What Fatherhood Taught Me About Being a “Real Man”

if I failed to live up to a certain masculine model of fatherhood, I realized, I could also evade those constraints.

by Dan Cayer
Originally Published: 
A father holding his daughter on the shoulders while they're both smiling

In the months before my daughter’s birth, I was driven by a single question: would I be able to hold her? It was a long shot. It had been four years of a debilitating nerve condition, stretching from my neck to fingertips, where the merest of movements, such as typing, touching a phone, or carrying a quart of milk back from the grocery was, often, prohibitively painful. The unspoken fear among my girlfriend and parents had moved into the foreground: I might not get better.

At 29, I had restructured my life around not using my arms, developing an ever-expanding number of workarounds: I could gently head butt the kitchen cabinet to close it; a roundhouse kick could start the preprogrammed microwave. I was learning voice recognition to crudely operate my computer.

But alas, there would be no voice command for picking up my baby, no life hack to replace the feeling of supporting this new being in my arms. The motivation to be able to hold my child — a minimal requirement of fatherhood, I believed — was so gripping that it was like an urgent chord played within me upon waking in the morning and during sleepless stretches in the night. To get better, I had committed to a three-year training program for the Alexander Technique, a modality that helps correct posture, reduce tension, and change harmful habits in the body.

This story was submitted by a Fatherly reader. Opinions expressed in the story do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fatherly as a publication. The fact that we’re printing the story does, however, reflect a belief that it is an interesting and worthwhile read.

My image of an ideal father had always rippled with strength, affluence, and decisiveness. I pictured a well-fed man sitting in a restaurant with burly forearms who, with feigned reluctance, pulls out a fat wallet and makes the bill disappear. Instead, despite having gone to a good college and earning a Fulbright, I found myself being slowly flushed down the tubes of the New York State Workers’ Compensation system. I had never been called “baby” so much in my life until I met my ancient, giant earlobed lawyer who, from behind a lineup of Mets bobble heads at his desk, would try to get me off his back. “We can talk all day here, baby, but I’m working hard to get you and about 300 other people their money!”

In short, the experiment I undertook, as an unemployed (and unemployable) 29-year-old, was could I rise to become a good father even if I fell short of being a man?

The Latin root of the word father is “patr” as in a patron or protector. Fathers have long seen (or wanted to see) themselves as protectors of some kind. Picture the bearded father, a thousand years ago, drawing his sword at the sight of unfamiliar riders while his family huddles inside their sodden home. But what could I protect? I couldn’t even grow a beard…and I lived in Brooklyn!

The ways that I wanted to be a father also happened to stroke my sense of manhood. Wouldn’t I have preferred to bring home the paycheck, or show up at the dance recital in a nice suit, rather than act as the butt paste supply monitor?

But if I failed to live up to a certain masculine model of fatherhood, I realized, I could also evade those constraints. After all, it would have been a joke if I came home from learning the Alexander Technique, poured myself a drink, and admired my family from a distance. It also would have been worse for my daughter.

Research done by a nonprofit out of the Department of Psychiatry at Mass General Hospital, The Fatherhood Project, shows that “a father’s emotional engagement – not the amount of time fathers spend with their children, rather how they interact with them – leads to multiple positive outcomes.” Even fathers who don’t live with their children, as long as they are emotionally engaged, contribute to higher literacy and less at-risk behavior. Children who feel a closeness to their father are twice as likely as those who do not, to enter college or find stable employment after college. Positively engaged fathers have been shown to even reduce rates of depression among their daughters.

A child’s health and well-being can be nourished by an emotional connection with their father regardless of how nontraditional that relationship may appear. My friend Jacob is a young dad who has a significant disability which limits his walking and also causes occasional severe photosensitivity. Sometimes he can’t look at his infant daughter. Committed to connecting with her nonetheless, Jacob will improvise silly songs on the ukulele, listening for her squeals. “Sometimes, when I can’t do anything else,” he said, “I just touch her.”

