Fathering Without A Father
Biologically speaking, fatherhood is a chain of succession. Genes get passed on as one father begets another and another, so long as boys keep emerging. But the act of fatherhood itself, the actual process of painstakingly shaping a man from a baby boy, has almost nothing to do with biology, or indeed genes.
I have a boy, Lukas, who will turn 2 in July. And fathering, I’ve quickly learned, boils down to a series of decisions, made from logic or emotion or both. Aside from the kisses and the cuddles, it’s all just routines and structures and lines to be drawn and then enforced. Once a child is born, his father is whoever makes those decisions: what to feed, when to change diapers, how to play, what to say. When to say yes. When to say no and keeping saying no.
I had several fathers and still do. I never met my own biological father. Not in person anyway. My mother and half of my biological genepool split up while she was pregnant with me. She sent him a picture after I was born but they never spoke again, never reconciled. Once, when I was in college, I googled him and sent him an email. We wrote back and forth for a while. It was all amicable.
He suggested we meet at a conference he was going to, but in secret. He had a wife and son who didn’t know about me. I told him not to trouble himself and that was that. A decade has since passed.
I had other fathers. My mother, whose attention and devotion was so complete that, to her credit, it didn’t even occur to me to wonder about my father until college. My maternal grandfather, who offered a little strictness and guidance along with good humor. Some coaches here and there. And my wonderful father-in-law, who patiently and lovingly advises, but whom I didn’t meet until I was 21. The fathering is largely done by then, so we mostly talk about sports and undertake DIY projects with comically inept outcomes. (Two college professors, as it turns out, are uniquely unsuited to taping and spackling a basement bathroom.)
There was never any father-shaped hole in my life.
But when I became a father myself I didn’t have a blueprint to work from, since none of my fathers had fulfilled the exact same role that I would. There is no precedent of case law to refer to when I make adjudications. I suspect most fathers concoct their own brew of a fathering style and approach from some combination of what their own fathers did, and didn’t, do. Whether wittingly or not, you adopt what you appreciated in your own father and you ditch whatever you didn’t. Or so I imagine.
I don’t have such a roadmap to navigate. Which is both liberating and terrifying.
Every bottle that I gave, every lunch that I make, every diaper that I change is one more than my own biological father did for me.
I suppose what I’ve taken away from his fathering method-in-absentia, or lack thereof, as it were, is to be as present as I possibly can be. I changed careers and organized my schedule so that I’m with Lukie for two whole days a week, in addition to the weekend, and much of the other days.
From there, I’ve had to work everything out from scratch. The love, the unreserved and bottomless and effortless love -- that came on its own. But did I want to be strict? Rigid? Casual? A friend? A mentor? A disciplinarian? Did I want to be hands-on or laissez-faire? I didn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about this when my wife was pregnant. I figured it would all go out the window once he was born anyway, and I’d just have to wing it.
So I have. I’m figuring out how to be a father on the fly. There are a few overarching principles. We give him as many experiences as we can. We talk to him all day long. We read and read. We play, and sometimes we let him play alone. And we try to be regimented in his sleep, eating and bathing routine. When I tell him no, I try to stick to it. Because if he’s half as stubborn as his father, well…
I find myself coming back to the same question though: how would I want to be fathered, if I were him?
In a sense – an overwrought one, perhaps, but hear me out – I’m fathering myself in addition to him.
Having never had the relationship with a father that Lukie and I have, exactly, I sort of live vicariously through him. I experience the closeness from my side, but also a little bit from his. He’s going through it with me and for me.
That’s how I’ve learned, at length, that the relationship between a father and son is magical – or can be, at least. We have a joyful relationship. Magic. It may not always be that way, but I hope it’s always that way.
Because, for now at least, that’s all I know.
About the Author
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a sports communication lecturer at Marist College and the soccer columnist at Yahoo Sports. He previously worked at FOX Sports and ESPN and his writing has appeared in the New York Times and was twice noted in the Best American Sports Writing. He lives in the Hudson Valley, New York with a wife who still hasn't figured out she's out of his league, a magical son and a mutt named Eleanor Roosevelt.