Tim
Myers
 

Tim J. Myers is a writer, songwriter, storyteller, and university lecturer and storyteller living in Santa Clara, California, where he teaches at Santa Clara University. This column is a serialization of his recent book Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood. He's been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, has published over 120 poems, has two books of poetry out, and won a national poetry contest judged by John Updike. His children’s book Basho and the River Stones is a Junior Library Guild selection, his Tanuki’s Gift got an excellent boxed review with art in the New York Times, and his Basho and the Fox, a New York Times bestseller and Smithsonian Notable Children’s Book, was also read aloud on NPR. He has ten children's books out and two on the way, won the 2012 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for Fiction, and has published much other fiction and nonfiction. And he can whistle and hum at the same time, though he hasn't won any awards for that. Yet. Check him out at www.TimMyersStorySong.com.

Homelife: The Benefits to Men
So You Think It’s Easy?
Two Hours in the Life: A Cautionary Sample
The Way it Is

The Way it Is


A chapter from Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood

“I had been studying the way various peoples bring up their children, who takes the responsibility for them and how that responsibility is understood, since this seemed to me a place where a people frees or enslaves itself.”--Ursula LeGuin, Four Ways to Forgiveness

“The ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people.”-Ashanti proverb

At that point back in the 90's, my wife and I found ourselves excited. Years of hard work and careful decisions were soon to bear fruit. Our two sons were in middle school, and she was at work on her dissertation and therefore close to finishing her degree. Family life was running smoothly and on schedule. We had Big Plans.

But that September all hell broke loose. Suddenly my spouse and I learned, in the most direct way possible, that abstinence is the only 100% effective form of birth control. (And we’d never been big on abstinence).

Actually, “all hell broke loose” is exactly the wrong way to say it. After nine years we were pregnant again, which was more like a bit of heaven breaking into the world. Only we weren’t prepared for it. A friend said it was as if we’d been sitting at a poker game with a royal flush when a gust of wind blew down the door and scattered the cards. I told people God had decided to throw a kegger at our house—but forgot to tell us.

(You should see the popping eyes of complacent couples in their thirties and forties when I tell our little “story”; I’ve sent so many guys to the urologist I ought to be getting a percentage from the AMA).

Our daughter—whom I’ll call “Shilly-Shally,” for reasons soon apparent—was born that May. She was, and is, one of the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen, a falling star we happened to catch, a bright, wild, funny, utterly lovable kid. But this Blessed Event brought disruption and difficulties in its wake. My wife, finishing the dissertation only through herculean effort, finally got her Ph.D., which meant she had more earning power than I did. So I became our daughter’s primary care-giver--”Mr. Mom,” as people so stubbornly insist on saying--and found myself called on to develop skills and attitudes I’d only begun to learn when I’d stayed home with my sons for a short time years earlier. Living that life, and watching other families go through similar struggles, led me to write this book.

A surprise pregnancy isn’t the norm, of course, and as a stay-at-home dad I’m certainly in the minority of American men. But the general circumstances of our family life have been just what, from many indications, most American families continue to face, and which the American family in general has been facing for decades now. If you’re reading this book, you’re probably also going through it, or are about to. The basic problem? There simply isn’t enough time and energy to go around. (Money, of course, also plays its customary role). The tug-of-war between work and family has many if not most parents worried, frustrated, and physically wiped out. Add to this the other, less publicized conflict parents inevitably face in balancing their own needs and desires with those of their children. And measure in the ominous news, based on a University of Michigan study reported in the New York Times, that “the time squeeze felt by parents trying to juggle the demands of work and family is increasingly being transferred into their children’s lives.”

Well, maybe the word “parents” is only partially accurate here. The truth is that in many cases it’s women who bear the full brunt of this. And the problem has been compounded in a number of other ways too. Sociologist and economist Paula Rayman, according to Ellen Goodman, has found “‘common ground agreement’ between Americans of all incomes, races and locations on the interlocking crisis of the economy, the workplace and the family.” A "Harper's Index" from 2006 shows that newly-married women have a 17% rise in housework activity—while newly married men come in at minus 33%. Many of us believe that some of the old ways just aren’t working any more. And the strain is showing in lots of marriages.

The wide interest in Allison Pearson’s best-selling novel I Don’t Know How She Does It should be, I think, even wider. The novel’s heroine, a working mother with two children, begins to surmise through the chaos of her life that such a set-up may be a “one-generation-only trick.” “We are living proof,” Kate Reddy says, “that it can’t work, aren’t we?” One reviewer emphasizes that the book’s climatic “come-uppance” directed at men “will be deeply satisfying to any working woman who’s ever wondered when men are going to Get It.” In the real world beyond novels, Kathy Thompson of Albany, Indiana, had a similar experience. An ordinary housewife, she was fed up with taking care of everything at home while her husband was off fishing, so she went on strike, simply posting a sign in her yard to that effect—then was astounded when her story garnered world media attention. She shouldn't have been surprised.

And consider for a moment how many Fatal Attraction movies have come out over the last couple decades. In the ‘50’s we saw droves of science-fiction flicks about invasions from outer space; fear of monolithic Communism and nuclear war gave these movies some of their power. In a similar vein, the driving force in '90's films like Sleeping With the Enemy, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, etc., may be our dread fascination with intimate enmity, the fear that people we love and trust may suddenly go psycho on us. It strikes me that what Hollywood is using here (in its usual half-sleazy, half-vital way) is the profound tension in many male-female relationships today. This is perhaps why studio execs believed we were ready to see a new version of The Stepford Wives in 2004. And why so many tune in to watch the inept, selfish husband and usually angry wife on Everybody Loves Raymond. Such tension in marriages reveals itself most obviously in divorce and spouse abuse--but it can hurt any couple. And one of the main points of contention has become the division of domestic responsibility, the seemingly simple question of who does what.

