Early in his new essay collection, Manhood for Amateurs , Michael Chabon offers a telling definition of what it means to be a dad: “A father is a man who fails every day.” Later, the author of the Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay writes that, as a father, it's his job to be a hypocrite. For Mr. Chabon, 46, a father of four and one of the most celebrated novelists of his generation, this fatherhood thing? It's not easy. Whether he's talking to his kids about drugs or struggling to understand his daughters, he always seems aware of his shortcomings as a father. He talked to The Globe and Mail about how aspiring to a higher standard makes men good dads.
As you point out in the book, the historical standard for being a good dad is really low. Why do dads get off so easy?
There's certain minimum behaviours that have long been accepted as marking whether one is or is not a good father, and basically those consisted of paying to raise your children, paying for their upkeep and sticking around. And that's it. Anything more than that would just push you into some kind of Super Dad category. It's not fair.
Do you think it's encouraged dads to stick to the minimum requirements?
It has been bad for men that the expectations put on fathers are so low. It's been bad for them as sons and bad for them as fathers as well. It's incredibly satisfying and fulfilling to care for your children. It's tedious and irritating and overwhelming and boring and it can be drudgery, but it's one of those things that having done them gives you a feeling of satisfaction.
You say in the book that a father is a man who fails every day. Do you find having an awareness of the futility of trying to be perfect at it liberating in a way?
Only in my moments of genuine insight and grace. I think it's much more of a nagging sense of inadequacy. It is productive in the sense that it does keep you trying to do better next time.
There have been critics over the past few years who claim parents are as immature as their kids for playing the same video games and sharing an interest in the same popular culture as their children. But you seem to be really happy to be able to geek out with your kids over, say, a shared love of Dr. Who.
It's incredibly pleasurable. And it's bizarre and arbitrary to draw designations between saying it's okay to sit down to watch Claude Rains movies with your kids but it's somehow not okay to sit down and play video games with your kids.
How would you say your version of fatherhood differs from your dad's generation?
The model for him was that you are the breadwinner and that you stick around. He did his best and his best was a lot better than what was necessarily expected of him. But he never took care of me in the sense of cleaned up after me when I was sick or bought me new pairs of shoes or combed my hair or any of that kind of stuff. And then when my parents divorced when I was 12 and he moved away, I didn't have the physical presence either. I definitely grew up with a sense of a lack. That might be part of what has impelled me to try live up to a somewhat higher standard in terms of presence and in terms of caring for my kids.
You seem to think it's very important to be honest with your kids, whether it's talking to them about what it's like to smoke pot or the fact that you're not a perfect person, let alone a perfect parent who has all the answers.
I try to share – my wife and I both believe pretty strongly in this – at least to the degree that they're capable of understanding it based on how old they are, the struggles of it, the parts where I will admit that I've made mistakes and I will acknowledge that something makes me uncomfortable. As much as I can, I try not to put up a brave front about everything.
But there's also a point in the book when you mention seeing young boys looking at your oldest daughter in a certain way and wanting to hit them with a large mallet. It seemed to confirm that there's some things about fatherhood that are unchanging.
Those moments when you're sort of obliged to come face to face with the really deep wiring that you would like to tell yourself you are free of or beyond somehow or have overcome and then suddenly these things will really slash forward and really take you by surprise. That's definitely the thing with wanting to stand out on the front porch with a shotgun waiting to greet my daughter's dates. I am not comfortable having those kind of feelings. I would rather not have them. They're not who I would like to think of myself as being, and yet there they are.
How do you define being a good father?
To me it's just a question of presence, but not in the mere physical sense of the term. I think that, in a way, has been the standard for a very long time, that physical presence is adequate or sufficient. To me, it's about emotional presence. It's a standard. It's not something, God knows, that I always meet or even necessarily meet consistently. But it is a standard, just to try to be there for your kids.
An excerpt from Manhood for Amateurs
The daily work you put into rearing your children is a kind of intimacy, tedious and invisible as mothering itself. There is another kind of intimacy in the conversations you may have with your children as they grow older, in which you confess to failings, reveal anxieties, share your bouts of creative struggle, regret, frustration. There is intimacy in your quarrels, your negotiations and running jokes. But above all, there is intimacy in your contact with their bodies, with their shit and piss, sweat and vomit, with their stubbled kneecaps and dimpled knuckles, with the rips in their underpants as you fold them, with their hair against your lips as you kiss the tops of their heads, with the bones of their shoulders and with the horror of their breath in the morning as they pursue the ancient art of forgetting to brush. Lucky me that I should be permitted the luxury of choosing to find the intimacy inherent in this work that is thrust upon so many women. Lucky me.
Excerpted from Manhood for Amateurs , by Michael Chabon, published by Harper Collins, 2009.