In my youth, Father’s Day used to mean performing a bit more obligatory yardwork (mow and edge), maybe a round of golf, an afternoon watching our local Double A Major League Baseball affiliate or a day full of crooning Frank Sinatra and a delicious home-cooked Italian meal.
The third Sunday in June always snuck up on me. If my mother didn’t remind me, my brother would save me, asking, “What’d you get for Dad this year?” Panic. Then anger for not reminding me earlier and going in on something with me. Fear. Sweat. Then scrambling to find a thoughtful gift that didn’t look like I grabbed it at the last minute. No matter what I wrangled together, my father always made me feel my offering was perfect. I imagine he would have been just as pleased with a whole-hearted hug and a pledge to more faithfully perform my household duties. In short, Father’s Day was usually a bit of work but a lot of fun.
As a father now myself, I have Father’s Day scoped out months in advance. I get jazzed to see it posted on our household four-month calendar because that day is my day. Father’s Day presents the most exemplary excuse to engage in my favorite activity, something I don’t get to do nearly enough: hanging out with my children. All day long! It doesn’t matter what, as long as it’s with my kids, I’m in. This year, I’ll be sharing a tent with my wife and children in a national park, hiking trails, climbing rocks and enjoying the simple parts of life. I can’t finish this sentence fast enough, I’m so excited! Becoming a father is, obviously, a life- altering event.
Never had I experienced the sense and depth of responsibility for another as I felt holding my first child the first time — the jubilant-anxious-cautious-peaceful emotion rests securely in my heart. Never had I planned my time so rigorously and definitively in that Sisyphean attempt to add just one more hour to the day. Never had I projected my life plans 20 to 30 years into the future as if I was suddenly endowed with the gift of prophesy. Never had I heard of the words WubbaNub, Bumbo, Boppy or Snappi until suddenly they were everywhere.
Not once in my life had I changed a diaper or bathed a person other than myself. Fatherhood opened a perceptual door that previously was unavailable to me. I am grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to take extended time off from work after the birth of my first child. Exercising my rights through the Family Medical Leave Act, I took eight weeks of leave to help my wife recover and care for our newborn. These halcyon days provided me the time and opportunity to master my infant skills and, most importantly, form a strong bond with my child.
Through all the chaos of sleeplessness, confusion, visitors and blowouts, the peace during the calm hours was profound and inspiring. I look back on those two months as the most beautiful, the most precious time in my life: my experience of pure being. Parenthood imparts power, and one can ascertain much about another’s character based on how he/she uses the power given to him/her. In my household, as one-half of a parenting partnership, I have the power to set rules and expectations for my children: when to go to bed; how to address adults; what to eat after dinner; where to put dirty clothes.
I have the power to model healthy husband/partner relationships and conflict resolution. I have the power to cultivate a genuine love for our shared home; nourish the creative spirit to solve real-world problems; teach tolerance and global citizenry. All the same, this power can be mindlessly squandered. I could instead impart on my children that belittlement is an appropriate means to express disagreement, violence is an acceptable problem-solving strategy, and oblivion is a desirable state of being. What terrifyingly sublime effects of the choices we make every day.
My eldest child melted my heart recently when she said to me early one morning on her way to school, “I really like the band Vampire Weekend. I think they are my favorite.” It wasn’t just the cuteness of hearing a 6-year-old talk about things in which she’s interested. My heart melted because I, too, really like the band Vampire Weekend. As my children grow older, we increasingly find and dig deeper into more common areas of interests and experience. Belting out words to music that moves me with my child is euphoric. As parents, this newfound perspective allows us to enjoy music, books, film and art in radically new ways: as the adults we are, the children we were and the progeny we observe.
It can be easy to take for granted how important we are to our children, usually because they spend much of their time stretching rules and asking for things — I sometimes question whether my children even like me at all. Then I’ll give one of them unexpected praise for a new dance move she didn’t realize I saw, and the look of ontological joy reminds me that it is not my children’s job to assuage the insecurities of their parent. If I want to help my children avoid unproductive self-consciousness, fear and anxiety, I must try my best to demonstrate confidence, courage and hope.
In this way, Father’s Day has become my yearly assessment. I fill the day with those who make me a father, two children and wife, and reflect on what we’ve done, who we’ve become and where we are headed.
Joe La Bella is a teacher at Loyola Blakefield in Towson and a contributor to Baltimore’s Child.