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It’s about to be Father’s Day, but do I deserve to be celebrating?

I’m the father of two, but sometimes I ask myself if I’m a real dad or not. With Father’s Day approaching, the question becomes more acute; sure my kids call me Daddy, but do I really deserve the designation, and should I really be celebrating?

The situation is a little complicated, so allow me to explain: about 7 years ago, a dear friend of mine from high school asked if I’d be willing to help her and her partner have a child. They said I could be involved as much or as little as I wanted, which theoretically sounded great. But I was also a single guy living in New York, 100 miles from their home. Would I see the kids enough for their needs – or for my own? Would they interfere with me getting married and having more children? Was I ready to be a dad? Long story short: I was vexed as hell – but also really excited. I said yes.

But despite going about it quite unlike nature intended and without any medical help (suffice it to say that a produce bag from the grocery was prominently involved), nature was kind to us, and we had our little boy. Then, a year and a half later, we decided to try to give him a sibling (a tougher decision than you might think as I still wasn’t married and feared that would make it even less likely). Now my young one is almost three, and his older brother just spent his 5th birthday not being able to smash open the industrial-strength cardboard of his pre-fab pinata. I spend one day a week with them (to keep their profile low, let’s call them Louis and Otis) and their two moms. It’s a house jam-packed with love.

The moms and I get along wonderfully, and the boys are always ecstatic when I arrive (bouncing up and down like they were on mini pogos). While I’m there I try to help out by playing with the kids till they’re exhausted (steamroller, push down Dad, are you a boy or Daddy’s dumbbell?, etc.), getting them to eat more than they usually do (“Let’s all take a Daddy bite!”), and trying to walk the dog, take out the trash, cook a little, or do whatever I can do to lend a hand.

That said, I’m nowhere close to being an equal parent – a sentiment I tried to express to them on Mother’s Day (in our case, Mothers’ Day). There really is no way I could thank them for just how much they do in raising our sons. For Father’s Day, the reverse would hardly be necessary. I do next to nothing in terms of the day-to-day ordeals of being a parent, and even if you didn’t criticize me (and, Lord knows, my baby moms don’t – they’re just thankful I make the long commute every week), I still criticize myself, often feeling more like a glorified uncle than a dad.

I do know that my not-yet-a-dad feeling isn’t only a function of the peculiarity of my situation or how few diapers I’ve changed (though it’s clearly compounded by not being there full-time). All the fathers I’ve talked to have told me that the whole sense of being a dad doesn’t happen immediately at the birth of their first child; instead it comes on slowly in those first few months or years, since we are typically less useful, less integrally tied, and less necessary to the baby than the mom almost inevitably is. Not being able to breastfeed and often not being able to soothe a crying infant or a toddler with a boo-boo can make you feel especially pathetic and disconnected. Or hearing, “I’m not talking to you, Daddy,” after you’ve said, “But Mommy’s busy, and I can get you a glass of juice, too” – these are some elements of early paternity that reflect the distinction between parents, even if the words “dad” and “mom” seem like they carry equal weight.

And yet, even if it’s clear that I’m no mom-substitute for the boys, in some ways it seems like they’ve still left a very special place open for me. Ironically, even as I question my own dad-ness, both my sons use the word “Daddy” almost obsessively (Louis has pretty much never said a thing to me in his life that didn’t begin or end with “Daddy”). They don’t do this so much with “Mama” or “Mimi,” the respective names for their moms, and I haven’t noticed other kids doing it with their dads. My girlfriend thinks that maybe the boys are subconsciously reaffirming our connection; I think I’m probably just benefitting from the once-a-week schedule, such that it’s always exciting for them when I come to town.

For a long time I wondered what the word “Daddy” actually meant for them. Did they understand it as a category – one that I might live up to or not – or just the name they had been told to call me? These days even little Otis knows that my actual name is Jack, but does he realize how different his situation is from his friends’ – and does it even matter? I know that kids are very adaptable, but am I really fulfilling the role of Dad for them? Are they getting enough, and would they know it if they weren’t? It might sound funny, but sometimes I wonder if they’re giving me too much credit, letting me off too easily.

But of course I also know that there are many fathers out there who do a great job, without seeing their kids that often (divorced or military dads, traveling dads, or dads like my friend at the Bangladeshi food cart who hasn’t seen his sons in three years but works 85 hours a week to improve their lives). And the flip side can be true, too: that you can be there all the time but never really connect to your kids, never really know who they are, and never make yourself emotionally available (a pretty common criticism about fathers from the last generation). Time spent is clearly not the most important factor, and a high level of engagement (and investment) when you are there can clearly make up for a fair amount of absence.

Because my dad wasn’t around very much – and didn’t seem at all invested in being around – I just can’t help but feel guilty that I don’t spend more time with my little guys. But I’m also hoping to do things differently than my dad did with me (and, actually, his behavior has started to change in recent years too): I try really hard to let my boys know I love them – and that’s clearly the most important task – and I also try to make sure they know that I’m always listening to what they say and always care about what they’re feeling.

That’s not the same as being a full-time, in-the-trenches dad, I know – and it makes me that much more thankful for all the moms’ day-to-day work. Mothers’ Day will always be the real holiday – in my mind at least – and Father’s Day next to it a little like a scrimmage to the Super Bowl: it’s there, yes, but you don’t need to make a big deal of it.

So maybe my way of celebrating this year will be to tell the moms again how grateful I am, to kiss and love and play with our magic little men, and to feel how funny and wonderful it is to realize, “Oh, it’s Father’s Day. Wait – that actually might apply to me.”

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