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Tribute to a Modern-Day Dad

Fathers can be magically multidimensional. Just ask this mom

spinner image John Semel with children son Augustus, 7, and daughter Minerva, 6.
John Semel with son Augustus, 7, and daughter Minerva, 6.
Courtesy of Faith Salie

If we weren't living through a pandemic, I'd be at my favorite overpriced stationery store today to find a Father's Day card for my husband. But even if it were open, I know I'd be staring down a wall of cards, never finding one that captures all there is to celebrate about my children's dad.

Among the options I know I would find would be the card with a golf club (not my husband's jam), the one with the ship (because fatherhood is nothing if not nautical), a football (my husband was concussed too many times in high school for me to buy that one), a tie (hello, who wears a tie these days?). All these cards suggest there are very few ways to be a dad — and most of them are hackneyed and involve escaping from your family.

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When you decide to have kids with someone, you have merely a general notion of how that person will parent. I sensed my husband would be a caring father, not only because he expressed that he wanted to raise children in contrast to the way he was raised but because when my own dad took him for his first visit to Disney World, I realized my then-boyfriend had 40 years of untapped joy that he could channel into fatherhood.

spinner image Father John Semel and children
Courtesy of Faith Salie

The first time my husband held our son he whispered to our 5-pound miracle, “Hi, Sweetpea.” I'd never thought to ask him what nicknames he might call our boy, and in that moment I was flooded with gratitude that I'd married a man who didn't call his son something like “Little Man” or “Sport,” but rather a name free from expectations and redolent of sweetness and beauty. It was the first of countless, unfolding surprises about the father he is, and continues to become.

How could I have known that he would tiptoe into my kids’ room every night and choose from their menagerie of stuffies a few to tuck in beside our sleeping son and daughter so that they always awaken to a new, rotating cast of plush co-sleepers and also know that their dad is there for them, even as they slumber? How could I have predicted that the year our daughter was obsessed with being Clara from The Nutcracker, he would escort her to nursery school dressed in full Uncle Drosselmeyer flamboyance, eyepatch included? Or that during her recent quarantine Harry Potter Zoom birthday party, he'd pop onto the screen in front of a virtual hut as Hagrid, complete with massive fake beard and horrible West Country accent? (The worse his accent, the more I love him for committing.)

It wouldn't have crossed my mind to wish that my Jewish husband would get way more into hiding Easter eggs than I would. Or passionately debate with me how much of the Christmas cookies and carrots Santa and Rudolph would leave behind as evidence of their visit to our half-Jewish progeny. When I see him enroll the kids in the rounds of “Plant Hospital,” fostering in our 6- and 8-year-olds a proud feeling of responsibility for the care and feeding of all the leaves and blooms that crowd our home; when he holds our son's hand all the way to school; when, just last weekend, this 49-year-old man chose to wear his Very Hungry Caterpillar T-shirt on the day we released the pandemic butterflies we've been growing and hatching — when all of those little but huge things happen, I'm witnessing him invent his own version of fatherhood.

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I knew when we effortlessly agreed to give our children both of our last names that my husband would give a wide berth to stereotypes, but I never envisioned how he'd smile as he folds the sequined T-shirts our colorful boy loves to wear or how he watches NFL with our daughter, who likes to snuggle and cheer with him even though she has no idea what's going on.

I never asked him to take all the night shifts for sick kids, but, minus the nocturnal breastfeeding, he did. He stayed up till all hours with me to complete the orb-shaped planet Earth cake for our son's fifth birthday, and together we engaged in the excruciating task of cutting continents out of green fondant while he cursed like a character in a David Mamet play. I filmed this, because I wanted to memorialize the exquisite profanity he never utters around our children.

I'll never forget seeing him as I pulled a rental car into the driveway of our building after I'd taken the kids to the beach by myself. We hadn't seen him for a week, and as he approached us, I rolled the windows down so he could immediately kiss the little ones in their car seats. But he didn't. He walked straight to the driver's side to kiss me first. Later I told him that surprised me, that I thought he'd run straight to his kids, and he said, “But you're my wife. It all starts with you.”

Because that's also the kind of father he is: a man who reminds me every so often that before there were four of us, there were promises between two of us.

He's not perfect. Not at all. It takes one to know one, and the imperfect mother I am salutes how hard he tries to be the father he never had. I watch him apologize to our kids and wonder if anyone in my generation ever received an apology from our fathers — those patriarchs who used to smoke in the car with the windows up.

spinner image John Semel embracing children
Courtesy of Faith Salie

You see this too, in your partners as they father and in your dads as they grandfather. The unique ways they make their kids and grandkids laugh and squeal, the way they throw them around and sing them to sleep with whatever song they strummed in college to get a date. It makes you want to weep with the joyful, gentle dad-ness of it all.

So, the dilemma for us Father's Day card buyers is this: Cards are 2D. Fathers are 3D, and the best ones add dimensions to themselves that they never knew existed.

Dads become magical not when they meet or even exceed our culture's expectations of what fathers are or should be; it's when they surprise us with the way they love. It's when they forge new traditions — memories their children will carry with them for a lifetime, either as vivid and silly as the scratchy Kiss Monster, who attacks with weekend whiskers, or, just as meaningfully, the vague but unshakable cellular certainty that they will always be hugged tightly and carried with strength.

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