Invisible Father

Robert Peake believes that for fathers and non-fathers alike, “the best in us involves us giving back in ways that are uniquely male.”

In response to the recent news that my wife’s health condition had worsened, a coworker kindly offered to babysit. “You must have mistaken me for someone else in the office,” I replied, “We don’t have kids.” Being a considerate person, I expected her to respond to my email as others had before–with apologies, saying she meant no offense. But the next part of her message took me by surprise. She said something to the effect that I seemed grounded and settled, and that this is a quality she often admires in dads.

♦◊♦

As a child, I always thought invisibility was the best possible super power. To be able to see and know what is going on, without being seen yourself, was something I craved. So much so that I still am taken aback when others share insights about me that they have gained from observation. But the idea that I was behaving in a visibly father-like way struck me as both poignant and profound.

The death of our infant son, and our subsequent inability to have another child, cast me into not only grief, but a longing to understand what my life is about. I had always wanted to be a father, but never imagined I would be initiated into fatherhood without a child of my own. Often, going through the motions of a day, I feel like an invisible father. Sometimes, it seems my son is the invisible one–not gone, but everywhere, present in each small moment of compassion, kindness, or grace.

Often, going through the motions of a day, I feel like an invisible father. Sometimes, it seems my son is the invisible one–not gone, but everywhere, present in each small moment of compassion, kindness, or grace.

The Scottish poet Andrew Philip, who also lost his first-born son, says near the end of his poem “Lullaby,” “…this is the man you fathered.” Indeed, I feel that I was “fathered” by our son, just as one might be “knighted.” I came away with a sense of purpose, but without the normal means to fulfill that purpose–the child in my arms. And so, more than just trying to be a “good man”, I decided that part of my life is about discovering what it might mean to be a “good father,” even without a child. Toward whom, and what, could I direct this powerful impulse to care for others? The answers were actually right in front of me.

♦◊♦

In relation to my wife and her health, to family, friends, coworkers, and even myself, the idea that I am here to help “raise” us all sustains me like nothing else. Not that I need to be pedantic, teach manners, or repeat the aphorisms my own parents said, but that raising is all about lifting up–appealing to our own better natures in the face of so much that would just as soon drag us down.

This, too, is an invisible quest. Or so I thought. I would like to believe, even more than the middle-aged mannerisms, that this sense of paternal purpose is what my colleague detected. Either way, and for what it’s worth, I offer this thought to all of us men–from those who never wanted kids, to those with reams of grandkids–that the best in us involves us giving back in ways that are uniquely male.

Perhaps even fatherhood itself is not so much a designation on the family tree, as a series of small acts that raise us up–children and adults alike–into greater maturity and wisdom. The slippers, pipe and tweed jacket are optional. But visibly or not–I have come to see fatherhood as a choice.

photo courtesy of Good Men Project friend and supporter Stephen Sheffield

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About Robert Peake

Robert Peake is an award-winning writer and poet. He lives in London, England with his wife Valerie. Visit him online at www.robertpeake.com

Comments

  1. Lisa Hickey says:

    Robert, this is hauntingly beautiful and beautifully honest. It gives me a view of the world that I hadn’t had before. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Lisa, and thanks for publishing this piece. As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy to write. But if it touched even one person, it was worth it.

  2. Tom Matlack says:

    Yes, Robert, a thousand times yes. I have had the grace of having children, two of which were in a sense taken from me through divorce and one now that I get to live with full time. Being a father is the thing that saved me, but I am not so sure it was thing itself but the idea of it. You make me think of this piece of mine called, “The Sweetest Sound” http://goodmenproject.com/good-is-good/the-sweetest-sound/

  3. Julie Gillis says:

    Thank you for gifting us with your honesty. All respect to you for your skills, talent and willingness to risk this piece.

  4. Great post, Robert, Being a father is indeed a life-changing experience. WIthout a doubt the two things that have helped my personal growth the most has been being in a 25+ year relationship and having children.

    Being a father your are asked – in a way most of us have not experienced before – to be selfless, to be present, and to put another first. Also, for most of us I believe we experience unconditional love and unconditional devotion to a degree we have not felt before. It’s humbling, and it asks of us to become grounded just like you say.

