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.
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