Dads in the Wild: On Lucas Mann’s “Attachments”

By Margo SteinesMay 6, 2024

Dads in the Wild: On Lucas Mann’s “Attachments”

Attachments: Essays on Fatherhood and Other Performances by Lucas Mann

IT’S 4:30 IN the morning and I’m sobbing into my bed; silent, voluminous tears soak the pillow. On Grey’s Anatomy, which I squint at on my old-model iPhone in the dark of my bedroom, a baby is born and then taken away from her mother. My body wracks with the effort of keeping quiet. About 15 feet away, through two doors, is my own baby—a baby by my definition only, a three-and-a-half-year-old child who uses the toilet independently and can pronounce the word “impatient.” My baby has never been taken away from me, and yet I feel a deep, primal fear watching the wailing newborn on my phone screen. The desire to creep into my child’s room, rouse her from sleep, and press her small body into mine is so strong that I can hardly resist. I want to wrap my arms around her and smell her hair and relish—if only for a moment—the fallacy of security, the illusion of pure care.

At the same time, I’m two other things: impressed with my response to the fictional scene (what a great mom, I think, lauding myself in the third person), and deeply unwilling to actually wake my child, because then I’ll have to engage on her terms, which might be sweet, sleepy snuggles, but might also be screaming demands for milk. Do I want to hug the baby to give love or to feel love? I ask the question constantly. Mostly, I’m met with answers that dismay. I want tactile confirmation that my baby is safe, that she’s mine, that I can hold her in the bubble of childhood I have painstakingly attempted to maintain—for her, but also for me.

Toward the end of his new collection Attachments: Essays on Fatherhood and Other Performances, Lucas Mann describes this intoxicating grog of self-centered anxiety and genuine care as “letting the lines of tenderness and fear blur, which is too often how I experience parenthood.” The titular essay, “Attachments, Wild and Tame,” considers anthropomorphism and creature-to-creature relationships by way of his daughter’s encounters with animals: at the zoo, in the duck pond, in the books she reads, and, once, under a parent-sized shoe, amid the shattered remains of a snail. Who are we when we perceive another creature? the essay interrogates. What do our appetites for perception reveal about us?

Because Mann frames his cultural criticism through the lens of his toddler’s experiences, he is afforded the opportunity to receive animal-to-animal moments—which sometimes deal with actual animals and other times with varying iterations of their simulacra (zoo-kept animals, stuffed animals, illustrations of animals)—with the brutality and wonder only a small child can so credulously pair. She feels, and he sees her feeling, and it reactivates his own childhood feelings. From that process, he offers us considerations of the meaning of it all:

[E]verything about the way my daughter experiences animals, seeks them out, has them curated for her, matches my childhood experience, but the world feels different now. […] But watching a kid flicker with curiosity, with care, for something alive and unknowable still stokes memory and hope, all at once. Still falls so pleasurably into a timeless, beautiful, doomed routine: see the animal, imagine that animal, look into its eyes, find love in your idea of it.

What Mann’s attempting to do, here and elsewhere in the collection, is metabolize his own experience as a child by way of his life as a parent. Yet, rather than use his child as an object through which to live (or relive, as it were), he engages her with a curiosity that, though jaded by age, remains imbued with possibility. What could all of this mean? Mann and his child seem to ask about the world. She comes at the question from a place of pure feeling, searching, in fits and starts, for something approaching understanding; he approaches it from one of irresistible analysis, seeking refuge in subtler flickers of the sensory. That they both find what they’re looking for in each other is at once tender and ironic, neither of which is lost on the writer.

This collection of 12 essays is kaleidoscopic in its assembled forms, including everything from a Maggie Nelson–style accumulation in “Tiny, Spectacular Futures” to a deeply researched, 38-page feature on dadfluencers and an experimental riff on footnotes that pairs four pages of prose with four pages of corresponding notes. Mann’s topical lens is narrow—the intersections of fatherhood, identity, and culture—but his engagement with various modes and shapes of nonfiction is playful. Genre is approached as a challenge, not a container.

Most compelling are the essays that go deeper, the ones that stay with and dissect an idea—the form of the essay, the “I” of nonfiction, the nature of fatherhood in the internet era—rather than accumulating many. (In “Dads Being Dudes Making Jokes,” for instance, Mann worries an idea around in his pocket for long enough that I came out the other side changed both in my relationship to the essay’s specific topic and in my broader sense of how to examine an idea in the first place.) Throughout, the prose proves so voice-driven that it’s hard not to imagine receiving it in conversation; Mann’s is an enjoyable and compulsively readable style, and he carries his material with momentum. His pace only breaks down in “An Inspirational Collective Reflection on Joy, Love, and Responsibility from Some Famous Fathers of Daughters, Both Real and Imagined”—a.k.a. the footnote essay, in which my sense of charm at the form’s novelty is soon interrupted by the necessity for so much page-flipping that I kept losing my place. (This particular essay might be more easily enjoyed on a Kindle.)


