When I became a father (11 days ago!) I was surprised at how many men — some of whom were longstanding and close friends — wrote to congratulate me on joining a “club”. One welcomed me into “the best faternity in the world.”
I always wanted to be a father, eventually, at some point. And I always knew that fatherhood would change me, permanently, and for the better. I knew, deep down, that the attractions of bachelorhood were the attractions of a younger life. Not necessarily less mature, but certainly less responsible. I could let a lot of the infrastructure of my life crumble and rust, with only myself to blame or bear the costs. So I could go years without filing my taxes, let my driver’s license get suspended for speeding, neglect to get insurance on my condo… it goes on.
And so the real change in my life won’t be the reduction in the times I go drinking with the boys, or eat a frozen burrito for dinner at midnight, or sit around on a Saturday playing video games. It will be in the absolute necessity of taking responsibility for my own actions, and how they affect my wife and baby son.
A shorter way of putting it: I will be forced to become a man.
In a short but moving essay for Esquire, Stephen Marche (@stephenmarche) argues that there are two occasions when a boy becomes a man: When his father dies, or he becomes a father. He goes on to make the case that — in an age when masculinity, and even the very usefulness of men — is in question, fatherhood binds us to our partners, our children, and society as a whole in the way that no other role or responsibility can. Fatherhood is in many ways the mortar of society:
The appeal of fatherhood, its newfound position as a requirement of the good life, is that it is a real duty. It binds you to other people. It binds you, for real, to a woman. It is the only thing that still can. Sex is basically an exchange of pleasantries now. Marriage is instantly reversible, a negotiable contract. But fatherhood is real
Marche also captures precisely what it means to become a parent, and why of all social divides, the one between those with children and those without is the most unbridgeable:
Fatherhood is the one truly binding connection among men, and it’s too important now. I feel bound to other fathers in a way that I really don’t experience in any other capacity. If you’ve ever wondered why new parents are so unbearable to be around, especially for people who don’t have kids, it’s because they are overwhelmed by the strength of their personal transformation. Like teenagers who’ve lost their virginity, new parents have been inducted into a secret, and that secret is all that matters to them. The secret seems, at least for a while, to be the whole of the world.
My son, right now, is the whole of my world. I know that will change; the high of birth will wear off, and the demands of work and life and everything else will push their way back into my realm of caring. But all of my relationships have shifted, tectonically. My relationship to my friends, colleagues, and siblings has changed forever, and for the better.
But most of all it has changed how I see my own father, the young dad who raised an old dad, and who still has more to teach me about being a man than I know.