Gresko's fatherhood essays hold nothing back

'When I First Held You’ is honest portrayal for dads of all stages


From the very instant my wife and I saw that pink line in January, I knew my life was going to change. Now, we have less than three months to go before we welcome our baby into the world.

After reading the sublime When I First Held You, a gift from my wife for Father’s Day, I’ve gotten a glimpse into the future to just how different things will be come September.

The book’s full title, When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experiences of Fatherhood, was my first clue, but editor Brian Gresko does a fine job with the essays’ order and structure, allowing the anthology to tell an engaging and complete story.

The collection’s bookends — essays by Dennis Lehane and Andre Dubus III — left the biggest impressions among the diverse group of writers. Lehane, easily the most identifiable name among them (at least to me), drew me in with an essay titled On Love and Incompetence. Lehane, a best-selling crime fiction author best known for his books that were turned into critically acclaimed movies such as Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River, and Shutter Island, gets straight to the point: Pre-fatherhood life is in the rearview mirror. Sleeping in, streamlined travel, fancy nights out, and life as you knew it will be forgotten. And new fathers will question whether they are good fathers — or good enough (actually, that’s a theme throughout the book, and one I’ve already begun to experience as we research childcare options). Even with all the success Lehane has achieved in his professional life, he says there’s nothing like the pride he feels for his children.

Dubus’ essay, The Door, is a gut-wrenching piece covering his baby’s fight for his life. His selection isn’t the only one which deals with the perils of caring for a newborn, but it’s a well-told tale that makes you wish the anthology continued with an additional 22 essays.

In between Lehane’s and Dubus’ works, essays are filled with laughter and sorrow, as well as astonishment and bewilderment.

It came as a surprise, but maybe it shouldn’t have, reading how many of the writers dealt with separation or divorce during or soon after the birth of their children. It was good to know, however, that the love for their kids remained as strong or became even stronger after domestic crises.

Maybe the most touching story, Zombie Father, was written by Bob Smith, a gay standup comedian battling ALS. He is the biological dad of a lesbian couple’s two kids. While he does not maintain an everyday presence in the children’s lives, he is quite the role model. ALS has robbed Smith of the ability to speak, but he continues to fight the debilitating disease as best he can so he can see his kids grow up. Not one word of his essay is wasted.

The audience for this ambitious collection shouldn’t be limited to fathers-to-be because there are plenty of fulfilling and eye-opening experiences meant to be shared with new and old fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters alike. When I First Held You, obviously, struck a chord with me, with emotions bubbling up to the surface that surely will overflow in September. I, for one, can’t wait to start writing my own stories as a father.

Contact Bob Cunningham at or 419-724-6506.