Why Is Dad So Mad?

A father dares to explore his rage.

child's black marker drawing of angry face with dark short hair over red silhouette of father raising small child in air on teal background
Pablo Delcan and Río Delcan La Rocca

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For dads, 2015 was a clarifying year. A glorifying year. Fatherly.com—a website described in The New York Times as a father-focused mashup of Vice and BuzzFeed—came online in April with a plan to serve men at the most “blindly inquisitive and acquisitive moment of their lives.” Celebrities were getting in on daddy culture, too. Ashton Kutcher pushed his audience of millions to agitate for diaper-changing stations in men’s rooms. Jimmy Fallon came out with a best-selling, father-forward picture book, Your Baby’s First Word Will Be DADA. And a klatch of daddy bloggers was trying to cajole the nation’s leading online retailer into making its parent-discount program more inclusive for men. By year’s end, Amazon Mom had become Amazon Family.

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But 2015’s most telling fatherhood trend was the one that captured dads’ confusion. In the spring, just before the launch of Fatherly, a Clemson University student’s viral essay introduced the world to the phrase and image of the dad bod: “a nice balance between a beer gut and working out,” as she put it. Soon dad bod was the subject of hundreds of newspaper stories, including five in The Washington Post alone. But as the phrase’s popularity increased, so did debates about its meaning. Was the dad bod hard or soft? Was it imposing or forgiving? Was it just a state of mind, or was it—as Men’s Health suggested—a dangerous reality? (“Face it: The dad bod is just a precursor to dead bod,” the magazine’s editor proclaimed.)

In its partial lack of definition, the dad bod could stand in for dads’ self-image on the whole. Everybody knew that dads used to earn a living; that they used to love their children from afar; and that when the need arose, they used to be the ones who doled out punishment. But what were dads supposed to do today? “In former times, the definition of a man was you went to work every day, you worked with your muscles, you brought home a paycheck, and that was about it,” the clinical psychologist Thomas J. Harbin would explain to Fatherly a few years later. “What it is to be a man now is in flux, and I think that’s unsettling to a lot of men.” Indeed, modern dads were left to flounder in a half-developed masculinity: Their roles were changing, but their roles hadn’t fully changed.

A Pew Research Center survey, carried out the autumn after dad-bod fever, found that men cared just as much about their parental identity as moms did about theirs (57 percent described it as being “extremely important,” versus 58 percent of women). But all of that caring served as fuel for newfound insecurity: Most of the moms surveyed—51 percent—said they did “a very good job” of raising their children; among the dads, just 39 percent said the same.

Fatherly tried to help with this conundrum. The lack of clear-cut standards for successful masculinity, Harbin said, “causes a lot of dissatisfaction that gets expressed as anger.” Men who defined themselves as modern fathers, more nurturing than their own dads had been, could be flummoxed by that rage. An early series on the site, called “Why I Yelled,” interviewed a different father for each installment about a time he’d lost his temper. Many columns ended with the man’s regrets. “I instantly felt like the world’s biggest asshole and just about started crying,” one father said. “Here I am losing my shit when my little girl is just having some anxiety issues about starting first grade.” Another dad, whose son had hit him in the shoulder with a baseball, said he’d yelled “because sometimes it needs to happen,” then ended up apologizing. The injury wasn’t that bad, he admitted. “Honestly, I was being a bit of a pussy.”

Fatherly had promised from the start to expand its readers’ minds and maybe turn them into “super-dads.” One of the site’s first-ever featured super-dads—an al‑Qaeda-fighting former Navy SEAL—offered his advice: “To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, who you are will speak more loudly to your children than anything you say.” But as a tip for dads, this shirked the hardest question. Who are they, really? Nurturers, enforcers, role models? Or are they somehow all of those at once?

A father’s superpower, it emerged, would be self-knowledge. Dr. Spock once reassured mothers with his famous mantra: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” Now Fatherly does the same for dads. “Don’t sweat what you don’t know,” the site’s editors wrote in Fatherhood, their omnibus of dad advice, published last year, “because if you know yourself, you know fatherhood.”

In 2015, the journalist and novelist Keith Gessen had a son. His memoir of early parenthood, Raising Raffi: The First Five Years, starts off as so many dad books do—with a nod to parenting’s great transition, and dads’ uncertain duties. “I was part of the first generation of men who, for various reasons, were spending more time with their kids than previous generations,” Gessen writes in the introduction. “That seemed notable to me.”

But his book proceeds as so many dad books don’t: with a father’s careful, piercing introspection, and a deep analysis of anger. “You’re a bad dada and I’m never going to listen to you again!” his 3-year-old son says to him in one scene, after getting yelled at during bedtime. “I felt he was right,” Gessen says. “I was not a good dada. But I didn’t know what else to do.”

