My nephew was born last summer, and I watched my brother become a “dad.” You see, becoming a “dad” wasn’t something that happened the day he and his wife told us she was pregnant or the day my nephew was actually born. That’s when he became a “father.” When he became a “dad,” well that was just something that happened, between my brother and my nephew when no one was looking. I can’t put a date on it, but at some point in the first few weeks of my nephew’s life, I noticed that my 6’3”, tough-guy big brother had become a “dad.”
It’s interesting to think that almost everyone can have children, despite their maternal or paternal instinct, maturity level, profession, work ethic or interest in children. Ironically, for almost all the other milestones in life, you need some sort of verification. In order to get your first job, you need working papers and later in life most jobs require background checks. To drive, you need a license; to get married, you need a certificate. To make a big purchase, like a house or a car (unless you have a trust fund), you generally need approval from a bank for a loan. To travel, you need a passport and to graduate, a diploma. All the “big” events in life require some sort of approval or license. Yet, without any type of clearance, people can be a mother or a father. It’s the “mom” and “dad” part that takes the effort.
Maybe for women it’s more common to morph from “mother” to “mom.” They carry the baby for nine months, so it’s difficult to deny the physical bond. (Although, I have seen those Discovery Channel documentaries about women who didn’t know they were pregnant for nine whole months, but let’s just consider them an exception to the norm). For most women, it’s kind of impossible to escape the bump growing below their rib cage. For men, it’s a different story. The physical bond isn’t there. They don’t have to watch what they eat, cut out alcohol, aspartame, shellfish and lunchmeat. They don’t have to take prenatal vitamins, and they don’t have a watermelon kicking them from the inside and squishing their bladder. There are no stretch marks, no recovery time and no pre-baby body to work toward. For men, it can be “one and done.” One night, they do their part and that’s the end of their anatomical, physical requirements to become a “father.”
This is why I think it’s especially important to applaud all the “dads”—the men who made the effort post “one and done” to morph from “father” to “dad.” The men who formed a bond with their baby that eventually became a relationship with their child. The men, who without question, changed their lives because of this new little person.
I started to notice the “dad” change in my brother when he would make all visitors diligently wash their hands before they held his infant son or as he circled us like a hawk, gently reminding us to “support his head” while we held him. How he didn’t blink when a baby swing, pack-and-play, changing table and jumping chair obstructed the view of his big screen TV. When he didn’t complain that his late nights out with friends became late nights up with my nephew.
But when it became most clear was when my brother and his wife brought the baby over one night for Sunday dinner. When I finally had the chance to hold my nephew, he started getting fussy. The beauty of being an aunt is the freedom to pass the fussy child off, so I happily handed him to my mother. She tried to soothe him but to no avail.
That’s when my brother came in from the back deck and picked the baby up. This big burly guy looked down at the tiny baby and asked, “What’s the matter, Buddy?”
The baby quieted and calmed down. He was weeks old, but he knew my brother’s voice, his smell, his embrace. My brother rocked him and looked to me, prouder than I’ve ever seen him.
“He just needed some Daddy time; I’ll give him back to you in a few minutes,” he beamed.
That was when I confirmed that he was no longer just a “father” but also a “dad.”
I think about my own dad. I don’t remember the moment when he decided he would stick it out and give parenting all he had. It happened long before I was born. He had made the commitment with his first child, my brother. So, for me, he was never a “father,” always a “dad.”
During my youth, I used to do competition dance. I was twelve years old, performing my first solo at a regional competition in Lancaster. It was Friday afternoon and because of work my dad couldn’t be there; he is a mechanic who owns his own business and couldn’t close his shop in the middle of the afternoon. My mom took me to the dance competition. I was nervous to get on stage, so nervous that I was almost certain I would be sick. I contemplated telling my mom I just wanted to go home. Forget that big open stage, the judges and the bright lights. I was going to hightail it out of there. Before I could bolt, they called my category up to the wings of the stage. I was next to compete.
As they called my number, I walked out to the middle of the stage. The lights were blinding, and I couldn’t see any of the people in the audience. I tried to get my bearings but my nerves were getting the best of me. Run off, the voice of fear inside me screamed. I frantically looked for my mark, knowing that as soon as I got into position, they would start the music.
I walked over to the “X” marked with black tape on the corner of the stage and took one last look at the glowing red Exit sign, contemplating an escape. As my eyes shifted, I didn’t see the sign, but instead saw my dad. He was standing in dirty work clothes waving from the wings backstage. How did he get back there? I smiled the biggest grin, thinking that only my father could charm himself past security to make sure he had the best seat in the house. The music started, I forgot about my nerves and I danced the next three minutes at ease knowing my dad was right there on the sidelines. When the performance ended, I ran off the wrong side of the stage and into his arms.
We walked out from backstage, and I must have thanked him a hundred times for making it there. He had a friend watch the business for him, but he had to get back to work. He drove an hour-and-a-half each way to watch my three-minute routine. Before he left, he bent down and said, “I know I’m going to miss the awards, but I got you this.”
In his big rough hand was a delicate shiny blue ribbon that said “1st Place.” I gave him the biggest, strongest hug a twelve year old could muster up. I didn’t end up placing that day at the competition, but I had the silky 1st place ribbon from my dad, so it didn’t really matter.
You see, that’s the thing about dads—once they make the commitment to move from “father” to “dad,” their presence can make almost any situation better. They are a quiet force in the lives of their children, standing backstage to provide security, comfort, confidence and love in even the smallest of gestures.