It’s Father’s Day, which – since I’ve been thinking a lot lately about parenting roles – seems like the perfect occasion to write down a few thoughts. As I hope is obvious, I don’t believe that children need “a mother and a father.” What I do believe is that children have innumerable needs, and that those needs can be met in almost as many ways. We’re used to categorizing parenting roles across gender lines, but very few of the families I know – even two-parent, heterosexual families – actually work this way. In an ideal world, maybe we would have a day just to celebrate people who devote themselves to the safekeeping of children.

In those terms, here are the two people who most parented me:

And here are the two people who most parented J:

These four people did plenty of things that were in line with gender expectations. But they also did plenty of things that weren’t. When I think of them, I think of them as parents, as individuals. My relationship to them is less a product of cultural expectations for mothers and fathers, and more a product of who these people are, and who I am.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about fatherhood since J got pregnant. If I had to guess, I would say that once Rabbit River gets here, I’ll likely behave in more traditionally “maternal” ways than my wife. For now, though, my role is much more traditionally “paternal.” I am the secondary caregiver. J grows our baby; I take care of her so that she can best focus on doing so. When she gives birth, I’ll be there to help her get through it, but it won’t be me pushing our child into the world. When we adopt, we’ll both fill similar roles with regards to our new baby – or at least those roles will be more fluid – but this time, right now, I am J’s support, and she is our baby’s bio-mom.

This reality (and, to be honest, the difficulty of this shift for me) has led me to reach out to a few of the (exceptional) fathers I know. I wonder about their experience of this process: Did they ever feel left out? Did people treat them like child-bearing was somehow less visceral for them? How did they put their own needs (fears. insecurities.) down to care for their pregnant wives? How did they feel in the moment their child entered the world? What does it mean to “father” a child? (It’s not about DNA: lots of heterosexual families have to turn to sperm donors to help make their children.) What does this feel like to someone who grew up knowing that this would be their role? What could it feel like to me, if I gave myself over to it fully?

The only child I’ll ever “mother” into existence didn’t get to live. Giving birth to her was a crushing, and not a joyful, experience. That’s what I know of that tiny piece of motherhood. My other children will all be brought into being by other women: my wife, strangers. This is an odd reality. It requires its share of surrendering.

I know single mothers who fill both parental roles astonishingly well. I know children for whom those roles are filled by about a dozen people, children who are parented by communities of love. I’m settling into this role, learning to appreciate this new subject position. So today I wish a happy Father’s Day to everyone out there who fills a not.so.simply.defined role in a child’s life. It’s a joy to be among you.

(This last photo is one of me in my dad’s arms. Happy Father’s Day, daddy.)


2 thoughts on “fatherhood

  1. Finding my way through some of your older posts, this one struck me. Like you, I thought far more about fatherhood than I ever had before when my wife was carrying our daughter. I felt a strong connection to both my parents, but especially my dad, when we were expecting, and we had many very touching conversations. This is another of the surprise gifts that came from this path to motherhood — connecting more with dads, understanding a bit more about their experiences, understanding my father a bit better (And yes, some of them do report feeling left out, a few of the dads that push to have a central role in their families have turned into be some of our closest friends and best parenting peers).

    • Thank you for this comment, Lyn; I love this shared experience. There are so many connections here: I would guess that they will more than make up for the connections I grew up thinking I would have.

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