Before my son Owen was born, I decided that I was going to be a great father.
Actually, that’s not quite it: I was desperate to be a great father. I was 32 at the time, and I’d seen enough of life — especially during my three years as a public defender — to have concluded that bad fathers are responsible for most of society’s ills. Abusive fathers, alcoholic fathers, sexist fathers. Fathers who were domineering, or selfish, or manipulative, or distant. Or fathers who just didn’t show up. Their children struggled with low self-esteem, repressed anger, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, and depression. They had trouble forming healthy relationships — perhaps eventually with their own children, perpetuating the cycle of abuse.
I didn’t have a role model for the kind of father I hoped to be. My own father had been wonderful in many ways: responsible, good with money, and organized. He had high expectations for his children, and he could be uncommonly warm and generous. But our relationship had deteriorated precipitously in the years before Owen was born. My siblings and I had just started to unpack the psychological damage he and his narcissism had done.
I would keep my father’s best qualities, and jettison the rest.
My next step was to steal pieces of all the great fathers I had ever encountered, in life or in art. I would have the moral compass and compassion of Atticus Finch, the gruff warmth of my late father-in-law and my maternal grandfather.
Something was missing in my Frankenstein-style rendering of the ideal father. The only person I knew who had all the missing traits was — drum roll — my mother. I would also take her best traits: her emotional intelligence, the constancy of her love, her understanding, and her pure enjoyment in being a parent.
Six years and another kid later, I look in the mirror — definitely older, not feeling any wiser — and I find myself in the midst of a full-blown identity crisis. In our society, a man can be a good father while still maintaining significant aspects of his pre-father identity: at work, out with his other male friends, online in various fantasy sports leagues, or just having “time to himself.” Fatherhood is a jacket that a man can take off and put on as he moves throughout his day, if he wants to.
But I can’t take the jacket off. I want to be a great father so much that I don’t have a non-father identity anymore. There are times when I know I’m supposed to want one — when I’m supposed to commiserate with other dads at our kids’ birthdays, about how we wish we were watching football. But I’m acting. For sure, I do miss almost any activity involving testosterone. But there’s something else, something I do not think my father felt, and something that many other fathers today don’t feel: My kids pull at my heart in a way that our cultural lexicon can only describe as maternal.
When Owen was 3, I picked him up from nursery school, and he said that a group of kids from the 4-year-old class had told him he couldn’t play on the slide. Before calling my wife or even finishing the drive, I called the main switchboard of the school and demanded to be transferred to the head of the school. No way I was going to the playground teacher, or Owen’s teacher — straight to top. I told her what had happened. I said I had expected the school to subscribe to better values. I was wearing a suit and driving a nice sedan to my office job, but there was no phrase more apt to describe me than “mama grizzly”: You do not cross my kid.
At other times, however, I know I’m channeling my father. I am very ambitious professionally; I am strong and steady and careful. I make money, and I provide a safe environment in which my family thrives. Our affairs are in order. But when I work late and miss bedtime, it’s not just stressful — I feel existentially panicked, guilt-ridden. Not for fear of my wife (the way my father was afraid of my mother when he came home late) but because of this maternal pull.
Of course, when I do get home for bedtime, it’s often not magical. It’s…whatever the opposite of magical is. I’m harried from work — particularly from leaving work earlier than optimal. I’m not this wonderful, present, emotive, wise father. Often I’m just kind of moody and impatient. I lack the fine motor skills to button any of my daughter’s clothes or do her hair the way she likes it. And I don’t have my father’s presence or gravitas while doling out life lessons.
This is a problem of my own making, in trying to be all things — whether traditionally “masculine” or “feminine” — to my children. My “mama grizzly” act was no doubt weird and terrifying — potentially threatening — to the female head of the nursery school. And when I’m in groups of men, I can no longer keep up; I’ve lost any hint of masculine bravado or swagger. Sometimes I think I’ll drop the charade, of being all things to my children, but the truth is that I don’t even know how to do that. This is the only way I know how to be a good father.
Sometimes I wonder what my children see when they look at me. I wonder how they will remember me, their father, when they’re 30. If I’m lucky, they’ll remember a man who tried really, really hard — maybe too hard — to be a great father. And perhaps, in the decade to come, I’ll figure out how to let myself be a good one.