"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Fatherhood Washington Style

Thirty-five years ago when I first became a father, men were still disengaged from parenting.  The situation was not as bad as when I grew up in a time when fathers were breadwinners and not much else. They were the big guns of discipline. “Wait until your father gets home” meant serious trouble.  His ‘flying off the handle’, and the threat of the razor strop hanging in his bathroom did wonders for my attitude; but other than that, my father had no clue about me.  How could he?  He left early for the office, came home at noon to slurp down a bowl of chicken soup, and sank into his Barcalounger for an hour of baseball before falling asleep and rattling the tchotchkes on the mantelpiece with his snoring.

He made a few attempts at bonding like throwing the baseball around the backyard, but it was clear that he was bored with it all plus the fact that he never had time for sports when he was young so he threw like a girl. We both knew that this father-son thing was not going to work, and so kept our distance.  My mother insisted that he give me a sex talk “before it was too late”, but he managed only a few clinical references to ovum and sperm, and if I had listened just to him I would have tried to reproduce like a chicken.

The real sex talk came from Mr. Purvis, my prep school biology teacher, who, had he given his once-yearly, famous ‘How to Get Girls Hot’ class today, would have been sent to some PC gulag in North Dakota.  But this was the late Fifties, and Mr. Purvis laid it all out.  How the girl’s nipples would get hard, how her vagina would become soft, wet, and silky, how you entered her, watched her reach the crescendo of her ecstasy, and continue with repeated orgasms. This would have been quite enough for us 15 year-olds, but Mr. Purvis had a hot wife, not much older than us; and after the sex talk all we could do was to think about her hard nipples; soft, wet, silky snatch, and Mr. Purvis entering her.

My father had no clue about my adolescence, my puberty and rebellion, my growing intellectual interests far from his own narrow ones, or my anxieties, concerns, and frustrations.

My mother on the other hand had an uncanny ability to read my mind.  When she waved her finger and frowned, I knew what was coming.  I was going to hear the unpleasant truth.  I couldn’t fool her, evade her, or mislead her.  “I know what’s going on”, she would say, and that alone was enough to make me think twice.

I never set out to be different from my father – to become an engaged parent rather than a distant one – but it came naturally. Much has been written about the tendency of men of my generation to do a complete volte face and make a real effort to become involved with their children, but it seemed they did so more out of spite and anger than real commitment.  This was also the era of early feminism which most men didn’t take seriously at all, blew off most rants about equality, but did a few dishes to keep their wives happy.

Sunday was fathers’ day at the park.  The golf game would have to wait, for park time was part of the new conjugal contract of the Seventies. Yet in a city full of lawyers, everyone knew how to get around the letter of the law.  Men would meet their buddies at the park, push the swings in tandem, and bullshit about lawyering, politics, and women. If there was no compadre to hang out with, lone fathers would push the swing with one hand while reading the New York Times with the other, snapping the folds like a Manhattan straphanger.

The funniest scene that I can remember is of two fathers walking around the park, smoking big stogies and dropping ashes on the infants strapped into their Snugglis. The babies were simply uncomfortable lumps on their chests, giving the fathers back twinges and interrupting an otherwise good walk.

I was an independent consultant during my children’s early years, so although I was on the road for 3-4 months a year, I was home for the rest.  I was not exactly a stay-at-home dad – it was Julia the maid who did all the shit work – but I spent a lot of time with my kids.  The arrangement was perfect.  My wife liked having a full-time job (especially since my business was more like a cottage industry, lots of fun and very little money), Julia was a gem, and I did more than my part by spending most of my time with the niños.

I loved it. In fact it wasn’t long before I preferred their company to adults.  I remember once being bored senseless by a party given by the parents of one of my children’s friends. When I had heard enough about mortgage rates, DC corruption, trash pickup, and incompetent teachers, I snuck off to the kids area.  I hacked, joked, messed around and was as silly as they were.  The cliché is true – children are innocent, playful, forthright, happy, and simple – and where in the adult world can you find that?

Back in the late Seventies I was often the only man at the park, and certainly the only one at the supermarket.  The image of a man rolling a shopping cart down the aisles of the Safeway loading up on Pampers, Tide, and Mr. Clean didn’t compute with most of the young mothers there.  At the park, the moms built a defense perimeter around themselves to keep out the male sappers and the wolves.  I was tolerated, but ignored. I thought that a man bringing a toddler to the park would be a great ice-breaker, and that nap time could easily become an impromptu cinq-a-sept, but it happened rarely.  Maybe in Washington Square or Delores Park, but not in NW DC.

I happened to be driving past the same neighborhood park where I saw the Times-reading swing pushers 30 years ago; and lo, and behold there they were again!  This time instead of snapping the folds of the newspaper, they were tapping their I-phones.  So much for the gender revolution.  For some reason men still have a tougher time with babies than women. Diapering, powdering, and cleaning up barf still seems to be a woman’s job.  After all, they carry the baby for nine months and then go through this agonizing thing called ‘delivery’, a euphemism if there ever was one for the thrashing and flailing, grunting, groaning, and screaming that is childbirth. Maybe with all that blood and slime, natural fluids, and the animal-like, primordial experience, women can simply deal more easily with all that follows.

Whatever it is, I have yet to see a young father as comfortable and at ease with an infant child as women.  They haven’t developed the instincts yet – when the baby has shit her diaper, when the chafing of cold piss on tender chops makes her cry; when she is hungry or just plain mad.

In any case, I did the best I could, and tried to keep up that intimacy and insight as my kids grew up.  You will have to ask them if I did.

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