I have a REAL problem with fatherhood.
Or, more accurately, I have a problem with society’s perception of fatherhood. We fathers are seen at best as earnest but irrelevant sidekicks. Not Patriarchs. We’re either goofy assholes, controlling assholes or uninvolved assholes. There is no fourth choice. Yeah, I get it – boo hoo, the man in the family is complaining about role expectations?
Well, few aspects of our societal roles are as vilified when done poorly but also ignored when done well. Even politicians are loved by half the populace. Fatherhood is important, damn it, and we all – men and women- deserve to take a look at it without our blinders on.
Well, like any fear, it’s a question of understanding. People don’t understand what it’s like being a father. What’s it like?
Being a father is an exercise in extremes. A father lives in constant fear but also in absolute wonder. He laughs. A father laughs harder than he ever has in his life with his children. It feels good in his soul. Being a father is knowing that the only people who think he is cool anymore are his (young) children. A father knows that even those days are numbered, but a father is mostly at peace with this. Mostly.
Being a father is never being perfect and often being far from it, but a father tries. A father takes out his failures from time to time and looks at them. He does this over a drink or a run or in the moments when his family is asleep. Then, he puts his failures away and moves on. He doesn’t have time to linger.
Being a father is sneaking through his own damn home in the middle of the night whispering curses and shushing inanimate objects. A father goes to bed exhausted and wakes up exhausted but he always saves just enough energy to properly roll his eyes at that 20-something single guy who announces that he’s “so tired.”
Being a father is being a teacher. A guide. A father leads by example whether he likes it or not. If a father wants his children to value wearing helmets, HE wears a helmet. A father teaches by how he treats his partner, how he treats strangers, how he treats himself. One day, his children will make their own decisions but a part of them will always be shaped by a father’s actions far more than his words. The words children remember are only remembered because of the actions that reinforced – or contradicted – those words. The day when one of his children makes a critical decision he doesn’t know about is a terrifying day, but a father knows it’s coming. He knows he can lecture and preach and goad and threaten but ultimately it’s how he lives his life that will make the difference. He hopes.
Being a father is not being his child’s friend. He skirts the boundaries of friendship, sure. He is at times goofy and fun. He is warm and welcoming. Accepting. Unrelenting in his loyalty and always a strong shoulder to cry on. A father teaches his children the value of friendship by the friends he surrounds himself with. Still, a father is not his children’s friend. He is their father.
Being a father is keeping his word to his children. Because of this, a father is careful with the threats he uses because he knows he has to follow through. A father doesn’t always like being a father, but liking it is irrelevant. A father knows that threatening to not go out for ice cream is a bad threat because it hurts him too.
Being a father is setting arbitrary boundaries. At what point did the singing cross over from being ok to being “too loud?” A father doesn’t know, but he knows it’s too loud. A father sometimes uses his children’s full names when he’s angry. A father knows that sometimes just their first names isn’t enough to properly carry the weight of his emotion. The fact that a father knows how absurd this sounds doesn’t stop him from saying this or many other absurd things. A father says things like “I’m not saying it again,” or answers, “because I’m your father,” and then wonders when the hell he became such an old man.
Being a father is being late for work but pausing to listen to his child describe his or her favorite color in terms that make no sense. A father starts to say he has no time but then he catches himself. A father makes time. And he apologizes when he can’t. A father chastises himself for every event he misses but hopes his children will remember the times he filled the seat more than the times he left it empty. A father rails against anything that takes him out of that seat, but a father has to choose. A father knows he will never, ever, feel like he’s filled the seat enough.
Being a father is counting to three. He never makes it to three. Perhaps he never will. His children don’t know what would happen if he got to three, but the grand secret of fatherhood is that the father doesn’t know either. A father knows that counting to three works but he doesn’t understand why.
Being a father is getting angry when people refer to the time he spends with his kids as him “babysitting.” He broods when women ask him to tell his children’s mother about a new class. He hates the assumption that he is uninvolved more than any other because it is his worse fear and the most clear metric of failure. Still, a father knows that enough men have come before who deserved to wear that mantle, so a father forces a smile and goes back to being a father.
Being a father is knowing that having children puts him one step closer to the final curtain. A father has always known that someday he will die but having children changes that knowledge. It is somehow more profound and less personal. Nothing in life makes him consider the man he is and the man he wants to be more than being a father. Nothing makes him consider time and what he does with it more. He has become part of something larger than him. When it’s quiet in the night and his children are asleep, a father can almost feel all the fathers that have come before him standing just outside of his understanding. His own father. His grandfather. A thousand grandfathers past. They all stand there and look down at his sleeping children and they smile at the future.
In that moment, he is immortal.