Saturday, June 14, 2014

What Are Fathers For?


On Father’s Day I can pretty much loaf.  I’ve already put the card to my own dad in the mail, so my duties should be over.  So why am I making work for myself by doing a Father’s Day blog post?  Well, even though that’s a rhetorical question, I’m going to answer it:  it’s because I’d expected the Critérium du Dauphiné to be too boring to bother blow-by-blow blogging (or even watching) and I’ve got to blog about something.  On top of that, some parenting questions have been festering in my brain, so I’m going to lance it (yes, lance my brain) via this blog.  Enjoy.

(Yes, I know I blogged about Father’s Day once before.  But I find I have more to say on the topic.)

Do fathers actually serve any purpose?

I guess before I answer the question “What are fathers for?” I should address the possibility that, other than providing sperm, they really serve no purpose at all.  Alas, this ends up being true for a number of deadbeat dads.  (And of deadbeat fish, who don’t even get involved with the mom other than swimming over her eggs and literally dropping off their genetic input.)

In most cases, fathers at least provide food and shelter.  Beyond this … well, a lot depends on the father.  One dad I know, of my father’s generation, made this blanket statement early on, to the mother of his children:  “Look, the children are your domain.”  As society has evolved, I think this position has become less tenable.

Before I describe the various roles that I try to play as a dad, I should point out that a father’s purpose is to some degree a matter of perspective.  To newborn babies, fathers fall into a large category (comprising about 7 billion people) of “not Mom,” meaning they’re not just useless, but in fact barely exist.  I particularly remember how little use my younger daughter Lindsay had for me as a baby.  She wouldn’t even let me hold her.  Only gradually did I go from a peripheral non-entity to being ... “the help.”  That is, she’d cry for a toy or something and then, once I fetched it, go back to ignoring me.  (Had my older daughter been like this?  I just don’t remember.  Either she hadn’t, or I was too stunned by the rigors of first-time parenting to notice.)

Here’s an early cuddle Lindsay indulged me in.

It wasn’t until Lindsay was almost a toddler that she realized, “Hey, this guy makes pretty funny faces, and isn’t so bad at snuggling!”  But I didn’t feel fully respected until she began coming to me for information about the world:  questions like “Who’s smarter, a dog or a cat?”  The fact that my answers were (and are) complete malarkey has only increased her enthusiasm in picking my brain.

(Example:  she asked once, “Why is it called a manhole, not a person-hole?”  To which I replied, “If you opened that cover and climbed down the ladder, you’d enter an underground environment populated exclusively by males.  Sometimes a man just needs to get away, and that’s where he goes.  A whole lot of chest-bumping goes on down there.”)

Of course the role my kids try to assign me continually evolves.  My older daughter Alexa, though only twelve, has already adopted the classic teen delusion of omniscience, and with it the wish that her father would stop dispensing advice and become a silent hybrid of personal assistant, tutor, chauffeur, and ATM.

What purpose should a father serve?

There is a disconcertingly large amount of anecdotal evidence that the best thing a father can do is get out of the way.  Look at some of the most enchanting and endearing figures in literature:  David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Sara Crewe (of A Little Princess), James (of Giant Peach fame), the Baudelaire orphans (of the Lemony Snicket series), Tom (of the Captain Najork books), Huck Finn, Heidi, Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables, and (perhaps most indelibly) Rudyard Kipling’s character, Kim.  All of these characters are fatherless, and their independence, fortitude, and resourcefulness are key to their appeal.

On the flip side, I cannot think of a single book that celebrates the devotion of a father for his kid.  The closest thing I can think of is the movie “Finding Nemo,” where the dad is an overprotective hand-wringing (well, fin-wringing) dork, and the fun only begins when Nemo is separated from him.  Perhaps it’s no coincidence that my favorite character in that film, Bruce the shark, never knew his father (as Bruce’s friend Anchor tries desperately to explain ).

Does this mean I leave it to my kids to make their way in this world without my help?  Of course not!  I’m fully aware of the difference between fiction and real life, and between a father and an author.  My natural impulse is to give my kids every advantage.  When Alexa was in a piano competition recently, and I was in the audience watching her rivals as they took turns playing dizzily complicated music with exquisite precision, I wondered if I shouldn’t yell and wave something to try to distract them, like basketball fans do during a free-throw.

Character vs. privilege

I knew a guy, my age, who grew up with plenty of privileges.  His dad paid for everything all the way through college:  tuition, books, rent, food, even clothes.  The kid did well, earning high grades at an expensive private college, being awarded Phi Beta Kappa, etc.  Upon graduating, he had absolutely no idea what to do with himself.  He had thrived in the structured environment of college, but was lost without it.  Naturally, he decided on grad school.  There was just the matter of his application essay:  he couldn’t figure out what to write.  I happened to be there when his writer’s block came to a head, and his dad—roaring his terrible roar and gnashing his terrible teeth—wrote the essay for his kid, who proceeded to get into grad school, last less than a year, and drop out.  His dad had also yanked his financial support, so the kid collapsed completely and went to work for Arby’s.  True story.

My dad was quite different.  He expected my brothers and me to get good grades, but otherwise didn’t involve himself in our schoolwork (even when we fell short).  He was too busy to help with homework, and if we’d asked for help with a grad school application he’d probably have laughed.  (That was our problem, after all.)  But he did buy one of the first home computers, long before the IBM PC or Apple 2C became popular, and gave us permission to use it.  He didn’t exhort us to do so, or even do much to encourage us, much less help us, with programming projects.  I only dabbled in programming that computer, but my brother Bryan got way into it.  He was a pioneer among computer nerds (decades before they became kind of cool), spending every spare moment in the junior high computer lab thrashing away at a primitive teletype.

You might expect that our dad became Bryan’s one-man fan club, since all this was right up my dad’s alley, but I’m not sure he knew anything about it.  He didn’t pay a whole lot of attention, even when Bryan made his own laser for a college physics class.  And though Bryan lived with my dad for some of his college years, he had to cover his own tuition.  But none of that mattered; Bryan was motivated by his own interest, not any need to please his parents, and now makes a good living as a programmer despite being (gasp!) a Type-B personality.  Sure, our dad could have been a more engaged parent, but he did model some good behaviors, being an industrious scientific type who read a lot and used good grammar, and we didn’t have any delusions about him—or life—giving us a free ride.

Role model?

Myself, I’m torn about how much to involve myself in my kids’ activities.  On the one hand, I want to give my kids everything I can:  private music lessons, constant reminders to practice, cool bicycles to ride and a dad to ride with, help with homework and reminders to do it, and raw silk to use as toilet paper.  But I also like to lecture them about how hard I had it as a kid—mainly to stop their whining, but also to inspire them to solve their own problems (and ultimately, perhaps solve some of mine, or some of society’s).  I don’t want to give my kids too much, because I’m fully aware of how obnoxious pampered kids are, like the evil rich-kid nemesis in “The Karate Kid.”

Then there’s the sticky matter of whether or not I should strive to be a role model.  In some ways, this is easy.  I recognize, for example, that I’m supposed to model responsible drinking.  This is very easy, and in fact enjoyable:  several times a week I drink exactly one beer, and occasionally I get wild and split a second beer with my wife (half a bottle being her version of good modeling).  But as a more general role model, who am I to hold myself up as the kind of person my daughters ought to become?  Shouldn’t they do better than I have?  I’m not trying to raise a Mini-Me.

The helpfulness quagmire

I am a very modern father.  I do a great deal of housework, which my kids witness.  In a perfect world, they’d respect me for not being the kind of sexist primitive male who treats household chores like a game of chicken that his wife always loses.  But in reality, I don’t think kids respect anybody’s willingness to do housekeeping.  To them, it probably just shows that their parents don’t have anything better to do.

When I was a kid, my dad wasn’t around that much because he was this genius guy, an honest-to-God rocket scientist who worked long hours.  To the extent I thought about this at all, I assumed that the fate of the free world was in his hands and it would be silly to expect him to mow the lawn or do dishes.  He also wasn’t the type to throw a ball for us or play a board game; he was rather aloof and mysterious.  I was kind of in awe of him. 

(Did I have the same awe for my mom, who did the majority of the housework while also holding down a full-time job?  Not exactly, but I did feel profound admiration for her one morning, well before dawn, when I was sneaking out of the house:  just after quietly closing the front door, while I was climbing on my bike, I was stunned to see the door fly open and my mom storm out in her pajamas, a frying pan in one hand and an iron skillet in the other, yelling, “Who’s out there!?”)

I fear my kids have a somewhat low opinion of me simply because I’m too available, too helpful, too quotidian to occupy any pedestal.  The other day I was lecturing Alexa about taking on more of the housework.  She pointed out that she occasionally does the dishes.  (Emphasis on occasionally, in the sense of Halley’s Comet occasionally swinging by.)  I said, “Well, what about when I suggested you clean out the cat box?  You looked at me like I was crazy.”  She protested that that’s a totally gross chore.  “So?” I retorted.  “Am I somehow impervious to grossness?  Do I have some kind of special super powers that make me invulnerable?”  She stammered, “No, it’s just that you … well, you’re a dad.”  So that’s what “dad” means to her:  not above cleaning the cat box.  To recap:  that chore is below her; it’s not below me; therefore, she is above me.  Role model, indeed!

Is laissez-faire the answer?

Like so many of their generation, my parents took a laissez-faire approach to child-rearing, and were generally unaware of what my brothers and I were up to.  The upside of this was that I had complete freedom, as a teen, to ride my bike all day, sometimes 100 miles or more, with nobody fretting about me back home.  I could stay out as late as I wanted; at 14, I once came home from a friend’s house sometime after midnight, and was surprised to find my dad sitting in the dining room having a snack.  He’d just come home from work, and didn’t seem to think there was anything unusual about me rolling in at that hour.  We had a nice chat.

