In the world that likes to partition us into our acronymical pens, I am a SWAHD. A Single, Work-At-Home Dad, who is here when my nine-year-old son gets home from school. And since he walks less than half a mile, every so often he brings home a friend for a rumpus (which is what we used to call a don’t-call-it-a-playdate). For a while, that friend was a neighbor kid named David, who lived around the corner and seemed pleasant enough—even when he made a beeline to the fridge without acknowledging that I was there. Or that the food wasn’t technically his.
David came here three or four afternoons a week to help trash my living room with boy detritus, and it was great. The kids had a lot of common interests and played well together, and each was at the top of the other’s birthday guest list.
Suddenly, it all went sour.
My son started arriving home out of breath, and he’d slam the door behind him and pull the blinds because David had harassed him on the way home. Their teacher sent notes home about intervening in minor skirmishes between them in the cafeteria. Then, one day, when one of those skirmishes erupted into an all-out donnybrook, the principal summoned both families to discuss whatever was going on, and why this seemingly strong friendship had dissolved so quickly.
At the meeting, David’s mom told us his dad had just called him from California, telling him he’d moved there with his girlfriend. He didn’t say goodbye or give the kid any warning. He just left, abruptly, and then called to declare the New Normal. It became clear to all of us that David was not processing this well, and he focused a lot of his blind rage on my son, who comes home to his dad every day.
Even though I unfortunately read stories like this all the time (as man trying to make a full-time living in the dad business), it’s still startling to see this dynamic hit so close to home. And it bears out what countless new books and academic studies and white papers and paternal-leave advocates are asserting with staunch consistency: Kids need their fathers. For a concise and comprehensive summation of these points, you needn’t look much further than Stephen Marche’s superlative “New Fatherhood Manifesto,” which includes one of the most pleasurably pithy paragraphs I’ve ever read:
The new fatherhood is not merely a lifestyle question. Fathers spending time with their children results in a better, healthier, more educated, more stable, less criminal world. Exposure to fathers is a public good.
Lost in the shuffle in all of this, though, is the inverse relationship that strikes me on a much more personal level: Dads need their kids. I thought of this during the first episode of HBO’s True Detective, when Woody Harrelson’s character says, “Past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing.” Even on my worst days, being a dad keeps me centered. It keeps me focused on what I think is one of the best goals a man can have: To help raise two boys to adulthood, and to help create a more enlightened sense of how society interprets masculinity when they get there. It keeps me thankful to my ex-wife, because no matter how she exasperates me (as I do her) when we attempt to co-parent, she gave me my sons, the two consummate joys of my life.
And it makes me want to take David’s father by the shirt collar and ask, “What in the hell are you thinking?”