to find steady footing, let alone common ground, but my dad’s approach never differed. He took comfort in routine, offered reason where emotions ran amok and supported us in every essential sense without second thought. It’s the kind of thing that gets into you organically, more so than pretense or pat advice.
My dad’s not an especially transparent person, but my hunch has always been that his even-keeled, generous demeanor was a refinement on his own father’s way. Not that my grandpa was some kind of clichéd “old man” hardass, but he did raise three children on slim earnings in WWII-era New York City, at a time when centuries-old immigrant culture was assimilating with fledgling American family values. Odds are, their household was run with warmth but also a constant sense of survival. No wonder dad was able to weather whatever our crazy clan could muster and still quietly communicate patience and commitment.
When you’ve created something so entirely new, it can be maddening and futile to contrive fatherly superiority.
So while presently attentive to my own newly minted offspring, and mindful of keeping my historical bogeymen at arm’s length, I’ve found comfort in my father’s legacy of instruction. That bedrock of hard-earned calm is the only reason it feels safe to be a silly, overprotective, hands-on and, when better for my son’s esteem, less hovering presence in his life. I’ve discovered that parenting can be a clean slate in so many ways, and remain amazed at how good it feels to worry about−and spoil−someone other than myself. And having a baby around has, to this point, only strengthened mine and my wife’s resolve that we’re not entirely incompatible as partners. It’s also illuminated how lucky we are, and he is, that we’re all in together, cause otherwise it could easily fall apart.
When you’ve created something so entirely new−when you’re suddenly someone’s dad−it can be maddening and futile to compete with the past or contrive fatherly superiority. As is probably the case with most parents, my son’s circumstances and those I grew up around are apples and oranges, as randomly related as a previously married stepdad to his inherited four-year-old. But love and loyalty is the legacy we’re passing on. Because of it, my son so far knows the good fortune of stability, and all I can really do not to mess it up is be a decent man, which would bode well for both our futures.
Five mixed blessings of modern fatherhood (according to one man with one 13-month-old living in suburban New York).
1. It’s not weird if you drop your kid off at school or daycare each morning while your wife commutes to work, but you also log time complaining to administrators about parents with older children who park in infant-only spots.
2. Single people will think you’re adorable on walks with baby, but they’ll also no longer look at you as having a penis.
3. Your partner will fall in love with how you fall in love with your child, so much so that they won’t hesitate to leave you two alone for hours or days while they catch up with errands or visit friends.
4. Also, your partner might forget you have a penis.
5. You won’t be your father, but you will be your father.