First, let’s be honest and admit that, as a rule, mothers are better at motherhood than fathers are at fatherhood. You don’t hear about deadbeat Moms and distant mothers. You don’t hear about Dad and Apple Pie.
Or maybe I’m conflating closeness, the power of the bond, with good parenting. Discuss. What’s certain is that fatherhood always carries with it the possibility of uninvolvement, of abandonment, or disinterest. Hard as it is to imagine for those of us lucky enough to be close to our kids, some fathers don’t bond so well, and either take off for the hills or just hole up in their mancave and pay little attention. This is not something for which I have felt the need to conduct personal research.
The converse can also happen: The distant father re-appearing, or discovering for the first time that the child is interesting, and fun, and smart, and someone with whom you could actually carry on a conversation. The father-child relationship can evolve. You can work on it. There’s hope. This, too, is something I did not need to learn about from a textbook.
Fatherhood also evolves generationally, among a broad cohort of men who discover new pleasures in care-giving that their own fathers didn’t enjoy. Back in the day, a man was forgiven if he viewed a baby as borderline radioactive. Now we live in a society where there are diaper-changing tables in every men’s room at every airport (of course, the guys stand around pointing at the thing laughing uproariously). I’d like to think that Dads are doing a better job these days, in general. (Another discussion point.)
So what is that job? I think it’s more than being available, or cheering at soccer games, or taking a kid to visit colleges. A Dad is supposed to be there for the heavy lift. He is the first to arrive and the last to go in crunch time. His support has no waver in it; there is no ambiguity about his feelings. He believes in the child, to the point that he will let go, and trust the child to make a good decision. He is not over-protective or meddling. He’s rational about likely risks and calms unnecessary fears. He somehow makes the world less scary.
A good father is somehow just THERE, always, a reassuring presence — even when he’s not there anymore, because of the rules of mortality, and all you can do is hear his voice in your head.