Still shaken by Bobby Kennedy’s assassination six days earlier, I sat in the hospital waiting room mindlessly thumbing through a May 1968 Rolling Stone while my wife, Fran, gave birth to our daughter Elle. As was customary, when everyone had been freshened up, I was permitted to see my wife and baby. At 25, having no notion of a new father’s role, I tickled Elle under her chin and did my best duck imitation: “Quack, quack!”
Once settled into our small home near Nashville, Fran and I played our roles as defined by the current norms: me, sole breadwinner (high school teacher) and head of the household; Fran, 20, the homemaker, handling all things domestic, including parenting.
For all my hipster pretension, I was unconsciously following the lead of 1960s TV shows such as “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best,” which portrayed fathers as hard-working, virtuous providers and wise patriarchs. They were the disciplinarians, but day-to-day parenting was left to their wives.
We put Elle in a crib in a small bedroom, where we let her cry it out, as parenting experts advised back then.
Like most men of my era, early on I had been indoctrinated into the patriarchal model of masculinity — dominant, driven, stoic, sexist and often hard-drinking. I hid behind a mask of invulnerability, rarely interacting on a meaningful level with anyone, including my wife and daughter. In her innocence and lovability, however, Elle was the one person who could pierce my seemingly impermeable veneer and awaken that suppressed part of me that could love and feel.
One summer morning, Elle toddled out of our vegetable garden, tomato juice streaming down her little belly. I was enthralled by her spontaneity, and I took her in my arms, kissing the juice from her tiny face.
“Oh, Daddy, you tickle me,” she said, giggling. Despite my self-centeredness, I knew in that moment that I’d protect this precious child with my life.
The years passed, and while my bond to my wife weakened, my bond to Elle — by then a beautiful, athletic teenager — grew stronger. I continued to sleepwalk through life until I finally received wake-up calls that I could not ignore. My energy conservation company went under, and I lost my car, home and business. I knew I had to do something, so at 41, I ran.
I fled Tennessee and eventually ended up in Texas. At first, the novelty of new surroundings distracted me, but before long — frequently intoxicated, no job, few friends and estranged from my daughter — I entered my dark night of the soul.
Slowly but surely, I began to let go of my deep-rooted resentments, connect with my feelings and emerge from my macho facade.
By then, Elle had graduated from college and begun teaching in North Carolina. We maintained telephone contact and visited each other several times a year.
And then it was time for fatherhood, take two:
One Saturday morning in late January 2009, my now wife, Shonnie, and I were on our weekly trail run. Our May-December relationship had been kindled in 1996 while running together in an Austin marathon training group. We moved to Asheville, N.C., a year later.
“I think I want to have a baby,” Shonnie, then 37, announced.
I frowned. “I thought we settled this.”
Shonnie stopped running and faced me. “I hate thinking about this, but … with our age difference, you’ll probably die before me.” She paused for a moment. “And after you’re gone, it would give me great comfort to have a child that we brought into the world together.”
I was stunned and speechless.
Gracelyn was born in 2010. This time, I was at my wife’s side doing all I could to comfort her during a long, challenging labor. I caught our baby, announced, “It’s a girl,” gently handed her to Shonnie, then cut the umbilical cord.
Traditional gender roles were in flux, and television offered a smorgasbord of views on masculinity and fatherhood: “Mad Men” (the macho men of the 1960s — domineering, detached and sexist), “Modern Family” (men breaking from their traditional roles, but hard-pressed to discern a new way of being) and Friday Night Lights (a show about a small, football-obsessed town that portrayed men as compassionate and sensitive).
Despite new research indicating the importance of the presence of fathers in the family, I volunteered to be the sole breadwinner so Shonnie could quit her job and be a full-time mom. From the outset, however, Shonnie and I worked together in parenting Gracelyn — cuddling her often, responding quickly to her cries in the moment, sleeping with her in the family bed. Most important, as she grew, we let her be herself and follow her curiosity wherever it might take her.
Early in 2017, Shonnie and I were in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner while listening to “Prairie Home Companion” when the Avett Brothers began to sing “No Hard Feelings.” Shonnie walked over and embraced me. We began to slowly dance to the music.
When my body won’t hold me anymore
And it finally lets me free
Will I be ready?
Given that I would soon turn 74, those lyrics resonated with us. And as we danced, we both began to weep.
When my body won’t hold me anymore
And it finally lets me free
Where will I go?
A few minutes into our waltz, Gracelyn, then 6, signaled that she wanted to join in. So Shonnie and I stood face-to-face, joined arms and cradled Gracelyn between us. We were leisurely dancing around the kitchen when Gracelyn looked up at Shonnie and softly said: “I love you, Mama. Do you love me?”
Shonnie smiled and blinked away her tears. “I love you with all my heart, my darling girl,” she said.
Then Gracelyn looked at me. “I love you, Daddy. Do you love me?”
“I love you now, I’ll love you forever, sweet girl,” I said.
Later that year, we visited my daughter Elle, her husband, Brad, and my grandkids, Melanie and Jacob, at their home in Boulder. After everyone else had retired for the evening, Elle and I, alone together for the first time in years, sat on the back porch and shared a few beers.
“You know, when I see you and Gracelyn together, I become aware of how much you remind me of one another. I even find myself calling Gracelyn by your name sometimes.”
“I know, Daddy,” Elle said. “I love you, too.”
# # #
Bruce Mulkey turned 75 this year, and his daughters, Elle and Gracelyn, will turn 50 and 8, respectively. Mulkey is a contributor to HuffPost, Elephant Journal, the Good Men Project and the Asheville Citizen-Times, among other publications. When he’s not writing, he’s playing handball, trail running with his wife and doing his best to keep up with a high-spirited 7-year-old.
A dad, improvising his way into his daughter’s heart