“He couldn’t really remember life before the children. He couldn’t feel it as something he once lived. It was too far away and buried. Something as simple as walking down the street he was always a father or looking at a woman, he was a father.” — Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle
If fathers are a complexity, fatherhood is even more so. The opening line of Doyle’s short story, Bullfighting, captures the essence of the new father, no longer removed or distant, contemporary fathers are as much a part of their children’s lives as their mothers.
This represents a profound generational shift that has redefined fatherhood as well as the evolution of being that occurs as children get older and go out into the world on their own. The old story was of the father leaving his family. The new story is of the family leaving the father.
I was in Subway standing behind one of the mothers on my daughters’ soccer team. We each have two daughters just about the same age. The conversation turned to how rapidly they are growing up and how soon we will be facing the prospect of them leaving home. She became misty eyed, and I felt more than a tinge of mourning.
The fathers I know and hang out with — soccer and ballet dads — lead lives that put the needs of their children far above their own. We and our friends don’t have dinner parties that are exclusive to adults. We have barbecues for whole families. Where we go, our kids go. In an effort to keep them safe, children are kept close at hand. Our friends do not travel without their children and have no need to “get away” unless getting away includes the whole family.
As a group we make every effort to have our children remain kids as long as possible. We know the world will catch up to them, but until it does we want them to enjoy being young and, in so far as it is possible, relish the innocence of youth.
When expectant fathers ask me about fatherhood, I have to explain that it is as if the world suddenly turns inside out. I tell them, “Where before you and your spouse were standing in the center of your world, the child now occupies the center and will continue to do so for the rest of your life.”
Fatherhood is no longer something a man does, it is who he is.
Deeper into Doyle’s story his character reflects, “… he knew. One day he would hold out his hand for Peter’s and it would stay empty and when that happened he’d die. ... That was how he felt, after twenty years, independence, time to himself, he didn’t want it. ‘You’ll have your own life’, someone had told him. ‘I have my own life’, he’d said back and I (expletive) like it.”
The evolution of fatherhood has enriched the lives of men. It does bring with it a level of apprehension about the looming prospect of the empty nest, but in the end, it really is reason to celebrate. I know every father I know would agree; being a father is the single most important thing a man will ever be or do.