Editor’s Note: This is a classic Babble piece, rerun for Father’s Day. It appeared in our 2009 anthology, Dirt Is Good for You: True Stories of Surviving Parenthood
I am down in my workshop standing amongst tools that date back to my great-grandfather. Most of the tools are for show – I don’t know anyone who has a loom from 1938 that needs fixing. But I like being around the tangible items of the people whose DNA I’m carrying forward in time because it gives me a sense of connection, much like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.
That is not a very original comparison, and I’ve no doubt that most men with a workshop and a rudimentary knowledge of comic books have at some time thought the same thing. It’s also not an accurate analogy. If anything, my son has more in common with Superman than I do. For one, he has a Superman costume, which I do not. More importantly, he and Superman both have stepfathers, and in this scenario, I am Pa Kent, the genteel farmer who, along with his wife Martha, adopts the infant from Krypton.
I have retreated to the basement because my stepson, Gavyn, is upstairs concluding the first visit that he has had with his biological father in two years. Gavyn is nearly seven; I’ve been with his mother since Gavyn was three, and I left him and his father alone to say their goodbyes because it seemed like the polite thing to do. Also, I did not wish to hear him call his biological father “dad.”
Prior to his father’s visit, I’d never brought the matter up with him regarding how I should be addressed, although it would be disingenuous to suggest that it didn’t bother me a little that he called me “Kevin.” I don’t even have a fatherly sounding name, like Fred or Burt. I have a name that belongs to a kid idling along the sidelines at a kickball game.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this. There was a time when I delighted in being called by my first name by Gavyn. That was when I was resisting becoming a father. I never had any desire for children, nor did I ever desire to be married. Neither of these responsibilities figured into my life plan, which up until the age of thirty-two had been to do as much as possible while working as little as possible. An achievable dream for a single man with seven cats, but one day I realized I was saying things to my cats like, “Who’s a sexy kitty? Mitzy’s a sexy kitty, isn’t she? Yes you are, yes you are.” I like to think I have a good handle on when I’m approaching the edge, and I quickly assessed that I needed a girlfriend to take the edge off.
Prior to meeting Patrice, I had only dated one other woman who’d had a child. That girlfriend had been very resistant to bringing me around her daughter. She made it clear she wasn’t looking for a husband or a father for her child. I met her daughter on only two occasions, and those times occurred simply because a babysitter had not been available. In many ways, I believe that relationship fizzled out because I was always kept at a certain emotional distance. If a woman was wary of having me around her child, what did that say about me?
Patrice was not at all hesitant to have me hang out with Gavyn. In retrospect, I wonder if she wasn’t a bit too eager to bring him around. After all, while my apartment seemed perfectly fine to me, it should have raised a series of red flags for any rational person in charge of the well-being of a child. I have mentioned the seven cats. I should also point out the two-foot-tall bong, walls decorated with posters (which would be somewhat fine if framed, but I was past thirty and still using thumbtacks and tape), the erotic refrigerator poetry, the legions of empty beer bottles in my recycling bin, and the loaded firearm in my kitchen cabinet. I do not know why these things did not deter Patrice. She is a former Miss Teen South Carolina. She has retained her youthful good looks. She was not desperate. It remains a bit of a mystery.
Naturally, before she ever brought Gavyn to meet me, I tidied up my apartment to make it suitable for a child to visit. And also, I will admit it: I played the kid angle. I went to my folks’ house and got some of my old toys and brought them down to my apartment. I went out of my way to have Gavyn like me, and also to convey to his mother that in spite of my bohemian trappings, I was a responsible adult at my core.
Plus, the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of possibly being involved for the long haul with someone who had a child. It seemed a better fit for me than fathering a child of my own. I feared passing on the plague of anxiety and depression that has haunted me my whole life and which afflicts nearly all of my relatives. As I saw it, being a stepfather was very much like Obi Wan Kenobi mentoring Luke Skywalker and teaching him the ways of the Force. After all, Gavyn had a dad already – that guy could handle the father business. I would be Gavyn’s cool, older buddy.
And perhaps that arrangement would have worked had Patrice and I simply dated and lived separate lives otherwise. But within two months of appearing in my world, Patrice and Gavyn settled into my apartment, Gavyn’s dad moved twelve hours away, and I was suddenly thrust into a very strange position: the role of the Father Figure. I’d spent my entire life trying to master the part of the Disappointing Son (and I’d been doing a splendid job in that role, if I may say so myself). After a few more months of living together, Patrice let it be known that I needed to get serious or move along. And for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I got serious.
I literally made the decision to marry Patrice in about five minutes, got a ring that same afternoon, and proposed that night. Two things stand out about my proposal in retrospect: I am apparently quite impatient; also, I found I really couldn’t let Gavyn down.
So much for playing on the edge of fatherhood; I was being pushed in the deep end. I was and I still remain in love with his mother, but I’ve been as deep in love with other women as I was with Patrice and I never married them. The difference was that, while my relationship with Patrice was growing, there was a second relationship taking root that was undetected by my emotional defenses. Gavyn’s father had all but abandoned him, returning to his own pre-marriage utopia of surfing and fishing. He let the occasional phone call drift in so that he didn’t become a total stranger, but otherwise he was out of the picture.
I wanted to take care of Gavyn and his mother. It seemed like the right thing to do.
Which is all quite laughable now. Not only was my thinking terribly chauvinistic, I believe I have already detailed the many variables in my life that made me incompatible with stability. However, Patrice’s income was plenty to provide for her and Gavyn, and I made enough to keep a roof over our heads, so we were in good shape. Except that Patrice was quite forgetful about taking the pill, especially after a few glasses of wine, and within a month of our nuptials she was pregnant with twin girls. So much for playing on the edge of fatherhood; I was being pushed in the deep end.
To my credit, I have managed to swim more often than I’ve sunk, but the twins are two now and they are accumulating more words every day, and the word they are constantly saying to me is, of course, “Daddy.” It melts my cynicism entirely when they say it. Who knew that one word could have such power?
But when my family is gathered around the dinner table, it feels as though the four people with whom I live are divided into two camps: those who know me as Daddy, and those who call me Kevin. I worry that Gavyn will feel our relationship is somehow lesser because he and the girls use different nomenclature for me, a sign that defines the levels of intimacy between us.
However, I don’t believe in forcing a child to refer to anyone by a specific name unless it’s a matter of manners. That seems quite a bit different than my situation. I don’t want to issue a dictum that I should be called “Dad” if I haven’t earned the title.
And that is what it feels like: I am not doing a good enough job, because if I were, Gavyn would call me Dad.
When Patrice comes into the workshop to tell me that Gavyn’s biological father has gone, I am separating the wood screws from the machine screws. I love to separate screws because I find organization calming, but Patrice seemed to think my ongoing campaign of proper screw separation was a sign of something else:
“Are you okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be okay?”
“Because of Gavyn’s visit with Frank.” It’s true – Gavyn’s biological father has a fatherly name. But I shall spare the reader the twenty minutes of hemming and hawing about what is bothering me before Patrice elicits a confession:
“Look,” I say. “I took Gavyn to school his very first day. I’m the one reading to him at night. I’m the guy who showed him how to tell the difference between deer droppings and raccoon droppings. Why does Frank get to be ‘Dad’? I want to be ‘Dad’. It sounds petty, but I love Gavyn to death, and I’m trying, and it seems like I get nothing.”
Why does Frank get to be ‘Dad’? I want to be ‘Dad’.“What are you talking about? Gavyn always calls you Dad. Have you been drinking?”
“What are you talking about? He calls me Kevin.”
“When he’s talking to me he refers to you as Dad. That’s what he calls you when he talks to other people too. You didn’t know that?”
I walk past my wife without saying anything, climb the stairs, and find Gavyn sitting in the kitchen working his way through a roll of Smarties.
“Gavyn,” I say, “when you talk to other people about me, what do you call me?”
He looks at me and crunches the candy in his mouth, as though he can’t quite make sense of my question, then he says matter-of-factly, “Dad.”
“But why do you call me Kevin?”
He tries to suppress a smile. “Because I wanted you to notice.”
I stare at him for a few seconds and then say, “Are you messing with my head?”
His smile is suddenly uncontainable. “Yep. And I won.”
There is no doubt in my mind that – DNA aside – this is my son.