On Parenting

This is Fatherhood

7 dads describe the moment it got real

To mark this Father’s Day, we asked dads to describe a moment when they truly felt like a father, in 500 words or fewer. Here are some of our favorite essays.

My wife’s belly protruded as she lay on the couch occasionally asking me to come feel the kicks. Even as I felt the pings of our child’s life against her skin and my palm, I did not feel like it was mine.

At the hospital, my wife ached in pain on the bed. I looked into her eyes and told her “everything will be okay.” We deserved a family; I deserved to be a father.

Seconds after my child was born, the doctor lifted him up showing me the miracle of birth. They wrapped him up and put him in my arms like that’s where he belonged. Meanwhile, I was lost. Was I a father?

The days and nights went on: I slept next to him and my wife in the hospital bed, swaddled him, held him, and changed him. I was amazed at the life smiling up at me. However, the connection was a loose-hanging thread. I had not come to terms with who I was.

It wasn’t till nights later that I felt something growing inside of me. The baby screamed, calling me through the monitor. My wife slept in bed as I crept into my son’s room. I picked him up onto my chest and sat in the rocking chair. In the stillness of the night, I realized it was my first moment alone in days, weeks, or months to comprehend this time.

The first thoughts were of my father’s passing only months before: the phone call from my brother that he’d stopped breathing, my mother on the phone, the long flight, the disbelief of seeing his jacket still hanging on the chair in the garage. Years before, we had sat in the dining room and I told him I didn’t want to refer to him as my stepfather, he deserved something more. “I want to call you Pops.” I imagined he’d be here to meet my son, but the room was as empty as my heart.

As tears pooled on my lids, I pictured the moment when I was standing next to the hospital bed of my biological father. A smile radiated from his frail cancer-ridden body. He told me he was sorry for not being there throughout my life. I said I forgave him and didn’t hate him.

And my mind went to my other fathers: Grandpa showing me the twisting of his wrench under the car hood, my uncle leading my pencil to draw.

The moment came when my child calmed in my arms, and the ache in my chest beat on his, while I wept like a baby. It was then I knew: He was mine and I was his. I was the father I’d always hoped for.

- Anthony Ellis

Feeling like a father is supposed to be easy, and with my oldest it was. There was an instant connection the second I held him and that was that.

But Sam, my second-born, was a different story.

He never slept, he always cried, and he hated when I held him. It had been a difficult pregnancy for my wife and with so many scares (on top of previous infertility issues), I was more exhaustedly relieved than joyful when he was born. During the next few weeks of colic and crying and hardly a second of sleep, a sudden and grim realization hit me — I was more in love with the idea of a second kid than my actual second kid.

While I took my paternity leave and dutifully took up my fatherly duties, it was more of a sleepwalk than an eager call to action. I was just going through the motions, getting frustrated too easily and handing him back to my wife too quickly. I vividly remember rocking him in a glider that had caused quite a fight between my wife and me before he was born, as I didn’t feel we had the room in the nursery (or our budget) for anything else.

So naturally we bought it.

There I sat, night after night, counting the minutes and trying to get him down as quickly as possible so I could sneak out and do something else — anything else — other than be with this temperamental baby. The cherry on top of all of that frustration — that entire mountain of resentment — was dealing with a kid who wouldn’t sleep while being confined to that penalty box of a chair I didn’t even want in the first place!

But then I went back and read my own writing from the years before. Five miscarriages and an abortion due to sirenomelia trying to get to our second child. A deep reservoir of heartbreak and stress that nearly broke us as a couple, capped off with in vitro fertilization and injections and close calls during which we held our breath and expected the worst, fearing silence instead of the sound of a beating heart filling the terrifying confines of the exam room.

I realized I wasn’t being punished, I was being rewarded.

So I started holding Sam just to hold him. I sat in that chair, in the darkness, and held my youngest son to my chest while I sang to him. I relaxed with him, and eventually he responded. I reclined in the chair, and Sam turned his head and nuzzled his face into my chest while his tiny fingers found my thumb and gripped it tight. His little body rising and falling with my breathing helped put everything into focus. And the two of us drifted off to sleep.

