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Listen to the Beard

It starts innocently enough. You forgot to charge the electric razor. Or you’re fresh out of disposable blades. Or maybe you just got lazy one Saturday and ended up missing three mornings in a row.

Whatever the reason, there’s a shadow creeping across your face – stubbly, bristly and getting darker by the day. Sure, you could make it all go away tomorrow. Just a few quick sweeps with your triple-header and it’s gone. But something keeps you from picking up the Norelco.

And that’s when you know the moment has arrived, as it does at least once in the life of every dad. You raise your scraggly chin, face the bathroom mirror head-on, and make a solemn declaration:

I shall grow a beard.

It’s a quiet plan at first, almost a secret pact you’ve made with yourself, and you’ll use whatever misdirection is available to disguise what you’re up to. Don’t bother with excuses. I’ve heard them all. And used them, too. Folks ask about the scruff, and you say you’re not growing a beard, you’re just not shaving. Or the drugstore is out of the razors you like. Or it’s high time you gave your face a break anyway.

If you’re like most dads, you eventually settle on the summertime ploy, letting your beard get started while you’re away on vacation in August and have nobody to answer to for at least a week. But once home from the beach, you quietly let another week pass. Then another week goes by, and still you don’t shave. Now the fuzz on your face has turned into real whiskers a quarter-inch long. Soon enough, your sideburns join forces with the scruff on your cheeks, and the brush on your chin links up with your mustache.

Your kids are thrilled by the beard.
“It’s a prickly party!” my daughter squeals as I rake her with my ragged chin. But your wife seems skeptical, perhaps even alarmed, and your mother, bless her soul, would clearly be mortified (oddly, this pleases you).

Not long after the three-week mark passes, even you begin to wonder if the beard is ridiculous. But now you’ve taken to grooming it like a pet, carefully shaving a fine border along your jawline and nicking away rogue hairs that sprout on your cheeks. You stroke it. You smooth it. You tell yourself you’re following in the footsteps of the many bearded heroes everyone knows and loves. Robin Hood. Ernest Hemingway. The guy in the old Brawny paper towel commercials. All the greats.

There are those rare dads who were born to wear beards, of course. They grew them long before their children were born, and they wouldn’t look like themselves if they didn’t have them. If one of these dads appeared at his own front door clean-shaven, his kids would probably call the police.

But a beard never belonged on you. And maybe that’s why you can’t bring yourself to pick up the razor just yet.

You think a beard makes you look cool. But there’s more to it than that. Deep down, you know a beard tells the world that there’s someone else behind that darkening shadow. The beard speaks of someone who one day might just neglect to make the lunches, leave the grass to the weeds, and go completely off the reservation if he gave himself half a chance. The beard takes you back to a time when you could pack everything you owned into the back of your Volkswagen, drive across seven states, and leave no trace that you’d ever been there at all. The beard tells everyone you can do as you please.

Now it’s September, and the beard has become thick and itchy and in need of constant scratching. It’s also grown in much grayer than you expected, so you’ve taken to calling yourself the Silver Fox without embarrassment. And whenever you catch your own reflection, you see there’s a much shorter distance than you thought from the cheeky grin of Harrison Ford in his Indiana Jones days to the bushy countenance of Ulysses S. Grant.

So you pick up the razor and step up to face the mirror again. The beard stares back, grizzled and reproachful. Hang on, it seems to say. Don’t let go just yet.

Because the beard is more than just a reminder of the guy you used to be. The beard is where you have gone to lick your wounds. Grow a beard, and you stick a thumb in the eye of every compromise you made, every inch of ground you ever gave up, every argument you fought to a draw. A beard shouts back at the walls of the room painted the shade of taupe you hated but agreed to anyway, eases the guilt over the bills you forgot to
mail, soothes the regret of having a child catch the full force of your temper momentarily lost.

Face it: The beard is where you are hiding out. And like the mountain man you’ve come to resemble, you wonder if maybe you can hide out here forever. Forget all your apologies and failures and ineptitude. Take your musket and your bedroll, and run even farther up into the hills where nobody can find you. And never come back.

But it’s cold and dark out there in those mountains, and here it is warm inside the life you have made. The house is awash in light, dinner is done, and now the children need to brush their teeth and say their prayers and fall asleep and dream of angels.

You turn on the water, wet your new blade, and lift the razor to your cheek. For one last shining moment, you are the dad with the beard. But tonight you know one thing for sure. It’s time to go home.

Tony Farrell has written about parenting for many books, magazines, and websites. He lives in Richmond’s West End with his wife, Laura, and their children, Lucy and Will. He writes for the DadZone every other month and shares theater reviews occasionally too.
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