No one wants their kids to turn out badly and it’s not hard to get a little obsessive about reading (or misreading) little signs and signals as you try to head off aberrant behavior. Such was the case this week with Z.
There’s a lot of Harry Potter in the zeitgeist right now and, somehow, my 5 year old has become aware of it. Z announced that he and his friends had decided to play some live-action Harry Potter. Jeremy was going to be Harry Potter and Z was thrilled because he was going to be the “bad guy.”
Well, this instantly set off a mental cascade of worries for me. Why does he want to be the bad guy? Haven’t I gently but clearly talked to him about goodness and the value doing the right thing? Don’t I open doors for old ladies and unfailingly return my shopping cart to the little stall in the parking lot? Haven’t I set a good example? Is this some sign that my child is already heading down the path to darkness?
Yeah, I know, this is all a little over the top but surely you, too, have had the thought that if Mr. and Mrs. Manson had just paid a little more attention, they would have seen that little Charlie was heading toward disaster. Seriously, I know better, but I’m also hoping to pass into the next life without having to explain to reporters that I “just never thought something like this could happen.”
And so, with all this running through my mind, I fixed my little boy with a meaningful but entirely non-threatening smile and asked: ‘Z, why would you want to be the bad guy?”
And, without missing a beat, Z looked at me and said “Well, they’re always chasing the bad guy Daddy…and I LOVE to run.”
The boy just loves to run.
Sometimes we make this whole thing a lot harder than it needs to be.
In my experience, the normal trajectory for a boy and his Dad goes something like this: Stage one is the honey moon, the “My Dad is a superhero and my best friend, he knows everything” phase. This is, by far, the best part of the equation for the Dads — where the love affair is at its most equal and fair. It lasts, roughly, until adolescence at which point the kid starts to realize that the graying, aging guy in the living room isn’t a superhero at all. This leads to mistrust (after all, Dad perpetrated this Superhero fraud for a decade) and the two going from being best buddies to cell mates – a couple of guys forced to live in close quarters.
This is Stage Two, the rejection stage, where Dad is – at best – massively out of touch and unforgivably normal. At worst, he’s something to be shunned – a guy rocking tube socks and Tevas and there’s no way in hell you’re letting him drive you to prom in the Ford Festiva. Later — way later — if you’re insanely lucky, you get a Stage Three in which the kid finally gets enough perspective on life to realize that, while Dad wasn’t a superhero, he did a pretty damn good job with the cards he was dealt.
Does it have to be this way? Probably not. I realize that the picture I’m painting is full of wild generalization. Then again, I’ve seen some version of this play out with most every guy I know. And so, I’m stuck with being the best father I can and hoping that my son one day believes that – for all my inevitable failures – I did my best (Z having this realization sometime before I’m dead would be ideal).
All of which informs a sad truth for me: there’s not a moment of tickle-torture rough-housing or Monkey-Robot-Once Upon a Time that doesn’t carry with it the bitter knowledge that the number of days when this amazing, frenetic little boy will let me hold him, manhandle him and love him as ferociously as I care to are dwindling rapidly. It’s probably unhealthy to think about this kind of thing rather than simply be in the moment, but I can’t help it. Every time he wraps his arms around me and says “I love you, Daddy!” (he actually does this from time), I melt and glow, but I also have a flash of the day he’ll say “You’re an asshole!” and mean it just as passionately.
Right now, Z makes the predictable mistake of believing that I am the greatest Dad to ever walk the Earth. I really ought to disabuse him of this notion but I’m too much of a coward. I desperately need him to love me back as much as I love him, even if I know it can’t last.
I wasn’t planning to post again so soon but this one made me throw up in my mouth a little…
Father’s Day on Yahoo brought with it a banner article called, “6 signs He’ll Make A Good Dad” — a vapid and degrading piece of fluff that included such winning advice as “make sure he isn’t easily grossed out” and “make sure he’s good at taking direction from his partner”. Why does a potential Dad need to be good at taking direction? Because, according to some PhD somewhere, “Running a family schedule is usually [the mother’s role] and the father typically needs direction.”
In the space of 800 words, some freelance writer from Redbook and Modern Bride uses stock photography and dubious sourcing to pander to the most primitive notion of men: that we’re produce-grade human beings, designed for specific but limited tasks, who have to be carefully analyzed to see if we’re capable of delivering on the biological dictates of the women around us. This is, of course, equally demeaning to women who are cast in the role of conniving baby machine looking not for love, kindness or companionship but rather for a guy who “gets along with his Mom.” Run down the check list, ladies, and see if you should mate with this specimen. That’s what we’re here for and, as we know, that’s what you’re after. We’re not smart but, with luck, we can be trained.
Who reads this shit? Who buys into it?
If you want to do something nice for the men around you, start by rejecting this notion that we’re all less biologically predisposed to being good parents than our wives/girlfriends/partners. We don’t need to be groomed or evaluated. This Father’s Day, give us the gift of higher expectations and greater faith — you might be surprised how well we deliver.
I remember being in my 20s when my mother told me that, while she wasn’t comfortable calling me an “accident”, she does have first hand proof that contraceptive foam isn’t 100% effective. By the time I came along, Mom already had grave doubts about the viability of her marriage. I suspect that I am the product of apathy sex – the kind a woman has with her husband because refusing means an argument and there’s at least a chance he’ll fall asleep afterward and give her an hour of peace.
I wonder, sometimes, what went through her mind when she realized she was going to have her third child. Before she was obliged to gush about it to her parents and her friends, did she – maybe just once — secretly pray for a miscarriage? I never asked. I suspect that shortly after I post this I’ll get a phone call from my Mom telling me what a blessing I am (thanks, in advance, Mom). But this isn’t about how we feel down the road, this is about that first split second when we realize that everything we know is about to change for good.
If you believe those EPT commercials, the woman is supposed to come bounding out of the bathroom with a giddy smile on her face and leap into her husband’s arms. Instinctively, you know these commercials are a lie when you realize this woman is fully clothed. She’s just been urinating on a stick and she looks like she’s on her way to an H&M photo shoot. In a realistic ad, she would come stumbling into the bedroom with her pants at her ankles wearing only one shoe. On a side note, why is the guy waiting in the living room? One of the many benefits of marriage is built-in permission to sit and talk with your spouse while they take a dump.
In my case, I was on the counter watching Karen try not to pee all over her hand. It was one of those rare moments in my life where I was possessed of absolute clarity. I was entirely and completely there in the moment with one, singular thought going through my mind: “If it comes out positive, you absolutely cannot look horrified.”
About thirty seconds after the tell-tale-tinkle stopped, Karen looked up and showed me those two, unmistakable vertical lines. Before I could even check my look in the mirror, she burst into a hot mess of projectile tears. In the TV commercial, these are delicate tears of joy about the miracle of life. In my bathroom, not so much. More like an uncontrolled emotional outburst, the fine print of which was “What have we done?” We spent the next hour lying on our bed, assuring each other that everything was going to be all right.
In retrospect, this seems like a terribly inappropriate response for a couple that was actually trying to get pregnant. We weren’t exactly having buyer’s remorse or dreading the idea of bringing a child into the world — we genuinely wanted this to happen. But, at the same time, we knew that our old life had just run out of gas at the railroad crossing and a freight train was on the way through. (I can’t read that last sentence without seeing Evil Diesel bearing down on Bertie the Bus as Thomas and Percy race to save him…my metaphoric vocabulary has been forever hijacked by cartoons).
In the unlikely event that my son should one day read this, I’m sure I’ll fall all over myself to reassure him that being his father has been the one of the most amazing and defining events of my life (I have to say “one of the most amazing events” in case my daughter eventually reads this.) But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there was a painful trade involved in bringing him into the world.
It’s not that I didn’t eventually have my Hallmark moment, but it came later — the first time I felt my son turnover in Karen’s belly. But, for me, the genuine first moment was melancholy and conflicted and I am inclined to think that’s a good thing, a necessary thing. In the end, all we have to offer our kids is the life we had before they came into the world; our accumulated experiences, wisdom and beliefs. Missing your old life means you had a life worth missing. As I lay on that bed and told my newly pregnant wife that it was all going to be alright, I like to think I was paying my respects to everything that I knew I was giving up. I was, in my own way, mourning my old life.
Sometimes I still do.
Hi, I’m JD and I’m a blogger.
Well, I’m about to be a blogger. I’ve resisted the whole blog thing for a long time, opting instead to write the occasional piece for newspapers, magazines and web outlets. But I’ve slowly come to find that there’s a conversation about fatherhood that no one seems willing (or able) to have. Parenting magazines want to hear from Mom’s (celebrity Mom’s if at all possible) or they want a review of the hot new strollers/diaper bags/educational DVDs. Publishers want to buy sweet Daddy memoirs and cupcake recipes where you just might be able to sneak some carrot into the batter.
But I want – or maybe I need – to talk about the actual day to day experience of being a father. I want to talk about feeling ill-equipped and incompetent while still having to act like I’ve got it all under control. I want to talk about how sad and panicked I feel when I send my Dad’s calls directly to voice-mail because I imagine the day when my son will do the same to me. I want to talk about how disgusted I am when people tell me I’ll need to buy a shotgun to keep the boys away when my little girl gets older, because strangers joking about the future sex life of my two year old is dysfunctional in the extreme. I want help figuring out how to make my spazzy, energetic little boy into a gentle, kind man who would never resort to violence to settle a dispute…but who is also able to drop a guy with one punch should the need arise.
I want to ask if it’s okay that I put some stranger’s kid in timeout at the park (seriously, someone had to parent this child, why not me?)
I want to give advice and then have people disagree and argue with me about it. I love a good argument. I’m not a “parenting expert” but I am something of an expert at starting compelling conversations. I can’t promise you’ll always like what I have to say but I promise to be unflinchingly honest. There’s no more important job in my life than being a good father and husband. I think I could be better at both and, honestly, looking at the state of children and marriages I see around me – so could most of you.
So, here we go…let’s have a conversation about what we’re getting right, what we’re getting wrong and how we can all be better.