Edited by Barry Kitterman | Andrea Spofford | Amy Wright
This Mother is Learning About Fathers
A friend once told me about a time her husband had to change their kid’s diaper at the Farmer’s Market, one of those Saturday affairs where little produce is actually sold. It’s more about buying your locally roasted soy latte, hand-woven hemp tote bags, artisanal popsicles…. Here among all this staged authenticity, their kid does what kids do: takes a dump. A big one. One where you have to remove yourself from public for a good fifteen minutes. A few minutes later, when my friend glanced toward the grassy bank where her husband had taken the baby, she saw three women huddled around them. Helping. Cooing. Wiping their kid’s butt while her husband chatted it up. The glares I have sometimes received when I’ve had to change my kid’s diaper in public were replaced by goodwill for this dad.
Contemporary fatherhood is in such a state of flux. Who is considered to be a “good” father now? What are the expectations between the biological father and mother? Between parent and child? Between all the people who end up raising the child? Like most of us, I have some ideas, but I can’t say for sure. What I can say for sure is this: the bond between my husband and daughter is unlike any bond I’ve seen before. They are as close as two people can be.
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This is an essay about fathers by a woman who has no clue on what fatherhood might mean.
One of the surprises of parenting has been the breakdown of boundaries and ideals. When I first held that squishy, screaming blob of her, of me, of him, I simultaneously knew what to do and not know what to do. Theories of parenting were soon replaced by the school of Whatever Works for This Kid, Just Do It.
The other boundary breakdown occurred over who did what. We have this idea that raising kids has always been women’s work. Only recently, since the 70s or 80s, has there been a transformation into “The New Dad”--that sensitive, active, participatory father who shares poop pictures with his buddies later on at the cookout—a cookout where everyone knows to cut hotdogs lengthwise for precious Johnny and Sally. The number of fathers who are stay-at-home dads has doubled since 1989 to two million. And it’s estimated that fathers who work spend about 6.5 hours a week engaged in active play with their children. All of this bonding is creating problems, too. A study from Boston College finds “that new fathers face a subtle bias in the workplace, which fails to recognize their stepped-up family responsibilities and presumes that they will be largely unaffected by children.”
While fathers have no doubt been becoming more involved, it’s not as if fathers didn’t used to be involved. Before the Industrial Age scooped up men into factories, offices, and mines and away from the family farm, fathers were teaching their kids how to do the work right alongside them.
Too often, our depictions of the past are really only projections of our present—or some near present. How often, for example, have we seen an artistic representation of a long-haired man in a loin cloth killing a wooly mammoth? Loin cloths and wooly mammoths don’t mix—as one is for hot climates and one for cool. Not only are these artistic renderings ahistorical at best, but there is a subtle assertion that human life is on a steady march toward progress—from savagery to civility, inequality to inclusivity….
The history of fatherhood has been rewritten to portray a sense of rising papa involvement.
But what was the dad like during our hunter-gatherer days, days that have dominated our existence on this planet from 1.8 millions years ago until about 15,000 years ago?
That question is impossible to answer, partly because each hunter-gatherer group will have had different environmental forces that affected the culture. Still, there are hints. Some anthropologists say that the best way to understand how we behaved before we became sedentary is to look at how contemporary hunter-gatherer societies currently live. These observations reveal that fathers are quite involved. In fact, everyone is involved as contemporary hunter-gatherer societies practice what’s called allo-parenting where individuals who are not the biological parents are actively caregiving. An Efe Pygmy infant’s cries are usually comforted within ten seconds by someone—not necessarily the mother. !Kung infants receive a response within three seconds and spend at most one minute out of each hour crying, “mainly in crying bouts of less than 10 seconds—half that measured of Dutch infants.” It makes sense that with everyone hanging around a campfire instead of a personal electronic device, everyone is going to pitch in, especially in a culture that frowns upon self-centered behaviors like hoarding food.
This idea of cooperative parenting is at odds, though, with many artistic renderings we see when visiting museums. Usually, men are shown foregrounded in action shots, killing something that appears to us as a potential freezer-full of steaks. The women are usually with a child, crouched or sitting, forever picking at something: bush or hair or basket. The labor divisions that we experienced from the Industrial Revolution are inserted into hunter-gatherer societies, like some weird Leave It to Beaver family trip to the Pleistocene era, making us think that’s the way it has always been. Have you ever seen an artistic rendering of a father carrying a child or hugging a child? No, but that’s highly unrealistic considering how tight-knit these communities were and are, how egalitarian and non-hierarchal for the most part. I imagine a lot of swapping going on, much like now as we load up for a trip to the pool. You take this, I’ll take that…. And the kids will take naps wherever they can find a soft place, a comforting breath.
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This is an essay about fathers written by a woman who did not have a present father.
My father may have been physically present until about age thirteen, but he was not emotionally present. He suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. One of the sadder effects of this disease is that there is usually a lack of social ties or close relationships, even with family members, due to impaired cognitive functioning. I feel about my father the way Flannery O’Connor once described the South’s relationship to God: Christ-Haunted instead Christ-Centered, meaning I feared him more than I was with him.
My mother, thankfully, remarried when I was thirteen, providing me with a teenager’s worst nightmare: a stable, observant, involved step-father who sniffed out my lies as easily as he did my Budweiser breath. My brother, too, was highly involved in my upbringing as was my Uncle Sonny. Some could say I didn’t have much of a father, and I would agree. I had many.
In contrast, my husband has a very deep relationship with one man: his father. When my husband was growing up, he lived in a Mad Men structured household: mother took care of the kids while the father did the hour-commute (if he was lucky) into L.A. Once when Steve, my husband’s dad, read to our child Sandra Boynton’s book, But Not the Hippopotamus, he commented at the end, “Huh. What about that.”
“What about what?” I asked. “The hippopotamus?”
He shook his head. “No, I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.” The that was reading a book to a child.
One might think, oh how awful, but that was the division of labor he’d worked out with his wife. And they were both fine with it. As long as there is agreement on roles—and follow through—do what you want, I say. My mother-in-law compensated with the difficulties of solo-parenting two boys by building close ties with the other neighborhood women for her support network. And I don’t mean a casual phone call at the end of the day to a friend or a two-hour play date. Baby sitting exchanges were daily, helpful for errands or doctor appointments. But also, there was something of an open-door policy in this upper-middle class neighborhood. When I was recently visiting, I walked downstairs to find two pre-teen girls slathering on suntan lotion in the living room. They were getting ready to jump off my in-laws private dock since, as they explained to me, it was the best one in the neighborhood. I’m not even sure if they girls had rung the doorbell. Actually, I’m not sure if there is a doorbell as the house often keeps the doors open for just this sort of flow-through traffic. My husband’s childhood represented one of the good ones during the 70s, one not marked by abuse, drug use, and isolation that we’ve come to learn happened behind those curtained windows with their green, green grass.
My husband said his early memories of his dad were of a guy who hate a lot of pancakes, made bad puns, but who was a force—something he even feared a little. As the boys grew up, their relationship with their father also grew. Steve became more involved in the child rearing, partly because he better understand the needs of a teenager versus a toddler. Steve insisted on later curfews for the boys, taught them how to drive a stick-shift by setting them loose on a hill, journeyed to Catalina in their boat where they made a point to eat dinner from cans rather than formal table settings.
In fact, when I started dating my husband, the first thing he said to me was how he thought his dad was one of the best people in the world, how he feared his death every day. It was a strange thing to say to a girl whom you just started dating, but it was something he had to communicate. His psyche—I came to understand—was centered, is centered, around his love for his dad.
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This is an essay about fathers written by a woman who knows, however it works out, fathers will break your heart.
After I started writing this essay, Steve, my husband’s father, was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer. The doctors are giving him a year or two—good years, they say. Like everything his parents have done in life, they are approaching this news with an upbeat, aristocratic air. Setbacks in life are not something to publicly grieve, but something to flick away like a pesky fly. Don’t focus on it, and it won’t ruin your dinner. They are pleased to know he has a year of good living. His father has decided he wants a dog. Those marijuana tablets. And to eat ice cream with impunity.
When we found out the news, I was with our three-year-old daughter at her Teddy Bear Tumbling class, a class supposedly about gymnastic fundamentals, but more about thwarting a constant mob-break as little bodies make a mad-dash for the great trampoline of the exercise floor. Behind the havoc of her class practiced the older children, kinking their bodies into a back stands as naturally as scorpions curl their tails. How the older gymnasts could run and then fly! Really fly into their roundabouts—whole series of them—across the mats. This was the body doing what you ask of it.
As I was watching them, trying unsuccessfully to not cry in public, a girl fell during her balance beam routine, one of those hard drops to the crotch. She sat there a second, hands in front of her, dazed.
And then she stood up. Completed her routine. Fulfilled her next task.
On the drive home, I told my daughter that Daddy was a little sad right now, but that was okay. Sometimes people need to be sad. And we would do our best to make him feel loved. I didn’t know how a three-year-old would process that information, but then I saw it. When we walked through the door, she began peeling off the pink ladybug sticker she’d just earned in class. Once she had whittled it off, she walked over to Adam, holding it out to him with two hands. He knelt to the ground so as to better accept the gift, and I saw there in the passing of that torn and dirty sticker the exchange of another world. Her world. The center of her world. Her father is becoming what her father’s father had become.
This is an essay about fathers written by a woman who admires the father her husband has become.
We all know the narratives about fathers and are encouraged to pick from the top three. 1) father as absent figure 2) father as abusive figure 3) father as god-like figure—and all that means. Perhaps distant, yet extraordinary in some way—be it providing financially or telling jokes—and most of all: unwavering love. But as we know, there are many different types of fathers, especially today. Maybe by the time my daughter is an adult, those three narratives will be replaced by something much more nuanced, less God-like and more of this earth where the hands are digging into the garden it cultivates rather than blessing it from above.
I think I see it already happening.
I marvel at the number of made-up games between the two of them. Running from zebras in our Illinois woods used to be the favorite when she was two. As was Scary Toe. Since my husband often has holes in his socks plus toenail fungus, this game, like all of theirs, was born organically. He’d walk toward her, zombied out in the morning and in need of coffee, while she’d run away screaming “Scary toe get me! Scary toe get me!”
He’s donned the princess crown, the pirate hat, the hijab—whatever it is that she asks. And whatever it is that he invents, as theirs is a relationship of exchange. To get through the mind-numbing weariness of playing with a toddler, he engages with the play. And can’t wait until Saturday afternoons of Candyland are replaced by Saturday afternoons of Mario Cart.
Yet, he’s not just Mr. Fun Guy. He disciplines too, but a bit differently than I. He’s quicker to ask, “Why are you whining so much?” instead of my “Can you use your big girl words?” Both approaches are fine, but the former highlights his approach: he wants her to feel understood. And he wants to understand. Sure enough, just the other morning—one of those maddening Mondays where the parties involved have two distinct timelines—our daughter wanted to put us in reverse and I wanted to put us in forward. She was having all sorts of fits and finally Adam just asked: “Why?” Her answer: “I want another weekend.” Fair enough, kid. Fair enough.
Every night, Adam “checks in” on Esmé sleeping. I didn’t realize that he did this until about six months ago. Our kid has always been as sturdy as they come—and a fantastic sleeper— so we have never been the type who checked in after a cough to make sure she was okay. And the fact that Adam hadn’t mentioned to me that he crept in every night—last thing before turning into bed—also speaks to how this act was not one like locking the doors, putting up the dog—not another task to be parceled out. No, he checks in on her because he wants to see her face—calm and distant—as the last image before he ends the day.
In truth, he’s not checking in on her. He’s checking in on himself, that part that loves something so fiercely, he doesn’t even know what to do with it except to creep into the darkness and stare at it in silent awe.
“Play Comes First for Today’s Dads.” Daily Mail Reporter. 4 May 2014. Web. 12 June 2015. < http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3067743/Play-comes-today-s-dads-Fathers-spend-average-6-5-hours-week-having-fun-children.html/>.
[ii] Diamond, Jared. “Best Practices for Raising Kids? Look to Hunter-Gatherers.” Newsweek.com. 17 December 2012. Web. 4 July 2015. < http://www.newsweek.com/best-practices-raising-kids-look-hunter-gatherers-63611/>.
Charlotte Pence is the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks and one full-length collection, Many Small Fires (Black Lawrence Press, 2015). A professor of English and creative writing at Eastern Illinois University, she is also the editor of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics.