I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an alpha male. Oh, I can get my blood pumping for a good round of Trivial Pursuit, but I've always avoided physical competition the way most men avoid the Daytime Emmys. My lifetime experience with organized sports consists of one summer of T-ball when I was 7. Suffice it to say that athletic bragging rights have never been a driving force in my life. That is, until I became a dad -- and found myself inexplicably drawn to the sport of competitive fathering.
Shortly after my daughter, Bryn, was born, a cork apparently popped somewhere in my system, releasing a gush of testosterone where before there'd been merely a trickle. My newfound machismo first manifested itself in the way I insisted upon carrying my daughter pretty much everywhere, even when I didn't have to. I'd pull her from her bouncy chair to sling her over my shoulder for a trip from the sofa to the refrigerator. I would eat and type with one hand, just so I could hold her in the other.
I told myself that this was selfless, that I was giving my wife a break after nine months of bearing all the weight. Sure, paternal love played a part. But the truth is, I got a rush from it. Nothing gives you a sense of power like toting around another human being, even a tiny one. I strapped on my front carrier and wore that infant on my chest as if she were a big red Superman "S."
It became very clear to me why so many dads like to toss their children in the air, spin them, bounce them, and swing them: The transformation from man to living carnival ride not only makes the kids giggle, it's also a majorly addictive high.
All of this was relatively harmless. That is, until I began to run into other dads and their kids. Fatherhood can make a man feel Extra Manly, and when two men are feeling Extra Manly, nature dictates that a face-off will ensue. I'm referring to the non-malicious but still insidious form of fatherly competition that can make even the most mild-mannered dad stretch his physical limits in hopes of matching -- or besting -- his paternal peers. This dad-to-dad challenge is never openly acknowledged; there's no "I bet I can throw my toddler higher than you can throw yours," but it happens.
I once watched a grown man follow his son down a playground slide, inspiring another dad, who was much larger, to attempt the same stunt. The bigger man succeeded only in toppling over the side of the slide and frightening his befuddled toddler. One winter, while sledding with Bryn, I ran alongside her as she skidded down a hill. The other dad I was with outdid me by beating his son's sled to the bottom -- and getting unceremoniously flattened into the snow.
I've fallen victim to this bug many times myself. Like the time I let Bryn use my gut as a trampoline simply because a buddy was doing the same for his kid. Or the night my friend John and I walked around for more than an hour with 30 pounds of preschooler on each of our shoulders crushing our vertebrae, neither of us willing to let our child dismount until the other did so first. And then there was the swing-set incident.
A buddy and I were pushing our kids on the playground swings when Joe gave his son, Michael, a spin-ride, twisting the swing in circles, then letting it whip around as the chains unraveled. After Bryn saw the delirious joy on the other kid's face, she naturally asked for a taste of the same dizzying thrill.
I made sure to wind her swing nice and tight before I let her go, getting in at least a good five or six rotations.
"Want to go again?" Joe asked his son as he twisted the swing for at least eight full 360's, the chains creaking audibly as he reached the apex of his windup. The resulting spin was the wildest yet, and Michael was ecstatic. Of course, I pushed it one farther, and twisted Bryn's swing until the veins in my arms started pulsing. Prodded by our children's increasingly gleeful squeals, Joe and I continued to battle it out, each twist getting tighter, each spin whirling around faster, until I reached a point when, blinking through the sweat in my eyes, I wondered if the chains of the swing -- or the tendons in my arms -- were going to snap.
It was Joe who ultimately ended the duel by telling Michael that everybody had probably had enough. I felt no victory that day though, only an ache in my biceps that would linger for weeks. That mysterious competitive streak had struck again.
I'm not sure why we dads succumb to it. Maybe some primal paternal instinct kicks in and we temporarily become a bit feral. Maybe it keeps us from competing with our own wives for our kids' affections. Maybe we're just hoping to be heroes in our children's eyes. Whatever the cause, the kids will continue to reap the benefits of our Dad Olympics -- at least until somebody pulls a muscle.
Christopher Healy is the author of Pop Culture: The Sane Man's Guide to the Insane World of New Fatherhood.