It's a crisp Saturday morning, and I’m walking down West Eighth Street in New York City. My infant son, Theo, is secured to my chest in an Ergobaby carrier. I’m also holding two bags of groceries. The boy and the food total about 35 pounds, evenly distributed, and I’m not struggling in the least. Suddenly, a twentysomething man walking the opposite way makes eye contact with me. His gaze moves from my eyes to the baby carrier, then back to me. At the precise moment we pass, he says, softly but definitively, “You’re a great father, man.”
My immediate thought: There must be some other dad behind me simultaneously changing the diapers of triplets. Or empathizing with his teenage daughter. I turn around. There’s no other parenting going on. It’s me he’s talking about. Yes, I’m the great father.
I manage to complete my roughly three-minute journey from the supermarket and hike up the four flights of stairs to our apartment, my son alive, my groceries intact, my devotion to family totally validated, and my attitude slightly more sanctimonious than when I left to run some errands.
“Hey, honey, guess what? Some dude just told me I’m a great father,” I say to my wife
“Why?” she replies.
“Because I was taking care of business, you know?”
“Because you went to the grocery store with your son?”
“Theo wasn’t even awake.”
She had a point.
In the three-plus years since that weird street encounter, I’ve received heaps of unwarranted acclaim for the decidedly ordinary skills and devotion I regularly exhibit as a father, performing feats such as …
The language people use to stroke fathers sounds an awful lot like the words we tend to use to praise kids. In fact, men are graded on such a generous parenting curve that I came up with a handy checklist for measuring our so-called excellence. Each entry is worth 10 points. Accumulate 40 and congrats: You, too, are a “great dad!”
(Note: Moms can also use this checklist to rate themselves, but each entry is only worth 1 point.)
All joking aside, we need to move beyond the idea that a dad’s presence alone makes him great at the job. It’s condescending and undervalues the importance of a father’s regular engagement. Spending time with your child does not make you great. Strapping a baby to your chest and leaving the house does not make you great.
On the other hand, the seemingly silly things a dad does may actually be great. A friend of mine recently planted a golf ball that my son and his son were fighting over so they could check back in a few months to see if it had grown into a golf-ball bush. That’s greatness.
When Theo, now 4, couldn’t get to sleep one night, I crawled into bed with him and made up a story about a skinny cow named Buckley, who was ostracized by the rest of the herd: One day, the cows had eaten all the grass in their fenced-in pasture and were getting hungry. Buckley, being a skinny and frail cow, was able to squeeze his head through the fence posts, bite off grass, and deposit it into the pasture so the other cows could eat. Despite a brisk narrative and a comedic subplot involving the farmer that I’m not getting into here, it was hardly a brilliant story (logic problems, undeveloped characters). Yet it was exactly what my son needed at exactly the time he needed it, and it involved thoughtfulness, creativity, and devotion. I was great that night.
What makes a father great is what makes a mother great. Greatness is what happens when no one is around to congratulate you. It’s hidden, quiet, and only occasionally (and incidentally) public. Others might have a hunch that a father is a great parent, but only two people know it for sure: the dad and his kid.