Father’s Day essays tend to be nostalgic, exploring the writer’s feelings towards his or her father, are often hackneyed and tend towards the maudlin. I haven’t thought about Father’s Day much to be honest, because when I was dwelling on my relationship with my father I hadn’t yet become one. Before my child I searched for my father like many men do whose father disappeared from their lives (my father dropped dead at his job when I was a boy) or never entered them in the first place. When I became a father I realized that no matter what my personal feelings were towards my father, it didn’t matter. It was time for me to set all that aside and focus on being a father to my child.
I want to begin by making a distinction between “father” and what I think can be best characterized as “sperm donor.” Fathers don’t have to share DNA with their children, in fact some of the best fathers have been step-fathers, fathers of adopted children, and even family friends or male relatives. I’m not even sure they must be men; it is possible for the right type of woman to play a fatherly role just as it is possible for a man to be motherly (to limit the abuse of pronouns, assume that fathers must be men in this essay.) These are men who gave their time to raise a child, worked hard to support them, and were there for them emotionally throughout their childhoods. These are men who never broke their promises, nor made a child feel anything but the most important person in that man’s life and always put the child’s interest and that of the family above his own.
Contrast that with “sperm donors” like this fine specimen who has more than 20 kids with at least 15 women. For all intents and purposes this guy could have jerked off in a cup and for that he doesn’t deserve the honorific of “father.” Yes, father is an honorific, or at least it should be, and just because a man lives with his children doesn’t mean he deserves it.
In my time I’ve known men who aren’t there for their children even when they share living space with them. Often these men are still children themselves, caught up in their own narcissistic thoughts and pleasures. They may resent their children for getting in the way of their selfish pursuits, whether it’s a drink with the guys or a date with a hot girl from the office. I’ve known men who curse their own fathers for misdeeds in their childhood, focusing all their hatred on a fading image stuck in the past growing more distant with each passing day, while they ignored their relationships with their own children, completely oblivious to the mistakes they commit today while struggling to keep each detail of the decades-old transgression alive in their mind.
Unlike sperm donors a father thinks about his family first and himself second. There are no caveats to this, no qualifiers about “personal happiness” or terms involving the word “self” in them at all. Being a father means submission to a greater good: your family. Everything that you do is for the family, everything that matters in your life comes from the family. Your identity is through your family, and without your family you are nothing. Secondly, becoming a father requires a personal choice. I still remember the torment I went through when I was forced to choose between remaining a selfish human being and becoming a father. It was a painful choice, so painful that for me it became a kind of death. On that day long ago the person I was died, and the man I became, the “father” was born. Like any true rebirth it was confusing, frightening but exciting. I felt the world around me expand, leaving behind the selfish shell that I had been since birth and feeling and experiencing the world in new ways. I gained new sensitivity to the suffering of others, a thin skin that bleeds all too easily along with the maturity to handle the pain. I gained the strength to do what was necessary to bear the burdens that my new identity imposed on me, plus an awareness of my surroundings that later became the foundation for what I laughingly called “daddy radar” – the unconscious tracking of one’s children at all times. On that day I became a man, for what greater honor for a man is there than to become a father?
Fathers are instinctively self-reliant. Television might characterize us as childish buffoons in commercials incapable of feeding our children without our wise wives, but fathers today not only know how to feed their children, they think ahead so that their children will not go hungry through the coming week. That means not only working to create the cash to buy the food, it now means knowing how to buy that food and prepare it. While some fathers may still have the luxury of a woman to prepare daily meals, a father’s instinct means that he learns to do it himself so that his children are fed at the proper time. Today’s father not only knows his way around the kitchen, he knows his way around the house, the car, the office and everywhere in between. He is a jack-of-all-trades because that is what his family needs, and if he doesn’t know how to do something, then he knows someone who does.
A father has intuition that would excite a KGB agent. A father knows his children so well because he has been paying attention to them since well before their births. He knows what a child thinks because he has been with him or her for years, paying attention to their comments, answering their questions and consoling their tears. He has seen their struggles, their triumphs and their failures. He has seen good report cards and bad, suffered through last-minute homework, and followed the soap opera that teenagers call “life.” By tying this experience with his own as a child, he makes it impossible for his children to lie to him. When something doesn’t feel right to him, he doesn’t ignore the problem. He challenges his child, determined to discover what is going wrong in his or her life. Even though he may be exhausted or perhaps even afraid of what he will find, he will doggedly pursue the root of his child’s problem, finding a solution and implementing it no matter the cost.
A sperm donor knows little of none of this, and tragically may be incapable of even recognizing his ignorance. A father may even pity men like these who are incapable of understanding the sublime joy of being the last to fall asleep in his house, his children asleep in their rooms, his wife next to him in bed, his universe ordered and secure. But then he remembers that they have chosen their paths in life and ultimately their fates.
A father understands that it is up to him to live his life as a pillar of steel sandwiched in concrete to support his family. He suspects that his own personal growth paradoxically came through his submission to fatherhood, but he doesn’t dwell on that fact much. Like most fathers, he doesn’t dwell much on his own well-being, not when there is the well-being of the members of his family to consider. Finally, he knows that to truly honor his own father he must become a father that inspires his own children to one day write trite essays and stories on Father’s Day.