Fatherhood

Me, holding my daughter in her first week on earth

Here I am, a geriatric millennial, and I’m about to write about daddy issues like I’m some kind Gen-x-er. But it’s Father’s Day, I have time on my hands, and the weather isn’t cooperating with my plans for a photo walk.

My biological father was mostly terrible. He ditched my mom for college money, physically abused my older brother when he was younger, and pretty much wasted every post-divorce weekend he had us by watching sports on TV while my brothers and I played with toys on the floor.

At some point in my late teens he seemed to make a noticeable effort to improve. Never to apologize, mind you, but all three of us boys recognized he was doing something different and we actually started to enjoy seeing him. Then he died when I was 26.

My stepdad, on the other hand, did a pretty good job of helping my mom raise a houseful of boys (including my half brother he had with her when I was 6). He treated us like his own kids, took care of us, and I still feel mostly positive about my childhood with him around. His style of discipline was regressive, but on balance we felt loved.

Then my mom left him when I was in grad school and he weaponized his resentment against her by withholding alimony as frequently and as long as he could get away with. When I confronted him, he dug in and felt like he deserved to behave this way because of her past misdeeds. We haven’t spoken since 2012.

Now I’m almost 40 with no father figure of my own and two kids who have to deal with me. I’m trying to be a very different sort of dad than either example I had, and I’m not great at it. We don’t do physical discipline in our house, but I still struggle with anger all the time. The number of episodes that have ended with shouting, then shame, then apologies are too many to count.

I’m also ideologically different than my dad and stepdad; they were both super socially conservative. I’m trying to help raise a daughter to be strong and independent, nurturing her nerdy and athletic sides. I’m trying to help raise a son that can resist toxic masculinity as much as possible (and struggling not to model it myself) while keeping his sweet nature intact. And I’m trying to help—that is, show these kids that it’s not just Mommy’s job to run the house and take care of them.

I spent a lot of my 30s minimizing the problems of my childhood because I know enough folks with worse and more numerous stories. But the reality is there are some real trouble spots from my youth, and a great many of them have to do with the father figures that were in my life.

Father’s Day, for me, has mostly become a day to be grateful for my own fatherhood. I don’t spend much time thinking about my own fatherly examples anymore. But I do earnestly love being a dad myself, and I’ll keep working on it. My kids don’t owe me anything, but I hope when they’re my age Father’s Day is less fraught. I hope they think of my parenting as a net positive, even if they don’t laugh at my jokes anymore.