Guys: It’s Time to Daddy Up

What moment made you the dad you are today? The answer to this question will define a generation of men.

My bachelor pad was a penthouse at the corner of Massachusetts and Commonwealth avenues. I had picked it for the silence, the view, and the morning light. But every Friday my two toddlers, Kerry and Seamus, would pile into the tiny elevator to ride up for an overnight visit.

At first I didn’t know what to do with them. Diapers, formula, Pack ‘n Plays were not my thing; money and booze and women were. I had purchased bunk beds, even though neither of the kids was old enough to sleep in the top bunk yet, and a matching blond wooden toy chest. But the furniture didn’t prepare me to be a dad.

After getting beaten to a pulp by the effort required to deal with children unwilling to take their baths, eat dinner, go to sleep, or sit still the first few times they visited, some faint intuition finally clicked. Something no one taught me or even mentioned as a good idea.

I got on my hands and knees and became a monster. I chased Kerry and Seamus around and around the tiny apartment. I counted to 10 and played hide-and-seek. I caught them and tickled their necks. I smelled my own children, heard their laughs, and watched joy dance across their faces, and I felt joy in my heart for those fleeting moments of physical connection. When we were done with an hour of roughhousing they slept immediately and hard—so did I.

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For dads there is one moment when all the things we have been told about what it means to be a father, and all the things we have experienced as sons, get tossed out the window and we are confronted with the reality and magnitude of taking responsibility for our own children. For some, the defining event is the moment of birth; for others, it’s a moment of loss through divorce, maturation, or even death. But for all, a central questions is: What moment made you the dad you are today? The answer to this question will define this generation of men. We don’t need to man up, we need to daddy up. Our kids are waiting.

Here is what some guys had to say.

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I remember a nurse demanding I “hold her leg!” Several exhausting pushes by my beloved later and I was officially a daddy. I felt dumbstruck but not anxious. The weight had been lifted and replaced by awe. Shortly after a nurse had cleaned up our son and approached me. She asked if I’d like to hold him. I replied, almost unconsciously, “No, that’s OK”—I had never held a newborn baby. She smiled at me knowingly, handed me my son and I just stared for what seemed like hours at this little life before me. My life as a dad had begun.

—Vincent Daly, blogger, CuteMonster

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Most dads have to let their kids go when they leave for college. I had to let go of my 10-year-old when I moved away from the town where he lives with his mom. I was terrified at leaving him, as I was used to seeing him at least three times a week. It hadn’t been easy, but my wife and I had dealt with six years of pick-ups and drop-offs, sudden cancellations by my ex, and long periods when my son barely spoke to us. Strangely enough, when I told him I was moving, my son wasn’t upset. Now that we live in different cities, we Skype regularly, talk on the phone, and he seems happier and more willing to share the details of his life. On Skype the other day I got to see the inside of his room, and he proudly showed me all his artwork on the walls. It almost brought me to tears—after six years, I was actually seeing where he lived.

—Anonymous

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The first moment that I was able to see and hold my firstborn. You conceptualize what that moment will be like, but it’s not until you hold a life in your own arms and know that you are now responsible for this little untainted soul, that it really hits home.

—Christopher Lewis, blogger, DadofDivas

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My daughter was born when I was 19. I was building transmissions in a small shop in Asbury Park during the day and working in a restaurant at night. I got a waitress there pregnant one night in the backseat of my ’67 Mustang. A few months after my daughter was born, I was in the supermarket buying Pampers and formula when I ran into my boys. They were buying beer for a night on the town.

I was ashamed I wasn’t out chasing women and getting drunk. I felt I’d failed a vision of manhood that I’d inherited, both as my father’s son and simply as an American male. I’d lost my independence to roam, seduce women, and, most important, inflict or endure violence.

—Michael Kamber, “Shooting the Truth” in The Good Men Project

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Although there had been many small moments when I thought to myself, “Wow, I’m a dad,” it wasn’t until after my marriage fell apart that the full significance of fatherhood finally hit me. I was at Walmart, standing in the checkout line with two of my three sons.

The boys and I were enjoying one of the visitation weekends worked out by their mother and me before the courts finalized all the details of the split. When it was our turn to check out, the cashier looked down and smiled at my oldest son as she rang up our items. “Hey there, cutie,” she said. “My parents are getting a divorce,” he replied without any hesitation.

The tone in his voice was devoid of emotion except for that slight hint of dread kids reserve for expressing their fear of the unknown in anticipation of events like impending trips to the dentist. Because my son was 7, his mother and I felt that he was old enough to understand what was happening, and so a few weeks earlier, we had told him about the separation. At the time he took the news with matter-of-fact acceptance.

