“I almost always feel like a failure as a father”

There is love and there is anxiety, and sometimes I worry in those anxious moments, I could spend more time loving

Topics: Books, Parenting, Fatherhood, Editor's Picks, Rick Moody,

"I almost always feel like a failure as a father"Rick Moody (Credit: Hachette Book Group)
Excerpted from "When I First Held You" edited by Brian Gresko


I almost always feel like a failure as a father. Is it possible that feeling like a failure as a father is an attempt to protect myself from this very failure? Through repetition of certain key phrases? Would repeating the phrase “I almost always feel like a failure as a father” somehow indemnify me? Or would this phrase at least indicate that I am reasonably concerned with parental failure and thus am willing to entertain the notion in order to prevent it? During the time when I am thinking all of this stuff—about how I probably am a failure as a father—I should really be interacting with my daughter, who is often right here on the couch next to me asking if I will play with her. She is holding up a Barbie doll—about which I feel like a failure because I have dubious feelings about Barbie dolls though not to the point of preventing Barbie ownership in all cases.

WHEREAS, ______ and ______ were married on May 10, 20__, in a religious ceremony, in the Borough of Manhattan, the City of New York, the County of New York, and the State of New York; and


Did my own father feel like a failure? I used to feel that there were certain ways that my father was definitely a failure. For example, after my own parents were divorced, he had a number of girlfriends for a few years, and all of their names started with S. Or, let’s say, a number of these names started with S. This is an oversimplification for the sake of a story, but not much of an oversimplification. It was hard to keep track of who was who, or perhaps I was simply looking for a way to torture my father—out of my own discomfort at the advent of a broken home. Confusing the names of his girlfriends, whether consciously or unconsciously, was one way to torture him. When I was younger I felt like this period constituted a failure on my father’s part, even though I have now done so many worse things, been inconstant, impatient, disengaged. The alleged failure of my father was probably more mine than his. I would put this even more strongly, actually: I feel like I have failed in ways far worse than my father failed. I’m betting he never really thought of his failure (nor mine) at all.

WHEREAS, in consequence of irreconcilable differences, ____ and ____ have separated; and


I almost always feel like a failure as a father. My father was a yeller, at least when I was very young, and for most of my four years as a father, I have striven not to be a yeller, and while my daughter and I have strenuously disagreed (last week it was over whether or not she was allowed to have a second helping of dried cherries right before sleep), I have not so far yelled at her. But maybe the desire to avoid yelling at her constitutes a paradoxical difficulty. Maybe I should be yelling at her, because that would be honest, and a reflection, on occasion, of my exasperation. Or: maybe my yelling would cause some other harm. I took the getting-yelled-at thing very hard when I was a child, and I don’t want to visit this syndrome on my own daughter. However, sometimes I am so firm on this point that I can’t even express sharp disappointment without feeling like I’ve failed in a new way.

WHEREAS, ____ and ____ desire fully and finally to settle all issues arising out of their marriage, including the care of their child, their domestic affairs and property rights; and


I almost always feel like a failure as a father. The other night, I was in the bathroom while my daughter was taking a bath, and she remarked that she had asked her mother, with whom I am no longer living, if she (her mom) wanted to have a slumber party in this apartment where I am living now with my fiancée. My daughter had an explanation for why this was impossible, and she seemed to be wanting to rehearse that explanation with me. She had a stricken expression as she explained, and I was about to embark on some attempt to soothe when it turned out she was really stricken by something she had seen in the Winnie the Pooh movie we had just watched. And so: Winnie the Pooh, it seemed, was the transition through which feelings about separation might begin to take place. Tigger, lost in the woods.

WHEREAS, ____ and ____ know that they have the right to have the issues which they have resolved through collaborative negotiation, and which are reflected in this Agreement, resolved instead through adversarial legal proceedings in which they would each be represented by separate independent counsel,


The separation of my parents, which took place, I think, in 1970 (or somewhere right at the juncture of 1970 and 1971), was also hard on me. Harder on me than on my brother, at least as he recounts it. I cannot ask my sister about it because she is no longer living. Still, I found it especially hard, harder than anything I had experienced to that time. I suppose I had normative ideas about family, and these normative ideas were normative because there was no other family on our street that was separated. (Within a few years there were several.) I remember, for example, my mother sleeping on the couch downstairs while my parents were separating, and how embarrassed and ashamed I felt about the fact that she slept on the couch. My father made jokes about the sofa in the years after, and we can only assume that he made jokes about the sofa and my mother’s having slept on it because he was embarrassed and ashamed of my mother having slept on it. In the last years of my marriage, I too slept on the couch for a while. That I am repeating the circumstances of my childhood in my daughter’s childhood makes me feel like a failure indeed.