That was the first time, months after his birth, I felt like Sam’s father. In a chair I never wanted, holding the child I desperately did.

— Aaron Gouveia

Jessica shimmied and shook her groove thing in the ultrasound room, and I smiled, trying to stifle a giddy and joyful laugh as I watched my wife dance. The ultrasound tech had asked her to move around so she could get a better look at our 12-week-old baby.

Our first pregnancy, eight months prior, had ended with an early miscarriage, before we’d even witnessed a heartbeat.

But all was good so far. This was the real deal and I’d waited a long time for this. Finally, in my early 40s, I was a father. I could picture my daughter’s thick dark hair and brown eyes, just like her Italian mama. I imagined she would be called Sophia.

A knock at the door ended the revelry, and a doctor strode in with the ultrasound tech. My wife returned to the table, the tech applied the cool gel to her still small belly, placed the wand across her stomach and our baby appeared on the screen. To my untrained eyes she looked perfect and I could make out the vigorous beating of her heart.

The doctor spoke quietly to the tech, asking for a closer look here, a closer look there. After a few minutes it was over, and he said he’d speak to us once Jessica was dressed. He left the room and moments later the tech led us to an office, where we sat down, unprepared for what came next.

I’m sorry to tell you the fetus has a fatal condition and will not survive, he said matter-of-factly. This is not a viable pregnancy, and you will want to terminate. The fetus has a condition known as acrania, meaning the skull has not formed. You can learn more by Googling acrania, but I would advise you not to look at any photos or show them to your wife, he said, as if she wasn’t sitting right there.

He left the room, and we held hands and wept.

The next few days passed in a blur. We called our mothers. God can do miracles, they both insisted. We spoke with our priest. We met with the gynecologist. We dreamed of holding our baby. We will do whatever is best for you, we whispered to her.

We saw a specialist for a second opinion. She was a sensitive and patient doctor and spent an hour with us looking over the ultrasound, confirming the initial diagnosis. The pompadour you see there, she explained, is brain tissue floating above the unformed skull. The baby, she confirmed, would not survive more than a few hours or days after birth, if it made it that far.

I supposed you never really feel like a father until you’ve had to make some gut-wrenching decision about your child. So, this was it. Fatherhood. A few days later we returned to the hospital. I squeezed my wife’s hand one last time before she was led away, and I said a quiet prayer for the daughter I’d never meet.

— Dwayne Hayes

I thought I’d feel like a dad when I left that courtroom six months after my husband and I brought our son home from the hospital. I thought I’d feel like a dad when I drove that little baby home, ever so slowly, from the hospital. I thought I’d feel like a dad when I changed that first diaper, gave the first bath. But I didn’t — and I told no one.

The truth is, I felt a nagging sense of shame after my infant son was born and after a stack of adoption papers created our new gay family. It would be nearly two years before my thoughts of doubt and shame subsided completely.

My sin? I didn’t feel a true bond with my son, and I felt awful about it. It wasn’t until he could speak and started to call me “Papa” that I felt like he was mine, and I was his, and we were us. My husband is known as “Daddy” and I am “Papa.” But until my son uttered the word “Papa” aloud, until he could tell me himself, I didn’t feel I deserved the title and all that came with it.

Logically, I knew my son was mine. I loved him more than anything. However, while everyone congratulated us and helped to welcome our bundle of joy into the world, I had those feelings of shame. I wanted to feel closer to my son. I wanted to feel an unshakable bond.

At no point did I feel unprepared or unable to be a father. We fed, bathed and cuddled our newborn son with great love. My parenting instincts took hold immediately. But I had such a difficult time bonding with Baby Eddie that even referring to him as “my son” felt strange to me.

I think it took hearing my son repeatedly call me “Papa” — as he does hundreds of times each day now — to etch the new name onto my soul, and for me to believe that the three of us are together forever.