Like me, my son’s brain has to stretch, dissect, and reassemble information before he will comment on it, and there’s no set period for how long this will take. So the reality of his mom and dad no longer living together as a family connected with him in same moment I was buying frozen pizzas for dinner. There was an awkward silence at my son’s revelation before a sympathetic expression came over the cashier’s face. I was equally unprepared for his response, putting into context how even more unprepared I was as a parent in a broken home.

The only thing I could think to do was get on my knees, hug my boys as tight as I could and tell them how much I loved them. That’s the moment when I understood that the title of father was an action and not just some guy with kids. And I had a long way to go.

—Ron Mattocks, author, blogger, Clark Kent’s Lunchbox

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Despite the first day of school, recitals, soccer and baseball games, and many accidents that end in blood, my pivotal moment was a bike ride I had with my son. For an hour we rode through the woods and he told me about a girl he liked in class, asked me questions about my childhood, and laughed at stupid dude jokes. Then we stopped for a few minutes at an overlook to watch the river flow by. We didn’t say a single word to each other; we just sat there, father and son, throwing stones into the water. Then he hugged me. The warmth that pumped through my body that day was pride, and the understanding that I wasn’t just a diaper changer, sandwich maker, or boo-boo fixer. I am playing a vital role in helping shape a human being’s life. I am a father.

—Blogger, WhyIsDaddyCrying

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Jessica and I have been together three days in Iowa when I realize I am inept. She is being noble to spare my feelings. Wrapped in a green towel, her bare shoulders still shining with bathwater, she sits with her back to me. I work the brush along the line her part should follow, push the brush to her scalp and tug. My kid tries not to cry out; she does whimper.

It is not courage. Jessica did not have a good year with her mother or her mother’s husband, and in her last hope for a place that can be hers, she will not complain to me. Until that moment the hairbrush tangles, I did not realize the degree to which my kid is at some psychological risk. She will endure any amount of pain rather than allow Daddy to think she needs attention. What if Daddy does not want her, either?

I’d planned hot breakfasts. I’d stocked up on oatmeal. I’d bought a washer and dryer within days of moving into the house so that Jessica’s clothing would be washed spotless. I practiced ironing. Jessica’s complexion would be creamy, she’d never, ever, catch cold, and her hair, her glorious hair, would always be lustrous.

But my idylls of perfect parenthood are wrecked by a hairbrush. Knotted about two inches from her scalp above her ear, it rests five inches from the tangled ends of her hair and a light-year from all I had imagined. I recall my mother telling my sister it took a little pain to be beautiful, but pulling Jessica’s hair by the roots from her scalp seems too great a price to pay.

I give up and carefully scissor out the brush. Within days, her head resembles a bird’s nest in molting season. She looks like a perfectly happy child raised by wolves.

—Perry Glasser, “Iowa Black Dirt” in The Good Men Project

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It was an evening when mommy was off to class and we were settling down before bed, my son and my daughter both lying on my chest. Our arms were wrapped around one another and I swear our hearts all beat in time. On the couch, just the three of us, it just hit me: This is what it is all about. This is what being a dad is. Any man can be a father; I knew this. But this moment, this one tiny moment, summed it all up for me. I was more than a father. I am “Daddy.”

—John Taylor, blogger, TheDaddyYoBlog

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Becoming a stay-at-home dad seemed noble from the romantic distance of a boy with two stepfathers. Stay-at-home dad—why not? We are an older couple who’d been waiting a long time for a baby to come, and now that she had, what were we to do? Fob her off on a stranger before she had taken her first step?

As a reporter, your job is to write about history as it is happening, so our grandchildren know how we lived. The reporter holds up a mirror to society, going where few would, asking questions few dare. He is the arbiter of what is interesting. That is what this stay-at-home dad would tell his old self.

I also would tell him that once he stops being a reporter, the governor won’t call anymore. Neither will the old colleagues. There will be no more Hollywood parties. No expense account. No action.

It will be just you and the kid. And the kid will have no idea how good you were. And at that old deadline time, you will find yourself staring into a dirty diaper as though it were tea leaves, trying to augur some story.

—Charlie LeDuff, “Stay at Home, Dad” in The Good Men Project

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When she just born she would curl up on my shoulder and I would kiss the top of her head and had no doubt that these would be some of the sweetest moments in my life. No man can possibly know what life means, what the world means, what anything means, until he has children and loves them. And then the whole universe changes and nothing will ever again seem exactly as it seemed before. That goes double for having a daughter.

