Raising a son when you’re a wimpy dad

Posted in Family.

“Digger! Digger! Digger!” Even before my two-year-old son gets up in the morning, I can hear his mantra through the security monitor. Prepping himself for the day ahead while still underneath his excavator-themed bedsheets, a day full to the brim with machinery and industry.

My son who wears a hi-vis work shirt every day; who has towering garages of toy cars; who idolises anyone participating in obvious physical labour. He is obsessed—in other words—with men very much unlike me.

When I’m out and about with my son, and he’s sporting his perpetual I’m on smoko ensemble, people lean down to him and ask, “Are you trying to be just like daddy?” and he gives them, rightly so, a very confused look.

I work in marketing for an Arts organisation, and as much as I’d love my son to idolise the iconography of my industry, I’m not sure he’d be that keen on a pillowcase printed with a giant coffee, the number zero and whatever emoji best represents existential dread.

 Read more about fatherhood:

I am not a raging vessel of classic masculinity, in case you haven’t already guessed. While I’m very comfortable in my version of what it means to be a man, it’s taken me a long time to get here and, thanks to parenthood, it’s an identity I’m forced to question again.

Even before you have a baby, you are confronted with a cavalcade of tasks designed to make you feel instantly like less of a real man. Is your house safe enough to raise a child? Have you vanquished every sharp edge, tamed every heavy object, fixed that leaky shower head that could any minute extinguish a young life? Well, my wife may have made that last one up …

Stay-at-home dad-ness

I strayed further from the path of traditional Aussie maleness when I became my son’s primary carer for six months while my wife returned to work. This time coincided almost perfectly with a block of units being built (and still being built, over a year later … ) beside our house, and with it, a procession of construction vehicles, industrial noise and rugged people in hard hats.

“Dee!” my son would exclaim with delight, over and over, Dee being his word for a construction worker, and the first non-family identifier he’d come up with on his own. From there it became an obsession with trucks, trains, fire engines and anything that generally made noise or you could envisage a virile Aussie bloke stepping out of in an ad for no-nonsense beer.

In the longest days of stay-at-home dad-ness, I tried to untangle what troubled me so much in particular about my son’s DIY-centric identity. I wasn’t a fighter pilot, firefighter or a dinosaur, but none of these passing trends in his life gave me such pause for thought.

At the basis of it is my own particular emotional fault-line that I will somehow fail those I love as a man. I will never be able to teach my son how to change a tyre, build a table or lash a freshly-shot carcass to the roof of his 4WD. I’m used to—and eternally ashamed of—watching on while other men get things done.

Father and son in snow

What really matters

As it turned out though, spending six months in such close contact with my son was the best way to set loose these gendered anchors. It allowed me the time and space to properly understand the person he is becoming. Had I been only present at the start and end of each day, I may have understood him only by his toy trucks and pretend hard hat. I may have just as easily misjudged his behavioural traits. I may have learnt him as unemotional instead of introspected, uncaring rather than considered, assuming stubbornness where there is simply a deeply loyal love. 

I understand now, of course, that he is, like all of us, trying to understand where we fit. In the end, all I want for him is the security and support to be the person he was born to be. And that’s all that should really matter. And if he does turn out to be a man’s man, I’ve got a leaky shower head that needs some rather urgent attention.


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