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How I Learned To Mother Through My Father

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My 6-year-old loves me to tell stories each night as he drifts off to sleep. He rarely misses a beat, even when I think he’s on the precipice of snoring, a cacophony of sounds resembling those of a contented bulldog. “Wait, Mommy, go back,” he pleads with curiosity. “What do you mean you and Papa cooked butterball steaks together when you went camping as a kid? How did you cook the meat if you were sleeping outside?” His inquisitive mind catches me off guard, demanding coherent answers to my own history that I haven’t thought about in what feels like forever. “Well, sweetie, Papa brought along a barbecue on these trips so we could grill.” After sharing this, I could almost smell the steaks cooking in the woods of northern California, see our unusually large bright blue tent, my father’s tiny brown car stuffed with the accouterments for our weekend away, and I knew what my son would ask next. “For real? Papa brought an entire barbecue on trips in the car? Can we do that?”

After my son reluctantly hit the hay seconds later, I started to well up reflecting on my father’s way in the world—living his life with fierce purpose balanced alongside a marked tenderness. Anxiety never seems to get the best of him, as he sails through his days with a comforting determination. My son won’t be able to say that about me.

So much of who I’ve become is informed by my father’s blueprint. But will my son ever see me hurl a grill in the trunk for a weekend getaway? Unlikely.

During my childhood, the intimacy of our relationship lay in the mundane interactions of our daily lives — the hours spent driving to school in morning traffic; tidbits of conversation over countless rounds of Boggle; riding chair lifts amid snowfall; cooking Thanksgiving dinner on a sparkling 75-degree Los Angeles day to the hum of James Taylor, and contemplating the meaning of life while meandering through the cobblestone streets in the Old City of Jerusalem. Our discussions ran the gamut from relationships to religion, identity, war, and the intricacies of love.

Throughout my younger years, we had a weekend ritual of roller-skating along the boardwalk on Venice Beach. We made up stories, toggling back and forth, weaving together an elaborate tale about whatever came to mind. The trust between us was strung together by his deep emotional engagement and my sense that no matter the circumstance, he would catch me if I fell. Unbeknownst to me at that nimble age, I was learning how to mother through my father’s example.

My father models an enviable sense of humility and mirth. His energy comes through in his involvement in all things intellectual, physical, and global. To him, the world is something to suck the marrow from: If there’s a jazz concert close by, why miss it, or a book reading in town, he is there —learning is his lifeblood.

Our relationship serves as my internal compass — a quality I’m even more aware of as I attempt to provide a similar solidity for my children.

He’s the person I turned to when ‘tweenhood commenced. Growing pains, breasts, pubic hair, menstruation, and fledgling boy crushes — all topics we covered when the time was right. I’m sure my girlhood ease in discussing such intimate things with my father was partly because he is a physician, but even more so, it was how he took me seriously, and how matter of fact he was about the big questions of each successive milestone. He normalized these maturational seismic shifts just by being himself, and in so doing validated my ability to be myself. His quick wit and deep smiling eyes inspired certitude and steadiness, even while talking about ephemeral things like bras and girl gossip.

On the one-year anniversary of my second trimester miscarriage, his was the voice I wanted to hear. I sobbed uncontrollably on the phone, replaying the details to him as my very pregnant belly jiggled with new life. He wept too as we reflected on my pain and he described what it was like to hear his “baby” go through this traumatic loss. He said he admired my courage to enter pregnancy again and provided me with a resting place to lay my grief.

My father rushed straight to the hospital after my daughter was born on a drizzling night in December. Watching him hold my brand new baby girl, while he retold the story of my birth, felt like something out of a movie. He and my mother zoomed like the speed of light in their yellow Volkswagen bus from the Indian Reservation where he was doing part of his medical training to the hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, over an hour away. My dad likes to half-jokingly throw in that he thought he might have to deliver me in the back of the car because my mother’s contractions were quickening and the van simply couldn’t go any faster. He talked about my mom’s unmedicated birth with me, just moments after my unmedicated birth with my daughter and marveled at the passage of time and the awe that hangs in the balance.

With my father, I feel a sense of safety that exists in few other places, if anywhere. He sees me. Together, we’ve architected a relationship that serves as my internal compass — a quality I’m even more aware of as I attempt to provide a similar solidity for my children.

Don’t get me wrong, this man who once rode motorcycles in the sand dunes of New Mexico when I was an infant, complete with long wavy hair, and tall boots has since become politically unrecognizable. But, I’ve reconciled that although he’s a far cry from the man he was in the ’70s when I was born, he has surely remained the steady force in my life, no matter the decade.

After my father’s visit to Los Angeles last month, my stridently curious son said while readying for bed, “Papa looks old but seems so young, too. Why is that, mama?” I smiled, glazed over by thoughts of my father aging and said, “Papa’s joie de vivre keeps him young in his heart.” I should have known this wouldn’t satisfy my take-a-bite-out-of-life son who hits the ground running from the moment he wakes up. “What’s joie de vivre mama? Do I have that?” I relished answering him as it became even clearer how my son has inherited this thirst from my father. “Yes, my dear, you have so much joie de vivre, it’s not even funny, and so much of it is from your papa.”

I want to be the kind of mother that my father is to me.

Dr. Jessica Zucker is a Los Angeles-based psychologist and writer. She specializes in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Brain Child Magazine, Modern Loss, PBS, Glamour, and elsewhere. Find her online at and on Twitter at @DrZucker.