For me, the secret to being a good father is not really being a “father” at all.
Throughout the course of a normal day with my kids, I may be called upon to act in any number of roles: cook, custodian, educator, coach, playmate, warden. But if someone said, “Now, be a father,” I wouldn’t quite know how to respond. Because my parents were members of the generation that set the world record for divorce rates, my pantheon of paternal role models can pretty much be summed up in two categories: “absent-but-generous landlord,” and just plain “absent.”
My dad wasn’t a bad guy. It’s just that in the ’70s, when two people chose to dissolve their marriage, the mother was invariably given custody of the children and the father was given his “freedom” at the cost of a relatively low monthly payment. My parents moved to different states not long after they split up and, as a result, I didn’t see much of my father after my fifth birthday. I grew up in a house devoid of the masculine football watching, baseball tossing, fly fishing energy most people associate with the word “dad.” I knew my father only through the occasional yearly visit and holiday greeting card.
Another outcome of this familial fission was that I spent an inordinate amount of time sitting in front of the electronic baby sitter, which is where I acquired my other paternal role model: the generous but mostly absent landlord. Watching re-runs of shows like “Father Knows Best,” I marveled at how, in each episode, Dad would come home from another long day at the office, take off his sport coat, put on his comfortable sweater and handily deal with the numerous challenges of raising a family. It seemed to me that this was the ideal father figure, until my mother got remarried. Then I realized that I wasn’t Bud Anderson, and that, because my step-dad was usually gone making enough money to be a generous landlord, he didn’t know the first thing about the realities of my life.
It was the combined outcome of these factors that prompted me to experience a moment of intense terror shortly after the midwife delivered my first son. I suddenly realized that I had just been dropped into the vast uncharted wilderness of fatherhood without so much as a map or compass. There were no guideposts leading the way to Happy Father Land, no friendly locals of whom I could ask directions and no foot-worn paths to follow — just my own innate human intuition and sense of what is best for my child. Almost four years and another little girl later, the journey through fatherhood is turning out to be quite the adventure. I’ve since learned to create and improvise the meaning of the word “father” as I go along, exploring the possibilities presented by each moment spent with my children. Think of it as “Zen and the Art of Fatherhood.”
Ancient Celtic legends tell of shape shifters, magical beings that can take on the form of whatever creature they choose — usually animals. This is often how I find myself relating to my children: rolling around on the floor, bellowing the ferocious roar of the Papa Lion; or galloping across town braying like a horse with one of them seated in the back pack.
For the most part, I try to hang out and spend time with them whenever possible. This seems like a bit of a no-brainer on the roster of good parenting skills. Given that my lack of a father figure had mostly to do with the fact that he just wasn’t physically around, I figure I’m miles ahead if I just make myself available to readily shape shift into a jungle-gym that they can climb on, or a fantastic storyteller who entertains them.
In addition to being their best friend and biggest playmate, one of the most important roles I play for my kids is, obviously, that of guardian. But I’m also their default nutritionist and athletic trainer, ensuring that they receive a balanced intake of healthy food, raucous fun and good sleep.
Undoubtedly, however, the most important thing I do for my kids is to act as their own personal guide to planet Earth. I wake them up every day saying things like, “Good morning! I’m your guide for planet Earth today. Feel free to call me Papa. In addition to our normal routine of eating, pooping, sleeping and playing, we’ll be acquiring more language skills. We’ll discover the meaning of cool new words like ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ We’ll learn a little bit about gyroscopic physics by riding a bike. And we’ll have the opportunity to see strange and colorful birds known as ducks in their natural habitat.”
Turns out I’m a far cry from Ward Cleaver, or even that guy who wrote the checks stuck in my birthday cards.
One thing I’ve noticed in the 30-some-odd years of my tenure on this planet: The best relationships are built on foundation of good friendship. Whether it’s with your child, spouse, neighbor, aunt or co-worker, if you’re not friends on some level, there’s not much of a connection. So I strive to make sure my kids always feel like they have a friend, especially if they’re in trouble.
All in all, I feel like I do these things pretty well and, though I’m sure it can be endlessly debated whether or not this makes me a good “father,” the kids sure seem to enjoy it.