What Makes Men Fathers

That’s interesting, especially given the idea that corporate careers are the ones that limit family time, while “creative” ones are seen as more flexible or accommodating—even though writing can be a very solitary thing.

I think of the old Modernist image of the male writer as being unattached and kind of hardheaded; someone hard-drinking with big opinions. Norman Mailer comes to mind, or Kerouac, or Henry Miller, or even Hemingway, who has this macho air about him. He had kids and writes about them a little bit, but mostly writes about going out to bullfights, and on fishing trips, and drinking at bars. That stereotype still looms large.

Writing is a very solitary act and it requires that you have time to think into your imagination and be alone, but it’s also a communicative art. You’re writing about people and that requires not just knowing yourself but [also] paying attention to what goes around you. Most people on this planet become parents at some point, so these are really universal relationships. The men in this book have written books that are just as hard and heavy-hitting as any of the books Modernist authors would have put out—but they’re also really engaged with their families and they don’t hide that.

How does the title of the book relate to the idea of fatherhood? For many women who give birth, experiencing the physical changes that accompany pregnancy might help them feel a connection to their children sooner, whereas men might continue to grapple with the reality of being a parent until there’s actually a baby in front of them.

Women experience those changes in many different ways. I know friends who have said that they loved being pregnant, and there are other people like my wife who just did not enjoy it. But men are completely outside of that. The experience of their partner’s pregnancy is very abstract. We don’t really ever have the experience of our bodies being out of control unless we’re sick—and when that happens, it’s weird. With pregnancy, you’re taking care of this creature that’s growing inside of you, and it’s changing you and making you feel all sorts of things. A guy can hear about that and know the baby is coming, but it’s not a physical reality in the same way that it is for a woman.

That’s something that came up in several of the essays without me asking anybody to put that in. Stephen O’Connor—who was a guy that knew he wanted to be a dad from an early age—writes about how even after his son was born, those early days of infancy were so demanding that he didn’t actually feel like he fully loved his son until there was a health crisis. Then, after hearing that his son is going to be okay, he realizes how terribly, life-alteringly upset he would have been if something tragic had happened, and how inexorably connected they are. That every day, from now on, his son’s happiness will affect his happiness.

In my own [life] story, that was something that my dad said to me. He and my mom had been high school sweethearts, and when she got pregnant and my biological father said that he didn’t want to be a part of it, my adopted dad rekindled their friendship, and then eventually they got married.

He said that in those early days, he wasn’t sure what was going to happen with him, but when he first held me, he knew that he wanted to stick around for not only the love that he and my mom were developing, but also to just be there for me. I think that’s really powerful—that you can hold a little baby that isn’t your child, and it can be a profoundly moving experience.

Did any of the stories in the book resonate with you in particular?

Garth Stein writes in his essay about sharing a bed with his wife and his toddler son, and how this child is lying in between him and his wife like the sword lay between Tristan and Isolde, keeping them separate. Having a little boy, you hear this thing about sons and how much they love their moms, and that image in Stein’s essay really struck a chord with me, because my son has always had a very strong, Oedipal love for his mom. “When I grow up, I’m going to get married to you, mom!” he’ll say, and I never anticipated that.

My wife basically comes home every day to these two guys who are so happy to see her: me, because I’ve spent the whole afternoon with just my son, so I’m happy to see another grown-up, and he gets so excited because now she’s home and can play with him a little bit before dinner. We’re both kind of going, “Pay attention to me! Pay attention to me!” It does sometimes feel like we’re competing for her attentions and affections, and in that sense, Garth’s story really resonated with me.

Was there any commonality in terms of what men and women were saying was hard about being a parent?

I think everyone worries about how good a job they’re doing, and that’s kind of a big secret among parents. You worry that you’re messing your kids up in some way—and you know that you kind of are, which is anxious-making. You have these tiny, little conversations with your kids sometimes—“How was school?”—and then they reveal these big things. All of a sudden you’re in the midst of this really intense conversation wondering, what I should say? What’s the right thing to do? Both men and women have that same sense of, gosh I don’t know; I just hope I’m doing the right thing and that that’s good enough—but nobody knows any better than you do.

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Judith Ohikuare is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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