For this popular comedian, fatherhood is the funniest and most inspiring job in the world...and the most humbling.
Posted in , May 18, 2015
I never thought of myself as dad material, so for me the idea of Father’s Day was right up there with Arbor Day. In fact, Father’s Day always seemed like an afterthought when I was growing up. We did something big for the mothers in May—flowers and breakfast in bed, the whole bit—and then June came and somebody said, “Hey, I guess we should honor the dads. Let them grill outside.”
Being a comedian, “a stand-up chameleon” as one of my kids puts it, is a nomadic, nocturnal existence that goes against the consistent routine required to raise a child (let alone the five my wife, Jeannie, and I have). Comedians are generally introspective outsiders who identify more with the misfit toys from Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer than any domesticated father portrayed on TV.
So I was perfectly resigned to a future of being the weird uncle who lived in New York City when I met Jeannie at age 34. She was the oldest of nine and was crazy about children. She was directing a Shakespearean play with a hip-hop score featuring 50 inner-city kids. For free. Working with kids inspired Jeannie’s creativity and being with her inspired me.
For the first time in my life, I felt like I could spend the rest of my life with someone. Heck, I could possibly have a child with this person. Eventually I tricked Jeannie into marrying me. It was at that point that I discovered Jeannie is someone who gets pregnant just looking at babies.
I was the youngest of six, and I’d always assumed my father had that many of us so he could have a lawn crew. Every Saturday in our hometown of Chesterton, Indiana, my dad would have me and all my siblings out doing yard work—weeding, mowing, raking, etc. I thought of my father as the all-powerful pharaoh and we kids as the slaves building his pyramids.
Now that I am a father myself, I know that powerlessness is the defining characteristic of fatherhood. This begins with the pregnancy. As expectant fathers we are spectators.
You help when you can. You buy those tiny diapers that are the size of an iPhone and that will only fit the baby for three days. You attend birthing classes and learn support techniques that you forget the second labor pains begin.
During labor, the father-to-be is always attempting to justify his presence in the room. “Hey, I know I’m in the way so I’ll just stand here in the corner and take some pictures.” After the delivery, you end up being the overzealous security guard: “You want to see the mother and baby? Did you wash your hands? With bleach?” You pretend you’re in charge but you mostly feel powerless.
As a dad you are vice president—part of the executive branch, true, but it’s obvious who’s the higher authority. I’m never the first choice. My kids don’t even try to hide it. “Let’s see, the tired guy with the scratchy beard or that warm, soft lady who tells us stories for eight hours?” It’s not even close.
Occasionally decisions are gratuitously placed in the “Ask your dad” category, under the pretense that your opinion is valued, but you know better than to go against the president. “Whatever your mother says.”
As a kid I saw motherhood as an awe-inspiring occupation. Getting all of us out of the house in time for school, running errands, making dinner, yelling from the kitchen, “Eat the coleslaw!” How did Mom know we weren’t eating the coleslaw?
Once when I was 10, I slept over at a friend’s house and we decided to stay up all night. Around two in the morning we thought we heard a monster, rumbling and growling downstairs. Drumming up courage, we crept down to the basement to investigate, only to discover my friend’s mom doing laundry. I remember thinking, Maybe moms don’t sleep.
Dads, on the other hand, didn’t do much back then except put food on the table. I should mention that in my dad’s era, “putting food on the table” never actually involved putting food on the table. That was women’s work. Dads didn’t put food on the table or put a diaper on a baby or put a kid in a bath. Nor did they actually bring home the bacon. They just ate it.
My dad was strict but compassionate. He cared deeply about his family, coworkers and community. I’m probably a comedian because of my father. Learning to do an impression of him changed the trajectory of my life. When I lampooned him I had my sisters’ and brothers’ attention and respect. For a moment I wasn’t simply the youngest. I was an equal. Making people laugh is very empowering.
