SHANGHAI, CHINA - 1994/05/01: A father lets his son drive a small rented toy speed boat on a recreat...
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I Didn’t Grow Up With A Dad, But I’ve Become An Expert On Them

I can spot a person who had a dad who loved them at 20 paces.

by Jen McGuire

Dads are a total mystery to me. I grew up without a dad, I’ve largely raised my kids without their dad. Every Father’s Day rolls around and I forget about it until someone says “Oh I can’t do this XYZ thing because I’m taking my dad out for dinner” and then I think oh yes that’s right. Dads.

As a kid I would get reminded about Father’s Day at school when everyone was making something for their dad and I made something for my grandpa which did not bother me until a teacher would make that “oh dear” sad face. This was my cue to be sad, too. And I was sad sometimes. Even though my grandpa and I were best friends he was not my dad. It would hurt him to read that if he was still alive but it is just genetics.

I guess because I didn’t know my dad, because he left before I was born so I never even saw his face, I started to watch dads a lot as a kid. They scared me. With their big shoulders and big voices and their faces that looked tired or mad or just irritated, to me at least. When a dad was in the house I was always watchful, always worried I was going to get them going. I heard this a lot in the ‘70s as a kid visiting dad houses, don’t get him going. Sleepovers were tough because everyone stopped putting on their face and just wanted to go back to being regular. I got to see dads in the morning, dads before beds, dads in their natural habitat. And this was when I started my part-time hobby of Jen McGuire, Dad Profiler. Watching dads who don’t know they’re being watched.

First off there was the absent dad. The guy who was never home but often talked about in reverential tones because he was “just so busy.” A lot of my friends had this dad. He got extra credit for working out in the world at his job which was probably on Mad Men and when he did come home he needed quiet kids and loud television and beer and no blinking. I’m sorry to say this but I mostly knew these kinds of dads when I was a kid. Dads who yelled if you burned Jiffy Pop on the stove which made their house smell bad and which I now understand is quite annoying.

One dad who made me relax was the solid dad. A few of my friends had a dad like this guy, and I can’t remember their faces, only their backs. His back as he bends over the barbecue to grill. steaks on the back deck, the top of his head as he read the newspaper, his profile in the car as he listened or pretended to listen to a story you just had to tell him. The solid dad was a good driver in all weather, made sure the car had lots of gas in it for the rest of the family to use while he was at work. He cleaned eaves and mowed lawns but didn’t like spending money on going to dinner. This dad reminded me most of my grandpa, still and secondary to the loud women in our family.

Probably I was the most jealous of the jokey dad. He didn’t feel like a dad to me at all. One of my closest friends had a jokey dad and he was a hair tousler, a bad joke teller, a big goof. No one had to worry about getting him going because he was always going. This was the dad who made me the saddest when I went home.

Now I don’t profile dads so much as the kids they raised. Because I am here to tell you that I can spot a person with a dad who loves them at 20 paces. I can walk in a room and see someone with an unconscious little something standing tall with it. They carry a talisman of accidental confidence. They look rested from nights of going to sleep knowing that they have a dad who loves them. Even my friends with vaguely absent dads, they have it. I see it. They stopped thinking about it a long time ago, what it is to have a dad love you, but I see it still.

All of this is to say to dads who are dealing with eye-rolling kids or kids who always want their moms or kids who just think you’re irritating, you’re really worth it. You’re building something for your kids that they will never be able to find anywhere else. And trust me, they would be looking for it if not for you. All the time, looking for it. And you.