Ted Rubin

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“You love this girl, right?” It was an unvarnished challenge, a test of no small order, and his eyes never left mine.

“I do,” I said quickly. And I wasn’t lying. Never mind that I was 24 at the time and a U.S. Army veteran with an overseas tour of duty under my belt. There was still a tremor in my voice, because the man staring at me was—and always will be—my father.

My mother died when I was young, and Dad raised my sister and me on his own. He was not to be trifled with. Admiration, respect, and a healthy dose of fear were my watchdogs throughout adolescence.

So it was that I went to see my father, with his larger-than-life presence hovering over me still, to tell him I had met a girl, that I loved her, and that she was going to have my baby. My stomach was in knots, and I was sweating despite the cold, gray day.

—Ricardo Federico, “Whatever It Takes” in The Good Men Project

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That moment when the world is collapsing around your child—bully at school, bad grade, not being liked—and a level head and some good old-fashioned love and hugs make them forget the problem and you realize how important being a dad is.

—C.C. Chapman, blogger, DigitalDads

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I’ve been on the lookout for 10 years between two children, but I don’t think I’ve had my defining father moment yet. Maybe when they’re about to leave me? I don’t know. There was once when our first daughter was maybe three months old when I looked into her eyes, and saw myself. It was absolutely moving. Chilling, even.

—Jim Mitchem, writer, communications tactician, blogger

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My son, for some reason naked, was hiding behind the door, and it hit him when I opened it.

“I love you, Daddy.”

“You called me down here for that?” I said, mocking, bitter.

Manhood is determined not by organs or genetics, but by actions, and in that moment, when all my son wanted was a little bit of me, I proved that as a man I had failed, and I knew it. I went to my bathroom and fell to the floor, wishing I could die, wishing I were already dead.

But there was so much else to deal with. My son had been acting like a beast. Daily talks with daycare providers and endless domestic disciplinary issues had ground me down.

Then I asked myself, Who’s the man? The answer was humbling. I was, in theory, and I needed to act like it. I knew that some of his behavior was of my authorship. He was 5, not yet old enough to have developed truly bad habits, not yet capable of the self-analysis needed to understand what he must have felt. Reacting and acting out were the only means of expression he had. I was his father, and the man, and it was time to be both. I no longer had the luxury of being melancholy.

I’ve always been a fan of the fake-it-till-you-make-it school, so I applied its principles to parenthood. I forced myself to be glad, even thrilled, whenever I was around my son. Every time I saw him, I hugged him. The kid showed his face, and there I was, trying to squeeze the stuffing out of him.

Then a funny thing happened. Faking it turned into the real deal. I’m still not sure when it happened, but I became glad to see him—genuinely glad. At the end of the day, I’m still tired, and he still talks too much. I’m still frustrated by the kindergarten dawdling, but it’s not the martyring experience it was even a few months ago. Thus freed, I now participate more in my son’s life. It’s easier to give of myself, to read to him, to play with him, to listen, which is what he wants most of all.

That moment of fatherhood failure made me realize that I had to live even as I longed to die. It made me begin to heal, and in healing, to be there for my son as the father he deserves. Or at least to try.

—Christopher Koehler, “Being There” in The Good Men Project

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I’m a career-driven man, which is another way to say a selfish one. I was about to begin writing a piece about street gangs when I clicked over from another call with my editor. It was my wife. “My water just broke,” she said. She wasn’t due for another two weeks. The plan had been to finish the story with about a week to spare before the due date. In other words, the plan had been for my baby’s birth to not interfere with my life as I knew it.

Harper was born the next afternoon. I didn’t work on the piece until the following week, and, frankly, I didn’t want to. I was no longer the center of my life.

—Paul Kix, senior editor, Boston magazine; contributing writer, ESPN the Magazine

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Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing all of these and letting me be a part of it… there are so many moments, it was difficult to take just one!

  2. I appreciate the sharing of all these moments, and want to add one, though, as Dad of Divas notes, there have been and continue to be many, many decisive scenes. My kids are all in college now. When they were younger I used to travel for business. Not too bad: a couple of days every few weeks. Even so, I missed them terribly and they missed me as well. One time when I came through the front door after a trip, my two-year-old daughter ran across the house, leaped into my arms, hugged me and wouldn’t let me go. I carried her around the house with her head buried in my shoulder for what felt like hours. Every few minutes she’d raise her head up, look in my eyes, say’ “Dad-EEEEEEE”, scrunch her head back into my shoulder and hug my neck tightly. Those moments remind me of what’s really important from my kids’ perspective, and of what I have to give as a Dad.

