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Sixty percent of American men are fathers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But the data doesn’t tell us how dads feel about the role—or, for that matter, how their progeny rate their performance. In honor of Father’s Day 2020, we rounded up an assortment of comments from writer-fathers and writer-offspring on what it actually means to be a dad.

“To be a successful father . . . there's one absolute rule: when you have a kid, don't look at it for the first two years.”

—Ernest (“Papa”) Hemingway

“The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low.”

―Michael Chabon

 “Family happiness completely absorbs me, and it’s impossible to do anything.”

—Leo Tolstoy

“ . . . What a child needs is at least one parent, and more often two, who focus on him or her above all. The gender of those parents is negotiable. When [my husband and I] once asked George whether he would prefer to have a mother and father, like most of the kids in his class, he said, ‘No! If my parents were a mother and a father, I wouldn’t have one of you—and that would make me so sad.’”

—Andrew Solomon

“My son is seven years old. I am 54. It has taken me a great many years to reach that age. I am more respected in the community, I am stronger, I am more intelligent, and I think I am better than he is. I don’t want to be his pal, I want to be a father.”

—Clifton Fadiman

“We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow. Our wiser sons no doubt will think us so.”

—Alexander Pope

“Whether biological, foster, or adoptive, [fathers] teach us through the encouragement they give, the questions they answer, the limits they set, and the strength they show in the face of difficulty and hardship.”

—Barack Obama

“There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

—Cyril Connolly

“ . . . My father, the writer Jan Morris, is transgender. I am immensely proud of my father as a woman, and I don’t think of her in any other way.”

—Mark Morris

“It doesn't matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.”

—Anne Sexton

“I think a child should be allowed to take his father's or mother's name at will on coming of age. Paternity is a legal fiction.”

—James Joyce 

“Most American children suffer too much mother and too little father.”

—Gloria Steinem

“It no longer bothers me that I may be constantly searching for father figures; by this time, I have found several and dearly enjoyed knowing them all.”

—Alice Walker

“Advice my father gave me: never take liquor into the bedroom. Don’t stick anything in your ears. Be anything but an architect.”

—Kurt Vonnegut

“You know how it is with fathers, you never escape the idea that maybe after all they’re right.”

—John Updike

“Sometimes, when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family.”

—Alison Bechdel

“It is exceedingly interesting and attractive to be a successful business man, or railway man, or farmer, or a successful lawyer or doctor; or a writer, or a President, or a ranchman, or the colonel of a fighting regiment, or to kill grizzly bears and lions. But for unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison.”

—Theodore Roosevelt

“Whoever does not have a good father should procure one.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche


Image: Kellogg and Bulkeley, 1860. oil on fabric; canvas mounted on fiberboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Bulkeley.

Posted on Jun. 19, 2020 by Autumn Stephens