What Makes Men Fathers

Dads reflect on the unexpected moments that defined them as parents.

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.

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.