On the Cusp of Fatherhood
The reality of fatherhood is bearing down on me like a late-summer hurricane.
My wife and I, in fact, are expecting the joy of our lives — a girl child, a fully formed human being molded from our own tissue and DNA, a bundle of rapidly developing intellect and socialization — in late August.
The jogging stroller, yet to be assembled and standing on end in its box in the front room of our compact apartment, is a small reminder of my responsibilities and how our lives will be rearranged to make room for her. The new breast pump on the baby’s dresser is a similar totem, and one that both signifies the preeminent role of my wife in this endeavor and also how I will contribute in a lesser but still important way.
I don’t think the fact of being a first-time father at the ripe age of 38 lessens in any way the trepidation of preparing for our baby girl’s arrival. In fact, it’s possible that the seasoning of early middle-age and the recognition of all the biological, social and financial considerations of parenting make the undertaking all the more daunting.
When I find myself questioning whether I’m up for the responsibility, I tell myself that fatherhood will be somewhat like executing an ambitious investigative story, which demands long hours of labor, careful attention to ensure the accuracy of multitudes of facts, a creative ability to order words in a sequence that tells a compelling story and accords some measure of dignity to the real human beings under scrutiny. Only the responsibility of fatherhood — and its rewards — will be magnified by several orders. Or maybe, being a parent is less daunting than the proverbial investigative story; I’ll have many opportunities to go back and get it right.
Unlike any given journalistic assignment, parenting is only the most important thing I’ll do with my life, so why not just go for it? Like anything else in life, once you give it your all, you can be satisfied that it was enough, whatever the outcome.
I can appreciate that my spirit of civic engagement will take a quick turn towards the imperatives, controversies and concerns of education. More importantly, my commitment to social justice will undoubtedly become inflected through the lens of how well or poorly I fulfill my responsibilities as a parent. I will have to shed the misguided notion that long hours spent on work projects reflect personal virtue and an all-important contribution to the social good.
Inevitably, I think about my own father at this time in my life when I am clumsily trying to figure out what kind of father I will be.
As an emotionally caterwauling and hypercritical teenager, I accused my father of abandoning his idealism, treating me with insensitivity and neglecting me. Held up to the light of two decades of reflection and deepening maturity, the charges utterly disintegrate.
I hold fond memories of the year my parents held me out of kindergarten, and I hung out with my dad at his gig as a gravedigger while my mom went to work as a public school teacher. The camaraderie and humor of the adults — my dad and Loren, the other gravedigger, along with various others who made social visits to the worksite — provided me with a sense of protection and of being part of a rarified and interesting circle.
When I was 8 years old, Kentucky experienced the worst drought in years. Our family’s tobacco crop was stunted and had to be more or less written off as the irrigation pipes sucked the creek dry. Somewhat counterintuitively and with my mom’s blessing, my dad decided to take me out of school so we could make a three-week trip out west. We took the Amtrak train across the great northern expanse of the plains, through the Dakotas and Montana. We visited friends who followed the apple harvest across eastern Washington State in a mobile home. We hitchhiked to Seattle and caught a flight to San Francisco, spending time with my dad’s high school friends. We took a bus through the redwood forest, and spent time with my dad’s aunt and uncle, and cousins.
I have photographs of myself holding a newspaper outside a train station in Montana, and leaning against the façade of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco with one leg bent at the knee so that my foot was propped against the wall. The pose was choreographed by my dad, and many years later I realized that he had modeled me after an iconic 1950s photograph of Jack Kerouac standing on a fire escape in New York City.
Later, when I had reached high-school age just a year or so before the farm accident that took my dad’s life, I remember him picking me up after school and taking me to Louisville, about 70 miles distant, for an art exhibit on the riverfront.
Those memories are priceless and irreplaceable. While the days at the cemetery were simply a matter of my family making an arrangement for childcare that made sense for us, the trip out west and other outings were occasions when my dad made a point to take me to new places and spend time with me.
Time is elusive, and my dad’s was cut short when I was 17 years old. My daughter will be grown and raised in a flash, and those years can never be recovered if they’re squandered. I’m fortunate that I will almost certainly have work whenever I need it. But the opportunities to be there at the various stages of my daughter’s development will be limited and fleeting.
I imagine taking my daughter on hikes at Pilot Mountain, kicking a soccer ball with her in the park and taking her to minor-league baseball games — all activities that don’t particularly interest my wife.
I foresee bringing my pre-K daughter to weekdayevening community meetings as I work. I envision trusted adults taking her into out into a foyer to entertain her, and an impassioned speech making an impression that will shape her values when she’s old enough to appreciate it. Some may consider this a form of child abuse, but if it works, I will consider it the highest form of bonding between a father and daughter. If she hates it, I won’t force the experience on her.
If there’s any justice in the world, my daughter will take after me as a headstrong teenager and — to paraphrase the motto of my alma mater, Antioch College — selfrighteously demand to know what victories her father has won for humanity.