Everyday Dads

"We are put on earth A little space To learn to bear The beams of love."On warm days in New York, I like to sit in the playground on Bleecker Street, but more than watching the children play, I like to look at the dads. I have this thing for dads, good dads. Not Disneyland Dads, who return the kids on Sundays with mucky faces and aching bellies, having fed them too much food at the fair in a stock attempt at emotional bribery. And not There But Not Really There Dads, who ask things over dinner, as if a distant uncle, like: "Is there a boy you like at school?" I'm talking about Everyday Dads who could all but fill in for moms if they had to.And I have reason to believe that my Everyday Dads theory might just be true. Last summer I sold fruit in the fall at the Union Square Farmer's Market and I met one dad who left his wife at home and came in on Saturday mornings with his baby strapped to his front-side so that they could "bond" (his word). I spent a recent weekend in the same house with a cop -- a real, donut-eating, thick-mustached, mirror-lens-wearing cop -- who has exclusive diaper duty, while his father-in-law, who really doesn't want to like him, looked on in near admiration and admitted to never having changed a diaper in his life. And a few nights ago in a restaurant, I saw a little girl -- four, maybe five -- asleep on her dad, spindly arms in a pink t-shirt wrapped around his neck like a piece of clothing. I elbowed my friend: How cute is that? And she was like, whatever, cute, a girl sleeping on her dad, big deal. But it seemed like a big deal to me. Until very recently, I didn't know that little girls want their dads in this way. I didn't know that you could get that close.I myself was raised with low to no expectations in the dad department. My father left -- or rather, my mother left because my father often didn't come home at night -- before I was old enough to have even a memory of him to take with me. We were living in Mexico where, my dad told me years later, "A man with only one woman is not a man. And a woman with more than one man is not a lady." So my dad had more than one woman and my mom had an American woman's sensibility and with that, she brought my sister and me across the border when we were four and three, respectively. Not that mine was one of those disappeared dads. I always had a number where I could reach him. He managed to remember my sister's birthday almost every year and mine about every third. And my mom used to take us down to Tijuana to his restaurant in an occasional effort to create some kind of relationship. But he'd inevitably get bored of family life mid-meal and leave us in favor of amber drinks without ice and cigarette-smoking with the mayor in the brown suit or a table of matadores until our waiter told him we were ready to go home. Then he'd come over with kisses and hugs and que bonitas, mis hijas good-byes.Thankfully, children come preprogrammed with great survival instincts. Those that enable us to believe that the way it is for us is the way it's supposed to be. And those that enable us to make do. My survival instincts convinced me that dads were supposed to be strange and elusive and far away. That dads were what you made of them, not anything you depended on. I had a step-dad who raised me and loved me and who I conveniently slipped into the dad role. (There! All better.) But ingenuity aside, let's face it: you grow up, you make bad choices in men, you take shit you never thought you would, you go into shock at the sight of a girl sleeping on her dad, and you know. That nothing can make up for the fact that the person who brought you into the world just didn't follow through.Maybe I even knew then, that you were supposed to expect more, because one of my worst little secret-fears growing up, was that my dad was a better dad to the two children he had after, than to my sister and me. And he was. My mom urged us not to take this too personally. "He's just tired. Can't keep up his old ways." Still, I had dinner with my little half-sister in Tijuana last week and we got talking about "Dad," as she calls him, like she's trying to share him with me, as in, "Dad picked me up from school every afternoon." Of course, Dad sometimes got carried away with his buddies at a bar or at the racetrack, or maybe he'd be sleeping one off on the couch, and he'd forget. But he was in charge of picking her up anyway which was a picture I had a hard time getting my mind around. Him. My own dad, who my mom told me just wasn't cut out for fatherhood, stopping whatever he was doing at just the right time so that he could hop in his car and pick up another girl! And this girl, standing in a plaid, knee-length Catholic School jumper waiting for her ride, her dad, like it was her right. How dare she! How dare he! Listening to her, or, rather, listening to my reaction, reminded me of the time the one man who really broke my heart by refusing to fall in love with me when I thought it was so clear, called to tell me he was in love with another woman. I asked him, in all seriousness, in one of my more pathetic moments: "Do you give her everything I wanted from you?" Like, maybe, for instance, a ride home from school.Moving right along, my half-sister and I go from "Dad" to dating, and she says, "Men are such jerks. They pretend they don't want to get married. And they treat their girlfriends badly." I say I know all about that, but I don't tell her I know from experience. Not after she says she doesn't know why girls put up with it. Because what I'm thinking is, Not all of us got the ride home from school. Not all of us know that you're supposed to expect the ride home from school. And that if you don't get it, you don't have to make do with less.So this is why I get so excited when I see men stepping up to the plate for the one great task of raising a child. Because I imagine it's the girls with the Everyday Dads -- dads who pick them up from school, who offer a comfortable resting place after dinner, dads who follow through -- who will grow up to be the women who accept nothing less than men who know how to love. And who know themselves, how to accept it.Carolyn Carreno is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

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