Deep down, I believe that fathers get the raw end of the parenting deal. You may have expected this if you’ve read A Love Supreme, but it’s worth giving it some thought.
I would even say that fathers are cheated by life. Which sounds harsh, but consider: a father enters his child’s life already nine months behind, without having the right to complain about a false start.
For those first forty weeks of his child’s life, a father warms the bench while the mother of his child walks around in the world as two people (and sometimes more). Inhabited.
A mother transforms as her baby grows inside her, and thus begins a private conversation between them. Whispers at first, but then much louder exchanges as the mother’s heartbeat and rushing blood follow the ebbs and flows of her emotions. This, and her muffled voice in the outer world, is her baby’s soundscape.
From the moment his child is born, a father has to establish his voice and his presence.
“What would it be like to feel so attached, so intrinsically bonded, so protective of one’s own best connection with time and the ages, of generations past and future, of another human life, of their time?”
― J.R. Tompkins, Price of the Child
In English, even vocabulary conspires against fatherhood*. While mothering refers to an ongoing process of caring for children, fathering is much more commonly used to describe the act of generating offspring. It’s so…biological.
[* I find this interesting because in French at least, the verbs materner and paterner both exist and each refers to the process of caring for one’s child or caring for someone else in a motherly or fatherly way. They aren’t even particularly gender biased. They’re great little verbs.]
And then, there’s the fact that other than through genetic testing, a father really has to just accept on faith and trust that his child really is his.
Well, my husband never lost a moment’s sleep with such concerns because his sons all look like they were made from the same mold as he was: same tall, slim build, same brown eyes (though with dashes of green—my blue-eyed genes poking through a tiny bit). Daousts all. Through and through. When they all walk together, from a distance, you can’t tell the father from the sons.
But even so. The biology of fatherhood is such that only the mother knows for sure that her child is her own.
Which makes it all the more astonishing that most fathers set all of this aside the moment they lay eyes upon their child for the first time—a wonder-inducing bonding experience that has been moved up on the parenting calendar thanks to ultrasound examinations—and feel a rush of insane happiness, pride, apprehension (downright terror?) and protectiveness.
But fathers aren’t always there for their children’s births. Nature certainly doesn’t require it, and sometimes they can’t be. Sometimes they don’t even know it’s happening.
You can be a father and not know it.
It’s also easier for fathers to run away.
“The stories of young men searching for their fathers are the stories of young men who through their adventures father themselves by doing for themselves what they hoped a father would do for them.”
― William S. Wilson, Why I Don’t Write Like Franz Kafka
“I was eleven when my father left, so neither of us really knew our fathers. I’d met mine of course, but then I only knew my dad as a child knows a parent, as a sort of crude outline filled in with one or two colors. I’d never seen my father scared or cry. I’d never heard him admit to any wrongdoing. I have no idea what he dreamed of. And once I’d seen a smile pinned to one cheek and darkness to the other when my mum had yelled at him. Now he was gone, and I was left with just an impression—one of male warmth, big arms, and loud laughter.”
― Lloyd Jones, Mister Pip
I’m not trying to write a sociological piece about fatherhood and patriarchy and the sexism of generations past or present, and I’m not a psychologist.
I just wonder what would happen if we compared notes about fathers and the meaning of fatherhood.
No matter our individual experiences of our own mothers or of motherhood, the sacrifice women make is incontrovertible. It isn’t possible to give more to another person than your own body. It isn’t possible to risk more than your life.
What fathers bring to their children is less directly physical and yet…
Fathers only begin as outliers.
Three decades after watching my husband transform into a father, I’m now observing the same metamorphosis in our son Jeremy.
From my vantage point, new dads are a lot like young actors who have been sent to audition for a part without sides to guide them.
What IS a father’s role?
The motto of the Los Angeles police force comes to mind: To Serve and Protect. In many ways, this says it all for fathers too.
In the famous Proust Questionnaire, around which I’ve created a learning activity where my adult students interview each other, there’s a question about “your heroes in real life”. I’m stunned by the number of students who simply answer: my father.
When I ask them to explain this, most tell me what they observed about their father, how he lived and what his life meant. About what he denied himself.
Fatherhood by example. Fatherhood as commonplace heroism.
“…if I were an angel of the Lord, I would mark the doors of each of my children’s homes with an X, so that plague and misfortune would pass over them. Alas, I lack the qualifications. So when there was still world and time enough I fretted. I nagged. I corrected. I got everything wrong.”
― Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version
“They slept huddled together in the rank quilts in the dark and the cold. He held the boy close to him. So thin. My heart, he said. My heart.”
― Cormac McCarthy, The Road
I believe that in the lives of children, fathers mean protection and safety.
I also think that no one is harder on a father than he is on himself.
“Why do men like me want sons?” he wondered. “It must be because they hope in their poor beaten souls that these new men, who are their blood, will do the things they were not strong enough nor wise enough nor brave enough to do. It is rather like another chance at life; like a new bag of coins at a table of luck after your fortune is gone.”
― John Steinbeck, Cup of Gold: A Life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History
“I can show him how to be the right kind of stupid.”
― Nick Harkaway, Tigerman
This may be because while mothers tend to work in concert, fathers are soloists. The mantel of fatherhood is passed through succeeding generations in the silence of diligent, unglamorous service: a selective mutism that has found its way into human history.
Certainly, our culture is filled with stories of fathers and sons who love each other fiercely but cannot express this love with language. Fathers who will not let their sons enter their inner worlds. Sons who first feel confused by this, or resentful, but who eventually settle for much less than what might have been.
There may be a difference between the way fathers relate to their daughters, but that wasn’t my experience.
“I could have asked my father lots of questions. I could have. But there was something in his face and eyes and in his crooked smile that prevented me from asking. I guess I didn’t believe he wanted me to know who he was. So I just collected clues. Watching my father read that book was another clue in my collection. Some day all the clues would come together. And I would solve the mystery of my father.”
― Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
“You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.”
― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
There are things about fathers that are uniquely beautiful and which fill me with tenderness.
For instance, while young children seem to naturally disappear into to the pillowy curves of their mothers’ bodies, I’m a soft touch when dads hold their children: in one hairy hand at first, or propped up in the V of a strong arm, or up top on their shoulders. The bigger the dad and the more delicate the child, the more touching it is.
And though his play is often boisterous, a father’s devotion to his children is usually more stolid than a mother’s, and there’s a sweetness in that too.
I think, finally, that a father’s role is to step up, over and over again, for his child.
Last February, Rob Scott, the father of a boy with Down Syndrome, while still in the grip of very strong feelings of failure and pain, posted a video in defense of his son Turner.
While I was moved to tears by the truth of his message, I was also very deeply affected by his courage and willingness to lay himself bare in defense of his child. In this moment of stepping up, Rob Scott towered over most parents.
“A few days after we came home from the hospital, I sent a letter to a friend, including a photo of my son and some first impressions of fatherhood. He responded, simply, ‘Everything is possible again.’ It was the perfect thing to write because that was exactly how it felt.”
― Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals