Monday, November 22, 2010

The Father That I Thought He Would Be

While I have fallen so far from the pedestal of perfect parenting that I had imagined for myself, my husband has neither fallen nor risen.  He is almost exactly the father I thought he would be.  Ted changes the occasional diaper, calls chewable Tylenol “candy”, and feeds the kids chocolate croissants whenever he is in charge of breakfast.  He wavers between the role of authoritarian and good-time father, not quite sure where he fits.  He loves the kids deeply, but isn’t all-consumed with every milestone and personal achievement.  When Elana took her first step, or when Maisy said her first word, he reacted genuinely excited over the phone when I called to tell him.  However, there was no “I can’t believe I wasn’t there” guilt/sadness that plagues the mother who misses her child’s first anything.

Ted is a good father, and a good husband, yet he is also the traditional father/husband.  He often has to leave for work before Elana brightens the rest of us with her high-pitched wailing and refusal to get dressed.  Maisy, our farm rooster, is always the first up.  And Ted gives her a loving, quick kiss on the forehead before dashing out the door to his luxurious 30-minute commute.  At night, Ted usually arrives home as the girls are emerging from the bathtub and he is able to spend a good half-hour playing with them before helping with bedtime.  And this seems to work for him.  Again, there is no guilt/sadness of the mother who feels that she isn’t spending enough quality time with her children.  To him, like most fathers I know, this is enough.  

Last year Ted attended a parent education night at Elana’s co-op preschool titled “How to talk so you kids will listen, and listen so your kids will talk.”  From the gossip around the co-op kitchen the day after I gathered that the evening quickly became a seminar on “How to get your kids to eat/sleep/stop hitting/stop screaming/etc”. That night, as Ted climbed into bed after the meeting, I asked him how it went- what did he learn?  He exclaimed how lucky we were to have such an obedient and well-behaved child.  The other parents at the event had so many concerns about how little their child ate, the difficulties of bedtime, and various other toddler misbehaviors.  “Elana,” he said without a hint of sarcasm, “is just so perfect.”  First of all, I wondered what child he was referring to; secondly, I didn’t know whether to find his attitude charming- oh he is just so enamored with the children that he is completely blinded by their inner demons- or if to find it obnoxious that his few minutes of parenting a day leaves me to deal with the heavy lifting.  I chose to see it as obnoxious.

It’s not that society has no, or low, expectations for fathers.  It’s more like society does not know where to set the expectations.  When a father brings his kids to the playground on a weekday, he is flocked by his adoring fans (mothers whose husbands are off at work, drinking coffee in boardrooms and flirting with office assistants).  This rare sighting, of a XY-chromosome above the age of ten, pushing a child on the swing, is as close to flirting as most stay-at-home mothers get in the average week (unless you call it foreplay when the checker at Trader Joe’s asks me if I want to double bag).

A few years ago our good friend- let’s call him David- was flying alone with his one-and-a-half-year old daughter from Chicago to San Francisco.  His wife had to take a flight a few days later.  Given she was under two years old they shared a seat in coach.  David sat at a window seat next to a nice couple in their early 60s from Wisconsin who were headed to SF for vacation.  He apologized in advance for the potential of any child crying.  David held his daughter on his lap, played with her, read to her, lulled her to sleep (all the things parents do on cross-country flights).  During the flight the husband asked if he could borrow David’s Sports Illustrated Magazine.  Thinking nothing of it he gave the magazine to the man.   As they departed the plane David thanked them for their patience and understanding and headed off thinking nothing of it.  Apparently, his seatmates were quite taken with David and his daughter.  A few days later, David received a lovely note from the couple praising him for being such an exemplary father (it seems that he found his address on the address label glued to the magazine).  The handwritten note espoused praise, surprise and admiration. Now, David is a terrific father, but his wife, who is an absolutely amazing mother, has made this solo trip numerous times with not one, but two kids.  Never has she been so highly praised and adored, or even slightly praised.  David was surprised by the letter and even more surprised by his wife’s reaction to the perceived double standard.

Let’s look at a few more situations and how they are perceived differently depending on the gender of the parent.

The Mother
The Father
Parent buys the child a chocolate croissant for breakfast.
Bakery patrons admonish the mother for giving her child a sugary pastry instead of a homemade meal.
Bakery patrons marvel at the lovely father/daughter meal.
Child behaves unruly in a restaurant
Fellow diners wonder why the mother has not provided better boundaries for her children.
Fellow diners sympathize remembering the difficulties of raising young children.
Public diaper changing

Does she really need to do that here?
Isn’t it great to see such hands-on parenting?
Parent works twelve hour days, travels all over the country for work, and is often on duty during the weekends.
This mother does not have her priorities straight.  She needs to place family above her career.
He’s just a man providing for his family.
Baby barfs all over the parent during a turbulent flight.
Passengers plug their noses and turn away from the stench.  (True story, happened to me.)
Passengers offer napkins, water, even their own shirts as a towel, as well as offer to hold the puke-drenched babe.
Yes, I know that a father’s role has been changing dramatically over the past 30 years.  According to the US Census, there were 62% more single fathers in 2000 than in 1990, making up nearly 7.5 million households.  Dads of all kinds are now more involved in housework, cooking, and child rearing, than their fathers and grandfathers.  My lovely, well-meaning mother-in-law is quick to praise her sons for changing a diaper, or bathing the children when she remembered raising three boys without that sort of help from her husband.  It was his responsibility to work and provide for the family, which he did, putting long hours in at the office and building a strong career in the newspaper business.
(Photo courtesy of Amanda Dixon Leung.)
However, it seems that we are now in sort of a fatherhood limbo period where we want more from dads, but not sure how much more to expect.  I know that I am fortunate that I have an involved husband.  When Ted is home, we divvy up the chores pretty evenly.  However, he nearly always opts for the manual labor chores, versus the parenting ones.  Who’s going to do the grocery shopping and who’s going to take kids to park?  Do the dishes or read stories on the couch?  Clean the backyard or give the kids a bath?  Before I can ever pick up a dirty dish, Ted is at the sink, claiming stake to the non-child involved chore.   Should I be satisfied to have a husband who helps around the house at all, or frustrated to have one who is able to remove himself so effortlessly from the hard labor of parenting? What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. I'd say.... yes, satisfied. But I guess that doesn't mean much coming from another guy:)

    Personally, I think the reason people are so enamored with the sight of a father actually doing something is because it's been drilled into too many people's head that we're really just a bunch of bumbling dunder-heads, as fathers and as husbands. When they see one not fitting the stereo-type, it's like "There's still hope for humanity!" :) Doesn't make it fair, but perhaps an explanation. Great articles Rhiana!