I didn’t know, I don’t know, I still don’t know—these are the modern dad’s refrains, and the subject of the book. “You don’t know anything about yourself until your baby gets older,” Gessen writes. Parenting is self-discovery. On that principle, Raising Raffi and Fatherly agree. But in Gessen’s case, self-discovery can be a brutal process, revealed not just through intense engagement in the work of child-rearing but also, more particularly, through the bouts of rage that a child may inspire. “You don’t know anything about yourself until the day your adorable little boy looks you in the eye, notices that your face is right up close to him, and punches you in the nose.”

Gessen writes about his temperamental, trying son with a depth that can only come from years of loving observation. But his son is watching, too. Again and again, Raffi tests his father’s temper—pinching, kicking, scratching, throwing—and then provides his own assessments. “Dada’s not nice,” he says. And: “Dada, I love you even when you do something bad to me.” And: “Dada, superheroes never get mad.” When Raffi gets a sticker chart, at one point, to encourage good behavior, he insists on making another for his parents. Theirs has fields for getting dressed, for eating dinner, and for “not hitting” him. (Those are Raffi’s words, not Gessen’s.)

If knowledge comes, in part, through Raffi’s provocations, Gessen pays them close attention. “I would find myself yelling or hissing or reprimanding,” he observes, like a clinician making rounds. Elsewhere he says he keeps a diary of incidents in which he’s lost control. In one, he finds his tempest veering from simple yelling into slapping Raffi’s wrist; in another, a push turns into an unintentional rap on the head. “These were the low points,” he says. “But scarier to me were the times when Raffi drove me so out of my mind with anger that I would imagine hitting him for real.”

Gessen’s tendency to lose control reappears throughout the book. In a chapter on whether Raffi should be raised bilingual, the father’s fury folds into a question of identity. Gessen himself was born in Russia, and immigrated to the U.S. when he was 6. Teaching Raffi to speak Russian would tie him to his past, but also to “a culture and a history,” as Gessen puts it, “that most of us, for various reasons, had wanted to escape.” He wonders whether he could or would ever bring Raffi on a trip to “Putin’s Russia,” the aggressive fatherland, to help him learn the language.

Naturally, that country’s language is the one Gessen uses when he’s blowing up. “I turned out to be more of a yeller in Russian than I was in English,” he writes.

I found I had a register in Russian that I don’t in English, wherein I made my voice deep and threatening and told Raffi that if he didn’t right away choose which shirt he was going to wear that morning, I was going to choose it for him.

That self-splitting has some benefits. Whenever Gessen fumes at Raffi somewhere near their home in Brooklyn, he knows he’ll have some privacy. “At least I did it in Russian,” he writes, in reference to a bout of yelling in the park.

It must be nice to have a secret channel for your angry self, hidden even from your wife. To Raffi, though, Gessen’s Russian rages seem duplicitous. “Dada,” he says astutely at one point, “if people understood Russian, they would say, ‘That guy is not nice.’ ” Then Raffi calls his dad a liar, for claiming that he won’t get mad, and for always getting mad again anyway. “This was true,” Gessen says. “I did promise that, and then I always broke that promise.”

The memoir ends as Fatherly suggests, with Dada at last confronting his identity. One day at the playground, Gessen spots a kind and patient man over by the jungle gym, whose daughter is in the process of losing her mind. “The entire time I thought that the father was doing a remarkable job of staying calm, of not yelling, of not asserting his authority,” Gessen says. “I envied his patience. But I could not do what he was doing—and, I suddenly realized … I would not want to. It wasn’t in me to do.”

When my daughter was born (not long after Gessen’s son), and for most of the next three years, I marveled at the fact that she didn’t make me angry. How could she make me angry? The idea was just absurd. I’d never felt so beset and (I’ll admit it) bored by daily life—and yet I’d also never felt so placid. The baby needed almost everything that I could give, and she seemed to need it all the time. But nothing was her fault.

In those early, foggy days of fatherhood, I pitched a podcast to my editor. It would be called When Will I Get Angry at My Daughter?, and it would explore the cognitive and moral development of infants and toddlers, as well as the philosophy of moral agency and culpable ignorance. In other words, I was scared of yelling at my daughter, and I tried to quarantine that fear inside a shell of wonder and abstraction. But the anger would be coming just the same, as it does for every parent at some time. My parents had been mad at me, sometimes spanking mad. Their parents had been mad at them. I knew that fathers, in particular, could be very angry, and that angry fathers, in particular, could be very scary. And I didn’t like to think that one day soon I’d lose my temper, too.