  3. “What moment made you the dad you are today? The answer to this question will define a generation of men.”

    Many men can’t “daddy the f*ck up” because of maternal gatekeeping! It’s pervasive at home where she makes the rules and in family law where she makes the rules.

    Tell your lawyer wife, it’s time to “daddy the f*ck up” and start speaking out for truth, justice and the best interests of children.

    You can’t blame men for the discrimination that they face.

  4. These were great. I feel like I have a mini version of one of these moments everyday. There’s always a moment where I have to stop and think about my role, or where I just get caught up in how beautiful my kids are.

  5. Proud to be among the writers above, I’ll note that the moment I became a Grand-Dad happened 8 days ago when Jessica—the little girl in Iowa Black Dirt—delivered Maya, 7 lbs. 13 oz., full head of black hair and 19.75 perfect inches tall.
    I drove 9 hours from Boston to DC as soon as I heard Jessica had gone into labor and arrived just as Jessica went in for a C-section. Drove back 3 days later.
    Dads do stuff like that.
    Mother and daughter are doing well and both are now home.
    w00t-w00t!

  6. Dads are awesome! We’re sure there will be many, many, many more decisive moments in the future and we can’t wait to hear about them. Looking forward to reading more posts.

    Thank you

  7. A lifetime ago and long before I was ever a father, I was exploring a calling to ordained ministry, specifically in a career as a hospital chaplain. I opted to serve my pastoral residency in the neonatal intensive care unit of a major research hospital, visiting the families of critically ill or very low birthweight newborns. While very many of these children did get to go home to live with their families, all too many only knew their parents through the glass of their medical isolettes or as a pair of fingers gingerly stroking them through latex gloves.

    This experience helped shape the father I later became, by ingraining at an early age just how ephemeral newborn lives could be, and how deep their parents’ connection to them was. As I sat with grieving parents whose options had run out, I had the privilege to help them BE parents even if only for a matter of hours. All the children who died, and the families who went home without them of my watch, live in my heart twenty years later and often spring to mind in quiet moments when I’m holding my own sons today.

    Our entire culture is raised around sitcom notions of cookie cutter family life and fatherhood in particular. What I learned was that the opposite is true: normal can vanish in an instant, and every hug, every chance to hold should be cherished as if it were the last.

    • That’s a powerful story, Chris. It takes a special person to be there for others in such an emotional time. “Normal can vanish in an instant,” is so true, and yet so easy to forget with everything going on in our day-to-day lives. We need moments of pause.

  8. I took my sons to see Metallica several times. We turned it into a road trip. I think they were 18, 15, and 9. And the 9 year old was really, really into what Lars had going on with his floor toms. He was really into that whumpity-whumpity pish-pash thing that Lars would do when they were riffing and headbanging. We probably shouldn’t have done eleven straight concerts, however. Five, maybe. Tops

  9. Tom, you pose an interesting question. I’m sure that for any parent – man or woman – becoming a parent for the first time is a transformational experience, and that really, truly grasping the magnitude of your responsibility takes both maturity and effort. I’m also sure that for most people it’s not a one-off thing; it’s a process or discovery and learning – and hard work. And a hugely rewarding process, with plenty of opportunity for self-discovery.

    However, what interests me right now is the way you frame your question. The question is self is about one of the most positive and rewarding experiences in a man’s life, and yet you frame it negatively. You tell a classic story about how men are irresponsible and not able to comprehend or care for children. And you end by a call for us all to do much better – to daddy the fuck up. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s that I grew up in the late 60s and early 70s. Maybe it’s that my single mother and many of the people around her were involved in the feminist surge of the time (all of which was long overdue, mind) and I was dragged along to events and heard all the arguments – and was always suspect because of my gender. What I know is that so much of my early life I heard this same call – that I share some inherent failing with all of my gender, and I need to do better. And, you know what, I’m fed up with it. I’m fed up with always starting from -10, with that image of the useless man.

    I was never unfit to be a parent. I don’t have to daddy the fuck up. No, I’m not perfect, and yes, I’ve had a lot of learning to do. Same as most guys I know. And most gals.

    The conversation about how we are fathers, what fatherhood is, and about how we create families that are supportive and overcome all the idiotic gendered expectations and roles our society promotes is hugely important. We need to liberate ourselves (men and women) and we need to make a world for our kids with far less of this nonsense. And we as men need to be sensitive to the fact of our privileges and all the ways in which it affect the women in our lives and our relationships with them at all levels. But i truly do not believe that the constant repetition of stereotypes about male irresponsibility and inability to be caring etc, or the constant blaming, is doing that conversation any good.

