Like many people, I have mixed feelings about Father’s Day. Sure, there are lots of tweets and Facebook posts that go something like “to all the Dad’s [sic] out there,” obliterating that actually, there are better and worse examples of those who parent from the masculine zones of gender. A few years ago I joked with at least four other individuals in the room that we should start a “I Had a Shitty Father” club. We could emboss t-shirts and stamp out buttons and make zines. Why not turn personal trauma and angst into fun? Misery loves a good zine. But there are definitely moments I shared with my father that I carry with me today, like the Sundays after church when he and I would feed the ducks at the local pond (we didn’t know in the 1970s that it was bad for the ecology of it all), or his love of bygone music, or the thoughtful way he’d lay out my cereal choices in the morning before school, with the newspaper opened up to the comics section. I think I got a better dad than he shared with his older kids, and I do appreciate that.
These days I chase after a little boy reminding him to be careful when climbing on the tippy ottoman. Or the big steps that lead to our front door. Or the strangely busy residential road where we live. I was picking smashed raisins out of the one tiny carpet we own at some point last week when a wave of giggles hit me. This is full circle. I’m sure my mother had to pull all kinds of detritus out of the flooring when I stamped it on the linoleum, or shag-covered stairwell, and so on.
Where does fatherhood end, and parenting begin? Sometimes I wonder if I’m really a “father” or just a parental figure with chin stubble. When I’m rocking him to sleep, or reading with him, or telling him to say “please” when asking for yet more blueberries, does my own gender identity matter? He’s safe, he’s happy, he’s curious and engaged with the world around him. No, I tell myself, I’m not some uber-butchified mother. I’m me, and he’s whoever he is becoming. Besides, it’s hard to think about oneself when one is trying to catch a baby’s vomit, or fix a boo-boo, or keep the shampoo out of a kid’s eyes.
I don’t think I know what fatherhood is, even. There’s the tired image of a dad and son throwing a ball to each other in the front yard, never missing, even while waving to the neighbors. That’s not parenting so much as playing. Parenting feels more like an investment in another person on a very long-term basis, and at frequent intervals, and near the top of one’s capability in making that investment. Surely Emile was no accident, as we made every effort to conceive him, through sperm banks and reproductive centers, ultrasound appointments and required counseling. But even if he’d just come along, the proverbial “accident,” I think I’ve been ready to parent for a long time now. I’m a little on the late side perhaps, but there are benefits—I am really super mellow now. There have been at least a few moments when it’s occurred to me that if the wee one had pulled this stunt or that in front of my 20-year-younger self, I’d probably have slapped him, or yelled at him, or intimidated him in some way. Maybe I just wound up holding off until my best parenting self was ready. This way I don’t have to hate myself for my rash judgments.
We’re at the cusp of the terrible twos. But my child is still such a dream, when he has a tantrum he stomps his feet in the most adorable manner possible, and it’s all Susanne and I can do to keep from laughing at how cute he is. Instead I take him seriously, ask him to tell me what he’s feeling and why he seems so angry. It stops him in his tracks—so far, anyway—because thinking about what he’s feeling and then naming it can’t happen at the same time as the stomping and screaming. I’m not sure if I’d call it fatherhood when I scoop him up and put him upside-down, eliciting giggles, and helping him forget about his frustrations. I would rather call it being his advocate and friend. But yes, I get a warm feeling inside when he squeals “Daddy” when I come home after work, or when he runs to me for comfort, or when he buries his head in my neck out of sudden shyness. He is mine, marked as part of my pack, and he knows my voice even when I’m whispering three rooms over.
Of course, he hears the sound of plastic crinkling and dashes over looking for a treat with at least as much enthusiasm, so there’s that.