The Terror of Fatherly Frailty

On December 21, 2013, I became a father for the first time. However, I feel like I should qualify what I’m going to say before I even say it, lest I alienate ~90 percent of my audience before this essay hits sixty words. In any case, here goes: I actually never really wanted to be a father. I’ve known many men who’ve shared this sentiment, but few, if any, who meant it the same way I did. I say this now in retrospect, which is an important distinction, I think. I say this because, while most people are universally worried about sleepless nights, changing diapers, a formerly vibrant social life atrophied and on life support, being responsible for another (tiny) human life, or any/all of the above. Admittedly, I’ve always had my own reservations about those things, but they’d barely pinged my anxiety meter (which, n.b. is incredibly sensitive).

My reservations about becoming a father stem from my set of seemingly shattered genetics, the sum total of which often makes it a Herculean feat to simply get through any given day. I’ve become accustomed to reaching the point of each day where exhaustion sets in — deep into the marrow of my bones, my being — turning menial daily tasks into Gordian Knot-like productions. Changing diapers is not scary; trying to raise a child who might have to help take care of you sooner than he should ever have to is scary. It’s the stuff of nightmares. I’ve had them already.

While this essay ultimately is not about me, my personal set of physical and psychological complications requires a bit of expounding. A quick rundown of maladies calling my corporeal body home includes: an arthritic back, ulcerative colitis, IBS, acid reflux, lactose intolerance, celiac disease, a tree nut allergy, allergies to most things that grow on trees (including most trees, themselves), generalized anxiety disorder, clinical depression, extreme ADD, and insomnia. As you can imagine, the medication balance for those last two in particular is incredibly delicate, especially when trying to make sure one doesn’t override the other (a situation that only exacerbates my anxiety). So it goes… Even with a prescription for Adderall XR, I still spend a significant amount of time each day paralyzed by indecision, hampered an inability to finish projects, and, more often than not, an inability to even begin projects because of how impossible everything simply feels. And even with a prescription for Ambien, I still sleep just two-to-three hours at a time and wake up at the slightest noise. Without drugs, I can count my continuous bouts of sleep in minutes, not hours.

The above is to say nothing at all of needing to base pretty much everything I do around meals, i.e. making sure what I eat is gluten-, nut-, and lactose-free (unless I’ve remembered to bring a lactase enzyme supplement with me to make digesting dairy mostly possible). With the ever-present possibility of cross contamination, I’ve always got to make sure I’m near a bathroom in case what I eat makes me sick. The food allergies and colitis often combine to create an evil, hell-like condition where my gastrointestinal tract bleeds somewhat regularly. This is, of course, every bit as unpleasant as it sounds. The grand total number of pills I take per day tops out between ten and fifteen (depending on enzyme supplements). I turn 33 this year. It’s sort of terrifying to think about how bad things might be when I turn sixty…or even if I’ll turn sixty.

Trying to mentally juggle all of these probabilities day-in and day-out is exhausting. And embarrassing. And emotionally taxing. All of which only feels worse when I think about my son and realize that I won’t be able to just go out for normal pizza, or to stop and get ice cream on a whim, or stay up late and eat junk food until we get sick. I think about my back and know I’ll never be able to throw him in the air and catch him as a child, or have a beer with him on his 21st birthday like a normal dad. I won’t be able to wrestle with him or do really physical activities with him because of my back or because of my food allergies or because of my inability to sleep without drugs or because of my inability to make decisions or because I can’t finish projects. I won’t be able to do normal things with him like a normal dad because I am not normal. I won’t be able to. I can’t because I’m not normal.

And so then, because of all of that, I am sad for him. I only just met him six weeks ago and already I love him an immense, heart-crushing amount. Already I want the best of all things for him. It wrenches and twists me from the inside out that I can’t give him normal, that I can’t be a “normal dad.” Worse, I worry that he’s going to have the “weird dad.” Or that his dad won’t be the strongest dad or the fastest dad or the *insert boyhood ideal adjective here* dad. I only just met him six weeks ago but I worry about letting him down, even though he can no more comprehend disappointment in his father than a planet can comprehend its parent star burning itself out. I worry for him.