____ and ____ acknowledge that it was and is their desire to avoid the delay, expense, stress and uncertainty of adversarial legal proceedings. ____ and ____ believe that no expert knows them and their family as well as they do, and that the needs and interests of their family will be better served by their having concluded these matters


I almost always feel like a failure as a father. My daughter likes to watch television, like many four-year-olds. I like to watch television with her, and I have an appetite for things I would never put up with otherwise, if it were not for the fact of my daughter’s interest. Curious George, for example. My daughter really loves Curious George, as of this writing. I understand the hatred of television among the attachment-parenting parents, or even the parents who are mildly culturally sensitive. I understand. Television is a force for evil. It’s an ideological tool. But it is also true that I regularly logged from four to six hours a day in front of it when I was young. Which reminds me of that story that Harold Brodkey used to tell, and that I’m recreating here from memory: “I was in a period when I was especially afraid of death. I called my friend Don DeLillo and asked him what I should do. He said, ‘Watch more television.’ So I did. And it worked!” Anyway, I should not allow my daughter to watch television at all, according to the Waldorf School, et al. And yet I do let her watch, and I often watch it with her. It’s one way we spend time together, and that is good, and yet the feelings of enjoyment are circumscribed by the feelings of failure.

in collaborative negotiations rather than through adversarial proceedings. Finally, ____ and ____ acknowledge that they are aware that this Agreement may be materially different from an agreement resulting from adversarial proceedings, or a decision which might have been rendered by a Court of Law in the State of New York;


My daughter’s mother is an especially good cook, and very mindful about nutrition and such things, and I can barely heat a microwave-only item, and normally shrink from doing much more out of fear, and so when I feed my daughter, I rely on her obsession with eating the same things over and over again. Thank god for string cheese, this month, or thank god for dried mango. I think the obsession with eating the same things over and over is a stabilizing force, and maybe it is a stabilizing force in the midst of her parents separating, and I am all for any kind of stability she can manage. Here are some other things she is willing to eat right now: pears, apples, bananas, chicken nuggets. I should learn to cook, yes, but the best I can give my daughter is the dad she actually has, not the dad she should have.

NOW THEREFORE, in consideration of the foregoing and the mutual promises, agreements, covenants and provisions of this Agreement, ____ and ____ agree as follows:


I almost always feel like a failure as a father, because I imagine that fathers should be sterner, more uncompromising, that they should be law-givers, and rule-deployers; indeed, I recall from my period of reading about psychoanalysis that at some point in the literature of poststructuralism, there is this characterization: that fathers are meant to be construed as law-givers. I am an ineffective law-giver. I try to do it sometimes, but I feel that laws are relative, and should be applied only for the greatest possible good, and not simply because there is the law and you have to obey it. I am not a father like Antonin Scalia. I would hate it if Antonin Scalia were my father. Maybe some of this uncertainty, this shortage of paternal certainty, comes from the fact of my separation from my wife, or maybe it just comes from my having endured my parents’ separation.

___ and ____ shall continue to live separate and apart, each free from the interference, authority or control, direct or indirect, of the other, as fully as though unmarried.


I almost always feel like a failure as a father. For example, tonight we were walking from my apartment to my ex-wife’s apartment (and I feel like a failure a bit because she is not quite my ex-wife, but neither is she my wife, and so I use the “ex-” prefix because, grammatically speaking, there is no clear cut guidance on how to speak of her) for the drop-off, and my daughter fell while we were walking, and she fell because for a split second I let go of her hand to put my phone in my pocket, and in that brief interval she tripped on a cobblestone-ish bit of sidewalk—and face-planted. I felt, naturally, like I could have done better here, and the sad part (her scrapes were not so bad) was that she kept saying, It still hurts, it still hurts, to keep me up-to-date.

Neither ____ nor ____ shall in any way disturb, trouble or seek to compel the other to associate, cohabit or dwell with her or him, or seek the restoration of conjugal rights. ____ and ____ both agree to respect each other’s privacy, to regard each other as separate individuals,


I feel like a failure also because I believe most fathers are failures, and that fatherhood, in a way, is a construct that invites failure, because the system of expectations, these days, that the father, by definition, should be masculine, and the father should “provide,” and the father should hand down the law, and the father should be a coparent and fill in around the mother, and the father should be a diaper-changer, and a feeder of children, and the father should avoid the excessive trappings of masculinity, and the father should be loving, and available, and not miss stuff, the father should show up for the child’s life, and not be an absentee father (I remember, for example, that while my parents were still married, the time that I generally saw my father was while he was watching the TV news, and that when the TV news was done, my bedtime came around, and so if I did not watch the TV news with my father, I did not see him at all), and some of the items in this catalogue contradict other items, and I, for one, do not know how to be a father exactly, and I especially do not know how to be a father in the midst of separation, because my preference would be to protect my daughter from all possible sources of pain, but in this case I am myself a cause for some of the pain, and if the pain is not apparent yet, I assume that the pain will at some point manifest itself, and that it will be clear, at that time, that I was the cause of some of this pain (whether I am causing merely 50 percent, or more, I do not know), and this constitutes a kind of failure for me, one that is more acute as the weeks pass and I am not fully divorced.

