A friend of mine died recently. Bang, cardiac arrest at his desk. He didn't even spill his coffee. At his memorial service I listened to people sing his praises -- how much he helped others in his work, how unassuming he was despite the political power he held. I agreed. Two or three times he was described as having been a good father, and I found myself wondering what they meant. I'd known the man for 30 years and I knew he certainly wasn't a bad father -- but a good father, a particularly good father? Was this real praise or simply an acknowledgment that he'd had three kids? What is a good father?
Not so long ago it meant being a good provider (usually the sole support for the family), being a fair but firm adjudicator in matters of child behavior ("You just wait 'til your father gets home"), tactfully staying out of Mom's way as she did the actual day-to-day work of raising the child, and remaining emotionally accessible. So said society. Many fathers felt vaguely guilty, sensing there was more to it than that.
Today, the chances are a father's wife works, and that neither of them could provide sole support. He no longer has the option of staying out of Mom's way; to be considered a good father, he must pitch in at every opportunity. Despite the fact that Mom probably remains the "primary caregiver," to use the lingo, he must actively search out ways to do his full share. He must be creative in this. He must be generous emotionally to both wife and child. Not just accessible. Generous. It's a whole new story for Dad, except for the business of feeling vaguely guilty. This continues, since fatherly perfection, whatever that is, now seems even less likely to be achieved.
Making it even more confusing to define the "good dad" is the fact that the father's role, more than the mother's, is deeply affected by the passage of time, by the age of the child. We think of motherhood as constancy -- continually adjusting as the child grows. Fathers begin by being out of it, no more than ghost mothers, really, until the baby starts to express curiosity about them. Who is this guy? What's he doing here? To the child, the mother is a given, but the father has to earn his way in. He has to invent himself as Dad. He has to demonstrate his pertinence.
Frank Conroy, author of the memoir Stop-Time, is the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His most recent book is Body & Soul, a novel.