I remember my first Father’s Day. I was a dad in theory but my son wasn’t living with me. He doesn’t now and he probably never will. Most dads bring their sons home from the hospital. I drove home alone that early morning.
But this was Father’s Day. So I went to see Jack.
He was sleeping, and I wanted to be. I lay on the couch and eased Jack onto my chest as he slept. I could feel his soft skin on my neck. His breath was warm. He smelled sweet and fresh. I closed my eyes but no longer wanted to sleep. I wanted to feel the weight of my new son on my chest, to feel his touch, to smell creation.
Holding him, breathing him in, my son was real to me. My confusion was replaced with a sense of purpose. The weight on my chest took on another meaning. I felt I wanted to protect him, to guide him, to love him. I wanted to teach him all I knew. I felt I might actually be a father. Up until then, I felt more like a fraud.
And until then, I hadn’t thought much about being a father. It surprised me. Since I don’t do the day-to-day with Jack, I think the moment of connecting with my son came later than most.
Once I thought about being a dad, I thought about my own father.
My father grew up without much of a father of his own. My grandfather was out of the picture when Dad was still a boy.
It must have been hard. Where did my dad find the courage to raise his two sons without a blueprint? How did he know when to encourage, discipline or be concerned? He had to learn by doing, and by trusting his instincts.
When I was a kid, my Father’s Day routine was always the same. Go to the grocery store, pick out a card and share a special dinner with the family.
And it was just that—routine. Sometimes it even felt like a chore.
I understand better now—maybe those Father’s Day cards made him feel like more of a parent to his two sons. I guess I think more about how my own father felt now that I am Jack’s father.
Every day, like so many dads, my father left us for work. And like my dad, I’m always saying goodbye to my son, now 5.
But unlike my father, I don’t return home to him each night. Instead, we have our weekends and our holidays, and after each one I drive him to his mom’s house. I tell him I had a great weekend, I love him and I will see him soon.
Then I say goodbye. After I start walking away, I turn to look at him but he is usually running toward his toys or hugging his mom.
I am sure he will forget our weekend. I am sure he did not hear me say, “I love you.” What kind of father will he think I am? Will I be someone for him to learn from, to look up to? Will he know how much I care? Will he think a father is the one who leaves? I am fearful. Most of all, I’m afraid of the blueprint I am leaving him.
Like any parent, I long for confirmation. It’s not something parents get often—if at all. I don’t know if, or when, my dad got it. But maybe I look for it more than most.
One day, about two years ago, I was saying goodbye to Jack. I told him I had a great weekend. I told him I loved him. I told him I would see him soon. I gave him a hug and turned to walk out the door. All the same things I have always done.
But this time, when I turned to look back, Jack was looking at me. He was watching me walk away. I froze. All I could do was stare back. Finally he smiled, he waved and I turned to get into my car. I sat there and watched him turn around and look for his toys.
I had the best drive home ever.
This Father’s Day I will be thinking about myself as a father. I will be thinking about Jack and about my own dad.
How can I tell my dad how much I love him and how grateful I am for his constant efforts to leave me such a great blueprint?
Maybe I can show him by being Jack’s father.
This Father’s Day I am going to reach down, pick up my son and put him on my shoulders for a ride. It’s the weight of fatherhood, one I am proud to carry.
Mike Phillips is Jack’s dad and assistant to the editor at Chicago Parent.