I used to wonder why I had hair on my legs. Now I know it’s for my toddlers to pull themselves up off the ground with as I scream in pain. All healthy babies eventually walk, but we treat those first steps like someone has just risen out of a wheelchair at Lourdes. “He’s walking! It’s a miracle!”
Once they actually learn to walk, they are immediately trying to escape. You say, “Time for a bath!” and they shoot away.
Toddlers, for some reason, are always out of breath. They sound like they have traveled by horseback for hours in order to deliver important news. “Mommy, Daddy”—breath, breath, breath—“I need to tell you something.” “Yes, what is it?” By that point, it will be apparent by the look on their face that they have completely forgotten what they wanted to tell you.
Toddlers can behave abominably, but what’s the worst thing that can happen to them? A time-out? Big deal. I was watching a football game with five-year-old Katie and the announcer said, “The Jets have asked for a timeout.”
Katie saw the quarterback talking to the coach and asked, “Why did he get a time-out?” I thought for a second and said, “Because he didn’t listen to his daddy.” You have to take your teachable moments when you get them!
I’ve been blessed enough to act in movies, TV, and on Broadway, but my finest acting moments have been with my children. Parents of young children are always acting. When you read to your kids, you are not just reading. You are performing.
You act excited to read a story for the five-hundredth time. (“Yes, that hungry caterpillar is very hungry!”) The excitement I show to some of the children’s scribbles should get me a Golden Globe nomination.
Negotiation seems to be the predominant form of communication in my daily dealings with my children. “Dad, if I take a bath, can I watch a movie?” “What do I get if I clear the table?” I’m always on the losing end of the arbitration. I’m sure that sons and daughters have bargained with their fathers and mothers throughout the centuries.
I wonder if Jesus negotiated with God about some of the stuff he had to go through. Or with Mary and Joseph about his bedtime.
On Sundays, Jeannie and I haul everybody to church. Even though it’s virtually impossible to get a young child to sit still for long, even though it must be torture for the innocent parishioners sitting near us to be distracted by my kids climbing on the pews or playing peekaboo with them. We believe that the practice and exposure will benefit them, even if they are too young to understand.
Plus there are fringe benefits. The older ones take religion classes from nuns who are part of Mother Teresa’s order, and one Saturday morning, the kids watching cartoons, the nuns dropped by. It was like, “We’re in the neighborhood and we thought we’d do some prayers with you and the kids.” How great is that?
At the core of my being I find it a relief to know that I’m not in charge. And dropping by church by myself, I think I’ve heard God say, “Thanks for not bringing your kids this time. It’s a little quieter.”
People assume we have a large family for religious reasons. Not true. If anything, kids make you religious. Believe me, once you lose a kid in a New York City park, atheist or not, you start talking to God: “If you can help me find my son, I promise I will never ever do anything bad again.” Kids and illness are the great gateways to faith.
When I found out Jeannie was pregnant for the first time, I was worried. Would I be able to provide the unconditional love of a parent? What if I saw my baby and I was like, “Yuck!”
But when your baby is born, something happens. You just love your baby. Unconditionally. When I saw my baby, it was like the Grinch discovering the true meaning of Christmas. It changed me. How often does that happen?
Dads are not God, obviously, but little kids do tend to look up to you as all-powerful. Even though they don’t view me as the stern taskmaster I’d hoped to be, I’m their parent and provider. They want to be in my arms when they are scared. They want my forgiveness after they’ve done something wrong. They want to be with me.
It’s only a matter of time before I fall off that lofty pedestal and they realize I’m just a giant kid with a scratchy beard myself. At that point I’ll run into some dad with a toddler gazing up at him in wonder, and I’ll say, “You’re going to miss this.”
I love being a dad. What do I lack? Money? A few more hours of sleep? A more peaceful meal? That’s nothing compared with what I get from these five monsters who rule my life and the woman who loves us all. Each of my children has made me a better man. Each of them has been a burst of light.
Jim Gaffigan's most recent book is Food: A Love Story (Crown Archetype, 2014).