Steve Edwards talks to Brian Gresko, the editor of the upcoming “When I First Held You”, about literary fathers, gender and parenting, and the transformative power of becoming a dad
By Steve Edwards—I first read one of Brian Gresko’s essays about being a dad three years ago on The Huffington Post, and it was a revelation. His toddler son and my toddler son shared some of the same challenges—in this case it was that they were trying to claw our respective faces off in the night. But the feeling of seeing a version of my story on the computer screen—that was the revelation. I was so grateful, and I felt less alone with my struggles. I even wrote to Brian and told him so.
Later that same year, after connecting on social media, Brian asked if I would contribute an essay to an anthology he was putting together about fatherhood. I was honored and enthusiastically said yes.
I had no idea, of course, how successful the project would become. In addition to my humble offering, Brian managed to snag new work from the likes of Dennis Lehane, Andre Dubus III, Benjamin Percy, and Rick Moody to name just a few. The final result, When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About The Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood (available on May 6th), is an incredibly powerful firsthand accounting of what it means to be a dad. And I think it offers readers what Brian’s HuffPo column offered me that lonely night three years ago: a real sense of community and shared understanding.
I had to the chance recently to email with Brian about the origins of the anthology, as well as his thoughts on what he learned from working on it.
1). What inspired you to compile a book of essays specifically about fatherhood?
In the first couple of years staying at home with my son, I had questions about whether I was doing a good job, and if my experience of fatherhood was similar to other guys’. I wanted advice, and, as an avid reader, I usually go to books for help on these kinds of existential questions. But, especially in the literary realm, a lot of dads are screwed-up—like, say, the title character in David Gates’ excellent and darkly funny novel Jernigan, or Alfred and Gary in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, or Frank Wheeler in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.
Those novels are amazing, but perhaps the best you can say about these dads is that they’re well-intentioned. OK, then, so fiction was out. But while so-called “mom-oirs” are a thing, memoirs by dads are harder to find. With the help and encouragement of my agent, I decided to create the book I wanted to read, which I think is the impetus behind a lot of creative impulses.
2). How do you see fatherhood differently from having worked on this project? What had you expected when you started out? What surprised you?
Naively, I expected that other guys would know more about fatherhood than I did. Turns out what they know is that fatherhood is a state of uncertainty. Ben Greenman tackles this head-on in his essay. He asks at the start, “What is being a good father?” Greenman says fatherhood is “…returning to that question repeatedly, asking it again and again, each time failing to acquire any additional insight. In that sense, being a father is being a question.”
It’s also a state of contradiction, of wanting to be tender and patient but being unable to each moment of every day. Alexi Zentner discusses with great honesty how he doesn’t want to snap at his daughters for the silly kid things they do, but he can’t always control his temper. Zentner says this isn’t his daughters’ fault, really. “The truth is simple and will not salve any wound: I am not as good a father as I want to be.”
That feeling of failure comes up again and again. Even Dennis Lehane, who seems so freakin’ cool, says “I have never been worse at anything in my life.” And there’s fear too, both of keeping your child safe from danger, but also from how fatherhood makes you aware of your own mortality, and of how little control you actually have over health or, for lack of a better word, fate. So the very impulses that led me to compile the book—insecurity, fear, worry, guilt, and feeling alone in these anxieties—turned out to be universal ones.
This isn’t to say it’s all dire! Because the other thing that comes through in these essays is the amazing and crystal clear love men feel for their kids. Take Lev Grossman, for example: “It was all well and good for me to fuck around… when I was just some asshole. But I wasn’t just any asshole anymore: I was Lily’s father. I could let myself down all I wanted, all day long, year in and year out, but I was damned if I was going to let her down.”
You get that again and again. I’m not good enough, dammit, but I’m going to keep trying because I love my kid so much. It’s inspiring.
3). What do you see as the significance of stories by and about fathers?
When my son was an infant, my dad leaped at the chance to change his diapers. My mom thought this was a hoot. “I can’t remember him changing a single diaper of yours,” she told me. That’s not unusual. Dads just weren’t traditionally involved in a lot of the day-to-day chores of parenting. Even on a contemporary show like Breaking Bad, you see the old stereotype still at play. At least in the beginning, Walter White wanted to provide for his family financially even though that meant not being present, both literally around the house or emotionally, with his wife and kids.
This narrow definition of fatherhood is changing, and I think in large part we have the women’s movement to thank for that. As women have said “I don’t have to stay at home with my children if I don’t want to,” that’s created both a practical need for someone to be there to take care of the kids and it’s also provided space for the guys who are interested in staying at home to say, “That’s cool. I’ll do it.” Because it’s not like guys have never before cared about their kids, or wanted to take part in raising them—you can read in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal how he stayed home with his five-year-old son while his wife traveled to Boston for three weeks—but now men have the choice to express their paternal instincts more fully, and without embarrassment.
These days, it’s not unusual to see a guy walking around with a baby strapped to his chest; what’s unusual is the guy who thinks doing that is the mother’s work. This is still a very new shift in our cultural attitudes toward gender and parenting, and so the more stories, books, essays, and articles we have exploring it the better, I think, for everyone—men and women alike.
4). What makes this collection unique among the other books about being a dad?
The craft, really. These guys are master wordsmiths, and they tell their tales and put their feelings across so fully and beautifully. There’s amazing, honest work online from the dad blogger community and here on The Good Men Project and Role Reboot, and in magazines too, but because a book is constructed over a period of months and scrutinized by several sets of eyes—the author, me, and then the editorial team at Berkley Books—the pieces are forged extra-strong. Also, the majority of parenting books are advice oriented, and When I First Held You contains gripping stories about the experience of being a father. The book’s chopped full of advice, but it’s also entertaining, and moving as hell.
Brian Gresko, editor of the anthology “When I First Held You”, writes about culture, gender roles, and parenting from his home in Brooklyn. He also curates the Pen Parentis Literary Salon.
Images courtesy of the author