By David Eddie
It’s nice to see this trend of men getting tattoos, a.k.a., “ink,” referencing their kids. It shows their pride, I think, and the fact they’re starting to incorporate their kids into their identities as men in a way their own fathers would never have imagined. It’s also quite practical in my view. Girlfriends might disappoint — just ask Johnny Depp, who famously had to change his “Winona Forever” tattoo in honour of then girlfriend Winona Ryder, to “Wino Forever.” Spouses divorce, friends disperse; and then it’s like, hello laser removal clinic. But your kids will always be your kids.
I recently acquired some “dad ink” of my own: a flaming heart with the names of my wife, Pam, and my three boys written around it, in the super-serific, quasi-calligraphic, ultra-florid font type tattoo artists all seem to favour. The flaming heart is a reference to the fiercely passionate birthday and Christmas cards my second-oldest, J.J., used to write, in which he’d tell us, his parents: “I love you so much my heart is on fire.”
I’m not the tattoo type, really. But that was exactly the point. When I met Pam 16 years ago I wasn’t exactly a Hell’s Angel. But I was kind of cool and tough, an outsider: long hair slicked back, thin and tanned, living above a store in a part of Toronto some considered sketchy. Also, I smoked a lot, and didn’t really want to get a job. A rather naughty fellow, in other words, some might even say a bit of a “bad boy.” And Pam, the goody-two-shoes, suburban-raised banker’s daughter that she is, had a taste for the bad boys, thank God. She still does. I can tell by the way she goes all girly when she talks to one at a party, or goes all quiet when a bad boy (e.g., Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises) saunters onscreen during some movie we’re watching.
“So what do you think you’re doing?” I asked the benign, slightly oafish-looking man in the mirror, recently. “What have you become? When did you become this utterly innocuous, toothless figure? You’re going to be wearing a cardigan next!” It was time to get a bit of the old “bad boy” mojo back. So I booked an appointment with Chris, a tattoo artist at Imperial Tattoo around the corner from my house. “Ha, ha, that’s awesome!” Chris said, when I told him my reason for wanting to break my “body art” cherry. “Look, don’t take it personally. All women like bad boys. They can’t help it.”
Now, obviously, he has a vested financial interest in spreading that theory around. And, of course, I know women don’t necessarily marry the bad boys, that even if they’re attracted to bad boys, they often wind up marrying nice guys they think will become good dads. But a tattoo with your kids’ names on it is the perfect nexus of bad boy and good dad, I figured. You’re telling the world you’re a bit of a badass, but also a loving father (“You talkin’ to me? About my family? I don’t see anyone else around, so you must be talkin’ to me, about my family.”) A good dad who is also a “bad boy.” I didn’t see how I could lose. Ladies: am I wrong?
Unfortunately, though, initial reactions were far from auspicious. I had planned the tattoo as a surprise, and, well, I think we can say I was successful on that score. When I peeled off the bandage and showed Pam my still-bleeding, still-throbbing heart-of-fire tattoo, she was stunned to the point of near-zombification.
“I — I can’t believe you actually did that,” she kept saying, as if I’d just confessed to a cross-country, homicide-filled crime-spree. Then Adam, my youngest (just turned seven), came flying in, wondering what the hubbub was about. He took in the tat and Pam’s flabbergasted face and said: “Don’t worry, Mom: it’ll wash off.” When she informed him it wouldn’t, that it was a tattoo of the non-temporary variety, he burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” I asked him. “I thought you’d like it!” “I liked your skin the way it was!” he wailed.
The family’s growing used to dad’s tat — and even getting to like it, a little, I think. What’s not to like? I am both literally and figuratively wearing my fiery heart on my sleeve — even (or especially) when I’m not wearing a sleeve. And that’s what’s neat about all us dads getting tats, I think. We’re proclaiming our love for our children, and also (perhaps even more importantly) incorporating the kids into our identity as men, in a way that would have been inconceivable 40, 30, 20, or maybe even 10 years ago.
“It used to be that men derived all their identity from their work and their place in the world,” says David Sheftel, program coordinator for the British Columbia Council for Families. “But now with women working more, men are feeling yes, it’s okay to be a caring, nurturing part of the family. They’re getting a whole new way to find their identities.” In some ways, he says, it was easier for the fathers of our fathers’ generation than for the dads of today, because “the roles are so much less clear now.”
“In our parents’ generation, the father was the provider and the disciplinarian,” he says — and that was that. After the bacon was brought home and the stern lectures dispensed (with perhaps a soupÃ§on of corporal punishment, to add spice), he could relax and read the paper and have a martini and a cocktail weenie. Now, though, “men have to deal with more subtle family issues,” Sheftel says, like scheduling guitar lessons, figuring out what’s really wrong with the bawling toddler, wondering what to feed the kids for dinner, remembering to pick up diapers/formula/juice boxes — all of the almost literally 1,000,001 details involved in child-rearing.
