It was about eight years ago, and there I was peering through the hospital nursery window at my 2-hour-old son -- a goofy two-hour-old smile slipping from my face and one thought swirling through my head. What am I supposed to do now?
See, no one seemed to know. Any rules that were meant to guide new dads through this period when our self-image is shaken about like a rattle, were themselves shifting -- without sturdy replacements. The popular advice seemed to be that we should make every effort to be a lot more like a mom. I'm not so sure that's enough guidance now.
The days of coming home for a '60s sitcom dinner, tossing the ball around a bit, offering a little advice and heading for the slippers, pipe and den are clearly over. But the days of Mr. Moms happily girded by Snuglis and Volvo station wagons also seem to be less acceptable, vaguely connected to that much-ridiculed, drum-beating maleness stuff. So what's a father to do?
Should we retreat as moms seek more family time, or stay the course and maintain our relationship with people like Flit, the Pokemon gang and Arthur. (I once found myself loudly humming the Arthur theme song as I waited in line and perused a grocery store tabloid rack. When it seemed to me that surrounding moms were smirking, I didn't know whether I should be embarrassed or proud). Should we master the pony tail and the distribution of pills, fruit roll-ups and consolation . . . or stick to fatherly advice about baseball and shaving? Maybe we just need to grab any territory we can before it all disappears into a video screen.
What about role models? One survey found more than half of young dads had none, and among those who did, the top choices were Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis. Our own dads, unfamiliar with all the fuss, aren't likely to give up any trade secrets. When I asked mine, a great one, about the key to fatherhood, he skirted the issue and thanked his kids. I don't recall being all that helpful.
It might at first appear there is plenty of guidance. The National Men's Resource Center lists some 80 books about fatherhood, with titles like: "Daddy Cool. How to Ride a Seesaw With Dignity, Wear a Donald Duck Hat With Style and Sing `Bingo Was His Name-oh' " and "Earth Father, Sky Father." One suggests Dads master "the craft of motherhood." One is called "The One Minute Father."
There are also scads of father-based groups out there with varying degrees of militancy -- several largely concerned about getting their fair share in divorce settlements. There's the Fathers' Rights Association, the New Warrior Trainers, the National Association of Fathers and the National Association of Dads and Kids. My father wasn't a member of anything that had an acronym related to gender, except maybe the YMCA.
Do we listen to James Levine, head of the Fatherhood Project, who has recommended our involvement in "nurturing" (that's a term I wouldn't mind hearing less often) our children as we reestablish "what it means to be a man," or, conversely, Wade Horn, director of the National Fatherhood Initiative, who has said we need to stick to our guns and emphasize our "unique contributions," avoiding "androgyny as a goal," or Bruce Linton, founder of the Father's Forum, who suggests men develop a "tolerance for uncertainty?"
So far, I'm with Linton, or anyone who recognizes the uncertainty swirling about. In fact, I'm partial to Dr. Seuss, who seemed to understand a lot about children, including that their pop might do best to simply let his kids hop on him a bit.
There is something to be said for that. It may be best for everyone if we back off a bit and wait for the dust to settle. There are at least two dads I saw in action recently whose kids would benefit from such a strategy.
One Saturday morning I was jolted by the old-fashioned machismo of a father chewing out his son on a basketball team I was coaching -- his first-grade son -- who was trying mightily but eventually clutched his stomach and asked me if he could sit out for a while. I felt like joining him.
That evening at a restaurant in the booth behind us and at the other end of the spectrum a father renewed the ache.
He sounded like Robin Williams after four large coffees. He was sensitive one minute, firm the next, irate the next. Motherly. Grandfatherly. Brotherly. Smothering. But he never backed up a threat or seemed to listen or talk sincerely. He was no Mrs. Doubtfire, and in no time there were spills and noise and three kids clearly out of control.
"Listen you three," he said firmly with a dramatic pause. "You better behave or I'll tell your mother."