When I was ten or eleven, back when my friends and I still played King Arthur with broomsticks and trash-can lids, my dad announced one night at dinner that the boys in the family would no longer be required to do dishes or housework of any kind. We were stunned. Up to that point, we’d cleaned up after dinner one week, the girls the next. Suddenly, by imperial edict, we were free. Our job from now on would be yardwork; that was what made it fair. Never mind that we lived in Colorado, with no lawn-mowing for most of the year and not all that much snow-shoveling. And don’t forget, my brother Mike and I added hotly when our sisters protested, we go out for sports--which is hard work!

Jane, the oldest daughter, sputtered at this. You guys play sports for fun! she insisted. (I only learned years later how much she resented, rightfully, the family’s intense focus on male athletic involvement in those pre-Title IX times).

It’s not just fun! we countered angrily. In sports we fight for the family honor!

With this heroic-sounding phrase rolling so pleasurably off our tongues, my brothers and I were utterly convinced of our righteousness.

So the girls took over the dishes--and dishes for a family of 13 are nothing to sneeze at. But it didn’t matter if they were mad; it didn’t matter that Mom herself disagreed. The Lion had spoken, and we boy-cubs secretly congratulated ourselves, puffing up our scrawny grade-school chests. My sisters still remember that day with something like the bitterness the Irish feel for Oliver Cromwell. But we boys had been handed a role--and we were fine with it.

The only immediate effect was that, with our sisters still in the kitchen after dinner each night, we got the best places on the couch to watch Bewitched or The Carol Burnette Show. But there was, of course, a much deeper dynamic at work. The girls resentfully gritted their teeth; we boys accepted the “fact” that work in the home had nothing to do with us. This was a defining moment for my family--and it defined us by splitting us apart, male from female.

And that, it seems, is where some of us still are. The mainstream American family is, obviously, under stress. Mothers who work outside the home are knocking themselves out trying to run two shows at once; for many of us, daily life has become “routine panic.” And the most logical resource to help deal with all of this remains largely untapped: men. We need more than time-worn images of fatherhood that focus only on taking kids fishing, or teaching them how to play catch, or baking the occasional casserole. We need more than humorous, self-deprecating admissions of non-involvement and domestic ignorance. We have to go to the depths of the thing—because that's where we find purpose and a guiding vision as to the real breadth of what fatherhood can be.

At this point, though, you may be thinking, Okay, but none of this really applies to me. I’m already involved with my family. And maybe you are; more and more men are evolving along these lines, and millions can legitimately claim to be committed, involved fathers and husbands. But are you involved enough? Remember how you laughed when your wife had no idea what sports terms like “birdie,” “rabbit ears,” “swinging for the fences” or “covering the flats” mean? Domestic life has its own jargon too. So take this little test--then compare your score with hers. All you have to do is define the terms:

DOMESTIC VOCABULARY QUIZ

1. board book
2. fabric softener
3. a “double ender”
4. cubby
5. pre-K
6. DPT
7. retainer
8. roseola
9. tippy cup
10. sippy cup

Extra Credit: Translate the following sentences:

1. “She has no tolerance for anything but Amoxycillin, Doctor! Suprax just isn’t an option!”

2. “I was getting him a roll-up when he started chewing on the grapes in his pop-up--but that was no reason to send him to time-out!”

(ANSWERS AT END OF CHAPTER).

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t measure up all that well. The last thing I want to do is add to the reflexive male-bashing we hear far too much of these days. Everyone should realize that being domestically involved is not always a simple matter for American males; this can be a challenging and complicated issue.

For one thing, most American men obviously haven’t been trained to make this kind of commitment. For generations, at least in our culture, a father was isolated from his own family almost by definition. When I was a kid, no one used the term “absent father”--even though we pretty much all had one. The breadwinner role helped create this isolation, since, at least from the time of the Industrial Revolution, fathers have tended to leave home for work. But there were other reasons too--the worst of which, I think, was the idea that adult males are reasonable, level-headed people but nobody else is. The pomposity and emotional gridlock this attitude created are satirized beautifully in, of all places, Disney’s Mary Poppins--but maybe that comic portrait doesn’t go far enough. The poet Robert Bly speaks of his father’s continual “brooding,” which Bly came to understand as a form of grief. This, I think, tells us much more about the dark reality of the isolated father.

Today, of course, TV and magazine ads regularly feature fathers holding infants (these “fathers,” of course, are bronzed shirtless hunks in their early twenties) or Father Knows Best types tousling the curly heads of older kids. With a few exceptions, we didn’t see such things when I was growing up. But although things have begun to change, there’s still a lot to do. The image of father and child isn’t considered negative in Western culture, of course—but it simply hasn’t been evoked much, in marked contrast to the sacred image of Madonna and Child. Imagine a Christmas card showing Jesus in Joseph’s arms, with Mary nowhere in the picture. People just haven’t tended to think that way.

This kind of social change comes slowly. Even today, according to Michael O’Donnell of the Center for Fathering at Abilene Christian University, there are more than 70,000 books on mothering--but fewer than 1700 on fathering! Men who hunt will read about deer and ducks, men will pore over car magazines or the sports page. So why shouldn’t a guy who has children actually read about parenting, including his partnership with the woman he’s sharing this life-task with?

And most men are already working very hard at demanding jobs in a highly competitive world. Many are also genuinely confused about their changing roles. Besides, men have made progress. Millions of American men have willingly taken on their share of the work (and the joy!), becoming true partners and responsible fathers. Approximately two million have even become full-time, stay-at-home dads. And there are plenty more, I suspect, who want to change but don’t quite know how, or don't know how to work past the obstructions some wives set up against their full participation. (On a lighter but still important note, consider this: In 1996, 14 of the 100 finalists for the Pillsbury Bake-Off were men, and Kurt Wait’s Macadamia Fudge Torte took the grand prize--the first time in history a male has done so. Dick Boulanger won one of the prizes in 2006. Baking isn't parenting, of course, but such sweet examples show a new openness in men to valuing the domestic).