  10. Tom Matlack says:

    Lars *great* comment. I apologize if the title put you off. It was meant somewhat tongue in cheek but I can see what you mean. I actually believe that fathers are intuitive caretakers. We don’t start from -10. In fact its a matter of clearing away all the clutter and negativity just to experience our children. Okay that was the case for me and I hope it is true for others (thus this piece and much of what we do at GMP). I do think that part of what I was also responding to is the at-risk boys we try to help with our foundation, many of whom do not have fathers in their lives. I suspect that those men are not present for a wide variety of reasons, but it is still a huge problem in America right now particularly among the inner cities and poorest communities. No way around the numbers and the impact. That isn’t meant as a shaming, it is actually meant to suggest that we as men have something precious to give our sons and it’s important enough to go through brick walls to impart that wisdom. Thanks for letting me know your reactions to the piece.

  11. Tom Matlack says:

    PS Lars I just went in an changed the title based on your feedback.

  12. Ted Rubin says:

    I see all this from a different perspective than many. I spend a great deal of time navigating the treacherous waters of parental alienation. All children need to be allowed, and encouraged, to freely love both their parents no matter the circumstances. So terribly unfortunate how many children have to navigate the treacherous waters of one parent’s hatred for the other. Scary how many children think their fathers never cared instead of that they were driven away. Most fathers, who live under such circumstances, give up and move on. I think some dads start to think its better for the kids to just give up and disappear from their lives. I have heard that argument and understand the thought process.

    I love my daughters, no matter what… I love my girls. Always have, always will… from the moment I held them in my arms. And I will be there for them emotionally, will never give up, and will wait as long as necessary for them to realize and understand how much I love them both.

    Thanks for including me Tom.

  13. As the mom here, I can say how much I remember all those moments; the first time my husband spoke the words, “I feel like a real Dad” was when he was assembling the tricycle for our son. Next kid turned out to be twins, and he was a champ adding the much needed other pair of hands. Now he’s Grampa Dan, and had a great time helping put together the Buzz Lightyear race car for his grandson. He can’t wait to teach him how to fish. (But he also loves playing Lego and shooting Matchbox cars across the floor.

  14. Some years ago, I heard this story at a men’s conference where the question, “What is a good father?” was being discussed. Two families were living in hiding together in Nazi occupied Europe. The space was cramped. There was little food. One night, dinner consisted of a single piece of stale bread, to be divided equally among both families. The bread was broken up and the portions passed around. One little boy took his piece, looked at it, then hurled it onto the floor. “I’m sick of this food!” he said. No one spoke. There was a long silence. Then the boy’s father got up from the table, picked up the piece of bread, kissed it, and handed it back to the boy.

  15. So, did you “daddy the f##k up,” or did you just go back to blogging as usual?

  16. I love the idea of Daddying up.
    I am now a new reader of your great blog.

    Showing up is so vulnerable making & this is what you describe so perfectly in those moments with toddlers (& through others’ words).

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Yes, good men love women. But we love women in all their complexity — for the things they do, for their intelligence, their wit, their athleticism, their creativity, their power and their force of personality. We seem to have forgotten that along the way. Our brain-numbing intoxication by pornography in all its forms threatens to end us — not because it is morally wrong, but just because it distracts us from the truth and scatters our power. It's one big acid trip fantasy with no connection to improving our lives, being good fathers and husbands and advancing our careers. The models I have met in the flesh have all turned out to be quite unattractive. When a supposedly beautiful woman opens her mouth and soulless, empty nonsense tumbles out, the perfect 10 becomes a two in a big hurry. No amount of cleavage can make up for the lack of soul. My wife is a lawyer-turned-decorator-turned-child-advocate. Yes, she is hot — but she is also smarter than I am, far more graceful in a crowd and can convince just about anyone to do just about anything when it comes to helping at-risk children. She is hot, not just because she is beautiful, but because she is all those other things, too. So, with no further ado, here is my list of the women men love, if we actually stopped to think about it. These are women who are fascinating, cool and lovable. They have it going on, and not because they might (or might not) want to suspend from the ceiling in a twirling banana. Chelsea Handler Melinda Gates Jhumpa Lahiri Kate Middleton Gwyneth Paltrow Patti Stanger Steffi Graf Lady Gaga Michelle Obama Laura Hillenbrand Portia de Rossi Senator Kirsten Gillibrand Esquire, how about switching it up and working off my list for a change of pace? And let's not ask any of these women we love to wear black garter belts for the photo shoot, OK? Let's focus on what's really important for once. Like this post? You might also enjoy Guys: It's Time to "Daddy-Up" [...]

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