What is it like becoming a dad? A question I used to get asked all the time when the Halfling was born. I didn’t really know how to answer it then, and to some degree even now I still don’t. I think maybe a reason for that is that my role as a father in the short time I have been one, has been constantly evolving alongside the needs of my developing family at any given stage.
While I can’t say with any certainty what it means to be a father, I can tell you what I didn’t expect it would bring – my own daddy issues.
When my daughter was born, feelings about my father which I thought I had long ago resolved and put to rest suddenly and inexplicably resurfaced. There were moments where I felt an intense anger towards him, and other moments where I got angry with myself for being upset in the first place. I spent a large chunk of my childhood without a present and active father in my life. I’m sure there are many reasons for why that was the case. Among them, and not insignificantly, were the thousands of miles which separated us.
Children are emotionally hardwired to seek out and respond to parental approval. “Am I enough?” The three-word question that establishes the basis for all attachment and the framework through which their confidence in the relationships and world around them is explored. It was also a question I wrestled with a lot during my early adolescence and whether fairly or unfairly, through the lens of our estrangement, I sensed I was not.
I cannot speak to his intentions. Maybe circumstances I don’t understand or cannot appreciate were too insurmountable for him to bridge the gap to a 10-year old me. What I can say though is that I didn’t feel like he fought hard enough for me when he should have. Now here I was looking at my own child, I couldn’t understand how any father wouldn’t. He left our home, but it also felt like he left me.
These were thoughts and feelings I hadn’t given much attention to for 15 – 20 years. It was both confusing and saddening. Here I was, a grown man and now a father myself, suddenly consumed by feelings of rejection and insecurities that hadn’t featured in my adult life until now. My mind suddenly went back to that one time I asked a friend to recommend a good driving school and he responded that he didn’t know of any. When I asked how it possible that he learned to drive and got a license without taking lessons, he told me his dad had taught him. It dawned on me that fathers do these kinds of things with their children.
Up until now, I hadn’t really spent much time dwelling on the father-son experiences I may have missed out on let alone having the opportunity to become embittered by them. But now I looked back and wondered, would he have helped me choose which college to enrol at, or figure out which subjects to study? Would he have taught me how to talk to girls, bought me my first razor, or helped me choose an effective brand of deodorant to use? Would we have developed a shared love for the same sports teams, or had similar hobbies? Would I have had in him an example of fatherhood to emulate rather than the consolation of perceived and conceptual ideals I was left piece together on my own?
My manager at work sometimes talks about his weekends with his sons, scouting for universities or attending regattas together. Another colleague of mine, a regular at our weekly Thursday night football sessions, brings his dad along to play. They happen to be one of two father-son combos there. There’s an entire world of paternal experiences which, prior to the birth of my daughter, were unbeknownst and unfathomable to me. Experiences I am now acutely aware exist as I try to navigate my own path through fatherhood unguided.
Maybe ‘unguided’ isn’t completely accurate. I have friends who are fathers, and friends who, for better or worse, have had present fathers in their own lives. I have received counsel from older men with children who are now grown up themselves, and I am also a part of several amazing dad groups online where dads can seek and offer support to other dads about the challenges of fatherhood. I’m not bereft of inspiration or lacking in resources, but I can’t help but wonder if there is a difference between drawing on second and third-hand sources, or having lived it through my formative years.
I sometimes listen to a podcast by Dope Black Dads, a group of dads who explore the highs and lows of fatherhood and seek to change the narrative of black dads. My experiences are by no means unique, but I am encouraged that there are so many dads out there who recognise the emotional baggage they carry and are committed to breaking the cycle.
Fatherhood is full of mistakes and I’m sure I’ll make plenty of them, I’ll mess up and disappoint the people around me from time to time. Maybe I will never be able to give a complete answer to what it is it like being a dad, but for now however, I think this one comes pretty close: being a dad is my daughter knowing that she is enough, because she is my all.
She’s too young to understand that now but one day she will, and when she does, I’ll never let her forget it.