Why you should care
Because you might know one, might have had one, or are going to be one — and believe us, this might just help.
“I don’t understand having kids,” a sports agent friend said. “It’s like having a super-expensive car that you have to check on like every second.”
There he is, miming a panicked peek out the window, followed by laughter.
And then there I am, in 1981, talking to a doctor about getting a vasectomy. You see, I had worked myself into a philosophical cul-de-sac where the world was dark, menacing and full of declining possibilities. It made no sense at all to father someone. Even less sense when I considered that the significance of fathering and fatherhood had taken a considerable hit in the preceding decades.
Fathers had begun to seem less than fully fashionable.
The prevailing pop culture was an indication of the kind of esteem fathers were held in. They were cast as generally well-meaning but bumbling and largely ineffective figures: from Fred Flintstone (as early as the 1960s) to Homer Simpson in the late 1980s; or, more seriously and a lot less animatedly, Dustin Hoffman in 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer as the hapless dad pitted against Meryl Streep.
And considering the increasing choice of single motherhood, fathers had begun to seem less than fully fashionable. It didn’t help that many of them were also exceedingly terrible. It seemed that fathering anything — kids, cats, dogs — was crazy.
“Sure, we can give you one,” the doctor said. “But you’re only 19 and, well, things change.”
With me? Never.
“Well think about it, and if you still want to go ahead, we’ll commence with cutting.”
Cutting? Wait, what?
Anyway, later at home, the wheels turned, on and on, finally resting on this idea: If I couldn’t make childlessness an act of will, then I could and should join the cowards yielding to their biology and breeding for, what seemed to me, no good reason at all. Like we really needed more of half of the maniacs you see walking around.
That is what I said at the time, but this is what I didn’t say: Even at the point of making this decision, I knew I would have kids.
Seeing her crystallized a certain certainty into my world.
But it took a while. Sixteen years, to be exact. Sixteen years, and before that, nine months of complete psychic distress. Men are pretty nonverbal on this point, but calling it pre-partum panic wouldn’t be so far off. This is the first nonreversible thing most men will do. You can change jobs, partners, houses, and shoes, but being a father is a lifelong gig if you play your cards right.
And if you play them wrong? A blot that will both accuse and outlive you.
And while lots of men flip out during the first nine months of their women’s first pregnancies — from a sudden embrace of alcohol, affairs and gambling to less than pro-social acting out, and going as far as a few well-publicized murders — my personal panic was quiet but persistent, not mollified by the thought that I could be improving the world with my offspring, and not resolved until my oldest daughter’s face appeared from out of her mother.
There’s a line in Meet Joe Black (of all movies) in which Anthony Hopkins tries to explain to Death, played by Brad Pitt (stick with me here), why he can’t take Hopkins’ daughter to the great beyond. Hopkins says something along the lines of, “Don’t you see? I’ve loved her since the very first time I saw her.”
Watching this movie on a transcontinental flight, I lost it. I didn’t even lose it when my oldest was born, or when my other two daughters were born. But in the face of this simply stunning truism, on a plane over the Atlantic, I lost it.
As in: sobbing like a grandmother. Inconsolable. The flight attendants eventually came over to ask if I was OK and I waved them away, head turned. You see, on seeing her face for the first time in that delivery room, all panic dissolved, and as with the subsequent births of my other daughters, seeing her crystallized a certain certainty into my world: I would do anything for her. Not in any general Hollywood way — simple and monochromatic in its well-timed ease and lacking any rough edges — but in a way that was vibrant and tangled, imperfect but fully multidimensional.
I never wanted anything other than daughters.
That wordless pre-partum panic had been packed with a mountain of what-ifs that were only answered with “no idea.” And yet none of those worries even hinted at any of the actual places fatherhood would take me, from the standard — diapers, potty training, first bike rides and braces — to the not-so-standard — shuttling them to their early roles on TV commercials and print ads for everything from Tide to Pottery Barn, and even consoling them through the emotional duress of dating troubles.
It’s all been an exceedingly wild ride that I feel honored at being allowed to take. And when they give me Father’s Day cards, I can’t speak. When they paint for me or make things for me, I can’t think without being overcome with emotion. Pretty much exactly like this moment.
Now 17 years later, and with two other daughters — 15 years old and almost 12 — the world is most clearly a better place for what I’ve done. Or didn’t do, by way of a vasectomy. And although the actor Michael Madsen purportedly once said about sons versus daughters, “When you have a son, you only have to worry about one dick; when you have a daughter, you have to worry about every dick in town,” I never wanted anything other than daughters. I grew up with aunts, female cousins and four sisters of my own, and being only the second man born into the maternal side of my family in a century, I knew I would not have a son.
Which is what sealed the deal that all of my daughters would train in MMA (mixed martial arts), a condition of their birth to which their mother gracefully agreed. And while they also do gymnastics, horse vaulting, snowboarding, wrestling and lacrosse, and have amassed state championships and national championships along the way, their willingness to both embrace, engage and, if necessary, choke the life out of a life makes me a happy man, and a delighted father.
You see, the world can be a dangerous and unforgiving place. Thank goodness I’ve got some backup.
This is the sixth installment in a series of True Takes from the eclectically and electrically lived life of OZY’s own Eugene S. Robinson.
Earlier takes include Advice From Andy Warhol, unexpected Affliations With White Supremacists, Wild Orgy Nights at Stanford, Is It a Riot If It’s Just the Four of Us?, and Tattoos, Tough Guys + the Travails of Making a Living.
This OZY encore was originally published June 11, 2014.