We’re evolving, ladies, or trying to. We know we can be trying, sometimes, but we’re trying. We’re trying to be multi-tasking, hands-on Dads and remember juice-boxes and diapers and guitar lessons and all the rest of it.
The good news, according to some experts, is: the more hands-on Dads are, the prouder we become of our children, and the more invested it’s making us in how our kids turn out.
“These days, the man is more of a guide, a mentor, a role model — and sometimes even the cook or caregiver of the family,” Sheftel says. “It’s giving men more of a sense of their kids being ongoing projects,” which in turn leads to “dads becoming more and more proud of their kids as accomplishments.”
I know what he means. I know my father is, and always was, proud of me. But my sense is his pride is rooted more in genetics than anything else. It’s DNA-based. He did his bit, donated his sperm, but then kind of receded into the background while my mother changed diapers, administered bottles, dispensed advice, packed lunches, and all the rest of it. His pride was like: “Look what my sperm hath wrought.” Whereas, because I was a stay-at-home Dad for so many years (with the kids in school full-time these I don’t call myself a “stay-at-home Dad” so much anymore, though it’s true I still hang around the house a lot), I’m not only proud of the genetic material I contributed, but also that they’re well fed, well clothed, well shod, clean-cut (unlike their tattooed, vroom-vroom “leader of the pack” type Dad, but hey: do as I say, not as I do, kids), polite, well-adjusted, decent kids. I consider that as big an accomplishment as whatever book or TV show or anything else I might write.
Being hands-on is not only making men prouder and more invested in their children — it’s also turning us into better human beings, according to Kerry Daly, director of Fatherhood Involvement Research Alliance (FIRA), a national organization based at the University of Guelph in Ontario. “Men who spend more time with their children are discovering more and more ways children are having a positive influence on them,” he says. For example? “It’s giving them more opportunities for play, and to lighten up,” he says. “Dealing with their kids is also teaching them how to express their emotions, and to open up to people.”
I’ve certainly found that. Being hands-on with my kids has taught me, first and foremost, I think, the supreme virtue of patience — and not just because I had to be so patient with them. (Though that’s a big part of it.) But also because I realized, after a certain point, they were being very patient with me.
From them I also learned forgiveness, and not to care about the outcome of an argument, i.e. who wins — that getting along is more important. My boys are very emotional: quick to anger, quick to burst into tears. But they hate being angry, they hate carrying around that psychic load — especially the youngest, Adam. He might stomp around for a while with a sour look on his puss — “with his eyebrows down” as we say in our family — but not for long. Sooner rather than later, no matter how upset he is, you will find him throwing his arms around you and saying: “It’s all right, Dad.”
It was the same with the tattoo. When he saw I was upset that he was upset by it, he threw his arms around me and said “Actually, I decided I like it, Dad,” through his tears. “I should be more like him,” I’ve said to myself, many times, over the years, like a mantra. And so it has come to pass. It’s really helped me in my arguments with Pam. We’ve both learned from him. Argument-wise, we used to have some real doozies, some real barn-burners, real hard-core Lollapaloozas. She’s thrown me out of the car, Ã la Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up — but in my case it was in the middle of a busy highway in the middle of nowhere. I had to call a cab on my cell phone to pick me up in some Godforsaken car dealership.
But recently, observing Adam’s example, we both try not to care who wins but simply to resolve it quickly and apologize. It works like a charm. It’s just one of the innumerable life-lessons spending time with my boys has taught me. I’ve also learned no one can be truly happy who’s hungry and/or thirsty and/or tired; the converse is no one can be truly miserable who’s well-fed and well-rested.
Funny enough, lately I’ve even noticed that spending time with my kids and being a hands-on granddad has helped mellow out my own father and soften his crusty, gruff exterior. When he first started taking our kids on outings, Pam and I would wince and cringe at how sharply he spoke to them. He was using his old-school-Dad-type parenting style on them: harsh, unilateral, stern.
But as time went on, they worked their charm on him, and I think he’s learned to relate to them more, to be more sensitive and subtle and a listener, and to negotiate, as they do and Pam and I do. It’s making him, in his seventies, into a better person, I think. And it’s never too late to improve oneself as a person, don’t you think, ladies and gentlemen? Is self-improvement not, perhaps, the point or goal of life?
Anyway, I could go on. But I sense this article is getting a little mushy and sentimental, and we “bad boys” don’t really go in much for that kind of thing. At the first sign of sappiness, we’re out of there, popping wheelies and burning rubber and blasting our stereos. We “bad boys” are men of few words. We don’t like to blather on and on about our feelings. We prefer to express ourselves through our body art. I wish I could get some of the above into a tattoo, but I don’t know where I’d put it all. Maybe on my abdomen? For now my family will have to be content with a flaming heart with their names written around it. That kind of says it all.
David Eddie is a newspaper columnist, author and TV writer who lives in Toronto with his wife, three boys and now two tattoos.
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