Fumbling Through 'Fatherhood,' Even With The Best Advice

Originally published on February 23, 2014 11:49 am

Actor Hank Azaria wasn't sure he wanted to become a father.

"I am not a children kind of person," he says in the first episode of Fatherhood, his new AOL documentary series. "I feel about kids the way I feel about most people. Which is, most of them are annoying. Children are no exception — they're just annoying short people."

So Azaria set out to document his quest for parental wisdom, quizzing his friends, poker buddies and experts about why they chose to become parents.

"And in the middle of all that," he explains, "We got pregnant. So the documentary changed to: I am going to be a father. What do I do?"

The 12-part Web series includes interviews with celebrity fathers, like Bryan Cranston and Mike Myers.

But even with the best advice, parents still make the occasional mistake. Azaria tells NPR's Arun Rath that he ran into trouble trying to answer his son's questions about the tricky topics of sex and death.

"My dad passed away this past year, so death came up with my son," Azaria says. "And it was amazingly hard."

When faced with trying to explain the afterlife to a 4-year-old, he says he was scrambling for an answer and finally told his son: "Oh, you know. Some people feel that you just kind of go to sleep."

Azaria says he was incredibly pleased with his answer — until he realized that what he viewed as a kid-appropriate description had actually cast bedtime in a terrifying light.

Similarly, Azaria got tangled up in a conversation with his son about the birds and the bees after joking with his wife in moments of exasperation: "Well, we made him. We made this guy." So one day his son asked, "How did you make me?"

"So we did the old, 'Well. What's your theory?' And he had one! And it was startling accurate and insane at the same time," Azaria says.

There have been more serious revelations as well, he says. When asked what the most surprising thing about becoming a father has been, he explains that he thought it would be "a lot more of a bummer."

While he and his wife were expecting their son, he says, people would often tell him that his life was going to change dramatically. There was only one problem: He liked his life. He didn't really want it to change.

"What people don't tell you is that your life is going to change for the better," Azaria says, referring to a conversation he had with Kevin Bacon for the series.

"For me, it was about a lesson in unselfishness that I never could have learned any other way," he says. "I never really realized that being less selfish would make me more grateful and thus more happy. That's what it's done for me."

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

As a father of two young kids, I am very excited about a new segment we're starting right now about parenting. We're calling it the Kids Table. For those of you who hate hearing people talk about their kids, stick with us because we have the perfect guest to kick this off, actor Hank Azaria. He's actually making a documentary series about fatherhood from the perspective of someone who never wanted to be a dad.


HANK AZARIA: I am not a children kind of person. I don't really like kids. I don't gravitate towards them. They make me nervous when I'm around them. I didn't particularly like myself as a child.

RATH: Well, Hank did become a father, and his son is now 4. I know from personal experience that's when kids start to ask deep, complicated questions. I wanted to know how Hank handled one of the big ones: What happens when you die?

AZARIA: Sadly, my dad passed away this past year, so death came up with my son. And it was amazingly hard. He got really upset about it, as you might imagine. I mean, he was like, what do you mean we're not going to see Grandpa anymore? And he asked what does it mean, you know? And I'm just scrambling for an answer there. And I said, oh, you know, well some people feel that you just kind of go to sleep. And I was really happy with that answer.

Then I looked online. I'm like, let me just check my work here. And I saw all these things saying, don't tell your child this. You know why they say don't tell your child that?

RATH: Then they'll be terrified to go to sleep.

AZARIA: There it is. There it is.

RATH: Because they're rational human beings.

AZARIA: Well, you're - you put two and two together better than I did. I was like, well...

RATH: No. I'd only read that ahead of time. We went through the same thing with our son. It was his - well, his great grandfather actually passed away. And he was really close with him. My son asked: So when you're dead, can you think? That's the big one, right? That's it in a nutshell, right? That's the big one that drives us all crazy.

AZARIA: Yeah. Right.

RATH: And then he said - and this was when his great grandfather was 93, it was before he passed - he said, maybe Great Umpa could test it for us.

AZARIA: Ha. Wow.

RATH: And I had to actually look away for a second because I wanted to even talk more about him like if he were a 20-year-old...

AZARIA: That's the thing too. You think of all kinds of things you want to say but they're just not old enough. It's - you know, it's very hard, you know, to talk to one so young in terms they'll understand. It becomes this impossible, you know, math problem of, like, how do I put this in a way that you can - that's appropriate for you? And sometimes there just isn't one.

Just the sex thing, you know, we really walked into that one because my wife and I have a - we had a running thing we'd say in front of him just kind of - we'd say: Well, we made him. We made this guy. We made him. And then finally one day, he went: Hey, how did you make me? We were like, oh, dear. And so we did the old, well, what's your theory? And he had one. And it was startlingly accurate and sane at the same time.

His theory was that dada had a magic wand, OK?


AZARIA: And it exploded.

RATH: Wow.

AZARIA: And then God gave us a son. How about that for just a shot-in-the-dark theory of how it happens? But, man - and he really is with it. He's like, hey, can I have a baby someday? And we're like, sure you can. Of course, you can. He goes, can I borrow your magic wand? And I'm like, you'll have your own. You'll have your own. Anyway, just wanted to share that one.

RATH: That was great. What's been your biggest surprise so far about being a dad?

AZARIA: I thought it would be a lot more of a bummer. I'd feel a lot more put upon by it. And, you know, Kevin Bacon - when I interviewed him - said - he talked about how when he and his wife were pregnant, people would say: Oh, boy, your life's going to change. And it really would bum him out because he liked his life. And I felt the same way. And he said, what people don't tell you is your life is going to change for the better.

And at the time, I didn't have a child. And I said: Yeah, but how? How? How? And he - it's very hard to describe how. But it is true, it does. I'm sure you can attest to that.

RATH: Yeah.

AZARIA: I know for me it was about a lesson in unselfishness that I never, ever could've learned any other way. And I never really realized that being less selfish would make me more grateful and less more happy. And that's what it's done for me.

RATH: Hank Azaria. His AOL documentary Web series is called "Fatherhood." And you can find a link to it on our website, npr.org.


RATH: This conversation is a part of our ongoing series the Kids Table, a place to talk about all things parenting.

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