— Casey Cavalier

I embraced fatherhood the moment my wife exclaimed, “It’s plus, it’s plus!” notifying me in the wee hours that the early pregnancy test was positive. But it was a query by a 2-year-old while standing at the mailbox that inspired me to become more intentional about fatherhood — to examine who I wanted to be in the eyes of my child.

I should have anticipated the mail request, “Daddy, where is my mail?” Whatever his daddy did, he did. Wherever his daddy went, he went. If daddy received mail, so, too should mini-me. The demand for mail was the outward expression of my son’s inward imitation of me.

Standing at the mailbox, I attempted to dissuade him from wanting mail. “Naeem,” I said, “the only thing in the mailbox is junk mail and bills; trust me, you don’t want either, especially not bills.” It was as if my lips moved, but I was mute. “Daddy, where is my mail,” he said again.

So, I set out for Target. I figured I would pick up some postcards and greeting cards, mail them to him intermittently, and that would be the end to his fascination with mail. However, as I wrote in the first card, almost immediately, my goal changed from offering my son occasional patronizing platitudes to sharing words he could live by the rest of his life.

After signing each card, my heart opened wider. I communicated all the things I hoped for Naeem’s life. The depth of my love for him, I confessed honestly. With every written word, I did what my dad would never do that I longed for him to do — love me unconditionally.

You see, I’m the product of a broken father-son relationship. Upon discovering I was going to be a father, I pledged, like many men, to be a better father than my dad. But new dads often make pledges, and good intentions that never manifest. Too often, like my son imitating my receipt of mail, well-intentioned sons become our undesirable fathers.

My son and I held hands as we walked to the mailbox that day. When we returned, I held his hand, and the makings to be the father I always wanted, more important, the father Naeem deserved. I now know writing Naeem was the prescription I needed to recover from a broken heart and the contractual language cementing my pledge to be a better man.

Twenty years later, I still write to my son, my best friend. Although the hundreds of cards, postcards, notes, and letters are his, they continue to serve us both.

Who could’ve known that five words, “Daddy, where is my mail?” would change my relationship with my son forever?

— Nathaniel A. Turner

The first time I felt like a dad, I’d never met my son. He was a doughy, two-dimensional boy in a grainy picture living half a world away. On this cold December day, though, after staring at that picture, I became a dad.

The day after accepting our referral, I did what most soon-to-be parents might do — I went shopping. Entering Baby Gap, a patch-laden denim jacket caught my eye. Plunking down the $20 to buy the jacket made me feel even more like a dad.

Although I was beginning to feel like a father, I knew very little about my son:

I knew that his name was Yosef.

I knew Yosef needed a loving family.

I knew our home pined for his presence in it.

As the cashier stuffed the Gap denim into the bag that day, I knew our little boy would be wearing that jacket as he met us, his forever family, at the airport someday soon. Our new son wouldn’t need the jacket yet — it turns out, though, I did.

Like most adoption stories, our happy, denim-jacket-adorning airport introduction was delayed. Days of waiting to meet our son bled into weeks of impatience before giving way to months of putting our lives on hold.

The waiting was excruciating.

I passed time engulfed in work, yard maintenance and tidying the nursery for our little man’s arrival. As I cleaned Yosef’s room, our family felt like a long way off. On those days, I’d refold that denim jacket, place it on the top of Yosef’s dresser, and, again, feel like a dad.

When our final travel plans materialized, that jacket was first into Yosef’s backpack. I couldn’t shake the fatherly feeling of packing diapers, bottles, socks, onesies and pacifiers as we anxiously prepared to leave for Addis Ababa to, finally, meet our son.

The next week in Ethiopia was a whirlwind. I was, officially and unmistakably, forever, Yosef’s dad. I felt, though, like an overwhelmed, unprepared stranger.

Yosef didn’t know me.

I was the first white face that would ever held him close.

I’d be uprooting him from the only life he’d ever known.

