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Portrait of the New Father

[ 1 ] November 5, 2011 |

Chapter 6 of 32 in A Father’s Journal
By Forrest Seymour
Originally published in May, 1994.

As a new father, it is compulsory that I frequent the local photo shop. A fellow new father claims that they have his latest developments waiting in hand by the time he makes it to the counter of his photo shop. At my photo shop they are good, but not that good.

The last time I dropped film off I had my daughter in tow. A certain friend would be shocked to know that I took an infant to a place where they do on-sight photo development, because of the levels of indoor pollution. But I had thought it would be only a brief, and inconsequential, stop.

When my daughter goes out, she usually travels by sling, carriage or car seat. This trip was via automobile, so she was in one of these infant car seats with the fold-up handle for easy carrying. In fact, it is quite awkward dangling her at arm’s length, but with some practice one can learn to swing through doorways and around display cases, using centrifugal force to suspend the car seat away from one’s body. I imagine, at times, that we might even appear graceful.

There is, I am realizing, a certain macho appeal to whirling my daughter, packed snugly into her plastic bucket, up onto some unsuspecting merchant’s counter. Such flourishes appear to be part of fatherhood, and I’m sure motherhood as well, but the physical rigor involved gives some small justification for the male obsession with muscle.

Since returning home from our daughter’s birth, I’ve had to relinquish control of some of the duties in the baby department which had, in the hospital, become my sole providence. It was a complicated birth, and Nancy was, for a time, significantly restricted in her movements. Now that she is regaining her strength, it is bitter sweet for me to begin to share parts of our daughter’s life which had been, for a while, mine alone to savor. As we now emerge into the world as a family, I am having to find what new ways my role as father will manifest itself.

This ballet of the baby carrier seems to one of them.

At the photo shop I plopped Emily, ensconced in her federally approved automobile safety apparatus, upon the counter, to the surprise of the lanky young man behind it, and to the seeming approval of the woman in charge. The woman, perhaps a few years younger than myself, smiled at Emily and I, but, instead of the de rigueur, “isn’t s/he cute,” the woman said, “aren’t you a nice father!”

Now, it was “Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” so perhaps she thought that that was what was transpiring. But, before I could respond, she went on.

“My father would never. . . He was a good dad, you know, but he would pretty much leave us at home . . ,” and with a sad look her voice trailed off.

More than a little surprised by this unexpected intimacy, I didn’t know what to say, so I just smiled, stupidly.

With a quick smile to Emily and I, the woman left us in the capable hands of her young and silent assistant, and we spoke no more. (This was the first, but not the last time, a stranger would unexpectedly tell me a piece of her father/daughter story.)

I’m sure there have always been fathers who enjoyed toting their babies about, but there does seem to be pattern of physical separation between fathers, at least those in a certain middle class, Northern European cultural tradition, and their children. Maybe especially among post-World War II fathers, the fathers of the baby-boom, who were enculturated in, or by, the war, a place where male roles are rigid and limited, where intellect and emotion are systematically, institutionally, and schizophrenically separated. Wars are hard on the men who fight them, and certainly do little to teach good, flexible fathering.

There is an old photo of my father, a Marine who (thankfully) saw no combat, looking at me, the day I was born. I grew up with this photo. The gentle look on his face is still gratifying to me. The setting, however, is archetipically absurd. We have the plump nurse in the paper hat and tight, boxy white dress, presenting me, on one side of a thick wall of glass, while my father, on the other side, in sports coat, leaning over, peering at me, through a florescent glare. Could he hear me, smell me, touch me? I suspect not.

The institutions we build reflect our deepest, sometimes darkest, values. For some time in this country, fathers were not a part of birth. How deeply must this separation effect our society, effect us all, in ways which are hard to think of as positive. Perhaps what is good is the clear opportunity for improvement left for the next generation.

A few weeks ago, I held my daughter only minutes after Nancy bore her into the world. I comforted my daughter after a hard delivery. It may have been nice for her. It was great for me. I slept at the hospital every night that Nancy did. I had my own bed right next to hers. Emily slept with us there. I cried more in those few days, tears of joy and relief, tears of unrealized fears, than I’d cried in a year. There was room for all of this, in the hospital we chose. Not once did anyone suggest that my constant presence was in any way a problem.

Our world is a different world than that of our fathers. The opportunities to be different than we’ve been told men should be, seem boundless. My daughter has a million chances ahead of her to challenge what our culture dictates to her gender, if she chooses. As her father, and with her help, I may have nearly as many chances to challenge the dictates to my gender. If I choose.


By Forrest Seymour
Originally published in May, 1994.

Category: Father's Journal

About Forrest Seymour: See my LinkedIn Profile Forrest Seymour is a social worker, psychotherapist and violence prevention consultant.  He has worked in community based programs, hospitals, schools and colleges supporting individual and institutional efforts to prevent sexual violence and promote emotional and community health since the mid-‘70s.  He has consulted with State Department International Visitor Groups and serves on the Cheshire County (NH) Domestic Violence Council, the New Hampshire Violence Against Women Campus Consortium and the steering committee of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Outreach.  Since 2006, Forrest has been at the Keene State College Counseling Center where he is a Counselor and the Coordinator of Sexual Violence Prevention & Education.  He counts amongst his inspirations the many men he has collaborated with locally, nationally and internationally who seek in so many creative ways to end men’s violence, but most especially, the male and female students at Keene State College who step up as Mentors in Violence Prevention peer educators, Walk a Mile in Her Shoes march organizers, Shout Out Against Sexual Assault speakers and witnesses, Take Back the Night marchers, “Vagina Monologues” and “No Zebras, No Excuses” performers,  and as violence prevention activists in countless large and small ways every year and every day.  These students are victims, survivors, allies and active-bystanders; they are leaders, role models and inspirations for their peers, for their faculty and staff, and for Forrest. View author profile.