What is a Father?

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What Is a Father?


Fatherhood isn't a cookie cutter experience, as these four modern-day fathers explain in these inspiring, personal tales

No. 1: The Genetic Parent

Mike Rubino, 47, artist, sperm donor, father of untold numbers of children

I might have 10 kids, or I might have 50 kids. I have no idea. For sure I know about seven kids through six different mothers who live in six different states, from New York to Hawaii. I donated sperm once or twice a week for about five years in the early 1990s. Before that, I was one of those people who spent their life savings on fertility treatments, trying to get my ex-wife pregnant, to no avail. She was infertile, but I wasn't. We felt that by donating, I could help couples going through what we went through, plus pay for groceries for the week. Each time I gave a sample, I was aware, Wow, there could be a child produced from this. And I told the sperm bank I was open to having contact with any of them after they turned 18. I had this vision of being in my fifties and having these teenagers showing up at my door, looking similar to me, and saying, "Hi, Dad. Want to go for coffee?"

Several years after my divorce, I found the Donor Sibling Registry, a Web site where donor offspring can find their half siblings and, sometimes, their donors. Rachael, one of the moms, had listed her two kids, Aaron and Leah, under my donor number. When I saw their names and their ages — 6 and 3 at the time — I got very weepy. Oh my God, these were my kids! Within hours, we were talking on the phone. Rachael asked, "Is it okay if they call you Dad? Would you prefer they call you Donor?" I was fine with Dad, and that's what they called me when Rachael brought them out to see me from Massachusetts. Today I have relationships with four of my children. My son in Southern California knows I'm his father, but he calls me Mike. More recently, I met Precious, my daughter in Hawaii. She never asked; she just called me Dad.

I assumed 99 percent of people who bought donor sperm would be infertile couples and that the kids would already have fathers. I didn't anticipate so many single moms. Of my known kids, none of them has a dad. Most of them don't have living grandfathers or uncles or any men in their lives, really.

A lot of men out there get married, have children, raise them for a year, and then take off. They are still very much these kids' fathers, even if another man moves in and takes over. The biological father could be a deadbeat dad, but he's still a dad. He could be an awful dad, but he's still a dad. Now I'm a donor dad, or an absentee dad. But for these kids, even though I don't live with them, or even near most of them, and I don't pick them up from school or help them with their homework, I'm the only dad they know. And the mother... until now, they had been complete strangers to me.

But I haven't been a complete stranger to them. They chose me. Granted, all I was to them was a donor profile and a tape recording, but that alone creates a persona in their minds. They carried their... my... our children, and of course they are madly in love with them, so the donor becomes a part of all that intense emotion. I think some of the moms have some issues, not with me, but with one another. I don't want to say there is a tug-of-war over my time, because no one has been demanding. But there is definitely tension.

All of our names are now off the Donor Sibling Registry. The moms and I need to take a breather to figure out how I can accommodate the kids I know of, because there's always the chance that another one might turn up. That doesn't mean that the kids I don't know yet aren't entitled to meet their father, but I don't necessarily want 50 kids in my life either. I'm eventually going to have so many little families that I won't be able to afford to spend airfare and a week off to visit every one of them. It might have to be one or two kids a year, one or two kids the next year, and then, depending on how many I have, come back around. At this point it's hard to know what's fair.

I was really burned by my first marriage, and I thought I'd never have a family — I thought I'd missed my chance. Now I have all these kids to add meaning and purpose to my life. I can't see them or talk to them over the phone without smiling or busting out laughing.

What I miss is waking up with them on Christmas and watching them opening their presents and believing in Santa Claus. If I'm lucky, I'll catch one of them on Christmas who still believes in Santa, but maybe not. I also realize that some guy could come in and marry one of these women, and I could be squeezed out. I would miss them, but my primary concern is for my children's happiness. If some great guy comes in and it's good for them, then I am happy for them. I absolutely love it when my kids come to stay with me. But I'm also okay when they leave.

No. 2: The Mortal Man

J. Allan Hobson, 73, Harvard professor, father of five, ages 11 to 45

One can call it narcissistic to have children at the age of 63, but that doesn't do it justice.