I have learned that the love of a father should be as fluid as water, seeking to enrich wherever it is needed. Or, as my friend Colin put it, “Manhood is about respect and dignity. A good parent has no problem looking foolish and no expectation of dignity.”

Too often, what the father also tries to protect is his own ego, that insatiable furnace of masculinity. The image of a father at the helm of his ship, confidently steering family, career, and children, is less an ideal than a separation device, designed to protect male vulnerability from exposure. Exposure from what? That we actually weren’t created first in the Garden; that we aren’t the more important gender; that we bury our anxiety behind bluster and withdrawal?

But with vulnerability, intimacy is possible. What our families need, and what the economy will increasingly necessitate, is a view of fatherhood that isn’t so fixed or intertwined with masculinity. It is increasingly not a given that the man will be the breadwinner. As of 2015, women earned the lioness’ share of income in 42% of all households. And given that 56% of all college students are women, it seems likely that the share of women earners will continue to rise. As if this weren’t enough, looking not too far ahead on the horizon, self-driving cars and other forms of automation are expected to displace millions of decent-paying jobs typically held by non-college-educated men. “Winter is coming” to the ascendancy of the masculine father, and the question that we will need to ask ourselves is not how can I feel useful, but how can I help?

Bros, grab the butt paste.

I had never dedicated myself to anything with as much intensity as I put into my healing process: the years of Alexander Technique, the nightly graphing of all my activities and pain levels, and, of course, the search for a diagnosis (I crafted my application to the Mayo Clinic as if it were Swarthmore). Though I never recovered the ability to type, my health did improve enough so that I could become the primary caretaker for my daughter.

It was the perfect karmic situation – I was the child of a workaholic father; brought up to achieve and earn; and here I was, without ever a raise or even a positive performance review! The best feedback I got from her was when I performed an age-inappropriate impression. I would walk out of the room, and then immediately return with the shuffling gait of a super stoner, flinging imaginary hair out of my bleary eyes, and acting as if she were a high school principal harassing me. “Heeey maaan. What’s the big idea?” I would fall down right next to her face and tickle her with my hair as I continued to plead my case. She couldn’t stop laughing.

Without the experience of my injury and disability, I know I would’ve been a more remote father, trying to fill my self-worth in the marketplace. My conditioning and the consuming demands of childcare were like two magnets powerfully opposed to one another. Yet, my daughter and I were helpless to resist the situation, for different reasons. Despite the many ways I fell short of affluence and masculinity, she loved me. She wanted to feed me baby food, she wanted The Stoner, and she didn’t care about a trajectory for myself I had made up in my mind.

For the first year of my daughter’s life, we lived in an apartment with a backyard just a hundred yards from Prospect Park in Brooklyn (don’t get too excited, it turned out to have been full of lead paint). Often, I would stand her on a windowsill and we’d watch for squirrels and sparrows in the backyard. That winter, we were visited by a massive red-tailed hawk that would carry back its prey for dismemberment on our wooden fence. This was always the spellbinding highlight of our day; its noble beak prying through a pigeon’s skin, tugging out entrails as it pushed down with its talons as leverage, methodically casting plumes of down and feathers to the ground below. I felt the heaviness of death and destruction. My daughter, meanwhile, seemed delighted. More feathers!

I expected fatherhood would be a sacrifice and it has been. But I’m also glad for what it has taken from me – a heavy sense of male entitlement, an identity firmly linked to money and power, and an excuse for not fully entering my children’s lives. I’m not that big spender in the restaurant, but if one of my girls is in need, I know I can reach for something closer than my wallet.

My daughters often still help me with physical tasks like using a computer or phone (I believe they are secretly grateful that my disability allows them more screen time). They have no idea that I once thought fatherhood was out of my reach. In fact, I lived out the question of whether I would be able to hold my child, with a beating heart and trepidation, right through the night of her birth. Maybe it was the years of Alexander Technique training, maybe it was the flood of hormones from seeing her little black eyes blink for the first time. When the nurse offered her to me, I didn’t hesitate. I took her wiry, reddened body in my arms. She was heavier than a quart of milk, and so much more.

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