I worry.

I submit: It’s incredibly easy to focus on life’s negative aspects, of potentially worst-case scenarios and everything that can go wrong. Trust me – It’s much harder to identify and dwell on the positive and exciting possibilities, to accentuate the good when you feel like you are drowning in setbacks, being crushed by roadblocks. While there are definitely things I can’t do with my son—and won’t be able to do unless modern science comes up with a full-body transplant for my somewhat functional brain—there’s so much I can  do, so much I can teach him that isn’t predicated on my health that it makes me feel almost silly for fretting the way I did before he was born.

I can teach him how to be a man. A real man. A man who is kind and tolerant. A man who is patient and caring. A man who can appreciate the beauty in literature and art, even if he doesn’t love either of them himself. A man who will always love and cherish his mother because he will know how wonderful she is and all that she sacrifice — and would sacrifice — for him. A man who respects women and men as people, as human beings, treating everyone as his equal in all activities. A man who is not afraid to show he’s capable of the fiercest love and loyalty and compassion. A man willing and determined to work for the goals he sets for himself. A man who will never settle — who will never settle for anything less than his best, or settle for expecting less than the best from others, all while knowing that sometimes they will stumble, but so will he and it will be OK.

I can teach him to be a man who knows that his mother and father love him regardless of sexual preference, whether he’s gay or straight or any- and everything in between because real men don’t see the world within the confining binaries of black and white. A man who loves who he loves, unapologetically, and knows that his parents will love her or him, too, because she or he makes our son a better and happier man and a better human being. I can teach him to be a man who constantly seeks — seeks for greater truths and worthier ways to be better to those around him. A man who sees the world and all its flaws, not as something horrible in need of scorn and disdain, but a beautiful and fragile place with wonderful, terrifying, and nearly limitless possibilities for discovery. A curious man; a man who will see innumerable opportunities for learning every day he opens his eyes, kicks his legs over the side of his bed, and plants two feet upon the ground.

I can teach him to be a man whose only intolerance will be for intolerance itself. A man who will never stand for bullying, whether on the playground or when he’s grown. A man who will never raise a fist in anger, only in defense when he’s exhausted all other options. A man who is in control of his anger and outrage, who will understand that violence solves nothing, who will understand that it only divides further, and that might is not always right. A man who will favor the pen to the sword. I can teach him the value of humility and the folly of hubris. I can share my love of language with him and teach him to find his own voice. I can teach him that he’ll sometimes be able to use that voice to give one to those whose have been suppressed or silenced, to empower the powerless.

I can teach him all of these things, irrespective if I’m able to eat cheap greasy pizza with him at an airport or not, or to go out for ice cream after a Little League game, or to throw him into a swimming pool fifty times in a row on scorching summer days, or to have a beer with him when he turns 21. I can teach him to not let obstacles feel defeating. I can teach him despite my personal issues. I can teach him despite anything.

I can teach him.

And that honestly makes me more excited to be a father than anything else I can think of. It’s a strange thing to go from never wanting kids to falling in love with a tiny person who can barely communicate. There’s something about the recognition you see in your child’s eyes, the expressions they may share with you, or the sense of wonder they embody at all visual stimuli. You want to do the very best for them. You want to be stronger for them. You begin to realize that you have an opportunity that’s greater than yourself. I never thought I’d be one to agree with such a worn cliché, but it’s true: everything you feel changes when the kid is your own.

The possibilities of what you can teach them is truly one of the most exciting feelings you will ever experience, your own limitations be damned. Even though there are plenty of things I can’t do, when it comes to him, nothing feels impossible.


Joseph Owens Joseph Michael Owens

Joseph Michael Owens is the author of the 'collectio[novella]' SHENANIGANS!, and has written for [PANK], The Rumpus, Specter, Grey Sparrow & several others. He is the blog editor for both InDigest Magazine and The Lit Pub, but you can also find him online at Joe lives in Omaha with three dogs and one wife.

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