Fatherhood Shattered My Self-Image In Ways I Never Could Have Imagined

by Dimitri Ehrlich for Fatherly
NelliSyr / iStock

A sudden realization of the obvious.

Even though it’s been a year and a half now, whenever someone refers to me as a dad, I still feel like it’s being said with air quotes, as if they’re kind of joking. It’s not that I’m too young to be a new father — at 50 it’s quite the opposite. But inside, I feel like Lev and I are more like bros, and Michelle, despite being younger than me, is the adult of the house.

Not just because I am so immature that I often get down on the floor and crawl around with Lev, to the point that he’s probably not sure if I’m his much older brother or maybe some kind of damaged pet chimp. But more because my inner sense of self is still 13 years old. When Michelle is talking to Lev and says something like, “Do you want daddy to read you a bedtime story?” I always feel like we’re all in on a joke, because how could I, just a few months past my bar mitzvah, be someone’s dad? But it’s a fun game, so we all play along, and I end up reading him the book in some made up sing-song burp language, and maybe no harm is done by my secretly held delusion. Although I did teach him to drool the other day.

This arrested development of my identity isn’t limited to being a father by the way. I still turn around and look behind me when someone addresses me as “sir” in an airport or restaurant. I feel like Tom Hanks in Big, an impostor, gleefully enjoying the fact that somehow the world is treating me like an adult when inside I’m still reading Mad magazine and posting Wacky Packages stickers to my bedroom door. Despite my creeping infirmity and sagging physical presence, I just somehow never stopped feeling boyish — and for better or worse, I’m still crawling around under the kitchen table with Lev.

But yesterday, something milestone-ish happened. Michelle and I were visiting my parents and sitting under some trees in the shade while Lev played, naked, in a small plastic bath tub filled with water. A sluggish breeze struggled to move the leafy dark conifers above our heads. Both the humid summer air and time itself seemed to slow down enough for me to have a sudden realization of the obvious. It hit me that while I don’t have any psychological need to feel like a father, being a dad is about a relationship, and Lev does need me to be that guy.

Having recently entered this vast and confusing universe, Lev doesn’t mean it ironically when he calls me “da-da.” In fact, he requires me to play a role like my own father has for me, of bedrock reliability, embodying kindness, patience, always there-ness. So even if I’m personally lost in an extended Peter Pan reverie, I can’t ever forget that fatherhood is a tango that takes two. And in that relationship, I’m not the important one. My parenting needs have already been met with impeccable patience and generosity by my own father. Now it’s my turn to try to emulate him and be someone else’s rock of Gibraltar.

The values I used to think were most important about my own self-image — being the center of attention — have to give way to something more subtly heroic. But just because this isn’t my time to shine by standing in the spotlight and delivering the punchline doesn’t mean being a dad is an act of drudgery. Fatherhood can still be exciting, but it’s a chance to shine in a different, more quiet way, by being the anchor to someone else’s ship as it tentatively leaves the harbor.

And so as Lev learns to sail off on his own life journey in a plastic bathtub, I’m sitting here, stunned at the epiphany that, no, this is not some kid of cosmic joke. This is my family. I am a father.

And to celebrate, and christen this amazing voyage, I stood up and poured a bucket of water on my son, knowing my own father would never do that to me, but perhaps stirred into action by some long-forgotten instinct that it was something I would definitely have done to my little brother.

Because as Lev splashed around in that plastic tub, blowing bubbles with soapy water, cooing with delight at those fragile opalescent sudsy spheres, bubbles as fleeting as this very moment, he was assuming the two adults watching him were normal and fully qualified parents, and he was, after all, kind of asking for it.

This post previously appeared on Fatherly.