I am 62 years old and my children are now 35, 33, and 11. I barely knew my own father, and if I had any role models for parenthood as I grew up I suppose they came from books and from the movies, which even then I recognized as fantasy. My friends' dads -- a doctor, a housepainter, an insurance salesman, a shoe-store owner -- seemed like nice guys, but were heavily preoccupied with work and other adult matters. Nowhere in real life did I see anyone like Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird or Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride, idealized dads, incapable of making a wrong move, who nevertheless suggested quite powerfully that a mixture of strength, calmness, sensitivity, and fairness were important qualities in a father.
So when my first two children were born, I had no useful role models. I was in my 20s and preoccupied with myself, my writing, and my deep need to connect with the larger world. (If I'd had a father myself, I might not have felt so much the outsider, but who knows.) To a degree I now find astonishing, I more or less took my wife and children for granted. It never occurred to me that the enormous amounts of time and energy I spent running around trying to discover the world and engage with it was in fact a kind of intoxicating mania in which I was hiding from my home life. With naive optimism I thought the domestic part would always be there and I could deal with it later.
My wife thought otherwise, and when the marriage broke up I had to move away from my boys, who were 5 and 7 at the time. From that day on I never took them for granted. I had joint custody, had them three months every summer, and paid very close attention to their needs. I was paying attention, words that I emphasize because of their importance. Paying attention is where everything starts. And it can involve more than simply listening to what the child says. My 7-year-old chose not to talk about the divorce, for instance, except for the single time when I told him it would happen, told him why, told him it wasn't anybody's fault, and tried to deal with his questions. (As well as his tears.) After that discussion, he seemed to have no need to talk about it anymore, and I certainly didn't feel I should force the issue. But I maintained what you might call a heightened alertness. Was he adjusting, or simply keeping up a brave front?
A year after the divorce my girlfriend and wife-to-be moved in, and I kept a close watch on the boys to see how they'd handle it. Would they resent her? Paying attention in these instances allayed my fears, but more important, what I learned while doing it increased my respect for the boys as individuals. It brought me closer to them. I believe the boys sensed a change in me and perhaps felt closer to me, and so the whole dynamic was launched. Paying attention became a habit no matter what was happening.
My third child, born many years later into a world much changed, was never taken for granted, not for an instant. It's true that by this point society encouraged more intimate participation from the father, more hands-on involvement, but it's also true that I had changed as well. Less interested in myself, I was much more immediately struck by the miracle of new life itself, more awestruck as I held my infant in my arms only seconds after his birth. I did not come to love Tim more than I came to love his brothers, but I was more aware of loving him. I was less frightened, it occurs to me now, of love itself.