And yet:


It is also true that I view my self-consciousness as a father, my uncertainty, which I mostly keep to myself (though I am announcing it to the world right now), as a generational improvement on a kind of fathership that had no convictions about parenting whatsoever, and simply blundered on, smacking the kids around on occasion (I, for one, was smacked around a couple of times), not bothering to aspire to fatherhood, but rather just falling into fatherhood, which I myself would have done on multiple occasions if this were not an enlightened period. I believe that my self-consciousness as a father constitutes an improvement, and in this period of separation I would like to make use of a generationally permitted reboot, if at all possible, to make life better for my daughter, to be a father of intention, a delighted, aspiring, ambitious father.

The Parents agree to have joint custody of ____, in all spirits of the words. The need to ascribe one Parent as “custodial” and the other as “non-custodial” is a requirement of the NY courts, and is used in this document only because required to be.


Parenting is what happens while you are too busy to read up about parenting, and there is a danger, too, in being theoretical, at the expense of actually doing stuff with your kid. I try to do stuff with my kid to the best of my ability. Recently my child has outgrown my ability to carry her on my shoulders without bodily aches of various kinds (the knee I had surgery on does not favor this, nor does my back, and then there is the whole problem of my shoulders, etc.), and so we have evolved a new plan. If she is certain at a given juncture that I should be carrying her on my shoulders, I will, for a brief moment lift her up into my arms and give her a hug and a kiss, and then place her back down on the ground so that she can walk some more. Walking is good, and is especially good for my daughter, who was born with a congenital skeletal defect. Walking is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition. It would be possible to think this through to an alarming degree, as in: (1) the child has a skeletal defect, so she should not be forced to do physical things that she’s not ready for, or (2) the child has skeletal defect, so she should walk, so as to develop her musculature to compensate for her skeletal defect, or (3) I have to be on the alert for making incorrect decisions about her and her skeletal defect, or (4) I have to be on the alert for her mother’s feelings about my decisions about her skeletal defect, or (5) I have to be able to make compromises about my inability to carry my daughter and the toll this is taking on my own body in order to be mindful about her skeletal defect. And so on. But at a certain point the considerations of this stuff become overwhelming, and one simply has to act, because otherwise the relationship and its implications are more discussed than acted upon, and a relationship is something (father and daughter) that happens together, in space and time, not in the waiting room of parental theorizing, and so where possible give the hug and kiss and abjure theorizing.

The Parents agree that they will periodically discuss the schedule, and how well or not well it is working for the Child and for the Parents. They shall take into account, among other things, how the Child is dealing with the transitions,


The theory should be simple, and despite my feelings of failure it is simple, because the theory should be that at all times in all places I am motivated simply by love. This is idealistic, which means, I guess, that I am a father who is idealistic, but it is also a reasonable theory, love above all things, and it is easier when you consider that, in fact, I feel great surgings of love and esteem and adoration in dealing with my child; I feel these feelings and mostly do not discuss them with my child, only occasionally, but rather I savor them as the inevitable by-product of being a father, and in this case a father who waited a long, long time to have a child (I was forty-eight at the time of my daughter’s birth), and who was not always certain that he was going to have a child, and who therefore became a father at a moment in life when he absolutely fervently believed in the necessity of becoming a father, and who did so with some foreknowledge that younger fathers might be more physically fit and less prone to physical difficulty, but there was no way that younger fathers could have had more emotional experience (I am an uncle five times over), or be more patient, or more thorough in preparation as calculated in life experiences. I am in no way ambivalent about being a father. The worst that I feel, as a father, is exhausted and uncertain. Never ambivalent.

_____ and ____ agree that they will both use their best efforts to shield and protect ____ from members of their extended family who might make disparaging remarks about either _____ or _____. Each will advise extended family members about the stresses and risks to _____’s self-esteem which would arise out of such comments.


I aspire to resolution and determination through this period, this bad period, this period of separation, because there is no cessation in the surgings of love and esteem for my daughter, despite all the difficulty; on the contrary, and this is perhaps how the generations grow and change, I look at her for some lessons that she doesn’t even know she’s giving me—concentration on particular tasks, the value of repetition, the involvement in this twenty-four-hour period to the exclusion of others, faith in others, the ability to express emotion without shame and without self-consciousness, the love of community, the total enthusiasm for today’s new discovery. Despite feelings of failure, there is so much to learn, and even the hardest patches can be negotiated. Seems so easy, right?

“On Fatherhood and Separation” by Rick Moody, Copyright © 2014 by Rick Moody. Reprinted from “When I First Held You” edited by Brian Gresko by arrangement with Berkley, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, Copyright ©2014 by Brian Gresko.

Rick Moody is the author five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and, most recently, a collection of essays, ON CELESTIAL MUSIC.

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