Certainly it wasn't fair, actuarially speaking, because it was clear from the start that my life expectancy wasn't enough to live out my fatherhood. But what drove me was more primitive than simple narcissism or selfishness. It is deeply satisfying to have a child with the person you love, and that's all there is to it. It's a raging passion with my wife, who is now 50. It took me over. I remember when we were conceiving those twins, there was a life force in the room and I gave into it. I said to myself, Stop fighting it. Go with it. Let it happen. And it happened. That's the point of it. It's saying "Yes!" to life.

My first wife left me to marry someone else. It was very painful, and the divorce was a disaster. So marrying again was out for me. I had decided I would never do it. I was prepared to be just a friend to my current wife. But she wanted to get married, and she was absolutely determined to have those children, even though she already had six from two previous liaisons, and I had three.

My second-eldest son, Christopher, 42, resented the fact that I remarried and had children. When I told him my wife was pregnant, he said, "I thought it was my turn." I said, "What do you mean, your turn? Just go and do it!" He did, and he has given me a grandson and himself a son.

I never realized how easy it is to be a parent. Before, I was always fighting it. It was my career against my parenthood, and when I was nurturing my career, I didn't nurture my first three children nearly as much as I do my twin boys. Modern life seizes you in such a way that it's very hard to be a good parent and also be a successful scientist, entrepreneur, artist, or whatever. It was an extremely competitive situation, getting grants, getting to be a professor at Harvard. You don't get to do that by having a nine-to-five job. I was overnight in the lab at the National Institutes of Health when my first son, Ian, was born. And when the three of them were growing up, I was never home before eight o'clock. I worked all the time, sometimes all night. It was horrendous. I wish I had spent more time with my first kids.

If I had the chance to do it all over again, would I do it differently? Probably not. The second time around is entirely different because I've made my mark. I have my career and my professorship. Now I have more time. I've read them Harry Potter, all five volumes, start to finish. We were at it for two or three years. I take them to bed every night at nine o'clock and read them stories. And I'm there when they come home from school, when they come through the door. I remember doing this as a child: I'd come home and I'd say "Mom?" and she'd say "Yes?" and then I'd go out and play. It didn't matter that I wasn't spending time with her at that minute. I wanted her to be there. It was a presence and very important to my security to have someone nearby who knew me and was there for me. Andy and Mattie get that from me. My first three kids didn't.

The boys wish I would play with them more — baseball or soccer — because that is what they're into these days. Instead, I watch them. I've been sick. I had a stroke in 2001, and that's when doctors discovered I also had arterial fibrillation. Three or four months afterward, I had a lot of trouble. I had heart failure and pneumonia, and I fell into a coma. I practically died. These days I have trouble walking, although I do so without a cane. And my boys, they help me to feel young, but they have also made me very aware of my mortality. It's a precious, bittersweet feeling. I'm terribly in love with them, and part of that is knowing I'm going to leave them before long.

But one of the virtues of this story is that it's very rare in America to have a large extended family, especially in the upper middle class. So in certain ways, the twins have more than they might have had if I were younger because they have my first three children and my wife's six other children to be interested in them and to love them long after I am gone. And they have my first children's children and will one day have my wife's grandchildren, who will be more their peers in terms of age than their own siblings. There's comfort in knowing I'm leaving them with all of that.

They're 11 now, an age when it's perfectly natural to shy away from physical intimacy. They don't want to be babied, and I have to let them grow up. That's particularly poignant for me now that I am 73. I would love to keep them babies. I don't want to let them go. At the same time, they realize I need them. Andy is becoming so caring of me, and I find that endearing. He says, "Take it slow, Dad, go easy." Or he asks, "Dad, do you need a hand?" Interestingly, Mattie is more concerned about losing his mother, because that's the great unknown. He knows he's going to lose me.

I don't think my first children knew me as the parent I am now. They should resent that, but they probably don't know anything about it, because they never had that from me. Fatherhood is about being there, really being there. My first three had that some of the time, but these two have so much more of it.

No. 3 The Caregiver

John Casey, 43, stay-at-home dad, adoptive father of two, natural father of one

I was relieved when my wife's fertility treatments failed.

