The fatherhood files

New to parenting, one man's motto for fatherhood: 'the last one to turn off the lights.'


Eighteen months ago, my wife and I had our first child, a boy. In the many months since his birth, our lives have changed immeasurably in ways both tangible and possibly unknowable. We could not love him more, and though our lives are different now, already we cannot remember who we were before he arrived, or what we did with ourselves before he appeared.

Occasionally dim memories surface of haute cuisine on white linen tablecloths; the flicker of late-night candles in dim bars; movie theaters asparkle with images and laughter and filled with strangers; Saturday mornings when we rose from bed just before noon to drink coffee, our pre-baby house quiet and orderly. But we don't often linger in those memories. They are being replaced daily by memories of first laughter; first word; first steps; first snowfalls; a first taste of ice cream, or lemon; his little body beside us in our bed.

But now I am a father, a dad. Fundamentally, I understand this to mean that biologically and emotionally, I am my son's dad. The paterfamilias. I feed him breakfast, change his diapers, strap him into his car seat – all the minutia of parenthood. But I've been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means to me to be a dad. How would I describe my role now, my function, perhaps to a man of my own age without children? Because being a dad is also so much more than just the minutia. When I was a child, my dad was my hero, a god. Fatherhood is like being the monarch of a tiny kingdom, full of blessings and burdens. But there again, how to describe my responsibilities, my essential duty?

One thing that has certainly been disrupted in our lives is our house. Our son, you see, seems to have come with hundreds of toys – toys that he carries about the house, out of their boxes and places to other spots. Frequently beside our bed, for example. Or on the cushion of a chair that I might flop into, exhausted at day's end.

Another change in the landscape of our home is the food debris left in our child's wake. By debris, I mean particulates of cracker, banana, cheese, pasta, apple, Cheerios. At the end of every meal he has begun wiping the table clean of whatever food was left before him. This food obviously lands on the floor. I now frequently step on shards of stale tortilla chips, or white lumps of warm cottage cheese, as I go to the kitchen on a late-night sortie for a glass of water.

My wife is an attorney, which means that she works long hours and comes home at the end of the day tired. I try to cook when I can so that she can spend time with our son, playing or cuddling. Many nights, both she and he are asleep on our bed by 8 in the evening, his little body beside hers, both of them snoring lightly. I wait for a while in the doorway of our bedroom, admiring them – my family.

As I said, I've only been a dad for 18 months now, but I think I know the answer to what it means to me, to be a father, the paterfamilias of this little household. It is the feeling at the end of the night, of carrying my son to his crib. Of pulling the covers over my wife and shutting off her bedside lamp. It is the bedraggled and weary feeling, on hands and knees, of sweeping bread crumbs into the palm of my hand from beneath the kitchen table. It is loading the dishwasher. Folding clothes. Locking all the doors. And shutting off all the lights – good night.

Being a dad to me, means being the last one standing. Knowing that everyone else is asleep and all right. That the house is quiet, and clean, and ready for another day of chaos. I don't mean to imply that I think my particular brand of fatherhood is equivalent to being a housekeeper, because that isn't it. But I do believe that a good father helps, assists in the house. A father makes things easier, not more difficult. A father leads. I have to believe that my son sees me cleaning, cooking, and treating his mother with respect. I have to believe that he is absorbing these signals. That in our family at least, good food means something. A clean house means something. That a partnership between mother and father means something.

I've begun thinking of my own parenting philosophy as "The Last One Turns Off The Lights." That's what I do. I check the locks on the doors, I clean the dishes, I tuck in my loved ones in their beds, and I extinguish the burning light bulbs. I am the paterfamilias. It is the best that I can do.

And I'm trying my best to create someone better than I am.

Nickolas Butler studies creative writing at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. New Voices showcases the work of students, graduates, and faculty involved with master's of fine arts creative-writing programs around the United States.

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