“Yelling turns out to be a pretty gendered issue,” reports an article in Fatherly’s official “Guide to Anger Management.” If testosterone can help you throw a baseball harder, a child psychiatrist says, then it can also make you “hurl your voice” with greater volume and velocity, which is “extra scary” for a kid. “It’s not that moms don’t yell, it’s that fathers yell with more force.”

As a father, though, I’m concerned less about the sound of yelling than its spirit—what the yelling means, where the yelling might end up. Some fathers are afraid of being angry. Others are afraid of being stony. We’re all afraid of causing pain to our children or, much worse, giving them a lasting wound. Michael Chabon, in his memoir Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, laments his “latent dickitude” around the house. The book describes one time when Chabon’s 14-year-old daughter had just gotten a new haircut and looked to him for approval. His mind was somewhere else and he failed to muster a response. “For a moment her eyes went wide with fear and doubt,” he writes, before turning the narration on himself: “What a dick!”

The harm that he’s inflicted can’t be more than subtle disappointment. (I fail tests like these several times a week.) But Chabon’s fretting is unhinged. “She had a crack in her now, fine as a hair but like all cracks irreversible,” he writes.

I was shocked by my own thoughtlessness, and ashamed of it, but the thing I felt most of all was horror. Horror is the only fit response when you are confronted by the full extent of your power to break another human being.

It’s unhinged, but relatable—parenthood unhinges people. I’m sure that every mom and dad has known the fear of messing up their kid. That tension isn’t gendered. But a father’s fear of power—his sense that he might cause some catastrophic damage—may have its own distinctive vibration, one that tweaks the limbic nerve. (Perhaps he worries that, however hard he tries, he’ll never match a mother’s skill at patching wounds.) “I felt this possibility inside me. I was capable of doing it,” Gessen writes of hitting Raffi, really hitting him. This fantasy of transformation, from dad bod to the Hulk, elevates the stakes.

Discipline used to be the dad’s domain—his solid ground, the site of male authority at home. Now it’s just the opposite: a quicksand of confusing implications, where the angry dad exerts control but also loses it. Gessen’s book maps out this terrain. In a scene outside a restaurant, where Raffi has spilled his water and thrown his hot dog on the floor, Gessen ends up shaking his son upside down, to make the boy stop hitting him. Raffi cries and whines and then dissolves into fearful, desperate peals of laughter. “I was angry—and he was scared,” Gessen writes. Surely the converse was also true.

Memoirs of fatherhood are rarely so honest or so blunt. Chabon gestures at the same horrible potential—father as destroyer—but sublimates it in theatrics. Other dad books hide behind an image of bumbling befuddlement, as if a modern father couldn’t break his kids if he wanted to. Even Fatherly, today’s proponent of “Father, know thyself,” turned out to be an accidental billboard for toxic masculinity. When the site debuted with counsel from the former Navy SEAL, that dad was Eric Greitens. Greitens, who went on to serve as governor of Missouri, has been accused by his former hairdresser of sexual assault, and by his ex-wife of physical abuse. In a sworn affidavit, the latter told a judge that he’d hit their 3-year-old son and yanked the boy around by the hair. (Greitens has denied all of these allegations, and was not formally charged with assault; the article about him is no longer on Fatherly.)

I don’t mean to say that every dad has darkness in his soul, but rather that the darkness now hangs above us all, shading a father’s quest for self-discovery with dread. My daughter was born into an atmosphere of male aggression. I bottle-fed her through Election Night in 2016. The Harvey Weinstein story broke around the time she turned 1. At her second-birthday party, the kids ate cupcakes while the parents whispered about Christine Blasey Ford’s congressional testimony. By the time she turned 3, Bill Cosby—“America’s Dad,” and the author of an early book on what it means to be a modern father—was appealing his conviction on three counts of aggravated indecent assault. (His conviction was overturned last year.)

“If you know yourself, you know fatherhood,” Fatherly’s advice book says. But for me, and perhaps for Gessen and the other fathers of our micro-generation, this promise comes off as a threat. We were told, not so long ago, that dads had reached the cusp of something new—that they could start “embracing what they’ve become,” as Fatherly suggested in 2015, without “giving up on who they are.” It feels as though evidence against this claim has been mounting ever since. What if I don’t want to know the ways my identity will be inflicted on my children?

Near the end of Raising Raffi, Gessen offers up a route around this snare of anger and self-doubt. A father’s journey with his child, he observes, involves “pass[ing] through a terrible struggle” for independence and connection, which ends only when he’s no longer needed. This is the “tragedy of parenthood,” he says: To know yourself as a father is to understand the limits of your role. “You succeed when you make yourself irrelevant, when you erase yourself. Parents who fail to do that have failed.”

So embrace what you’ve become. But then you have to learn to let it go.

This article appears in the July/August 2022 print edition with the headline “Why Is Dad So Mad?”