STEPPING UP

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.

 Know me.

My son Jeremy, a few minutes after his first child, Penelope, was born.

 

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.

My husband Sylvain with Jeremy at one month
Sylvain with Simon at one month

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

 

Phillip Toledano, from the series “Days with my father”

 

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.

Jeremy with Penelope

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.

Jeremy and Graeme watching Penelope

“…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.

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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 HarkawayTigerman

 

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

 

A LOVE SUPREME

Pablo Picasso – Mother and Child, 1901

 

This May, three babies were born among my neighbours and family. The first is Scarlett, the closest to my heart, who joins her three-year-old brother in what I know will be a happy and close sibling adventure. The other is Audrey, who lives right next door and will do the same, I hope, with her big brother who is just two. The third lives around the corner.

They arrived like the warmth of spring trailing joy and hope.

They arrived inevitably, after a slow and patient wait that veered sharply as it came to an urgent ending.

They arrived, and for all of the preparations—the fresh feathering of the nest and frequent medical monitoring—they’ve brought unpredictability and disorganization into their parents’ lives.

They’re all healthy babies and their seasoned mothers and fathers aren’t having to reinvent the world. They have a frame of reference, a bank of experience from which to draw. These families are already up and running.

The job of child number two or three or four, in any family, is to hop on a train that’s already moving and in which some seats have already been taken.

Each child eventually finds their way into adult life while bumping alongside siblings or else never having to share their ride.

It’s the experience—with some very sad exceptions— we all have in common.

But what of motherhood?

Amanda Palmer, Pregnant living statue

All human life on the planet is born of woman. The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all women and men is that months-long period we spent unfolding inside a woman’s body. Because young humans remain dependent upon nurture for a much longer period than other mammals, and because of the division of labor long established in human groups, where women not only bear and suckle but are assigned almost total responsibility for children, most of us first know both love and disappointment, power and tenderness, in the person of a woman.” 

― Adrienne RichOf Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution

 

My breath caught when I read this. It has such weight. The enormity of it. The unquestionability of it. The responsibility of it.

I’m the second of three sisters. My father decided when I was very young that I should wear my hair short and then gave me the nickname Mikie. I think it was a clear message about who I should be, or who he was expecting. But, mysteriously and despite my tomboyish appearance, the strongest memory I have of my childhood hopes and dreams of the future is of a deep, unswerving desire and conviction that I should one day be a mother.

I can’t explain it. It was just there inside me.

I became a mother at twenty-four, while still a graduate student.

 

“That first pregnancy is a long sea journey to a country where you don’t know the language, where land is in sight for such a long time that after a while it’s just the horizon – and then one day birds wheel over that dark shape and it’s suddenly close, and all you can do is hope like hell that you’ve had the right shots.” 

― Emily PerkinsNovel About My Wife

 

 The story of how I became the mother of three goes like this:

The first time, I wanted a baby, and had two.

The second time, I hoped for one baby, but my son died in utero and was lost at 29 weeks.

The third time, I had learned to just hope for a healthy child and mindfully experience every second of the time he lived inside me.

This doesn’t begin to express what any of these experiences were like. How beautiful and terrifying and difficult and euphoric and painful and instinctive and dangerous and traumatic and life-threatening and life-altering and true and transformative they were.

This is the medical lexicon of my motherhood:

Twin high risk pregnancy, pre-eclampsia, prolapsed cord, emergency caesarian, intra-uterine death, compound presentation, prolapsed arm.

My childbirth experiences are all stories that I must hide from women expecting for the first time. They’re unshareable.

    

He carries no burden, he feels no pain. What man, like woman, lies down in the darkness and gets up with child? The gentle, smiling ones own the good secret. Oh, what strange wonderful clocks women are. They nest in Time. They make flesh that holds fast and binds eternity.” 
― Ray Bradbury

 

I’ve thought so often since I became a mother about what it would have been like to live the way most women have lived since the beginning of time— that is, without the possibility of choice. Without any control over whether or not I would become with child.

 

No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” 

― Margaret Sanger

What I experienced in bringing children into the world branded me for life and changed me profoundly. I was brought right up to the brink of myself and of what I could bear. I became the place where life and death did battle over my own and my babies’ existences.

I carry the wounds and scars of those battles with me every day.

This is not nothing. It is, in fact, almost everything to me. And to many women, I think.

Had I not had any choice at all in the matter…would I have survived?

I bring all of this to my mothering. And always have. How could I not?

And yet, I’m no different than every other mother. I feel a connection with my children so visceral and so deeply embedded in all of me that I know it will never abate.

 

 “When you moved, I felt squeezed with a wild infatuation and protectiveness. We are one. Nothing, not even death, can change that.”
― Suzanne FinnamoreThe Zygote Chronicles

 “It’s come at last”, she thought, “the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache.” 
― Betty SmithA Tree Grows in Brooklyn

 

There’s a pain in mothering that just never goes away, and it lives conjoined with a love supreme. And from this connection comes the strength possessed by every mother to defend and protect her child no matter the consequences; no matter the danger; no matter the cost to herself; no matter who or what stands in her way.

Stephen King wrote that: “There’s no bitch on earth like a mother frightened for her kids.”

He’s right, of course. I’ve transformed many times during my decades of mothering, and the ferocity of my feelings shocked me.

Lioness, Furiosa, Elen Ripley. I’ve been all of them.

When Elen Ripley took on the Queen in Aliens, I was on the edge of my seat, roaring along with her.

But I’ve more often felt very close to Joan Allen’s character, Bonnie, in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer:

In that small and very personal movie, Bonnie is the mother of the boy—a chess prodigy—whose life is fast slipping into a very adult and male world of competition for its own sake. In a short and very powerful scene, Bonnie is the quintessential mother: she’s not projecting herself into her child, she’s simply drawing a protective line in the sand that she will not allow to be crossed:

Bonnie: He’s not afraid of losing. He’s afraid of losing your love. How many ball players grow up afraid of losing their fathers’ love every time they come up to the plate?

Fred: All of them!

Bonnie: He knows you disapprove of him. He knows you think he’s weak. But he’s not weak. He’s decent. And if you or Bruce [her sons’ chess teacher and coach] or anyone else tries to beat that out of him, I swear to God I’ll take him away.

 

If I live to be a hundred and ten, I’ll never do anything more meaningful, more hopeful and more astonishing that bringing my sons into the world.

With them, I’ve lived many more lives. I’ve experienced innumerable do-overs—those opportunities to start again and do things better, do them right and become a much better person.

I’m filled with an immense sense of gratitude.

My gratitude has four names. They are Simon, Jeremy, Gabriel and Christian.

 

As I cooked in the cauldron of motherhood, the incredible love I felt for my children opened my heart and brought me a much greater understanding of universal love. It made me understand the suffering of the world much more deeply.”

― Tsultrim Allione