“What kind of a man are you?”

When my daughter, Jessica, was a baby, I worked in the evening for the first 18 months of her life.  Her mom, who had an income much greater than what I made as a college writing instructor, would head to work at around 8:00 a.m. and I would be home with Jessica until the late afternoon or evening when I would head off to teach evening classes at UCCS.

The day would have some routine to it:  Jess would have a mid-morning nap, we’d have lunch, and she might have an afternoon nap.  Depending on what time my first class was, I would either hand her off to her mother at work around 4:00 or we would all have dinner together and then I would head to my class.

During those first eighteen months of her life, Jessica and I spent a lot of time together.  We would head downtown, or to the mall, or grocery shopping to a) get out of the house for a change of scenery and b) to meet the necessities of life.  Jessica would be strapped into her stroller or snuggled in the carrier across my chest as we meandered through Sears, Safeway, or the corridors of the Citadel mall.

On several occasions throughout that time period, sales women would say to me “Oh that’s so cool that you’re babysitting today.”  At first, I loved the comment.  I sort of relished in the acknowledgement that I was an involved father, active and present in my daughter’s life.  After the 3rd or 5th or 9th time the comment was made, though, I found myself growing offended.

“Babysitting?”  I even barked at one innocent sales woman at Sears when she made the comment.   “I’m not babysitting — I’m parenting.”

I left the store and the saleswoman — her expression one of bewilderment at my response and probably a bit surprised at the passion with which I expressed my sentiment.

As I got Jess settled into her car seat, and as I drove around town that morning, I kept rolling that experience around in my mind.

We would never say to the mom “oh, you are babysitting” when she was with her own daughter.  But on more than one occasion in a very short amount of time, several people — usually women but some men — commented that I was babysitting.  I was not — I was parenting.  I was fathering.  I still am — and Jessica will soon turn 19.

The memory of thosecomments resurfaced in the past few days as I work on a different, longer, piece of writing in which I am exploring my own life and the impact of males in my life:

My father who drove off when I was 12, waving as I neared our house, and who would be physically present in my life for maybe something like 90 days over the next 12 years.

Roger, who taught me how to backpack in the Colorado Rockies (particularly memorable for the experiences in frigid and snow-filled winter trips), and who instilled in me a confidence that I otherwise would not have attained.

Dr. Zoellner, who fostered in me a love of literature and writing.

Jimmie Garrett, who, unknowingly, offered guidance and encouragement at probably the darkest and most “lost” period of my life.

Mr. Fenwick who taught me what it means to be a professional in the world of work.

So I look back on that flicker of time in my life when I was the father of an infant girl, when the questions (re-)surfaced about fatherhood and, more broadly, about being a man.

Through fatherless households, through factory lives, through pages of poetry and Hemingway stories, through barroom brawls, and with the soft touch of an infant girl’s hand, we get to pursue our own answer to this question:   “What kind of a man are you?”

One Response to ““What kind of a man are you?””

  1. Conor Hallisy Says:

    Great piece of work Vinny. I hope that one day I can be half the father you are to Jessica. Now you should do a quick piece on “uncling” and the importance of dunking on your nephews, making them Serbian Eggs, and getting schooled on the river.

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