Mann writes with great acuity about how parents often do a good thing (albeit sometimes engineered) only to ruin it with their ensuing degree of self-satisfaction. The essayist supports his white daughter as she selects a Black doll, and he and his wife crow—quietly, but the vibe’s still congratulatory—over their daughter abandoning a bowl of cookies, half uneaten. In each case, it’s easy to wince at the potential Instagram caption: the former a 1990s Benetton ad brought back to life at a time when most people understand that color blindness is not a good thing; the latter a Lean In–esque take on body positivity and Health at Every Size for the next generation. Gratifyingly, Mann doesn’t make either of these posts, literally or figuratively. He also goes a step further than simply noting how cringeworthy he’s being: he unpacks the personal and cultural forces that have made him so.

The moment with the cookies in “An Essay about Watching Brad Pitt Eat That Is Really About My Own Shit” feels like a special triumph because of Mann’s own troubled past and present with his body and food. Not only does he let us into this—his feelings of scarcity whenever snacks are present, his guilt and anxiety about being seen eating, his incredible discomfort in his body and the Family of Origin shit from which that discomfort stems—but he also makes it a central concern. Is it tiresome to say that this is especially brave for a man to do? Maybe, but I’ll say it anyway. If eating disorders and body loathing are the yoke of femininity in a culture that has long policed the size (singular) and shape (singular) that a woman is expected and permitted to be, the worm on the underbelly of that beast is that discussions of body image have been feminized. For a man to enter into that conversation is thereby hard: it’s embarrassing, and erosive to a certain tradition of masculinity. Boys don’t cry—about their weight … Or something like that.

All of which is to say, Mann serves a healthy dose of real talk about his “own shit,” and his efforts to spare his daughter from it. Rather than restrict sweets, as was done in his home growing up (a dynamic that ultimately led him to binge eating), he explains, he makes them abundantly available now. They’re a thing neither to obsess over nor to hoard—an unnoteworthy treat.

Reading this provokes minor stress about my own parenting. I grew up in an essentially similar food culture to that of Mann’s family—during the same era of fat-free everything, when kids drank skim milk and we called Tasti D-Lite a dessert—and developed an eating disorder at a pretty young age. I think daily about how to preserve and support my own daughter’s relationship with her body and food. But I’ve come at the problem differently, keeping out of my home anything I don’t think a toddler should be eating. I consume a tremendous amount of parenting and nutrition content on Instagram, and I often worry that I’ve fucked my daughter up, that I’ve made sweets and processed food some kind of holy grail—that my efforts to spare her from my issues have simply set her up for different ones.

Of course, there isn’t an answer or a solution for this line of thinking, and I’m (briefly) saved from my worry by Mann’s overarching point, which is an old saw with a new twist: we’re all going to fuck our kids up, whether we do it with food or with something else. The real concern is the degree to which we degrade our relationship to reality through our attempts at denying that truth. The writer is a messy parent, but so are we all. Here and elsewhere, Mann’s neuroses aren’t distractions—they’re the primary sites of inquiry.


As a collection, Attachments takes the domestic and the interior very seriously. At the same time, it maintains a sense of jokey discomfort with that very seriousness. Why must we think about it all so much is a question Mann repeatedly gestures toward. In his essay on dadfluencers, through which we first, meet, and second, encounter the humanity of virtually every memed trope of a dad on the internet, he asks outright, “How different am I from the archetypes I mock?”

To be a parent in the internet age is to scroll and watch so many iterations of who or how you might be flash before your eyes. For me, it’s Hey Sleepy Baby and Ballerina Farm; for Mann it’s The Dad and Dadman Walking. Naturally, there’s a host of gendered differences (fodder for another essay). Still, each of these internet representations converge in their likenesses to funhouse mirrors. However much we may think we see ourselves in their reflections, these images are in fact curated or warped to the point of unreality. What this is doing to the project of being authentic and intuitive with our children is one of the central concerns of Mann’s essays, and I’m heartened by his unwillingness to declare a conclusion or to elide the nuances of the many possible answers. It’s certainly more encouraging to be told This is a fundamentally unsolvable cultural riddle than You’re making bad choices when good ones exist.

To become a parent is to become a filtration system between society and a small, forming person. As this cultural liver, we’re regularly forced to confront contradictions and failures among our own behaviors and beliefs. Because no one will call you out for various hypocrisies faster than a child who relies on you to create the rules of the world. Children function as reflection pools, providing images of ourselves in piercing clarity—including the details we’d rather not see.

That’s not a new point. What is new, however, is Mann’s insistence on framing that process—excruciating as it often is—not simply as segue into self-loathing or critique, but as a moment of return to the self. Through our children, we’re prodded and poked into contact with our ugliest and most embarrassing parts. And yeah, sure, we could agree to fix them, to be better, and that would be great, but the real triumph, for those of us willing to play, is undergoing that encounter and waking up to live (not to mention, offer care throughout) another day. If parenting is a radical act of self-knowing—and Mann convincingly argues that it is—then the truly liberatory potential of parenthood is found not only in raising children who will, hopefully, go on to be kinder and happier than their parents are, but also in removing from society a person who can’t fully see themselves, and replacing them with one who can.

LARB Contributor

Margo Steines holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Arizona, where she is faculty in the Writing Program. Her work was named notable in Best American Essays and has appeared in The Sun, Slate, Air Mail, Brevity, Off Assignment, The New York Times (Modern Love), the anthology Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us (2022), and elsewhere. She is the author of the memoir-in-essays Brutalities: A Love Story (2023). Margo is a born-and-raised New Yorker, a journeyman ironworker, and a mom to a small person. She is also a private creative coach and writing class facilitator.


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