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The boy is father to the man
What I learned about fatherhood as a child
Today’s essay is part of a series that includes me,, , , , and . All of the pieces in the series are linked from this introductory post.
You’ve heard me mention from time to time that I’m at work on a fatherhood memoir. There are personal reasons why this project has stalled that I may be able to share sometime down the road. But at present the manuscript consists of previously published essays like my meditation on maple sugaring as a family tradition, a longform piece on fathers and sons in The Missouri Review (which I plan to share with paying members eventually), and my more recent riff on simplicity.
Some months ago I also began writing fragments that I thought I might cobble into a preface. Today I’m sharing early drafts of three of those sketches. I pick up where Latham Turner left off yesterday in tracing my own fathering back to how I was raised.
The boy is father to the man
The story of how I became a father would typically begin at the moment of my eldest daughter’s birth, when the hypothetical became real and my responsibility for another life began. I’d waited for nearly nine months with a swirl of anticipation and detachment, my hand on my wife’s belly feeling for a kick or a rolling elbow, yet never quite sure what had happened even when I felt the baby move. I was terrified that when she came I’d feel the aversion I always had around infants, perhaps because their helplessness required a tenderness that I was reluctant to show. In that way, I might have recoiled from babies less because of what they were than because of what they required me to feel, the vulnerability I knew I’d have to accept if I held a tiny body against my own.
But when my daughter came into the world, eyes squeezed shut and her lower lip pushed out in a pout, there was no holding back the flood of love that surged through me. I was conscious only of this little girl who was mine, who was ours. And I knew, in the way that the body knows, that I could never think of myself in the same way again. I was the person I’d been all my life, and yet now I was also a father. Daddy. A name I never thought I would answer to. A name I now cannot imagine myself without.
But the more I’ve tried to find the beginning of my fatherhood story, the more I keep chasing it around shadowy corners in childhood and even farther back along my family tree. As William Wordsworth famously said, “The Child is father of the Man.” For answers to why I never wanted to be a father at all, or why fathering well has often felt so difficult, or why my children have become the unexpected delight of my life, I must look to the boy.
My mother claims that my father called me a little man when I was still small enough to support that fantasy. But the more I grew, the less I fit the bill. In most of my early memories, my father is angry or frustrated, disappointed with me in some way. I do not claim that this is always how it was, only how it felt to me, the emotional truth that hardened around our relationship in its infancy.
In one of those scenes I am standing at the edge of a dock and my father is treading water beneath me, calling for me to jump. Photographs tell me that I was wearing an orange life jacket and nothing else. I have no memory of the lake or of where my mother was, only that it had been decided that I must jump and that I was trying to forestall the unavoidable as long as possible. I can still see the warped lip of the wood and the water just beyond, where my father’s arms and legs churned as he worked to stay afloat. He squinted at me without his glasses, blowing water from his beard as he shouted again, Come on! Then I leaped and he caught me and the splash filled my nose with lake water, just as I’d known it would, and we paddled back to shore.
It’s possible to read too much into a memory like this, for it to accumulate meaning that is demonstrably false. My parents worked as caretakers of that lake property when I was one year old, and my sister was born in our own home shortly after I’d turned two. Some scientists say it’s not possible for adults to retain memories from before the age of two, and if that is so, then I am confusing a memory from a different time or place with this one. But others say that infants and toddlers can remember moments when they feel unsafe much later in life. It’s possible that the memory has stuck with me because I felt strongly that I did not want to jump, that my father was forcing me to do it anyway, and that obeying him — as was my default — and pleasing him — as I never seemed to be able to do — required overriding my natural instincts. If this is true, then the reasons why I remember the scene so well are the very reasons why it seems so significant to me now as an origin point for my own fatherhood.
Throop Lake, as the place is still known, sits along the road between Troy and Libby in northwestern Montana. Before the highway was redone, you could look out your car window and see the dock stretching out into the black water. It is a pretty lake, nearly covered in lily pads. My parents often pointed it out, recalling how we’d once lived there. My mother said a large goose used to terrorize me if I lurched too near the water. And I was rumored to have wandered out onto the roof of a carport that was built into the side of a hill there, level with the ground on one side with a long drop on the other. My mother would have been just twenty-one years old when we lived there, and I imagine that she was filled with the worry that I often feel for my own children, imagining all manner of accidents and injuries. So it is also possible that her memories merged with mine, and Throop Lake has always loomed larger in my mind’s eye as a place of menace than it ever truly was.
Part of becoming a father is interrogating memories like this, wondering whether the boy was unfair to his father, and whether the man ought to forgive, as he hopes his own children will think mercifully toward him. It would be possible to remember the scene at the dock as little more than horsing around, the kind of playful goad that most fathers give their sons now and then. Yet what chilled me as a small child was the absence of reassurance. My father was there in the water below. He would catch me when I jumped. I was wearing a life vest. Yet the feeling of unease and the knowledge that holding back angered my father made me more reluctant to leap into his arms.
I feared the water less than that cold embrace.
In another memory, I am sitting in my father’s lap at the head of the table. It is late afternoon, because he has just come home from work, and sunlight floods the windows, which look south and west over the Kootenai River Valley. I’m a little older, maybe five, because I’ve learned to read by now. I’m reading a letter aloud that my mother wrote to my father that morning, slipping it into his lunchbox so that he’d pay attention instead of trying to talk over her.
Like the scene at the dock, this one is a strange mash-up of intimacy and discomfort, because the letter is all about me. There are a lot of words about the potential impact of my father’s impatience on me as a child, but one phrase burns itself into my memory: his best is never good enough. My father looks over my shoulder as I read, and then a tear splashes onto the page. I turn to look at him, but his face betrays nothing except for a brightness around the eyes. When I turn back to read, another tear falls, blotting the page.
In the following paragraphs, I reflect on how inherited trauma might explain my father’s reaction in this scene. Please upgrade your subscription to read on.