What's a father supposed to do?


June 16, 1993|By Kevin Cowherd

I became a father on a hazy summer evening nearly 11 years ago, when a delivery room nurse handed me this tiny pink person and my mind raced wildly: "What, hold him? Me? Like this? Is his head too high? What happens if he . . .?"

No man was ever more ill-prepared for fatherhood. No man brought with him more anxieties. I remember carrying the baby once on the second floor of a shopping mall and looking over the railing and thinking: "What if I drop this baby right here?"

And suddenly I just knew I was going to drop that baby. It was an image I could not get out of my mind for weeks. The mind plays terrible tricks. At least my mind does.

But three years later another child arrived, a daughter this time, and two years ago, another boy. And somewhere in the midst of all the 4 a.m. feedings, diaper changes, first steps, first words, first days at school, First Communions and Little League games, it occurred to me that being a father is not a bad job at all. A man could learn to like this.

The thing is, it took me a while to figure out just what a father is supposed to do.

My own father was not much of a role model. Basically, he just tried to stay out of the way. Then one day when I was 12, my mother sat me down with my sister and brother and said in a quiet voice: "Your father is leaving."

The room got very still. And I thought: "Whuh? But . . . who's going to work the grill?"

I know that sounds terrible. But, see, that's the way we thought of him. He was the guy who worked the grill. And mowed the lawn. In many ways, that was the extent of his emotional involvement with the family.

It turned out my father had met this woman from Cleveland. He walked out a few days later. We never saw him again. I talked to this woman on the phone once -- she sure didn't seem like any prize to me.

The other day I heard one of these egghead college professors pontificating on TV about the "diminished role" of fathers nowadays.

Please. Give me a break. Any fool can see a child needs two good parents. That 16-year-old from the projects running up to cars and pressing a vial of crack into someone's hands . . . think he could use a strong father figure?

Anyway, here is what I think a father should do: Love his kids. Spend time with them. Play with them. Play is very important. Although you might not think so the first time your kid fires a baseball at your groin and you go down like someone whacked you with an ax handle.

A father should be The Great Protector. The other day, my 7-year-old came home from school upset. A classmate was giving her a hard time. My first reaction was: "Let's go find this little creep and beat the tar out of her."

Look, I know you can't do that. But your kids have to think you'll do anything to keep them from harm.

A father is a teacher, too. He teaches good from bad, right from wrong. He teaches other things, too. A few years ago, standing on a sea wall on Long Island, I showed my oldest son how to bait a fish hook. Twenty minutes later, he hooked a flounder. A flounder! You should have seen his smile. It was something you wanted to press between the pages of a book.

I have so many faults as a father. I yell at the kids too much. I'm still too quick with a smack on the rear end. And I'm much too hard on the oldest boy.

The poor kid leaves his socks thrown on the floor, I go ballistic. Whereas my daughter could get caught bursting into a 7-Eleven at 3 in the morning with a shotgun and I'd say: "Look, you gotta stop doing that . . ."

And the 2-year-old . . . if the cops banged on my door one day and accused him of setting a string of warehouse fires, I'm sure my reaction would be: "Well, that's it! No Barney for you today, mister!'

It's funny, even though I haven't seen him in years, I still think about my father when Father's Day rolls around. He lives in Las Vegas now. The woman from Cleveland lives with him.

Some years ago, I happened to be in Vegas covering the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney fight. One night, after a few too many beers in a hotel bar, I got a brilliant idea. I get a lot of brilliant ideas after a few beers, but this one was truly inspired: I would jump in a cab, drive over to his apartment building, knock on the door and say: "Hey, remember me?"

But then I thought: "Nah, he's probably too busy." So I went up to my room and went to bed.

There's one for you. A father should try not to say: "I'm too busy" to his kids. Although God knows, sometimes he is.

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