What It Really Means to Be a Father

My dad was always the "fun parent." He was unpredictable and playful, with a tattoo on his arm and crazy ideas up his sleeve. But he was also incredibly kind, and kind of a worrywart.
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When I was a kid, my dad made my brother and me -- and the neighborhood kids, if they were lucky enough to be over that day -- wear empty pizza boxes in the backs of our pants to soften our falls when we went rollerblading outside. He was worried we'd break our tailbones, and we had refused to wear pads (they were so uncool). So he made the pizza boxes a requirement. We looked really cool then.

My dad was always the "fun parent." He was unpredictable and playful, with a tattoo on his arm and crazy ideas up his sleeve. But he was also incredibly kind, and kind of a worrywart. The one thing we could predict with him was that he would do anything for his family, and always love us like mad. That's still true today. When my beautiful mom died in 2007, he became our only parent, which made my relationship with him more complicated -- and made it mean that much more.

Now I have a son, and his father is also the "fun one." He is amusing, affectionate, and very protective. He also happens to have an arm full of tattoos. Becoming a mother has granted me a broader perspective on what it is to be a father. It gives me even greater appreciation for my dad, and daily gratitude for Cody's. Watching my son with his dad, sometimes I'm struck by how different their interactions are from his interactions with me -- and other times, I'm struck by the similarities. Given a choice, I'm the one Cody goes to for comfort, but when it comes to jamming out, his dad is it.

I've thought a lot about motherhood in the last year, about being a mother, about missing my mother. But with Father's Day around the corner, I've been thinking more about this role that I know so much and yet so little about. What does it feel like to be a father? I decided to ask a handful of dads I know, from those who are a week into the job, to those who have been doing it for decades: What does fatherhood mean to you?

Here is what they said:

  • "Always being there for my son, no matter what. Oh, and letting him do things Mommy doesn't let him do."

  • "Being a father is a huge responsibility. For people like myself who never worried about much of anything, that goes out the window when a tiny little baby is born. To watch your baby cry or be in pain is like sticking a knife in your heart. I wait for a little smile or wink every minute of the day. After five hours straight of holding her cause she won't stop crying and my arm is throbbing, it is more than worth it."
  • "Trying to set an example for my children with humor, dedication, kindness and love, for themselves and others. Being loving, understanding, nonjudgmental, open to change. Believing that all things are possible is important to know and live."
  • "Responsibility. And joy!"
  • "Being a teacher, friend and guide. But mostly you just make it up as you go."
  • "Responsibility, is the first thing that pops in my mind. Also change... fear... providing... guilt -- that I didn't spend as much time with them as I should have because they grow up so quick... Happiness... paranoia, happiness... did I already say that?"
  • My follow-up question: What's the best part about it?

    • "This right here -- snuggling with my boy."

  • "The best thing is everything. It is the most exhausting exhilarating exciting experience in the world."
  • "Spending time with my children and watching them achieve and mature."
  • "Having her sleep on my chest."
  • "Being reminded of childhood and the fun and silly games you used to play. Finally having something to be passionate about and looking forward to helping my daughter in any way I can."
  • "Watching them grow and become little men and little women and just being proud of their accomplishments as they're growing from point A to point B. Thankfulness that I was able to guide them and be a better person for them. Learning is one of the biggest words I think of. Learning what love really is."
  • What does fatherhood mean to you?