The raw materials for fatherhood are microscopic: a little swimmer, determined and heading into the unknown.
The odds are against this triumph. Most of the 39 million sperm that a man distributes per “visit” get lost, grow weary of the effort, or chose to detour. For that one special fellow, life will never be the same.
The journey that follows this creation contains an echo of biology. Some men do not have staying power in the world of fatherhood. Some fade, fail to participate meaningfully, or disappear. For those men who stay the course, life is changed.
It is harder. It is richer. He is poorer.
This rubric applies to those who “father” as the result of biology, marriage, or foster care. The hours are endless, demands are constant, appreciation is intermittent. It is not the job that a man imagines as he proudly cuddles new life.
That tiny baby will require every skill and strength, wit and wisdom that a man can access. This is not a job to walk away from. It is a vocation.
My life has straddled three generations of parenting.
My seminal family was matriarchal, as my husband says. Dad worked. Mom scheduled, motivated, disciplined, nurtured, cooked, nagged and then collapsed. She was off duty after dinner. Then Dad was on duty. He would help us with homework if we needed it. We never wished to need it, since the moments he was stalled between us and the evening paper were likely to be filled with tough love. Multiplication tables at our house mirrored the Great Santini on the basketball court. It worked. We did the work, toed the line. Because Dad was only called in to enforce in the most egregious occasions, and because he could wield a belt better than my Mom’s hairbrush served her, we were Stepford kids. Kind of.
The day I told Steve he was to be a dad, he had worked at 12 radio stations. He was 25. I was in law school, we had just bought a house, and our future was rewritten in an instant. For Steve, the reality of fatherhood initially was the responsibility of providing. With his job map, full of pins, he was frightened. He jumped on the treadmill of his career, and spent weekends crooning with Teenage Radiation. He was bowed, but unbroken when he lost his job mid-pregnancy. By the time we drove home from the hospital with Pat, he was employed, but even more determined to work hard. He was adamant that we only have one child because of the uncertainty of his profession. You know how that ended up. I cajoled him into #2, and #3 was a gift.
He gets mad when I remind him that he was the kind of Dad who slept in because he worked late, and at 8 pm called from the “loser bar” to see if the kids were in bed. I never minded, though, because I grew up in a matriarchal home, and I liked being Queen of the Castle. He spent 13 years of fatherhood more as a sideline guy, but for the last 18 years, he has been my touchstone. When my boys traversed from babies to boys to men, he was the compass. He stopped drinking cold turkey. He was “on duty” with the intuition to foil just about any plot. In the teenaged years, he waited up as I slept. He did breath checks, and damage control when it was needed. I would obsess about the mysteries of manhood- he was steady in his promise that everything was on course. He is the yin to my yang. My sons are fortunate, though they yap at him and roll their eyes and bump against his proclamations to this day. They do it with great love and respect. I think.
An example of Steve’s Dad wisdom: one of my sons was engaged in a tiff with his significant other. He showed up at the door, agitated. I would have swung the door open, and talked him into going home. Steve said, “You have committed your life to this person. Go home. It is not our business.”A push followed. Steve was right.
In that moment, I heard my own father, at the back of the church on my wedding day. He looked down at me, marrying a nomadic DJ, leaving a teaching job, law school and a condo. I did not get the “I will love you forever” I expected. Dad said, “If it does not work out, you may not come home. So make it work out.” I did. I guess girls sometimes marry their fathers. The boys should be glad that Steve doesn’t wear a belt.
Now I watch my son Patrick- a father for this generation. He is proudly participatory, and genuinely involved, since his wife works full time. He is a great dad. Mike will soon be a father, and I know he has tools in place to take a child from swaddling to adulthood. The precious early days, with “firsts” and sweet smells, will give way to the joys and challenges of guidance and support. It is not a job for the lazy, or one with a short attention span. Just like that little fellow, swimming against the darkness and the unknown, a good father hunkers down and stays the course. Not for 18 years, or 21. Forever. It is to much to comprehend when the days are filed with diapers and bottles. It is a worthwhile pledge to make and to keep. To a spouse and to a child.
This is a day to say thank you, and so I do: First, for the Thomas Joliat, who put me on my path, and never stopped loving me as long as he drew breath. Then, for Steve, the Dad I share every day with, as well as the purpose of life, our family, he made a dazzling journey, an unimaginable life. And to his Dad Roger, who forged the raw materials, and then put him in his turquoise Subaru with a tub of trail mix and a map to Detroit- you have rearranged the trajectory of all our lives.
Finally, may my three sons distinguish the world by being wise, kind and ever-present dads. (Matt- this applies to Walter Dog for the moment. And you are frisbeeing it out of the park) The work is never done, because the first duty is to love, but the hard duty is to stay the course. We will be here to support your efforts, but remember- you cannot come home.