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Modern-Day Dads

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.

A Different World
In his book Identity: Youth and Crisis, Erik Erikson reminds us that the world children live in is very different from our own, and that there is "a deep-seated superstition that (a) rational and practical man would lose his single-minded stamina if he ever turned back to meet the Medusa of childhood anxiety face to face again." It appears a man must actively overcome that superstition, must open both memory and imagination, in order to be fully useful as a father.

For example, a few years ago, when he was 6, my youngest child had a short run of night terrors, a syndrome quite different from nightmares since the child is partially awake when he experiences them. The first time Tim experienced them, he ran into our dimly lit bedroom as if on fire, his arms flailing, legs twisting, eyes darting about. He came near me, trying to speak but unable to utter more than fragments, and I remembered instantly how terrifying that had been when I had night terrors at the same age  -- the realization that language could not carry any message about what was going on. Indescribable terror.

Tim wouldn't let me near him. "You don't have to say it," I said to him several times. "It happened to me when I was a kid. I know that you can't describe it, but I know what's happening."

He darted about, jerkily, as if dancing barefoot on glowing embers. When he finally found his tongue he said, "I'm going to die."

"No, no. You're not going to die. It's already starting to go away. Believe me. I've been there."

At last Tim could look at me and hold his gaze in one place. I kept talking, moving closer to him, listening to his breathing.

"What is it?" he cried "What is it?"

"Nobody knows," I told him. "Nobody knows what it is, but I know what it feels like."

Then he put his arms around my neck and held on tight as the terror waned, as the spiraling up ceased and the spiraling down began. He never knew how frightened I had been  -- from the first instant of his scream  -- not only for him, but for myself. Meeting the Medusa again. Really remembering, digging down, so I could try to help him.

One does what one does out of love rather than some notion of fatherly duty. Love is the engine, and what's interesting is that  -- unlike the mother, who often feels an immediate physical connection with her infant  -- the father has to come to love his child. The newborn is a tabula rasa for the dad, who may well be proud and anticipatory, but can't be said to actually love much more than the idea of the baby. Love arises as the father asks, Who is this child? What is he doing here? and watches attentively as an individual begins to emerge from the seven or eight pounds of potential.

Perhaps love between father and child starts in mutual curiosity, but wherever it comes from, it quickly grows, if all goes well, to a force as powerful as anything a man will ever experience. A true solace against loneliness, against the tyranny and emergency of self.

Role Models
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.

What Does a Father Do?
Assertions of the importance of fathers are easy to find in psychiatry and developmental psychology. What's harder to find is just what it is a father is supposed to do. For each man, it seems, it comes down to on-the-job training  -- such was the case for me, at least, and I can claim no special experience.

The fact that thoughtful people are unable to spell out fully and exactly what it is to be a good person does not stop them from trying to be good people. It is the same with trying to be a good father. One day at a time a man invents himself. Common sense, intuition, imagination, love, and a certain amount of courage come into play as he attempts to embody the concept of a good father that has existed up till then only as a vision in his mind and that he may or may not make real. Common sense will tell him, for instance, to do no harm to his child even in the name of doing good. Intuition will help him understand the child at a level deeper than language. Imagination will help him see the world as a child sees it. Love will make him pay attention. Courage will help him try to become the father that his child begins to show him is needed, and to face the fact that he will be needed in ways he has never been needed before.

Fatherhood is a constantly changing dynamic, one hour at a time, which in the end calls out everything in him there is to call out. Stretched over decades, it leaves no part of a man untouched. It goes without saying that pain, also, is involved. But that should surprise no one.

Yes, much changed in the 24 years between the birth of my first child and my last. Society shifted and concepts of fatherhood along with it. Economic realities have forced a re-examination of the fatherhood role, and that is a matter of importance. But the human experience, the deep discoveries inherent in fatherhood, the essence of paternity  -- these probably have not changed. At bottom the question of roles is secondary. Who lies under the roles is primary. A man doesn't take on the role of father, he becomes a father. He grows into it.

Here is something worth considering. The child is completely dependent on the mother, so much so that it takes years to recognize her as an independent entity. The father, on the other hand, can be the first freely chosen loving friend, the first outsider, as it were, to receive the trust of the innocent child. The good father, then, is the man who can rise to that occasion, and stick with it.