My attitude toward fatherhood had always been, Why step into it? It was a minefield in a lot of ways, because mental illness runs in my family. My brother is bipolar. One of my sisters has a personality disorder, as does my father. I am an alcoholic — although I haven't had a drink in more than 20 years. And I've spent my life battling depression. There's a thread of spiteful meanness in my family, and when I was younger, I associated family life with that. That's why we adopted Roma and Beatrice from China. Whatever an adopted child becomes has a lot to do with your parenting, but nothing to do with your genetics.

I was scared and depressed when I found out my wife, Nancy, was pregnant with Frances — something that just happened spontaneously and unexpectedly. I would have aborted. We spent a weekend talking about it, and Nancy decided she wanted to have the baby, and I backed her up. It has turned out to be amazing. Frances is a great little kid, particularly cute and very funny. That said, I'm always looking for the cracks in Frances, because if she turns out badly, it will be my fault. Sometimes I wonder, What have I done?

People stop us all the time; it's almost as if we're a tourist attraction. "Oh, I wish I had a camera, I'd take a picture." Here's a guy with three kids, and two of them are Chinese. I think we look like a spectacle, which bothers me sometimes. I never look at Roma and Bea and think we don't look alike. Most of the time, I forget we're not biologically related. My connection to them is very primal. I always thought that maybe I'd feel more toward a biological child than I would toward an adopted one. But I have both, and there is honestly no difference. After we had Frances, some of the nannies would come up to me and say, "Now you have a real kid. You have a real daughter." It tells me what they were thinking all along, that before Frances I was only kind of a father, but now I'm a real father. I'm sure when you come back from China with an 11-month-old, people think your parenthood is somehow not legitimate.

I was a magazine editor, and then I worked at a Web site until 2001, when the dot-com era ended. We got Roma soon after that, and I've always been a stay-at-home dad. It can be hard seeing friends making big money at big jobs, and wondering, Why am I changing diapers? To me, being a stay-at-home dad grinds against so many parts of my personality. Maybe when my kids grow up, they'll go, "My stupid dad, all he did was stay home." But to me it has been a real growth experience, and sometimes a very painful one. You feel shut out of the world, like what you're doing is worthless, and pretty much everyone around you thinks it's worthless. I feel people looking at me and wondering, Who are you? You're not the nanny, so I can't treat you like a servant, but what are you? Sometimes I worry I'm giving my girls a false impression of what men are like. I'm available in ways that other parents aren't, and most men are rarely available to women. I'm concerned they'll have an unrealistic view of what to expect from a man, which may cause them some bumps later on.

Quite honestly, when I see men in suits, I feel sorry for them, because I have a rapport with my children that I can't imagine they'll ever have with theirs. Maybe it's some kind of overcompensating male thing, like, You have the suit on, you're making the big paycheck, but you're a pussy. I'm twice the man you are. That's what I think. I also think, He can't do what I do. Full-time child care is enormously boring. It's sensory deprivation. There are long periods of horrendous ennui, such as when they're sleeping or when you take them on the ten thousandth playdate. A lot of the time, you're fighting the urge to get up and walk the f--k out the door. Kids between the ages of 2 and 5 are off-the-chart nutcases. They throw themselves onto the floor. They have tantrums because the sky is blue. They scream for 50 minutes at full throttle, and all you can do is wait for them to stop. It's like combat. Veterans say unless you've been at war, you know nothing about what war is like. That's what it's like to be home taking care of kids for five years.

I don't like children very much, but I love my children and I love being a dad. I see parents on weekends who don't have time to spend with their children and seem uncomfortable with their kids. I know a couple and both of them work and their two kids are being raised by a nanny. Recently, one of the children was having a tantrum, and the mother just stood there stunned, like she had no idea who the kid was, what she was doing, or why she was doing it. It was sad.

I used to tell people I was a freelance writer, because I did a lot of freelancing and it was legitimate. Lately, I say I'm a stay-at-home dad who freelances. It feels good to say that, and I feel like, If you don't like it, go f--k yourself. This is me, and this is what I do.

No. 4: The Hero Figure

Aaron Mankin, 25, Marine, Purple Heart recipient, father of one

Madeline has started to develop this crooked smile that says "I know something you don't." I had that same crooked smile before I was burned.

