Parenting and all those other magazines annoy me. No, it’s not that they repeat the same stories in different guises every few months (my blog probably does likewise), but it seems everything is geared to mothers. “Something to help mom…mothers like this…what drives mothers crazy…” Now, if these kinds of references were indeed mother-specific (e.g., something to do with womens’ clothing), that would be one thing. But instead, it usually is something about putting kids to sleep, discipline, or finding activities for the kids to do. Fathers exist in a kind of netherworld where we are to be good role models, commended when involved, but generally secondary to moms when it comes to the daily routine.
That drives me crazy. My wife and I each work. Her job is more stressful than mine, so I tend to do more of the routine kid things, like baths and bedtime routines. We each do breakfasts and getting the boys dressed in the morning, we each discipline, we each play. She reads more books, I tell more stories (or help the kids develop stories). I’ll play with the kids while she works in the garden to get us delicious tomatoes, herbs and cucumbers. She’ll work with the oldest on reading and numbers while I put the youngest to bed. We are absolute co-parents, the difference between mother and father is simply the fact she as a woman gets labeled ‘mom’ and I as a man get labeled ‘dad,’ than any particular thing about what we do as parents. That seems the way it should be.
My dad suffered because of sexism. He worked while my mom stayed home. He didn’t show emotion much, was the disciplinarian, but always there for us kids when we needed him. He never changed a diaper, but he stuck up for us. He was a good father of the old generation, really loving and doing all he could for his children, but not getting as close to us as he could have because sexism defined the role of the father and the man as being secondary to that of the mother. My dad died at age 60 from pancreas cancer. On the day after his funeral, at which I gave the eulogy, I flew to Farmington, Maine for a job interview. I didn’t tell anyone that my dad had just died – that would have made the interview process a bit too creepy – but I felt he was with me. When I got the job offer my first thought was to call dad…but of course, I couldn’t. He was dead. Yet as much as I loved and respected him, I wonder what kind of relationship we could have had if he hadn’t been part of a culture that defined the man as ‘bringing home the bacon,’ and the woman as ‘taking care of the home.’
So rather than think of “fatherhood” as some kind of unique thing, I prefer to view it as “parenthood,” shared by the mother and the father. Parenthood changes your life. The first thing I noticed is that I worried more. In the past, I had a rather fatalistic and probabilistic view to risk – I’d never worry about getting on a plane because the probability of accident was very low, and if it were meant to happen, well, c’est la vie. But after having a child, the thought of not being there overwhelmed me. For awhile I worried about everything; it took awhile to re-convince myself that life was to be lived and risk just built in.
Parenthood also takes away much of ones’ own personal life. My wife and I no longer played tennis, golf or went skiing for the first years. Since we both work, we rarely had babysitters, choosing to spend our time with our kids. We stopped going to movies, and rarely ate out. Yesterday we had a babysitter for seven hours as we headed down to Brunswick to catch Jesus Christ Superstar, a production of the Maine State Music Theater. A rare break from the routine of dealing with two extroverted, exuberant and energetic boys.
One could resent that – life is diapers (or checking to make sure the older one wiped well), dealing with fights over who gets a particular car, kids splashing water out of the bathtub, watching spongebob squarepants, cleaning up messes and preparing foods the kids will eat. We could resent the inability to travel, hampered now by having to buy four tickets and realizing we can’t have much fun traveling for any length of time with two small children. One could bemoan the loss of independence, the inability to do what one wants, and the way one becomes enslaved to the routine of the children.
Parenthood to me is to reject that kind of attitude, and embrace the experience and adventure of raising kids. Parenthood is to enjoy every minute of watching them grow, to experience with them each development and discovery. Parenthood means looking at the world through their eyes, to realize how magical even the every day can appear. If one embraces parenthood, the loss of independence is more than compensated for by the re-learning of how to experience life with wide eyes. What a world! What beauty! What mystery! What imagination! And, as one experiences life with the children instead of just ‘above’ them, it becomes easier to stay patient, to understand how to discipline, to make sacrifices, and to enjoy it immensely when they smile, hug, or make some new discovery.
Their lives are dependent upon what parents do. They can be happy and content, or angry and bitter. They can feel good about themselves or learn to see themselves as somehow inadequate. They can see life as something to be embraced, full of fun and wonder, or they can learn to see life as a hardship, full of work and responsibility. Parenthood to me is a mission to assure that while my kids learn to work and be responsible, they never lose that sense that they are creative, vibrant, good beings in a world full of wonder, imagination, and opportunity. Those things are not dependent on material goods or status, but on ones’ attitude and willingness to be reflective and open. So with all do respect to Barack Obama’s superb speech on fatherhood, and the ubiquitous missives yesterday about fathers, I prefer to see the real issue to be that of parenthood, shared and enjoyed by parents, whether it is a mother and a father, or maybe two dads or two moms. And in some cases the burden of parenthood is carried by only one person. In all cases the goals and challenges are the same, and the task is the most important in the world.