A Reluctant Father Reflects on Fatherhood

If you had told me, just a few years ago, that today I would be a father, I would have said you didn’t know what you were talking about.

Me, a father — a sort of overgrown man-baby who, when approached with grown-up responsibilities, would have preferred to close out the tab? The chances I’d ever be caught changing diapers were as likely as a global pandemic.

I mean, back then, I didn’t just not want to be a parent. Arguably, I didn’t even like children. Oh, I could admire them from afar. But the minute I was on an airplane or in a restaurant and a baby began crying, a kid started whining, anything happened that broke my little monastery of personal peace, that was my cue to hit the exit.

The whole fussiness around parenting, too, just didn't jibe with me. In all honesty, it made me crazy. I thought parents were crazy. Losing their minds over what their kids ate, how they slept (or more often, didn’t sleep), and who they played with. Daycare, nannies, school. All of it just seemed like nonsense, a giant thought experiment that was best avoided. And though I could never be a deadbeat daddy, I could definitely understand it.

Mostly, I equated having a child with a loss of freedom. When you became a parent, a certain part of you died, that part of you that saw the world as an open place in which you were at the center.

Whether you were young or old when you had that child, what was true now was that you yourself were no longer a child, because in the chain of human of evolution you had given life to another person and now it was not just you for whom you had to take responsibility, it was also them.

In this, many parents seemed trapped. I don’t know if they saw themselves this way, and it’s likely they did not, but that’s how I saw them — enslaved by their circumstances, a kind of bondage easily avoided had they been more careful or simply opted out. I mean, who willingly goes to prison? Nobody, that’s who. And yet, that was what parenting was— Prison.

But then everything changed. About a year and a half ago, I became a dad. The lead-up was filled with tremendous anxiety, but by the time my daughter was born, that internal confusion, which at one point consumed me, was replaced with tremendous joy.

Asked once to describe the first year of my child’s life — I said it was like the best day of my own life happening every single day, all day long, for an entire year. The crawling, the first sounds, the birth itself! These were incredible highs. Maybe there were lows too, but the adrenaline was pumping so hard that it did not even register.

She is now in her second year of life. Somehow, in the midst of a societal meltdown, things have stayed remarkably consistent. To see your child become more fully an actual person, develop little quirks, likes and dislikes, a kind of general disposition, it’s really just a mindblowing experience.

Which is to say that before, I think I sadly saw babies not as little people themselves. Babies were just things that other people, at a certain point in their lives, appearered to collect — like college degrees, student loan debt and random-ass jobs on a resume.

Sometimes I even thought, in this crazy modern world, that people had babies merely for Instagram. They didn’t want to parent, they just wanted the baby. Babies signified something — just as the photo of the freshly-made cappuccino signified their good morning, or the yoga pose signified that they were well.

But that’s silly. Parents know it’s much deeper than that. And now that I’m a parent myself, I recognize babies for what they actually are. They are tiny growing humans who, each day, become more fully realized. They do this rather quickly, for years and years, until one day they are old enough to do many of the things you do now.

And maybe by then they have a child of their own, or maybe they don’t, but either way you love them because it is impossible not to, because no matter who they’ve grown into, they are still you. In your child you will see all the people you’ve ever known, all the things you’ve ever done. Every experience you’ve ever had, every place you’ve been— you will see this reflected in their eyes, in their actions, in who they are.

That’s to say nothing about how they feel about you. Every day, you will wake up and, if you’re like me, your child will be very happy to see you. Their love for you will be unlike any love you’ve felt before, and you will struggle to remember anything happening for you with such ease.

In these moments you will think back on your life, how the entirety of it has felt like a struggle. Childhood, school, jobs — all of it. You have pushed a rock up a hill and no matter how far you’ve gotten, the rock has somehow gotten heavier, the hill much steeper than it ever was before.

But your child’s love isn't an uphill battle. More likely, it’s a downhill stride. It comes with ease because it is unconditional. Which is rare.