The downside of laissez-faire was that I couldn’t just bring all my problems to my parents.  If, say, my bike got a flat tire, I was on my own.  My dad was not the sort of person to a) waste his money hiring some banana-fingered mechanic to fix a flat tire when it’s so easy to do yourself, or b) take the time to actually fix the flat or show me how.  So I had to try to get my brothers to do it, when they obviously had no incentive.  (Quite the opposite:  as connoisseurs of schadenfreude, they enjoyed my miserable pedestrian purgatory.)  Necessity being the mother of invention, I had to learn how to fix bikes.  My brothers did give me some help there, and I took to buying old non-functional beater bikes—the cadavers of the bicycle world—which I practiced on.  These totally expendable machines became my commuter bikes, and my wrenching skills led to a series of fairly lucrative bike shop jobs.

So should I take the laissez-faire route, like my own father?  Well, no.  For one thing, I seem to have the worrying gene that somehow escaped my parents.  I want  to be involved, to make sure my kids have the best possible experience under my roof and beyond.  Second, since my wife worries far more than I do, a laissez-faire approach on my part would clash with her hands-on, all-worrying-all-the-time parenting style.  Such a clash would lead to all kinds of good-cop/bad-cop scenarios (which children naturally exploit, ultimately to their own detriment). 

Meanwhile, my kids do a lot of cool stuff, like learning the piano, which I’m pleased to be able to foster (not just through paying for the lessons but through hassling my girls, daily, to practice).  When push comes to shove, playing the piano is a better capability than fixing bikes.  By fostering these activities I can guide my kids, so they don’t end up rotting their brains out (like I did with TV for a number of years when I wasn’t off being resourceful and inventive).


The other day Alexa biked home from school and casually mentioned that her chainring had fallen off. “Huh?  You mean your chain fell off the chainring?”  No, the chainring had fallen off.  This could not be.  I asked for details.  She replied, “You know, the chainring-thingy?  The round thing?  In back?”  I said, “You mean your cog.”  She replied, “Yeah, that’s what I said!  The cog-type-thing.”  She explained how it had come off the hub and was spinning uselessly, and she somehow managed to get it back on long enough to finish riding home.  At this point I should have applauded this ad hoc repair and acknowledged her resourcefulness, but I’m not that big a person.  Besides, I was concerned about a) her bike being broken, b) her own lack of concern about it, and c) my growing tendency to make itemized lists in the a, b, c format.

As it happened, I had a window of opportunity that evening to fix the bike, so I did—the alternative being to drive Alexa to school the next day.  (I guess I don’t have the heart to make her walk, schlepping all her books and her violin.)  Her bike is a three-speed, and they’re mothers to work with.  What’s worse, beyond the low-tech cog that had popped its circlip, a fancy little plastic pulley had broken into three pieces and had to be epoxied back together.  Alexa didn’t participate in the repair, nor did she seem aware that I was doing it.  (An unspoken rule when I was a kid is that if somebody fixed something for you, you had to stand around watching and handing up tools, to show your appreciation.)  Worst of all, when I went to tell her it was done, she barely looked up from her comic book, and didn’t even thank me.

(Before I completely throw my daughter under the bus, I should point out a few things.  First, she seldom reads comic books, and was merely unwinding after two weeks of working like a slave on her schoolwork, with added residual stress from that piano competition.  Second, she has taken on the ubiquitous tween/teen tendency to mumble, so it’s possible she thanked me and I didn’t hear it, though I endlessly remind her that if she doesn’t hear “you’re welcome,” the “thank you” didn’t happen.)

So I confronted Alexa about her lack of gratitude (building on a lecture I had given her and Lindsay a week or so before about what “sense of entitlement” means and how insufferable ingrates are).  Alexa assured me that she appreciated my help with the bike, but her manner struck me as rote and perfunctory.  I told her to prove her gratitude by writing a sonnet on the topic.  (This is my version of making her kiss the signet ring.) 

Not unexpectedly, she tried to barter for something shorter.  “No haiku,” I said.  “A rhesus monkey could write a haiku.”  She proposed a limerick.  “Okay, but it has to be good,” I replied, “meaning you have to rhyme on at least two syllables.  And if you don’t finish it today, you’re back up to a sonnet.”  She didn’t finish that evening, but did produce a creditable sonnet the following day (though, alas, she’s asked me not to post it here).  Her sonnet goes far in reassuring me, with lines like “Expecting service is a foolish act” and “You didn’t have to, that’s a certain fact.”  The tone is so earnest I almost feel sheepish about the whole thing, though she insists this was not her goal.  In this poem she strikes a nice balance between appeasing me and asserting her independence, deliberately breaking with the sonnet form by tacking an extra foot to each line of the final rhyming couplet, flamboyantly rhyming on three syllables. 

I can live with that.

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