by Jonathan Lyons on January 14, 2012

I have always been doubtful about fatherhood. About my own fatherhood, anyway. Being a child of divorce and domestic violence hasn’t helped.

What I doubted the most was myself. I am so fallible, so frequently prone to attacks of body odor and halitosis, to lazy posture and shallow judgments of other people based upon their accents — so, well, flawed.

Who the hell am I to parent someone? I wondered.

How will I explain, when the day comes, why my boy has a grandfather and step-grandmother, along with a grandmother, on his mother’s side, but no grandfather I’m in communication with on mine? (I’ll eventually need to explain to him not only that his grandmother on my side died at a pretty early age, mostly due to a terribly unhealthy way of life.) What sense of family — extended family, anyway — could I ever offer him?

Other issues plagued me. Some of what I’ve written and published is far from child-safe. I wonder when he’ll ask about the stories with particularly coarse sex scenes and content.

As the human population on the Earth charges past 7 million individuals, I wonder: What right do I have doing something so grotesquely irresponsible as to contribute to that explosion?

And I look at our world, with anthropogenic climate change taking place before our very eyes and a portion of my country’s population so desperate to disbelieve it that they will take the political opinions of AM Hate Radio shock-talk hosts over those of the climate science community.

I think of the oceanic dead zones, particularly the one we created and keep growing in the Gulf of Mexico, just off the mouth of the Mississippi; I think of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the North Atlantic Garbage Patch, and the other major oceanic gyres; and as I consider them, I recall a cartoon I read years and years ago. It shows two salmon in a polluted stream, the bottom strewn with litter — beer bottles, old car tires, etc. Both of the salmon have dark, weary circles under their eyes. One is saying to the other, “I’m not spawning in this shit.” Word.

Who in his right mind would bring a child into the world when that is his inheritance?

I worried about simpler things, too. With an issue as complicated as illegal drugs and a society that still seems bent on insisting, despite the evidence, that marijuana use is a gateway to hardcore, addictive substances like heroin, he will receive a black-and-white, overly simplified anti-drug message loudly and insistently. How will I navigate the issue? How will I explain the absurd, ludicrous amounts of acid I’ve taken in my own lifetime?

Because the day will come when I’ll have that particular bit of ‘splainin’ to do.

The facial-hair genes my forebears have bequeathed me lead to a barbed-wire growth that I need to keep scraped away, and at bay. It becomes merely unsightly by early afternoon.

What kind of monster would rub that against a child’s tender face, even lovingly?

What if I roll over on him in bed at night?

I know damn well I can’t throw a ball. I have no interest in or understanding of baseball or basketball or football. This child would arrive in a country that invests unfathomable resources and personal and emotional commitments to these sports. Do I dare begin to explain that I see these things as arms of the Military-Industrial-Infotainment Complex? That I think that George Orwell was right?

I was afraid to go along with it 17 years ago, when my now-wife first suggested that we take on a cat or two. I was afraid specifically because I knew that that path held things that struck fear in my heart: a being who’s dependent on me; caring for that dependent’s every need; the inevitable, completely unavoidable heartbreak of that companion’s eventual pain and injury and death. What if I just fuck up at it?

Why would anyone put a child through the trials my parents put me and my brothers and each other through?
It seemed to me that I had a perfectly legitimate means of avoiding all of this otherwise unavoidable suffering: I could just not do it. Not get cats; not have a child; be a good, if long-distance, uncle to our nieces and nephews. Why should I bring a child into the world when so many pregnancies, such as the one that resulted in me, are unintended? Let our brothers (neither of us has a sister) do the breeding for this generation of the family.

But we did eventually adopt a couple of cats from a family member who’d gotten them and, badly underprepared for caring for other beings while he indulged in a meth addiction, needed to pass them on to a more responsible party. And they did have health problems, if not injuries, that arose.

The first to die was Molly, our calico, after a long life and relocations from Des Moines to join us in Iowa City, then to Austin, TX, and finally, as she began to fade and experience serious age-related issues, to the San Francisco Bay Area. The other, our tuxedo-coated kitty named Ganges, lived to an even riper age and moved yet again with us to Central PA.

Their companionship was complex and adoring, their infractions irritating, and their deaths grave, painful experiences for us both. And I think that that’s what I was trying to avoid: The pain of such relationships and their pitfalls and their end. I told myself that it was about diaper duty — and that was not entirely me lying to myself; I never wanted to deal with years of shitty diapers — but it was the pain of the things that I cannot avoid and cannot fix that afflict those I love that I never wanted to expose either myself or them to. Because such exposure makes me vulnerable to their pain — the pains experienced by a longtime companion cat or, on a different scale entirely, a child.

Why put myself and my partner and my child through such things? And how, with my limitations and my flaws, could I ever manage to protect him?

I’ve been a good caretaker for our first two girls (we call our cats, all female so far, our girls), and for our current one, a rescue cat who entered our lives after we moved here. And I have been a good uncle, one who visits his Iowa kin about once a year, but otherwise stays in touch and remembers birthdays.

And then I had the experience of being a mentor at our university for a group of Posse Foundation scholars, which has taught me something about looking out for the well-being of people other than my wife and I, and of people who are younger.
Not baby-young, but younger than us.

Helping my group of 10 young people navigate the alienation involved with leaving behind their families and DC public school experiences and environment and coming to study in a tiny town in Central PA, at a good, tough school with a mostly white, mostly quite wealthy student body, somehow began to change my mind. I think it was the experience of being loved for simply trying to be there for such extraordinary, bright young people.

My wife had been ready for 10 years, but sometimes and at some things, I’m a late bloomer. (There’s a fun thing to admit: That I’m slow to accept and learn some things.)

So we decided to do it. We decided to have a child. Which meant that I, barbed-wire face and failings and unable to throw a ball in a specific direction and all of it, would become a father. The very word is loaded, to me.

There’s more to come. I promise. And I’m very new at parenting, and this piece has just been a prologue. But before I end this first segment, I should explain the title. Most of the writing that I do now is experimental, and involves expressing things in ways that I have not seen before. So when I saw the following, I knew that I needed to use it: A title with a story of its own.

During a delivery experience that I would not wish on anyone, anywhere, and which I would outlaw if it were at all a reasonable or feasible thing to do, I looked down at my wrist and noticed the security bracelet they’d attached, allowing me to come and go from the hospital’s Maternity & Delivery Ward. The portion I could read included the tail end of my wife’s hospital ID number for the stay, and the word “FATHER”; the way the numbering tab was laminated on, it covered over the “F,” leaving “2741ATHER.”

Jonathan Lyons is a new 2741ATHER. He lives and teaches and writes strange things in Central Pennsylvania.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Christina Continelli February 2, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Excellent bit of writing Lyons!


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