I’ve come across a lot of dad-writing lately, probably because I’ve been a dad for 20 months now. A friend gave me a copy of Abbot Awaits as soon as he found out my wife was pregnant. When Cobalt Press released Four Fathers, I jumped to review it, half because I knew it’d be good (it was), and half to figure out this whole dad thing.
I’m not sure this genre—the existence of which makes me exceedingly happy—shows any father how to operate, but rather functions as a canon of shared experiences. With these stories out there and available, I think today’s dads are more confident and open than ever. We don’t even joke about not changing diapers—of course we change them. Jay-Z changes his kid’s diapers. We put our kids to bed, even on the difficult nights, and hug them where everyone can see. This is beyond accepted, it is expected.
This is 21st century fatherhood and not only is it awesome but dads all get to talk freely about how much they love it. To their wives, to each other, and in print.
Lost in Space, a collection of essays by Ben Tanzer about his own experiences as a father—and, in a few selections, a son—fits clearly into this canon in its candor and humor. In a way, he shows how sacred fatherhood is by stripping away the facade of anything hallowed and dealing honestly with the funny, wacky, sometimes paradoxical nature of being a dad. He engages the weird, which is engaging the truth of it all.
For example, in an essay about his first son’s bris: “…what they don’t tell you about circumcisions, is that when the hood is gone, much of the size goes with it, and seeing this made me sad.” Later on in the same essay: “I know I am going to do everything to be a good father by modeling confidence even when I’m lacking it, providing positive reinforcement, and looking to build their self-esteem in a healthy manner. I also know that I will fail them as a man in some fashion… but there is no question in my mind that a larger penis would help ameliorate these problems from the start.”
If we’re being honest, the bris is one of the stranger Jewish traditions, but no Jewish father would ever think of not having his son circumcised (if I’d had a son, you bet the mohel would have been at our house eight days after the kid was born). Tanzer, in embracing the nature of the ceremony, looks at all sides. Sure he drops a few dick jokes—they’re funny, which makes it OK, and really, how can he not? But he goes beyond that, takes the opportunity of a penis-centric ceremony to explore what it means to be the father of sons.
These essays, while all good humored, delve further into Tanzer’s connection with his sons than just being guys of different ages. One thing that comes up frequently is insomnia, that he often can’t sleep and neither can his son. Most parents have frustrations from sleep-depravation at some point, but for Tanzer it’s more than a kid who can’t close his eyes and relax, it’s a family heritage:
“Sleep is not the enemy, isolation and the anxieties that surround it are. It is the lack of touch, love, and intimacy, and the voices that keep reminding you just how alone you are in the world and what a failure you have become. I didn’t understand that at ten, but now I recognize this is what we had in common, not the lack of sleep per se, but all the reasons we cannot.”
Through the collection, Tanzer captures the cacophony of emotions that come with being a father: the affection for your kids clawing at the heritage of being an American tough guy tackled by the anxiety of a child that has to go into surgery. He owns it all. I’m glad he does. It’s guys like him that let the rest of us own it too.
Joshua Isard is the author of Conquistador of the Useless, a novel, and several short stories. He is the director of Arcadia University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing. You can find him on the web at JoshuaIsard.com, and on Twitter @JoshuaIsard.