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Connections

What being a dad really means

If you really want to make an impact on the father in your life, don’t just settle for breakfast in bed or a cute card.

gracia lam

I CAN REMEMBER THE PRECISE MOMENT when I realized what it meant to be a father. We’d just brought our first child, Josephine, back from the hospital. She had proved unable to breast-feed, and I’d been instructed to tape a tiny plastic tube to my finger so she could practice sucking down formula. This was the first “finger feeding” I’d done solo. My wife was in the bedroom, sleeping the sleep of the dead. Things were not going well. Translation: Josie was wailing.

I tried everything in my extremely limited fathering repertoire — fresh diaper, burping session, tighter swaddle. Her misery escalated. She started choking on her sobs. Her tiny face turned Blood Blister Red. Before long I was also a trembling mess. My daughter was, for all I knew, dying, and I was completely helpless to do anything about it.

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Both of us eventually calmed down. Josie exhausted herself and fell asleep on my chest. I’m happy to report that she is now a vibrant 6-year-old who is fond of jumping on my chest. But for me, that essential feeling — of being overmatched by the demands of the job, of searching for some elusive poise — has never quite gone away.

I’m reminded here of something my friend Karl once said to me at the tail end of a particularly rancorous play date. “Anybody can handle kids when things are going well,” he observed tiredly. “You only become a dad when it’s all going to hell.” I’m not suggesting that being a father boils down to crisis management. There’s plenty of happiness and laughter and balloons and cake. And there should be.

But it’s important to remember that the most deeply felt part of being a dad — being any sort of guardian, frankly — resides in these private moments of struggle, moments when you’re not strong and proud and in control, when you’re basically hanging on for dear life.

I’m thinking of a particularly epic tantrum my 4-year-old son threw last year, during my brother-in-law’s wedding. I had to carry Judah upstairs and physically restrain him. Then I had to restrain myself from throwing him out the window. Or the time that Josie — after a week of laxative intake — announced that she had to go “number two” in our local diner. (Trust me, you don’t want to know what ensued.)

The scenes that leap to mind when I think about my own father aren’t quite so vivid. But they almost inevitably involve his having to manage some difficult situation, having to drive one of his sons to the emergency room or break up a fight or offer consolation to the disconsolate. My dad was also the guy who took it upon himself to deliver the wisdom we didn’t want to hear. I remember him telling me, in the weeks after I graduated from college, that I might not actually love the girl I was mooning over, that I might be clinging to her because I felt insecure. It took me three years, and a lot of heartache, to see he was right.

Of course, it rarely occurred to me to think about how hard my dad worked to raise us, and how little gratitude he received, until I had my own kids. Such is the karmic arrangement that governs parenthood. Which is why it’s nice (if a little arbitrary) to celebrate an occasion like Father’s Day.

One piece of advice, though: If you really want to make an impact on the dad in your life, don’t settle for breakfast in bed or a cute card. Think back to a time when you could feel your father battling to live up to his role. Whether or not he succeeded, thank him for trying.

Steve Almond’s latest story collection is God Bless America. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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