Saturday, June 14, 2008

Dad: This Year’s Model

Lately I’ve been struck by how my image of fatherhood has changed over the years. Like many people, my original concept of a “father” was based on memories of my personal experience with the species. My image of my father is that of an eight year old, frozen in 1971, as that was the year he died. To me, Dad was a tall, strong creature with a loud laugh, a good sense of humor and a hell of a temper. He wore collared shirts and long pants every day, and smoked a pipe filled with cherry tobacco. He worked during the week doing mysterious “office” things, and when he came home Mom kept us quiet as Dad was tired after working hard all day (try raising five children and running a household, Pops). She’d have a gin and tonic at the ready, and he would sit and read his paper (what I wouldn’t give, as a parent myself, for ten minutes alone to go to the bathroom). He played golf on Saturdays, and went fishing often. What the family ate, what car we bought, and where we went on vacation were all decided based on what Dad wanted. He could be warm and supportive and a hell of a lot of fun to be around, we often felt that he wasn’t around enough. Though under it all we knew that he loved his children, we were just an aspect of his life, one of many and not the foremost. We loved him back, but we behaved primarily because we were terrified of him. Many of my own father’s qualities were pretty common to the “Dad Model” of the 1950’s and 1960’s America. Despite having fond memories of my father, the last thing I wanted in a husband and father of my children was that kind of a Dad.

My realization that not all fathers were this way and that the role as a whole was changing came when I was in my early 20’s. I was visiting my brother George and his family, and had stayed over at their house one Friday night. When the baby woke up the next morning, George went in to get him so his wife could sleep late. I spent the morning watching George change his son’s diapers, give him a bath, make him breakfast, and watch Mr. Rogers with him. After a few hours of this I looked at George and said, “Why do you do all this and let her sleep in?” motioning toward the closed bedroom door and his slumbering spouse. He responded, “Because he’s my little boy, and this is our time together. It isn’t work, it’s fun.” His eyes misted while looking at his baby’s round face. I was floored, and for once, speechless. After a few moments of recovery time, I barked, “How the hell am I supposed to find a husband who will live up to this!”

Well, I did. I think that my husband is one of many of our generation who are tackling the task of fatherhood differently than our own fathers did. My husband changed as many diapers, bandages as many scrapes, reads as many books, and is as committed to our son as I am. We each take on the responsibilities of the family according to our own gifts and not according to gender lines. He does the cooking, the shopping and the home repairs; I do the cleaning, financial planning (because of my computer skills, certainly not my skill with a budget) and schedule organization.

And he has the stronger disposition. I’ll never forget when Carlos was two and had broken his arm at daycare. When we arrived at the medical office the doctor we all share handed our poor howling son to Doug, pointed at me and said, “You! Hallway!” and to my husband he pointed to the treatment room, “You! Inside!” I stood with my jaw on my chest in the hallway, tears flowing and heart racing as the door slammed shut in front of me. I then realized that perhaps our doctor knew us too well. I’m pleased to report that I am now more effective in these situations—having already been through my share of scares--but Doug is still better, and as a fully involved father he is miles better than my own was.

I know that while Doug’s approach to fathering is no longer unique, or even unusual, there are still examples of the old model “Dad” striding about. Once, right after Carlos was born, Doug was at the Stowe skating rink, showing off his prowess on a pair of hockey skates, when one of the local guys came up to congratulate him on the birth of his son. “Hey, if you start coaching hockey now, you can coach Carlos’ team when he gets old enough!” To which my husband responded, “Yeah, but what if he wants to figure skate?” The guy walked away from Doug in shock, a look of disgust on his face. The wonderful part is that Doug was serious. Whatever would make Carlos happy, he would support.

I have no doubt that Carlos is the highest priority and single brightest star in his life (this is one instance in my life that I’m happy to come second) and this comforts me. Many of my friends have similar situations with husbands or partners who are much more involved in the upbringing of their children, and I think it will make for an even more thoughtful and progressive next generation of adult males. On this day of honoring fathers and fatherhood, I would like to salute men like my brother George and particularly my husband, and express my gratitude to those men who are equal partners in this carnival we call parenthood.


Anonymous said...

You did great here Ann, focusing on the fatherhood thing rather than just the honor-father aspect of the day.

In my boy's early years I did the diaper, bottle, up-at-night thing something like you described. Because of our financial situation, he and I spent much precious time together during the day, too. It was different, it was great, those early years. Later, when the dauther came along, I wasn't the same father and reverted to the throw-back model. I regret that.

Thanks, Ann, for rekindling memories of those early years when I was lucky enough to enjoy them. To dads who still have a few years to spend before your kids become teenagers, consider Ann's words. You can't imagine the world you'll miss if you don't.


Anonymous said...

LOVED IT, ANNIE! Of course, I've seen Doug with Carlos so your piece brought tears to my eyes. It's SO true! But there was one thing that made me laugh: no matter how hard I try, I just can't see Carlos figure skating. Your cousin, Tere.