Ned Plimpton: Why didn’t you ever try to contact me?
Steve Zissou: Because I hate fathers, and I never wanted to be one.
From 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
I grew up in 1970s America; not exactly the most evolved times for fathers. From both a historical, as well as an empirical, perspective it was an era of unrepentant self-gratification, personal confusion and soul searching. These elements ideally made for significantly more actualized adults, but fathers? Not so much. So, as a young boy, I was awash in a parade of fathers, mother’s boyfriends, and men fashioning themselves as de facto fathers in absentia, and I quickly learned that nearly all of these men, while engaging on some level, left something great to be desired. This example, or lack thereof, rendered me less than excited about the prospect of being a father myself.
Several years on, when I saw Bill Murray’s character of Steve Zissou deliver the above rationale to his estranged on-screen son, I naturally laughed, but also felt a jolt of sadness as the line resonated deep within me. Fathers, as a group representing authority, guidance, and reverence, were not necessarily people to hate, but they did nothing to goad me into desiring fatherhood for myself. Unless of course I adopted the tact of parenting in opposition to all that I had witnessed during my tenuous upbringing. Little did I know at the time I was less than two years away from joining the legions of the despised.
From the vantage point of being a father, now for about six years, I could say the institution needed an overhaul when I climbed aboard. I would like to say that I grabbed the helm and reinvented fatherhood as a kinder and gentler endeavor fueled by a determined grace and acumen, with all of the selfish folly left behind on the cutting room floor. However that would be wholly inaccurate. Every moment of the day, whether I am actively or passively parenting, I am meeting with the shadows of fathers that had preceded me. I catch a flash of my son’s downcast eyes as I try to gently impart some urgent, but ramshackle, nugget of wisdom and it is as if someone had prankishly inverted the mirror and made me foreman of a factory that produces a product I have never actually seen.
The fact is parenthood, fatherhood in particular, is a dark endeavor. Not in the sense that becoming a parent locates you in a place of irrevocable bleakness. It is more like traversing a locale lacking any perceptible roadmap or certainty, but nevertheless finding yourself thoroughly entertained, if not charmed, throughout. You spend 15 anticipatory minutes holding together the scattered remains of a broken puppet, hoping the glue will set and hold long enough to bring a renewed sense of joy to a boy who lost something very dear to him, and your child repays you by hugging your leg as if you were a pylon and he was anchoring himself to you to ride out a hurricane. Fatherhood reframes our notion of ourselves as men (or boys) and moves us forward with the little experiences and lessons that add up to something in retrospect; something like miles that are never fully redeemed. You throw yourself into the effort and heap upon it all of the care, tenderness, inspiration, and guidance you lacked as a child in hopes that you are providing a vast improvement upon what you endured.
So does this move us fathers toward some more refined notion or actualized identity of true parenting? Sure it does, just like jumping gets you closer to the sun.