I cut my first son’s surprisingly rubber-like umbilical cord in 1992. As I gazed at this tiny, beady-eyed creature, I knew, for the first time, both true unconditional love and also pure fear of all the things in the world I could not control.
That baby is now a heavily bearded 24-year-old. He has a 21-year-old brother, who is taller than me and has better reflexes. I still marvel at who they are and what they have become and still could become.
A friend had a baby last week and in the lead-up I couldn’t put into words what to expect, how it feels.
One thing I’ve loved about fatherhood is that at every stage – cooing, talking, crawling, walking, toilet trained, conversational, running, learning, teenager, man – my boys have just become more interesting and more rewarding.
I’ve never been in the camp of those who wish adorable little babies could stay that way forever. If that was the case, how could my boys and I have gone on the most fun adventure ever to the United States a few years ago? How could I scuba dive with them, play ice hockey with them, go see superhero movies with them, pick up great new music and pop culture from them, and grow with them?
Mostly, if babies stayed babies, you wouldn’t get to enjoy the people your children can become.
Of course, this is not necessarily thanks to me.
I’ve failed at many aspects of fatherhood. Sometimes in small ways, like screening World Police: Team America when my boys were far too young, and sometimes in much bigger, much more complex ways, like blowing up the nuclear family unit that had been their safe haven for the first dozen or so years of their life.
Have I caused permanent damage to my boys? I don’t know. Their mother did an amazing job of holding them together while I lost my way for a while.
She and I have managed to retain a strong, differently framed relationship, but I know my boys went through so much, including having to endure their dad’s girlfriends who didn’t stay, and then being asked to accept and even hopefully grow to love the one who did.
But even she came with this tiny ball of “But wait, there’s more!”, now almost nine years old – all energy and emotion – and demanding attention of me in ways that my boys have, at times, found difficult.
And who saw me facing all new fatherhood issues? How do you be a stepfather? The same way you be a father: by groping blindly along a dark hall full of traps, broken glass and unexpected treasure, hoping to somehow emerge with you and the children you love mostly unscathed.
So here we are, at Fathers’ Day, 2017. My big boys and I will drink whisky or beer. I’ll look at these two grown men who I would genuinely count easily among my closest friends and I’ll consider what I’ve taught them and marvel at what they teach me and what we continue to bring to each other.
I’ll look at them, these men who are honest, have big hearts, laugh readily, crack good jokes. I’ll look at these men, who are smart, streetwise and intelligent. Who have empathy – a quality so lacking in the world today.
And I’ll enjoy Fathers’ Day, shared with these men who I am so proud to have helped raise, despite the missteps, despite what I’ve occasionally put them through, despite all the other crap they’ve endured already that has nothing to do with me, that I know they’ve risen above.
Because that’s life. Woven in love and regrets and laughter and pride and joy and sorrow and shared experiences and complications and adventures and trials.
How do I explain all that to my new father friend?
I still can’t.
But that’s okay. I don’t need to.
He gets to live it, starting now.
- Nick place is a fiction author, journalist and media operative.