  5. Beautiful piece Robert, brave as always. You haunt me with your openness whilst also inspiring with the simple beauty of ambition. Higher aspirations I rarely hear, yet often so much more complex. I find myself reflecting often on the nature of fatherhood and if one thing is clear to me, it’s that his journey has only just begun. I have yet to see the end, but the title of this site will stay with me.

  6. Kirsten (in MT) says:

    “the best in us involves us giving back in ways that are uniquely male.”

    What are some examples of ways of giving back that are uniquely male?

    • Good question, Kirsten. I realize in my efforts to be concise I glossed over this. When I think about what it might mean to be a “good man” and “good father”, these characteristics are distinct in my mind from those I think about for a “good woman” or “good mother.” What my father taught me about how to be of service is different than what my mother taught me. It has more to do with actively doing (fixing, helping, interacting) than nurturing (listening, preparing space, care-taking), although those activities can enter into it. In the end, I suppose I mean being of service in a paternal way–in the best sense of that word, not in the sense of oppressive “patriarchy.” It has a distinct flavor that can be easy to recognize, but hard to describe. And, of course, there are always exceptions.

      • Kirsten (in MT) says:

        I don’t understand how fixing, helping, interacting are “uniquely male”. Women fix stuff, help people with stuff, and interact with people on a daily basis, meaning those aren’t uniquely male qualities.

        Similarly, many men listen and care-take on a daily basis. I don’t really know what you mean by preparing space. However, at least two of those three are clearly not uniquely female qualities if that is what you were suggesting there.

        • Sounds like there’s a pretty string agenda behind your “question,” so I have nothing more to add.

          • Kirsten (in MT) says:

            Perhaps because there is no actual answer to it?

          • It’s an agenda to say that women can fix things? Next time my male boss asks me to fix his computer remind me to balk at his feminist agenda.

            Not that there is anything wrong in embracing ways of being that are traditionally male. Traditions tend to develop around what we highly value. It was just an odd turn of phrase in an overall touching piece.

            • Channa, the phrase “giving back in ways that are uniquely male” is intended to try to get at what I see as the heart of this site and project. That is, investigating what it might mean to try to be a “good man” above and beyond what it means to also be a “good person”. The agenda I detect is a vehement reaction to that premise–so strong that, no matter what I write, or how well or badly I write it, those words will be picked apart to score political points. That doesn’t interest me. But the project of trying to be a good person, a good man, and an “invisible father”, despite the grief, to the next generation–is something deeply and personally meaningful to me. So, I suppose the thing to do is not to try to convince people on the Internet what that is or why it matters, but rather to take this into the project of my own life by how I live it every day. This exchange has helped to show me that, and so I am grateful.

            • Studies show that fathers are necessary for child development specifically because fathers parent in a different way from mothers.

              Fathers parenting centers around rough-housing, exploration, self-reliance, high standards, goal setting and achievement, stern disapproval/consequences for breaking the rules, etc…

              If fathers parented in precisely the same way as mothers, then they truly would be un-necessary. 90% of men in prison from violence hail from fatherless families.
              The number 1 indicator of high self-esteem for teen girls is having a loving fit dad in her life.

              I think these are the kinds of things Robert is talking about. I wouldn’t have a problem with an author talking about the “unique ways in which women give back” as long as that author didn’t step over the line and claim that gender’s way of giving back was superior. Robert didn’t do that.

  7. I love turning that ever so popular phrase, “it takes a village to raise a child” on it’s head… Even more true: It takes a child to raise a village.

    Now we can discuss who is the child… Cause it isn’t always age that determines that…

  8. Wonderful piece. Thanks for sharing this.

  9. “…this is the man you fathered.” Indeed, I feel that I was “fathered” by our son…”
    Mr. Peake:
    I enjoyed your post very much. I’m sorry for you and your wife’s loss. I can’t imagine, nor want to imagine, that particular suffering.
    I have a son and being his dad, being ‘fathered by my son’ has been a catalytic series of healing events. I like what you had to say about fathering as a “force” for good for all the other people in one’s life:
    “…the idea that I am here to help “raise” us all sustains me like nothing else. Not that I need to be pedantic, teach manners, or repeat the aphorisms my own parents said, but that raising is all about lifting up–appealing to our own better natures in the face of so much that would just as soon drag us down.”
    Finally, I like this idea of fathering you posited at the end of your essay:
    “that the best in us involves us giving back in ways that are uniquely male.”
    I’ll be carrying these ideas around.
    Thanks.

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