I Taught My Son How to Be a Man. I Should Have Taught Him How to Be a Father.

Manhood is an action sport. Fatherhood is the art of being there.

by Jim Sollisch

When someone brings a baby into our office to visit, women, young and old, pour out of every conference room and cubicle to surround the little thing They coo at her; they beg to hold her; they crave her. I hide behind my laptop or hurry off to a meeting, pointing at my watch, waving an awkward wave. And I see a lot of my male colleagues doing the same dance.

It’s not that men aren’t interested in babies. We are. They just have to be ours.

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A few months before my son, Zack, and his wife, Allie, had their first child, I watched as someone handed a baby to Zack. This wasn’t just any baby — it was his 6-month-old niece. Zack held her stiff-armed away from his body as if she were an angry raccoon.

Here he was, two months away from being a father. You’d think he’d want to do a test drive. Maybe offer to feed her a bottle, if for no reason other than to get a feel for what was coming. Nope.

And yet, two months later, I watched Zack holding his newborn son, West, with such tenderness, cooing into his face, kissing his forehead. He couldn’t wait to feed him; he wouldn’t let his wife change a diaper. He was smitten.

And so was I — by my son.

Being a father has been the most transformative experience of my life. Before I was a father, my definition of love was small and wanting. Fatherhood flooded me with feeling as if all my prior life I had worn a thick wool bodysuit and now I was naked. In the years since I changed my first diaper, which belonged to Zack, I became fully human. And it was beautiful to see that first glow in Zack.

I never dreamed of being a father when I was a boy. Of all the things I wanted to be when I grew up, “father” wasn’t on the list. I knew a lot of girls who wanted to be mothers and were interested in baby siblings. I had no interest in my younger brother until he was old enough to play hide-and-seek or kick a ball.

As a father, I thought it was my job to teach my son to be a man, not necessarily a father. The roles couldn’t be more opposite. Manhood is goal-oriented, an action sport. Fatherhood is about process, the art of being there.

I love to mark things off the list. When my kids were young, I made a list of books I wanted to read them. I started with Goodnight Moon and got stuck there for six months. Again. Read again,” they begged.

I love solving problems. That’s why I read Dr. Ferber’s book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems at one sitting. But at 3 a.m. on day seven, all I could do was hold my baby close. The man in me felt like I’d failed; the father in me took a small step forward.

When you take a small child on a walk, it’s best not to have a destination. Because you may never get there. Childhood is one big detour.

As boys, many of us dreamed of commanding the troops. As fathers, we learn the art of herding cats.

I don’t think I raised Zack to be a father. If I had it to do over again, I would have spent more time working with him on empathy and nurturing skills and less time on his jump shot. We might have built more houses together for Habitat or cooked more meals at soup kitchens and gone to fewer ballgames.

Mostly I was treading water myself, learning to be a father on the fly. I was so focused on just getting him through adolescence. I don’t remember ever saying the words, “When you’re a Dad….” I wish I had helped him envision this moment, this role.

But here he is, in love with his son, alert to his cries, allowing life to slow down until there is only him and West. Maybe only a baby can teach you that.

Jim Sollisch is the father of five and grandfather of two. So far. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He is a creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising in Cleveland, Ohio.