What Makes Men Fathers

Dads reflect on the unexpected moments that defined them as parents.
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Michaela Rehle/Reuters

As writer and stay-at-home dad Brian Gresko sees it, narratives about fatherhood are slowly but surely becoming more present in overall conversations about parenthood. He notes that programs like NBC’s Today have honed in on dads by rebranding long-running segments like Today Moms into Today Parents (with an extra nod to Modern Dads). And online, Gresko says, “There’s definitely a growing trajectory of men writing honestly and openly about parenting” as a counterbalance to the well-established mommy-blogosphere.

Still, Gresko notes that while “there are also the so-called momoirs,” that genre doesn’t quite exist yet for dads. His new anthology, When I First Held You, compiles 22 essays on fatherhood from a host of distinguished contemporary attempts to showcase the wide range of experiences that men have as they grapple with being called “Dad.” I spoke with Gresko about the changing nature of fatherhood and visibility inside and outside of the home.


When did you become a stay-at-home dad and why was that the best decision for your family at the time?

My decision to be a writer and to be a dad all came kind of at the same time for me, or out of the same catalyst. At the time, my then-girlfriend was nearing 30 and wanted to have a family. That was a stumbling block in our relationship, and I took a year to get some space, and teach, and write in China. While I was there, I not only fell into a more regular practice of writing, but I also decided that I did, indeed, want to get married and start a family. When I came back home, I enrolled in an MFA program at The New School, my wife and I got married, and she became pregnant.

My son was born a week after I got out of school, so my wife wanted to go back to work. I had taken myself out of a career path at that point already, and it appealed to me to stay at home and have time to write in the evenings and while my son napped. But it also really appealed to me emotionally because even though I had not wanted to be a father for most of my life, I had decided to embrace it as fully as I could.

What was the environment like for stay-at-home dads at the time?

This was in Brooklyn in 2009, so it wasn’t foreign, but even today it’s much more normal to see guys walking around with their babies strapped to them or with strollers. A few guys would give me looks like, You’re walking around with a baby? What’s up with that?—but it was mostly women.

I would get unsolicited advice, as if I didn’t know what I was doing and nannies looking for work would kind of assume that I would rather be working, and that I must be looking for someone to take care of my child. To take yourself out of the workforce was seen as very strange. I was met with, “Well, this must be a nice little vacation for you,” or “You must be taking a sabbatical to try and reboot yourself. I wish I could do that,” instead of recognizing what I was doing as another kind of work. So, those first couple of years when I was at home with my son were very lonely.

How did you feel about fatherhood when you became a dad, especially since as you say, you didn’t actually want to be one for most of your life?

When I was a child, my parents revealed to me that the guy I grew up thinking was my biological father was actually my adopted father. It was a really tense conversation and an uncomfortable thing for them to talk about, so we never discussed it again after that. During the process of my dad legally adopting me, my parents had been asked, “How would you address this with the child?” They were advised to talk about it with me at an early age, but not bring it up again unless I wanted to, and that’s what they did. Partly because of my natural temperament, which was to avoid making waves, and partly because I felt that my parents were still upset about it, I felt somewhat shameful and kind of guilty that I had caused this upset for them, so I kind of swallowed it.

But I always felt very different. When I was a teenager, I was more academic and a natural reader, and my parents are a little more sporty and great at fixing things around the house—things that I just didn’t have an inclination for. I started thinking that maybe I was different because my biological father had given me something other than what I was getting at home, and being such a reader, I started to imagine that he was someone like Henry Miller. I really fell in love with Henry Miller and it made sense to me that if [my father] was this really bright, creative guy, then he couldn’t be tied down to a kid since he was pursuing his own artistic path.

All of that synched into this identity for me, where I was going to be a writer and an artist, but I would not be a family person—and that felt right because of what I was interested in, and also because of the pain that I had around the idea of fatherhood and around the idea of family.

So what led you to making this book?

I wanted to hear from guys that are really amazing artists and writers, that you could be a great writer and also be a loving, engaged, active father. That, from the start, is something that has surprised me about fatherhood. I had always completely accepted the idea that a writer or artist had to choose between their work and having a family, but that is not the case.

In fact, the experience of having a kid opens you up emotionally in a way that [causes] you to see the world totally differently. You feel things more deeply; you feel love in a different way. You might have only experienced romantic love and now you’re experiencing this really warm sense of protection for another human being. You feel vulnerable; you want to protect them but you know you can’t. You want to be the best dad you possibly can, but it’s impossible to always have as much patience as kids require, or to be your best self all the time. Those feelings can really feed your creative work, and that’s something I never anticipated.

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Judith Ohikuare is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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