I was overjoyed — and overwhelmed. All adoptions begin with sadness and, that week, I came face-to-face with that reality. Taking care of this beautiful boy was new to me — and scary. Yosef seemed unsure, too.

I reflected about this between connecting flights, while changing diapers and through upended sleep schedules on our way back home with Yosef. Sitting at our departure gate in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport racked with nerves, half asleep and short on confidence, I readied Yosef for our final flight home.

I unfolded that Gap denim jacket, pulling Yosef’s chubby hands through. I spent time looking into his endless, dark eyes. I smiled, he smiled back.

Yosef had no idea what he was in for, but I did. I was his dad — then, now and after he’d outgrow that Gap denim that helped me get to this day.

— Tobin Walsh

I really struggled in 2009 to find the best road map to help guide me during the nearly 35 weeks that my wife spent pregnant with our twin boys.

The time for guesswork, I figured, would be over after their arrival.

And so I read far too many books, blog posts, and peer-reviewed medical journals. I looked for clues everywhere and interrogated any parent foolish enough to make eye contact with me.

As the only child of parents who’d died nearly a decade earlier, I didn’t benefit from the firsthand parental advice that’s often passed down to grown children who are expecting. So I did the best I could to try to understand just what parenthood would be like. But I could never really get at the heart of what I was searching for: When, exactly, would the weight of fatherhood hit me?

I really enjoyed each phase of my wife’s pregnancy, from the moment we first realized that a tiny being might be growing inside her, to the shocking discovery that one was actually two, to seeing their puffy-faced, three-dimensional images displayed on an ultrasound machine. I soaked up each milestone, but didn’t dare confuse any of it with active parenting.

I might not have been an expert, but all of my reading had informed my thinking that my parenthood moment probably would arrive sometime after the birth of my twin boys.

Exactly when, however, was anyone’s guess, including mine.

I’d fallen asleep reading one of our many parenting books when my wife woke me at 2:37 a.m. to tell me that she thought her water broke, five weeks early.

We quickly snapped out of our daze and put our birth plan into action. I thought I’d have a few more weeks. Our babies, it seemed, laughed at our naivete.

After about 10 hours of labor, our first baby boy arrived. He was beautiful and scrawny and weighed 4 pounds 4 ounces. About 90 minutes later his brother arrived, weighing just 6 ounces more.

They were healthy but several ounces lighter than the weight that would have allowed us to take them home after my wife’s brief recovery period in the hospital.

So, we were new parents, who arrived home without our babies.

For the next several days, we made regular visits to the hospital’s neonatal intensive-care unit to thank the nurses who cared for our babies and to change their diapers and feed them milk from tiny bottles.

Dean, the slightly larger twin, was discharged several days before his brother, Cary. My wife and I felt intense guilt not being able to bring both boys home together. That first night, we brought Dean to his room and placed his tiny body in a crib in a room whose color patterns we’d fussed over till the bitter end.

My wife and I exchanged nervous glances.

We went to our bedroom, which was less than 30 feet away, turned up the baby monitor and lay in bed until we drifted off to sleep.

We were awakened by the most beautiful, yet pitiful little cry you could imagine. We both jumped up and hurried for Dean’s room.

With Cary remaining for several more days in the NICU, and Dean at home with two novices for parents, nothing seemed ideal.

My fatherhood moment, it seemed, had arrived.

I now have twin boys who are rapidly approaching eye-level with my wife, and a 7-year-old daughter, Clair, who can keep her brothers (and her father) on their toes.

I’m still not prepared. And I probably never will be. There is no playbook that guarantees success, because being a parent isn’t like baking a cake.

In that sense my fatherhood moment is continuous and evolving.

— Lester Davis

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More reading:

A man, a baby and a mountain of bottles: What happens when mom goes back to work

The protector, the multitasker, the holder of rocks: 10 moms define motherhood

I found this letter from my dad after we buried him. I read it every Father’s Day.

Fathers suffer from pregnancy loss and still births, too

Illustrations by Marco Marella. Designed by Beth Broadwater

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