I was wounded two years ago. We were clearing houses and villages and pinching off the insurgency coming into Iraq from Syria when we rolled over an IED and our vehicle exploded literally 10 feet into the air. More fire came at us, and we thought we were under ambush, but it was our own munitions inside the vehicle cooking off--grenades, bullets, flares. I fell back inside the tank, and the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was fire. My initial reaction was to gasp, and in doing so, I inhaled flames and smoke and pieces of burned uniform. My goggles and flak jacket protected my eyes and chest, but the rest of my upper body was on fire.

I jumped out of the vehicle and tried to put myself out by rolling in the grass, but it was dry grass and it caught fire as I rolled in it. Four Marines died, 11 others were wounded. I was certain I was going to be among the dead. People say your life passes before you. For me, I saw the people who meant the most to me. My mom. My dad. I was only semiconscious. Then, my girlfriend Diana's face popped into my head. I was thinking, These are my last thoughts. She is my last thought. And I focused on her face, because if I was going to die in war, I wanted to die with the thought of something worth fighting for, something worth dying for.

Instead, I woke up. The first time I saw Diana three months later, I asked her to marry me. I didn't know what I was capable of as a husband or as a dad. I didn't know what I could bring to the table besides a burned face and scarred arms. My ears, nose, and mouth were gone, as were the thumb and index finger of my right hand. When she said yes, it was a turning point for me. Even though I had a right to be bitter and curse the world, it wasn't what Diana deserved. It wasn't the man she fell in love with.

It was a month and a half before I was ready to look at myself in the mirror. Then one day, I got out of my hospital bed to go to physical therapy and I saw the mirror I'd passed countless times, refusing to see the truth about how hurt I was. I looked over my left shoulder, and there I was — this torn up, frail, thin individual with open wounds on his face that I barely recognized, and my worst imagination became my reality. I cried. Being a Marine, you want to tell yourself you're fine, just walk it off. But I couldn't walk this one off. I covered the bottom half of my face with my elbow, and looking at my eyes and my forehead, I didn't look any different.

I knew inside I was still the same man. But not everyone would see that, and I was very concerned when Jake and Maggie, my little brother and sister, then 8 and 7, came to see me in the hospital. I was their big brother. I was in the Marine Corps. I was invincible. That's how they saw me, but I didn't know if they would see me that way anymore. So I asked Jake, "Do you still think Bubba (that's what they call me) is as strong and fast and tough as you used to?" Jake didn't think about it at all. He just said, "Yeah, I think so." And I looked at myself, and I was bandaged up and breathing hard, and I said, "What makes you think that?" And he said back to me, "Well, they tried to blow you up, and they couldn't."

I would love it if my daughter would see me that way one day, as "superhuman" in my ability to take care of her, and if she's ever in harm's way, there's a cape to wrap her up and shield her. That cape is me.

My worst fear for her as she grows up is that she will be ridiculed or teased for the way I look. She had nothing to do with this. She can't do anything about my skin. It's not fair for her to carry any kind of burden for me or to feel guilty or bad or "less than" because my face is scarred. On the other hand, I feel lucky that she doesn't know the difference between Daddy now and Daddy then. I see what happens when other officers come home wounded. Their kids are reluctant to hug them because Daddy looks different, and because Daddy has owies and the kids don't want to hurt them. Having a severely wounded father flips a kid's whole world upside down. They don't know what to expect or what's expected of them. In that way, Madeline has been spared.

I never want Madeline to think, If my daddy weren't hurt, I could... I want her to see my scars as an advantage. I want her to see that they make me love her more because they make me try harder. And if I can't figure out a way to do something for her, if I can't, say, put together her bike because I'm missing some fingers and I can't manage the little parts, I am not proud, I will ask for help. I will get it done for her somehow. That's on me. That's on my shoulder. She will never go without because I was wounded. I can give you every excuse in my arsenal not to change diapers or do the tough stuff. But the fact that I don't use any of that stuff to my advantage is going to deepen our connection to each other. I can only hope that one day, when she's old enough, she's going to realize that this stuff wasn't easy for her dad, but he did it anyway, because he loved her.
Source: men.msn.com/articlebl.aspx?cp-documentid=5013470&page=1

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