Rad Like Dad

Nate Kinsella on how transitioning into parenthood inspired the new Birthmark record.

My daughter has a favorite shirt. In cursive, it says in a flourish “Rad Like Dad.” She puts it on in the morning maybe once a week to surprise me while I’m making her breakfast. Each time, I’m immediately overwhelmed by two swift and opposing reactions. 

Reaction A: Bliss

“This is the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me. I don’t care if the eggs I’m scrambling burn to a crisp and then light on fire, everything must pause while I get down on my knees in front of this child, look deep into her eyes (while fighting back my own tears), and hug her with all my might to show her how much it means to me.”

Reaction B: Cynicism

“I’m rad? As in radical? Hardly. I am of average height and build — nothing extraordinary there. I never completed my bachelor’s degree and haven’t finished a book in years. I already carry my imposter syndrome along with me and now you’re declaring to everyone that I’m a rad dad? Not rad, more like sad.”

So, when my child dresses up as a walking billboard to my greatness, I can’t help but bristle, even though her sentiment is honest. Since having children, I often feel like I’m straddling a canyon — with joy on one side, and despair on the other — somehow balancing with my feet planted on opposite cliffs, feeling both simultaneously. 

But this shirt, it’s not completely wrong. Though my daughter and I are very different, I suppose there are a couple of rad qualities we share (if we’re using the definition of radical to mean extreme or drastic). We both fall victim to daily grumpiness. Her grumpiness manifests physically (kicking and stomping on the floor as to fill the neighbors with rage, etc.) and I’m more detached. My grumpiness is often coupled with deep eyebrow furrowing; evidence of which, over time, has been permanently etched on my forehead, much like the rings of a tree. Peas in a pod are we. Our other shared radical trait is the single-mindedness and all-encompassing focus that we have toward our art projects. While “in the zone,” we both find eating, sleeping and trips to the potty to be not only unnecessary, but unjust, intrusive chores which are to be driven back and held at bay until, grumpily, we succumb.

Recently we went on a family trip to The Met to see the Women Dressing Women exhibit. Both of my daughters love to look at fancy gowns and wanted to finish up the sketches they started the previous weekend when my wife took them on a “Mom and the girls” trip of sorts. My oldest (the one with the Rad like Dad shirt) had set a goal of sketching all of the pieces in the exhibit (note the evidence of commitment to an art project here). They were the only kids there, and brought with them the unencumbered wonder and limitless energy that only kids seem to have. They plopped down in front of the gowns one by one, finding a blank page in their fuzzy unicorn notebooks for each, and drew what they saw in front of them. It was cute, and without pretense. As the museum-goers walked past, their eyes would wander down to the floor where my kids were sitting, peek over their shoulders at the drawings and smile. In a way, the drawings became part of the exhibit. I watched visual information travel from the gowns into their young minds, then out onto the paper, then from the paper to the eyes of the smiling passersby, who then looked back at the gowns, with the influence of the children’s excitement, and so on. It flowed in a beautiful loop — quite possibly the most moving performance piece I have ever seen, I was touched in a way that only their father could be. Proud, and a little weepy, I disappeared into a corner and watched the performance unfold.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of communicating through art. I made an album about my transition into parenthood, and that widening canyon I mentioned, and now it’s being released into the world. I’m grappling with sharing this thing that I made, not just because it’s deeply personal, but because it’s been fine-tuned to resonate truly with only one person. And this might sound snide, but I’m just being honest: that person isn’t you.

Allow me to quickly point out though… in all likelihood, there has never been a work of art made specifically for any of us, and yet they resonate with us nonetheless. 

I hope, if you relate to it, that it helps to legitimize your thoughts and feelings in some way. For those of you paid so little that you’ve lost money by holding onto a job just to be able to pay for childcare, I see you. For those of you who’ve opted to put your artistic endeavors indefinitely on hold because it makes more financial sense for you to be a stay-at-home parent, I see you. And to those of you who have felt the confounding guilt of regretting becoming a parent while you watch the weeks, months and years breeze by, blowing you further adrift from who you think you are, but are not any longer, I see you too.

I too have felt and experienced these things and making this album was the therapy I couldn’t afford. Please, I invite you to wander through to hear what it sounds like. There are spotlights on my imperfections and a soap opera glow to my unfulfilled romantic fantasies. Look over my shoulder at the sketches I’ve made while in awe of what’s in front of me. And lastly, buy my t-shirt.

Nate Kinsella is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, and engineer based in Brooklyn with Midwest roots in Minneapolis and Chicago. He writes and records music as Birthmark and is a member of the band American Football. The latest Birthmark record, Birth of Omni, is out now on Polyvinyl.

(Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez)