Until I had kids, that question never crossed my mind. I wish it had, especially when I was a kid because I think I would have been a better son. Not that the relationship with my dad was ever bad, or that I was an absolute terror, only occasionally. I wish I’d asked that question when I was young because I would have understood my dad more. As I’ve got older I’ve realised the importance of understanding things, because if you don’t understand something, you fall back on believing what others tell you to believe. So I want to tell you what it’s like being a dad, so you can understand us more.
Us dads don’t get told what it means to be a dad.
We are told what it means to be a man though. That’s all about strength, being in control and not showing weakness. Unfortunately, this story doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for men and it certainly doesn’t work for dads.
For men becoming dads, for many of them, it’s a turning point. No longer are you your own master. You are now in service of something else. Something that will take you to new levels of emotional extreme. You experience a love you’ve never felt before and it’s scary. But men, real men, aren’t supposed to be afraid. We’re supposed to be strong, to be in control, to not take any shit. So when we’re afraid, when things are out of control, unless we think about it, we do what we’ve been told to do. To be strong, to dish out discipline, to exert control. Even if what’s really called for is care, compassion and understanding.
A few years ago I talked to a cabby, called John about being a dad, about his son’s 21st birthday party. He told me about a moment early in the evening when he was sitting with his dad. His son came up, gave him a hug and kiss, told him he loved him then bounded off to the bar.
John turned to his dad and said “Do you remember what you said to me when I was 8?”
Without a pause, the old man said “Yes, you went to hug me and I said ‘no son, men don’t hug, we shake hands’. Biggest mistake of my life.”
John’s childhood wasn’t what he wanted it to be, because his dad was doing what he thought he should do rather than thinking for himself. Thankfully John’s trying to be different. Like John, us dads are trying, but change is hard because the idea of what it means to be a real man is so deep-rooted and the things that work for being a dad, tend to be at complete opposites for what we’re told works for being a man.
Being a dad isn’t really about being a man. It’s about being part of a family. A bunch of human beings trying to make the best lives for themselves. We’ve only got a chance of doing that if we work together, if we talk more and open up, something that should be a bigger part of what it means to be a dad, but isn’t. Can you help us?