A child’s love has nothing to do with what you look like, how much money you have, where you went to school, what you do for work, who your friends are.

Your child will never check out your profile and, if they approve, swipe right on it. You are the Iron Man, Captain Marvel — heck you are the entire Avengers! — in your child’s Marvel Universe. You are their parent. You are their universe. And thus, you are their hero.

Now, I admit, thinking back on how I viewed parenthood— it was childish. I partly blame that on my own parents. My parents were divorced, a messy situation which could have probably been avoided had my brother and I not been born. I mean, it sucks to say that — divorced parents tell their kids not to say that — but it’s real.

I also blame popular culture, which has unfortunately not painted parenthood well. Historically, on TV, you rarely saw happy families; if you saw families at all, like in “Married With Children,” “The Sopranos,” even “The Simpsons,” they were in conflict.

Fathers were portrayed as dimwitted and clueless; they were emotionally distant and flailing. They’d work — sometimes at crime, sometimes at a shoe store, sometimes lazily at a nuclear power plant — but they were always frustrated. Sometimes they cheated on their wives, or at least wanted to; the wives nagged and the children were a chore. Al Bundy, Homer Simpson, Tony Soprano. They’re fat. They’re balding. They aren’t winners. They’re losers.

And when you are young, you don’t get this. You know it’s a TV show. It’s fiction, but it also looks real (well, except The Simpsons, which is a cartoon). That’s the brilliance of TV, the sleight of hand, making you believe something that is untrue. And you can’t help but acknowledge they make family life, including parenting, look bad. If this is what adulthood looks like, you think: pass.

Music, too, is like this. There’s no adulthood in music. There are no wives or daughters. Nobody writes pop songs about changing diapers or moving to a neighborhood so the kids can attend better public schools. Pop music remains eternally 12-years-old, where every artist’s love is their first love, or their last love, but all that matters is love, and all that matters is tonight, and the only moment they’re thinking about is right now.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t any songs about parents or kids or families; some of that does exist. Only, it is rare. Most popular music is still an escape. You listen to music not to be who you are — you listen to it to be, even if it’s only for a few minutes, someone else. A singer, a rapper, a rock star, these people become the superheroes in a child’s life once they’re old enough to realize who their parents actually are.

In many other industries, we see parenting, particularly fatherhood, downplayed or completely overlooked. The Great Man narrative, in which we celebrate people like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, revolves around men maniacally driven to create worldwide change. Less spoken of is how they make a change in their own homes. Or the ways their children, their wives, the domestic world in which they exist when the lights go out, might have changed them.

It’s weird thinking about it this way, but how much cooler would fatherhood appear if we talked more about how quickly Jeff Bezos got his kids in the car seat than how fast Amazon can ship us some crap we don’t need. We say Kanye put on the MAGA hat, that he fell off; we say nothing about the fact he’s a dad to four kids! To me, that’s a more interesting story than some shit about sneakers.

In writing this, I don’t mean to be a drag. I love television and music and popular culture in general. The Great Man narrative, I love it. Great men and women should be celebrated for doing great things. That stuff is great.

I am just merely saying that of all the things that society could sell you on — be it a good education, rewarding career, faith in your god, political angling, all the unbridled ambition they tell you that you need to use towards attaining something — fatherhood is the only thing you can commit to that’s actually underrated. The more time you put in, the better fatherhood gets.

Other parts of life may provide highlights; I’d argue they’ll pale in comparison to fatherhood. Fatherhood is the only job you can have in which, no matter what you do, it never quite feels like a job, because it is not.

You do it because you love it. And because you love your kid. And because your kid loves you. You feel it when they smile and when they hug you, and you hear it in their tiny breaths, the same air in their lungs and same blood in their veins as in yours.

And because of that love, it is always father’s day, even when it’s not. Because every day you’re a father, and every day that you’re a father is a good day. Rather, it’s the best day. The best day of your life. Every single day. Over, and over, and over, again.

That’s what Fatherhood is like.

get in touch: paulcantor@gmail.com

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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