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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
“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
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
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
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
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
♦ ♦ ♦
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.