Death generates an amazing amount of paperwork.When my father died—unexpectedly, aged sixty- four, nowhere near ready—I was dropping off my son at school. After the initial downpour of oblivious grief, bureaucracy had immediate demands. The family needed to approve an autopsy, since he had died on the street, without witnesses, right there in the open. His body had to be moved. Where? Under whose authority? Somebody needed to sign for his recovered belongings. And, of course, there was the obituary, which cost about $800 per paper—that’s how they get ya — enough to give me pause even when directly confronted by the clearest evidence I would ever receive that you can’t take the money with you. It’s almost as if the world decides to support mourners by the arrival of a tidal wave of busywork. Then in the afternoon I had to pick up my son from kindergarten and tell him that his grandfather no longer was.
I dreaded it. How was I supposed to explain what made no sense to me? My father and my son had been close. The night be-fore, they had been out for ice cream. As I arrived at the school, I ran into my wife’s cousin, a good guy whose own father had recently died. He had the misfortune to ask a guy whose father had just died “How you doing?” I told him. Instantly he stuck out his hand and shook mine.It was weird. We laughed at its weirdness at the time. He later told me he was embarrassed by the gesture. But I came to realize it made perfect sense. He was congratulating me. That day, on that walk, I had become a man.
As the patriarchy is slowly dying, as masculinity continues to undergo a constant process of redefinition, fatherhood has never mattered more. Having children has always been a major life marker, of course, but the demise of other markers of masculine identity has given fatherhood outsize importance. The old religious rituals gave way long ago. The post-dynamic-capi talism of the moment has taken away the replacement methods of proving yourself. Making a living is principally a sign of good luck. Owning property is a sign of your parents’ status more than it is your own. Combat itself is now gender-neutral. Only fatherhood is indisputably masculine, which is why when you ask men when they became men, they usually answer when they became a father or lost a father.Men want kids more than ever before. Since 1965, according to new research from the Pew Research Center, the amount of time fathers spend with their children has nearly tripled. In 2011, the largest study of singles ever undertaken showed that currently, young unmarried men want children slightly more than young unmarried women do. Another study showed that men not only want children more than women do but that they also become more depressed and jealous when they don’t have them.
At the same moment fatherhood is gaining this overwhelming significance in the lives of men, it remains widely mocked in pop culture. Fathers on TV come in two principal varieties: Mr. Mom and fat pig. The most popular shows of the past thirty years have all been about family and have all had a failed dad at the center. The ur-fat-pig is Homer Simpson, a man who worships a waffle stuck to the ceiling, but the purer expression is probably Family Guy’s Peter Griffin, the farting, mentally handicapped narcissist whose subsidiaries amount to $1 billion in revenue. The Mr. Mom type was defined by the defeated, awkward, confounded Raymond on the ironically titled Everybody Loves-Raymond. The loser dad was central to $h*! My Dad Says and remains a staple figure today on shows like Guys with Kids. And a new brand of bumbling dad on television is embodied by Phil Dunphy from Modern Family. I think of him as the Labrador-retriever type — big, dumb, and cheerful. At least Modern Family has registered the change.The clearest evidence that the old bumbling father is doomed comes from advertising. Last year, a Huggies spot that put its diapers “to the ultimate test—dads” was pulled when it provoked outrage. Advertisers care because cash is at stake. They have realized that the market for men who consciously think of themselves as fathers and are passionate about that role is considerable. Nonetheless, the engaged father remains an alternative form, a remarkable phenomenon worthy of op-eds. The cool dad retains all the cultural apparatus that status implies, with self-consuming, inherently narcissistic, demanding poses that co-opt and then mock. That double process certainly greeted Neal Pollack’s Alternadad when it came out in 2007. And now Kindling Quarterly, a journal for design-conscious fathers, has launched, and I know I am supposed to make fun. I mean, the first issue has a recipe for pumpkin gnocchi and a (rather brilliant) reconsideration of Mr. Mom. It would be so easy. But I won’t. Fatherhood is the one truly binding connection among men, and it’s too important now. I feel bound to other fathers in a way that I really don’t experience in any other capacity. If you’ve ever wondered why new parents are so unbearable to be around, especially for people who don’t have kids, it’s because they are overwhelmed by the strength of their personal transformation. Like teenagers who’ve lost their virginity, new parents have been inducted into a secret, and that secret is all that matters to them! The secret seems, at least for a while, to be the whole of the world.
Fatherhood is also classically aspirational. It’s a marker of class, pure and simple. Fatherlessness is a real crisis even as fatherhood gains this wild significance. In 2008,41 percent of births involved unmarried women compared with 28 percent in 1990. Fatherlessness as a condition has been linked with virtually every social ill you can name (the big exception being lesbian families): Young men who grow up without fathers are twice as likely to end up in jail, 63 percent of youths who commit suicide are from fatherless homes, and 71 percent of high school dropouts come from fatherless homes. What these connections mean— particularly whether fatherlessness is a symptom of poverty or a cause—is the subject of complex debate. Neither political party is willing to deal with the consequences of the connections, though. The Left looks the other way, fearing the stigmatization of single mothers and wallowing in the vestigial critique of family structure as a whole. The Right loves to talk about “family values” but lives in a fantasy about what those values are. It is astonishing how much the conservatives of the moment talk about the family and how little they understand about how contemporary families actually work. I suppose they must retain their indulgent vision of 1950s men and women. Otherwise, they might have to ask themselves what the cost of arresting every black man who ever took a puff of marijuana and separating them from their children might mean for those communities. They might have to think about maternity and paternity leave.If conservatives ever did stop to look at contemporary families and contemporary fatherhood in particular, they might discover a source of great strength. The appeal of fatherhood, its newfound position as a requirement of the good life, is that it is a real duty.
It binds you to other people. It binds you, for real, to a woman. It is the only thing that still can. Sex is basically an exchange of pleasantries now. Marriage is instantly reversible, a negotiable contract. But fatherhood is real.Obama understands the craving for the bond intimately. The most startling detail from Jodi Kantor’s marriage biography, The Obamas, is that the president eats dinner with his family almost every night. No doubt he enjoys the time with his girls. But he must understand how much that gesture represents the ideal of a new masculinity — he’s a father as much as he is a president. He embodies the transferred status of fatherhood nearly perfectly: Once the president was the Father of the Nation. Now the president must just be a father.
On the day of my father’s death, as I walked to pick up my son, I had no idea what I was supposed to do, and I also knew that whatever I would do would matter enormously to my son. Naturally, I tried to imagine what my own father would do. His importance in my life had never been more vivid. We rarely agreed about politics or anything like that, but we were both smart enough to recognize that we weren’t supposed to. He grew up in poverty, managed to educate himself through the military, was very interested in poetry, became a venture capitalist and then a professor, and walked the eighty-eight-shrine Buddhist pilgrimage of Shikoku in Japan. His own father died when he was eight, yet he managed to turn himself into a man of the world. I have always been interested in political systems that enable personal growth like his and in definitions of masculinity that empower people to break out into the world, as he did, rather than curl away from it. But on the way to the school, such subtleties didn’t matter. The switch that had flipped was binary. My father had always been there when I needed him, right up until that moment.I brought my son back to the house and sat him down in the living room with his mother. I told him his grandfather was dead. He wanted to know if that meant he would never see him again. I said yes. Then he started to weep. The lesson was harsh for a six-year-old: People are there and then they’re not. He threw himself into my arms. I was his father. And all that meant, right then, was that I was there. I was there for my son. I would be there until I wasn’t. And that was enough.
by Stephen Marche
Esquire, June/July 2013
Esquire, June/July 2013