We can see real success, too, in the way women’s lives are changing. A friend of mine, formerly in the Coast Guard, tells a true story that illustrates how far, and how fast, we’ve come. A Coast Guard commander was presiding over a staff meeting when the subordinate officers noticed that “the old man” was acting strange. The commander had never looked so pale and shaky, and paused from time to time to breathe heavily for a moment--then resumed the discussion as if nothing unusual had occurred.

Finally one of the subordinates realized what was happening. “Excuse me, sir,” he ventured in a quiet voice, “but I think you’re in labor.”

He was right. The commander was pregnant with her second child. She’d been induced for the first, already had an induction scheduled for the second, and so assumed that her contractions were just Braxton Hicks. But at that moment her stiff upper lip was no match for her uterus, a vessel no longer under its captain’s control. She later gave birth to a healthy baby girl. And who can guess what seas that kid will cross?

But as a society, it seems to me, we haven’t fully kept up with these changes. My sister Jane, now a gifted and compassionate counselor, deals every day with families in crisis, and one negative she encounters again and again is the absent father. “Get this!” she told me the other day. “I’m doing a session with a family who have a six-year-old boy in in-patient psychiatric care. This is supposed to be a family session. So where do you suppose the father is? Out in the parking lot sleeping in his car.” Of course there may have been psychological reasons for this man's absence; maybe he felt marginalized in the family. But in the final analysis it all amounts to the same old problem. And this anecdote is only part of a world-wide reality; a Dutch research group found in a recent study, the AP reports, that “young children are rarely in the sole care of their fathers, regardless of the culture.” Guys have begun to change, yes, but--to put it in more familiar terms--we’re still playing catch-up ball.

I couldn’t begin to list all the examples I’ve collected of references to parenting that simply leave men out completely. A few will suffice to establish the general tone. Under a 2003 newspaper headline about the role of parent labor in the national economy comes the opening sentence, “A mother’s work is invisible when it comes to the gross domestic product”—that classic unspoken assumption that care-giver men simply don’t exist. An article that mentions “the people most influential in determining the course your whole adult life takes” goes on to say, “Of course there’s Mom, and sure to be others, but don’t forget…[college] admissions officers…” It’s as if fathers have been “erased” by some Soviet-style ministry--in favor of college admissions officers! A report on a study of maternal influence on teenage girls is at least more forthright, and, presumably, practical: “The effects of fathers were not addressed because fathers were not interviewed.” In an even more heartbreaking example, an article in my local paper called "Mothers of U.S. casualties share grief" focused on the mothers of American soldiers killed in Iraq; the piece mentions "relatives," but fathers are, incredibly, absent.

I think the time has come for all husbands and fathers to be fully involved in the lives of their families, and for American culture to see this as normal and desirable. It’s only fair that males do their share, and are valued for that. But to me there are even stronger reasons than equality and domestic practicality. Many men are beginning to understand just how much they’re missing by not being domestically involved, and how much they themselves can learn and grow when they are. This is part of what author Warren Farrel refers to when he says, “Instead of a women’s movement or a men’s movement, we should be working on a gender transition movement.” One of the most beautiful things I learned by being a father was simply that it made me so profoundly happy.

But before going on, I should try to define the situation in a general way. “Being Dad” is a broad term, and it covers a variety of circumstances. This book isn’t just for men who consider themselves “primary care-givers”; far more American men regularly spend hours per day with their kids but aren’t officially “full-time.”

Some fathers work nights or odd schedules and care for kids in their time off. Some work part-time; some work in the home; some have schedules that defy description. Many are divorced and care for their children during visitations, or between visitations as custodial parents. Some are unemployed or recently laid-off and have become domestic figures temporarily. And of course lots of guys are at their jobs full-time during the work day but still look after their children while their wives work or go to school or travel. Any of these situations can include significant child-care and other domestic duties.

And even men who work long hours or travel extensively can still be true partners to their wives and true fathers to their children.

So even though American fathers statistically spend little time with their children (that figure is apparently going up), millions of men are already care-givers, and millions more may find themselves spending serious time at home as economic and social patterns continue to change. And even if you aren’t part of a dual-income family, these issues are probably still a basic part of your day-to-day life.

Another important point here is the nature of what we call “family.” Statistics cited by Stephanie Coontz, an expert on family life, show that 50% of American children live with their biological mothers and fathers, with an additional 21% in stepfamilies; this book is aimed primarily at all such two-parent homes. But the word “family,” according to sociologist Jan Bernardes, can have over 200 different meanings; we’re learning that it has much more to do with how people feel than with any particular structure. I define family as a group of people living together in love on a more-or-less permanent basis. My focus in these pages is on the two-parent heterosexual family, but that doesn’t mean this traditional and majority form is the only real or important one. I don’t mean to suggest, either, that there’s anything wrong with couples who choose not to have children at all.

So why should men be domestically involved?

First, I think it's clear by now that many men must change for the sake of their wives. Most women I know are working way too hard trying to balance work and family. I read how increasing numbers of women have grown disenchanted with the “Superwoman” role, mainly because they’re exhausted. I see how my own wife, an incredibly efficient and hard-working person, still has trouble meeting all the demands in her life. And I note how, when women are breadwinners, there’s generally no such thing as withdrawing from the domestic sphere as some men do.

And this isn’t just an American or Western phenomenon. Parade Magazine reports that 45% of the women on Earth (aged 15 to 64) are working. (That actually means working outside the home; those of us who have been “homemakers” are a bit sensitive about these terms). Parade adds that while women in “developing countries” devote 31 to 42 hours per week to housework, men only do 5 to 15.

Second, I think men must change for their children. In her column for the Boston Globe, Ellen Goodman has written magnificently about all these issues, and quotes the scholar David Blankenhorn on this crucial point: “[There is] an emerging consensus across political lines that the fragmenting of the family is the principal cause of declining child well-being.” Goodman goes on to say that “[f]athers are no longer peripheral to this discussion. They are central.” Historian John Gillis discusses “the central contradiction--that modern society and the modern economy are not really family-friendly.” As evidence, consider this statement by an investment-banking bigwig, paraphrased by the New York Times as “confirm[ing] that there is little room in the...field for men or women with strong family commitments.” Clamorous titles of articles in national magazines reveal our growing concern: Putting Kids First; Who’s Taking Care of the Children?

Some Americans seem to believe that, when it comes to balancing work and family, you can get something for nothing, that merely cutting corners is a way to have it all. But we can’t have it all—at least not all at once. The hard truth is that raising a family carries a personal and professional cost for parents. And if you don’t pay now you’ll only have to pay later. The work, love and self-sacrifice you “spend” on your children will make them happy and productive adults, and will make them closer to you, all of which will make you happy too. Skimping on them when they’re young usually means you end up paying in some form of heartbreak--yours and theirs. As one horrible and extreme example, consider Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, whose adopted son committed suicide at 21; Smith wrote a book about it called Remembering Garrett. I don't mean to imply that Senator Smith was responsible for his son's tragic end. But as my local paper reports, Smith "especially was consumed with guilt because of the large amount of time he spent away from home pursuing his business interests and political career."

We must remember, too, that this isn’t just about our individual families; men must change, in my view, because no less than the fate of the nation depends on it. A society is no more than the individuals who make up the whole. And some of the most critical issues facing us today are being played out in our individual domestic circumstances. David Murray speaks eloquently about the crucial significance of the parent-child bond, which achieves, among other things, “...the orderly transfer of social meaning across the generations.” “...[C]hildren are the ultimate illegal aliens,” he continues; “[t]hey...must be socialized and invested with identity, a culture...” In other words, our society is not merely affected by child-rearing--it is child-rearing. And this is true in the practical as well as the broader sense; as the title of an Ellen Goodman column has it, “Economy hinges on family, not vice versa.”

Still, there’s much confusion. A review of a new scholarly book about the almost 31 million two-income marriages in America reveals, I think, some of it:

“The first myth shattered by their new study [the authors say] is that everyone in the family is happier if Mom stays home...Being at home with small children all day and taking care of the household can be drudgery...[The authors cite] studies of women who did just that in the 1950’s...”

The article then quotes one of the authors as saying

“We’re fighting this myth that women are terribly happy at home. What we know is that home contains more dangers to their well-being than work. Housework is worse than being on the assembly line at Ford.”

This is big news? Please. Anyone who’s ever seen an “I HATE HOUSEWORK” bumper sticker suspects already that homelife isn’t exactly Club Med. Of course it’s absurd to assume that women are automatically happy in domestic life. But many are. And we can’t conclude that domestic responsibility itself is therefore something to be avoided at all costs. Time spent at home often is drudgery--but if done right, it’s an inspired drudgery, and crucial to the human enterprise. There’s a certain amount of drudgery in running a business, writing a novel, or training for the Olympics. There was drudgery in the day-to-day labor whereby Michelangelo illuminated the Sistine Chapel. Our desire for equality between the sexes shouldn’t lead us to belittle the hard work and self-sacrifice that parenting naturally demands of us.

Part of this attitude may be a general negative reaction to the sentimental paeans to domestic life the Victorians are so famous for. That kind of soupy exaggeration bugs me too. And such sentimentality isn’t accurate, at least in my experience. “Domestic” comes from the Latin “domus,” a house. Not a whiteframe suburban mansion with a parlor and horsehair settee--just a house, a shelter. Perhaps a more accurate image would be that of a campfire burning in a cold benighted wilderness. If you want to know what home really means, go backpacking in the Rockies for a week. Or try living on the street. In its essence, home isn’t some fancy middle-class pipe-dream; it’s one of humanity’s single greatest achievements, the human instinct for sheltering and protecting shaped into something much deeper: a place of safety and freedom for being our deepest selves. Sure, domestic life is often mundane and boring. But it’s always, whether we recognize it or not, sacred.

Our general attitude toward fatherhood, too, appears to be in limbo these days. Most of us, it seems, don’t really believe in the old machismo (though there are still plenty of men trying to live that way). And yet we can’t seem to envision a good father as anything more than a supporter or sometimes-helper, with Mom as Coach and Dad as mere bat-boy.

A recent book called How to Dad is advertised as helping “all fathers fine-tune the skills they’ll need for parenthood--the right way to roll a snowball, skip a rock, how to whistle through a blade of grass or tell a joke...” I like all that stuff, believe me, but I’m uneasy about this approach. What--these little tricks are what it means to be a father!? Maybe back in Mayberry when Aunt Bea was doing all the dirty work, but certainly not here, not now. Other titles suggest a similar vision of marginalized fatherhood, like Why My Wife Thinks I'm an Idiot: Keeping the Baby Alive Till Your Wife Gets Home. Even Bill Cosby’s best-seller Fatherhood, as I read it, presents the male as a kind of half-parent, hard-working and concerned but still basically floating around the edges. I’d never claim a man has to stay home full-time to be a good father--but it seems to me he does have to feel the same responsibility toward homelife that we’ve always expected of women.

How would the world change if all men suddenly took this responsibility seriously? Would Barry Bonds show up on Good Morning America with a recipe for tuna bisque? Would Little League fathers start screaming when their sons’ souffles collapsed? Would the Hell’s Angels all have little roll-a-crib trailers behind their choppers?

Probably not. But the real changes would be, I think, no less amazing than these, and would strike far deeper into all our lives.

It won’t be easy; it can’t be. And I don’t claim to be an all-knowing expert. Consider the following incident (which also explains, by the way, why I’m calling my daughter “Shilly-Shally”).

One morning before my wife left for work, she “suggested” (in that leaning-on-me-hard kind of way) that I make our daughter a grilled-cheese sandwich for lunch. I wasn’t sure Shilly-Shally, four years old at the time, would eat grilled-cheese; she’d been fussy all morning. But I dutifully asked her--and yes, she did want one! Her enthusiasm knew no bounds. And lo, she even stopped fussing--but only long enough for me to get butter into the pan. Then she started crying so loudly I thought the cops might show up. Why was she crying, I asked? Because, she blubbered, she was hungry. So I coaxed her into her chair and managed to finish making the sandwich.

When I set it in front of her, though, she freaked. First she screamed that she’d never wanted it. Then she pushed it off her plate with profound disgust—you’d think I’d offered her a dead rat. She then started pounding the innocent sandwich into the table with the flat of her hand, to the rhythm of I--DON’T--WANT--GRILLED--CHEESE! I--DON’T--WANT--ANYTHING!!

I had to send her to her room, of course (the fourth time that morning)--and all my later efforts to comfort her, read to her, play with her were to no avail. After half an hour or so she finally calmed down (which I correctly predicted would mean five used tissues stuffed carefully back into the kleenex box in her bedroom).

During that half hour, though, I faced a vexing dilemma. At first I’d been ready to throw the offending sandwich right out the front door; I hated this disruptive, war-mongering sandwich. But I couldn’t bear to throw it away--because that would mean all the trouble I took to make it was suddenly rendered useless. Which was something I just couldn’t stomach. But I could stomach a grilled-cheese sandwich--even if it’d been pounded flat and was probably soaked with bitter tears. What the hell, I thought--it still smelled good. And after all, we’re talking melted cheese here. So I ate it. Nicest thing to happen that whole morning.

Later my darling came down from her room all red-eyed but smiling weakly. I found myself thinking in a prayerful way, Maybe the tizz is over! It could be a good day after all!

Rookie naivete! My daughter had a request. Smiling wanly, she said in a quiet voice, “I want my grilled-cheese sandwich now.”

“You...want your sandwich!?” I sputtered. “But you said...!”

With amazing speed, her voice leapt from normal speaking level to full-blown scream: “I--WANT--MY--GRILLED--CHEESE--SANDWICH!...”

The point here is that there’s no ready formula to help you deal with such things. My family was preparing for a cross-country move; Shilly-Shally was deeply stressed, as only a kid living partly out of boxes and dreading a major life-change can be. There wasn’t much I could do except be patient--and even with all my experience, I still made the stupid mistake of eating something she might eventually want. But it’s all part of the challenge, the craziness, and the happiness of family life, which is, after all, only a bit less frenzied and dangerous than bull-riding.

That’s why this book isn’t a “manual” with neatly alphabetized instructions on how to do this, that, or the other. Being domestically involved isn’t a step-by-step process like bicycle repair or learning to type. It’s much more about who you are as a person and what you truly value, a

bout that kind of growth--and it has far more to do with attitude than with skills. As poet and writer Wendell Berry says, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have journey.”

So good luck, brother. This is your real work. If you’re just starting out, stay cool and stick with it; you’ll do fine. If you’re already in it, maybe you can do better. Hope I can help.

ANSWERS TO DOMESTIC VOCABULARY QUIZ

1. board book--picture-book for very young kids, made of heavy laminated cardboard to withstand being mouthed by child. IMPORTANCE: This is what your infant will chew on--and spit up on--for months. Cleaning wet spit-up unpleasant, but scraping the dried form off pages even more so.

2. fabric softener--those gauzy little sheets you put in the drier to make clothes soft and less static-y. IMPORTANCE: Don’t forget, or your kid will whine all day that her Esmerelda the Gypsy sweatshirt is “scratchy!”

3. a “double ender”-- Isabel Avery’s term for when a kid has vomiting and diarrhea simultaneously, a body-storm so violent it will consume a closetful of bed linen (including, of course, that on your own bed) in a matter of hours. And every kid gets to this point at one time or another. IMPORTANCE: Not to be confused with a “double-header," since that’s good and this is very, very bad. You’ll be up all night. And believe me, that’s the least of it! (Your wife may not know this specific phrase, but she knows the concept).

4. cubby--the little shelf-box at pre-school where your kid keeps his lunch box, sneakers, etc. IMPORTANCE: The place you have to check every day, when picking kid up, for half-eaten food, mud-encrusted shoes, used emergency-underwear, and important notices about minor things like head lice.

5. Pre-K--educational term for children still too young for kindergarten, or for schooling below the kindergarten level. IMPORTANCE: “Pre-K” denotes the whole world of early childhood--in other words, the time in your life when you’re most likely to say to childless couples, “Have you really thought about what it means to have children?”

6. DPT--One of the scheduled vaccinations your child must receive, this one to prevent diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus. Oh, and they won’t let ‘em in school without it either--and you definitely WANT them to go to school, for reasons not limited to the educational. IMPORTANCE: You even have to ask!? Your kid’s getting a shot--is likely to freak out and scream like a stuck pig while the nurses give you that scornful “You’ve spoiled her!” look. And then she may be sick for three or four days, turning your life into a chaos of sleeplessness, cabin-fever, and cartoons.

7. retainer--an astoundingly expensive dental device which federal law requires every American child to wear for at least five years. IMPORTANCE: The “home-improvement”-type guy may think this has something to do with concrete and split-level lawns, but no. A retainer is that delicate little assemblage of wire and plastic which your kid will take out and forget at the pizza place, forcing you to wade through the “ball room” and pick through the dumpster in search of. As your wife will pointedly remind you, “You wouldn’t just not search for a thousand dollar bill, would you?”

8. roseola--a reddish rash, which often indicates rubella (German measles). IMPORTANCE: No, this is not that good-looking waitress down at the Mexican restaurant. Although classified as a “mild infectious disease,” there’s nothing mild about the impact of a kid with measles--particularly since most kids take the attitude that making their parents miserable will somehow make them feel better.

9. tippy cup--a cup with a cover and a rounded bottom to prevent toddlers from spilling. IMPORTANCE: A tippy cup is very helpful. That is, if you can find the top, and if the kid hasn’t chewed the top to shreds, and if the kid doesn’t chuck the weighted cup at you--and if you, while washing the cup, don’t get depressed thinking how, since you have a toddler, this is the only rounded bottom you’ve had your hands on in a while.

10. sippy cup--for 2- to 4-year-olds; an ordinary cup with a cover that has protruding suck-holes. IMPORTANCE: You’ll go nuts trying to keep these washed so your kid won’t spill juice etc. all over the house. But then she’ll whine till you let her drink with the top off (because she’s such a “big girl”). Might as well go get the carpet cleaner.

EXTRA CREDIT:

1. “She has no tolerance for anything but Amoxycillin, Doctor! Suprax just isn’t an option!”

These are antibiotics. And kids, confound their complexity, are sometimes allergic to stuff, including medicine. The difference between these two medicines, at least for Shilly-Shally, is the healing of a major ear infection that’s turned her into a howling banshee--or adding to that a bout of heavy vomiting. With such consequences, one learns the vocabulary rather quickly.

2. “I was getting him a roll-up when he started chewing on the grapes in his pop-up--but that was no reason to send him to time-out!”

The parent is bringing the kid a snack (a fruitlike substance pressed into a sheet; very popular with children) when the hungry kid begins eating the life-like fruit in his “pop-up” (i.e. “paper engineered”) book. Since eating paper isn’t something we encourage, the parent considers disciplining the child by depriving him of activity, having him sit for a minute or two in a pre-established place--but then realizes that, because of the paper-engineering’s lifelike quality, this isn’t really a punishable offense.

Two Hours in the Life: A Cautionary Sample

A chapter from Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood

The phrase “easier said than done” applies with particular force to certain activities, things like bungee jumping, sky diving, or Formula-1 racing. Spending time at home with kids, it turns out, falls into the same category, and not all men are fully aware of this. Those who think it’s a piece of cake are simply ignorant; unless you have first-hand experience, it’s hard to know just how “challenging” this job can be.

The following, therefore, is an account of one cold January afternoon I spent with my four-year-old daughter Shilly-Shally (not, I promise, her real name). It represents a more or less typical day--well, actually about two hours. (I considered recording a whole day but then realized that might be too frightening). You may think I’ve selected for high drama, but I swear I haven’t exaggerated, cross my heart and hope to survive.

So remember, comrade: Whatever you may feel when reading this, I’m really giving you only a thin slice of the pie. To get a true taste, multiply these two hours by the ten years or so it takes to turn a kid from a restless, curious, whining, monkey-like, self-centered little consumption-machine into something approximating human character. Then come the teenage years.

1:00 p.m.--Feeling restless after a morning of housecleaning and the thrills of making lunch, I attempt to convince Shilly-Shally that we should put on our snow clothes and play in the backyard. She’s always loved to do this; in the past it’s given her hours of delight. But at the moment she’s utterly forgotten her former pleasure. I attempt to remind her. I fail.

1:05--After refusing to go outside, Shilly-Shally lies under the dining-room table playing with the “squirrels” she made out of strips of cardboard and paper. As I continue my attempts to convince her, she states categorically that she hates to go out in the snow and will never agree to do so.

1:10--I mention that the little boy next door may go out too. Her eyes brighten. She loves to go out and play in the snow! Will I please get her dressed in her snowsuit?

1:15--First we argue in the kitchen about why she can’t wear a dress under snowpants. Then I go up to her room and get her some clothes. Once I convince her to stand still--which takes some doing--I dress her in her socks, her boot socks, her long underwear, her shirt and jeans, her snowpants, her boots, her coat, her mittens, her hat, and her scarf. Then she has to go to the bathroom. I take off her scarf, her hat, her mittens, her coat, her boots, her snowpants, and her jeans.

1:20--I put back on her jeans, her snowpants, her boots, her coat, her mittens, her hat, and her scarf. Then I dress myself hurriedly to repeated choruses of “Come on, Dad! I’m hot!”

1:25--We go outside. The little boy next door isn’t there. We discuss this. The discussion ends with one of us crying in a loud and blubbery fashion. I return to the house for kleenex.

1:30--The little boy next door comes out. The tears dry on Shilly-Shally’s suddenly joyous cheeks. Then the little boy next door says stubbornly that he doesn’t want to play with Shilly-Shally. I go back in for more kleenex.

1:35--Shilly-Shally and the little boy next door start to play (his memory, it seems, is a lot like hers). I’m shoveling snow to make a sled ramp for them. Shilly-Shally pretends to be the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, roaring and saying mean things to everyone. The little boy next door asks me if he can be the guy from the video game Mortal Kombat. I agree.

1:40--They’re still playing. The little boy next door asks me four times if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat. I agree each time.

I happen to cut my hand on the snow shovel. Shilly-Shally always cries piteously when she gets little scrapes and cuts; thinking this a perfect teaching opportunity, I show her mine. “See?” I say, “It’s bleeding, but it doesn’t hurt much. Just a little cut. No big deal.”

“That’s right,” she says. “Just a little cut.”

“Yes!” I echo, surprised and pleased at her maturity. “Nothing to worry about.”

“That’s right,” she agrees. “I’m not hurt. So nothing to worry about.”

1:45--Shilly-Shally and the little boy next door have a fight. He’s upset because the Grinch keeps screaming in his ears. I ask the Grinch to crank it down a notch, but she refuses. I insist--which results in my having to go back into the house for more kleenex. I return to start mopping-up operations on the Grinch's face. As I do so, the little boy next door asks me three times if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat. I agree each time.

1:50--The fight is not only over, but they’ve forgotten it ever occurred. That’s because there’s a new fight now--over who gets to swing on the swing. (Even with two feet of snow on the ground this is still the Holy of Holies). I talk to them about sharing and taking turns, going so far as to sing the appropriate song from Barney. Shilly-Shally actually refrains from crying; I consider this a victory and a small step toward maturation. (Of course I made sure she got the first turn; I don’t have to fetch kleenex for the little boy next door).

1:55--While he’s waiting to swing, the little boy next door asks me five times if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat. I agree each time.

2:00--I continue to shovel snow. Shilly-Shally and the little boy next door begin to play separately. For the little boy next door, that means coming over to me and asking four times if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat. “YES!” I roar, then add, “Why do you keep asking me that?” His answer? He looks away for a moment and then says, “Hey, Tim--can I be the guy from Mortal Kombat?”

I quietly agree.

2:05--Shilly-Shally wants me to find her plastic football. It’s buried somewhere in the ocean-like depths of snow that cover our sizeable backyard. “Are you sure you have to have that plastic football?” I ask her. “It’s going to be really hard to find.” She looks stricken. “Dad! It’s my puppy!”

This is true; she’s lavished hours of attention on her plastic football (though the “puppy” has been pretty much on its own in the snowy wilds since last summer). I let out a long sigh, which she accurately translates as “Okay--I’ll do it.” When the little boy next door begins to ask if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat, I shout “YES!” before he finishes the sentence. He looks at me for a moment. Then he laughs. I realize I’ve made a serious error; he likes this new game.

2:10--After much snow-shoveling and a lucky guess, I fish Shilly-Shally’s plastic football up out of a snowdrift and hand it to her. Then I go back to building the sled ramp. For all of thirty seconds, Shilly-Shally pours motherly and canine affection over the plastic football. Then she drops it and says her feet are cold. I’m not stupid; I know the signs of apocalypse when I see them.

So I stop shoveling and start pulling Shilly-Shally and the little boy next door around on the sled. I figure this will keep them happy and maybe even warm them up a little. Huffing like a plow horse, I drag them back and forth, swinging wide on the turns to make them giggle. They enjoy this immensely. But no passion, as Yeats said, can burn forever in so frail a lamp as man. In three minutes they’re tired of it. As Shilly-Shally loudly reminds me about her cold feet, I hear that ominous note of serious displeasure in her voice. Again, with the pride of the professional, I attempt to forestall the inevitable. I show them how to sled on the half-finished sled ramp.

2:15--The little boy next door remembers to ask if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat. Realizing now that a shout will only make him laugh, I quietly agree. He interprets this as permission to ask four more times. Then Shilly-Shally falls off the sled and does a face-plant in the snow. I go back into the house for kleenex. (In my male stupidity, it never occurs to me that I could just put a wad of kleenex in my pocket and so avoid these increasingly annoying trips back into the house). With enormous effort and a cheerful energy worthy of Richard Simmons, I manage to calm her down. But a major hissy fit may be only moments away.

2:20--Disaster strikes. After asking me five more times if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat, the little boy next door manages to twist his foot on our three-foot-high sled ramp. He starts to cry. By the time I come back out with more kleenex (all right, I admit it—I caved), he wants to go home. This throws the already frozen-faced and icy-footed Shilly-Shally for a complete loop. She desperately wants the little boy to stay out so they can play; she also desperately wants to go in and get warm. This emotional dilemma, like the pressure of magma deep inside a volcano, must be vented somewhere.

2:25--The little boy next door says goodbye, but not before asking if, when we play tomorrow, he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat. When she realizes he really is going in, Shilly-Shally lets out a howl of anguish that practically melts the snow. “THEN I’M GOING IN TOO!” she half-shriekingly declares, and stomps up the porch steps as if mortally offended.

2:30: Once we’re inside, I brush all the snow off her and help her take off her hat, her mittens, her coat, her boots, her snowpants, her shirt, her jeans, her long underwear, and her boot socks. She’s still upset, but at least now the kleenex is handy. Because she’s recently stopped napping and is very tired at this time of day--and because she always has a hard time when the little boy next door goes in--and because she did a face-plant in the snow--and because she generally has strong feelings about things--and for whatever other reasons--she’s feeling bad. Very bad. Her pretend-Grinch scowl has become the real McCoy. (I’d describe her as “fit to be tied” but that would reveal some of the inappropriate strategies flitting through my mind at the moment). Even putting on a new dress (the third of five that day) fails to provide her with its usual boost. A series of demands and complaints and a deeply furrowed little forehead indicate that things are turning ugly. I note the storm warnings; I’ve seen before just how quickly a tropical low can turn into a hurricane.

2:35--Full-blown flip-out occurs. She’s screaming, weeping, refusing to do anything I ask, shouting terrible things like “I DON’T LOVE YOU!! I’M NEVER PLAYING IN THE SNOW AGAIN!! YOU’RE NOT A VERY GOOD FATHER!! I HATE BARNEY!!” (a child's equivalent of taking the Lord’s name in vain).

I offer to play blocks with her, read her a picture book, color, whatever she wants. “I HATE ALL THOSE THINGS!” she bellows. After many attempts to pacify her, I find myself thinking about Hitler and Neville Chamberlain. So I tell her firmly that if she can’t stop screaming and crying, she’ll have to go to her room. She continues; I say “Go to your room.” She finally complies, at approximately 50 mph and 90 decibels, but only after I approach her with the intent of picking her up and carrying her there. The slam of her bedroom door echoes through the house like a sonic boom.

In the suddenly quiet kitchen I wonder: Is the little boy next door even now asking his mom if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat?

2:40--I start feeling bad for Shilly-Shally. After all, she’s had a rough twenty minutes--and she hasn’t eaten for over an hour! Deciding to be Super-Parent, I make “tea” to take up to her room. A PB & J cut into squares becomes petit-fours; I fill her pink plastic tea kettle with apple juice. (A truly loving father, of course, would have gone out and bought her one of those kid-sized, actually-motorized Malibu Barbie Fun Jeeps). Then I carry the whole thing upstairs on a tea tray, with napkins, pink plastic cutlery, apple slices, the works. She’s going to love this!

I’ve also made myself a cup of hot chocolate and suddenly realize, rather wistfully, that it’s the first thing I’ve done for myself since I brushed my teeth in the early a.m.

2:45--Shilly-Shally’s delighted. As we picnic on the floor of her room, her passionate sorrow melts into ecstasy. She wants to play the Three Little Pigs. She’ll be Penny, the oldest, smartest pig. I’m Paulie, one of her less intelligent younger brothers come to live in the wolf-proof house she built. This, of course, makes her “the boss.” “Can I really be the boss, Dad?” she asks, wanting to be very clear about this. The question has a dangerous ring to it. I hesitate, knowing what such a political precedent can mean. But we’re still too close to the recent crying fit to risk a re-engagement over what’s really only a negative possibility. "Yes," I say, "You can be boss--if I can be the guy from Mortal Kombat." She laughs.

2:50--For the next five minutes we know sheer, undiluted happiness. For five minutes we live just like the parents and kids on TV commercials. I savor it like an elixir.

2:55--The phone rings. Before I go downstairs to answer it, I caution Shilly-Shally not to carry her little teacup full of apple juice anywhere. With a parent’s eternal vigilance against messy spills, I’ve noticed she’s a little shaky handling the cup, so I insist she stay seated if she’s going to drink from it.

I answer the phone. Luckily, it’s only one of those annoying telemarketers--not someone asking if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat. But my relief is shattered when I hear a cry from upstairs.

3:00--On reaching Shilly-Shally’s room I learn that she’s not only “moved” her little teacup, she’s spilled it--and the entire plastic tea kettle full of apple juice. Simian restlessness of youth! Tears well up--but I suppress them. Of course Shilly-Shally’s crying too. When I gently remind her that she did exactly what I asked her not to, the floodgates of the deep are opened. I look around; naturally, the kleenex box in her room is empty. But that’s no problem; I’m on my way downstairs to get rags and carpet cleaner anyway. The spills shouldn’t be all that tough to deal with, since she’s only soaked about 50% of the carpet surface. Besides, my housemaid’s knee has been pretty calm lately. I’ll have all this cleaned up in, say, twenty minutes or so.

But first I’ve got an impromptu lesson about “not crying over spilt milk” to give, and a troubled angel to soothe--whose happiness is, after all, one of the main reasons for my existence on this planet.

Homelife: The Benefits to Men


A chapter from Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood

“Life is so short that we must move very slowly.”--Thai proverb

“We know what we are, but not what we may be.”--Shakespeare 

For the last three or four centuries at least, men in our culture have generally spent most of their waking hours outside the home. And for many men, this has become a basic orientation; even in those few hours when they are home, some, as their wives and children would tell you, “aren’t really there.”

My dad was a doctor, but, as our family’s standing joke had it, he was the last person to go to if you were sick or hurt. "Ask your mother,” was his standard reply; he wouldn’t even brush you off with a band-aid or the traditional aspirin. And he certainly didn’t want you to call him in the morning. Some guys seem to think of their homes as a place to crash and recover, like a motel along the interstate.

As an experienced parent and all-around hard-working guy, I can understand my dad’s response, especially since my wife and I have our hands full with three kids, while he and my mom had to deal with eleven. And as is true for many of the old-fashioned “providers,” my father worked himself like a draft animal. I’m passionately grateful for all the things he provided for us. But when he was home, he rested, and I’m sure he wasn’t the only man to set up “Ask your mother” as a buffer between himself and domestic demands.

There were a couple of problems with this, though, however understandable it might be. For one thing, my mom never had any time off. Period. When he was resting, she was still working.

Then there’s the fact that we didn’t see Dad very often, or do things with him, or even talk to him much. I didn’t really get to know him until I was an adult. In the love and friendship I now feel for him, and in the sadness for all we missed in those earlier years, I’ve learned how profoundly a father is rewarded for things like putting band-aids on his children.

The old habits of the distant, workhorse father die hard. The good news, though, is that there are plenty of reasons for us to spend more time at home and be more fully engaged when we’re there.

If you ask the average guy to list some benefits, though, he may draw a blank. Men are changing, of course, even as we speak. But the typical male, it seems, still has something of a gap in his thinking when it comes to home life, a nearly empty space somewhere between preoccupation with sex and a free-floating devotion to professional sports teams.

From my point of view, at least, this is somewhat surprising. You might think the men it applies to would be a little embarrassed. A guy who’s uneasy admitting he doesn’t know what channel-locks do may blithely declare his ignorance about toddlers or basic house-cleaning. And considering the intense nature of family experience, you have to wonder how certain fathers actually avoid at least some domestic awareness. Because I’ve stayed home with all three of my kids, domestic life has become an essential part of who I am, deepening and strengthening me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I am, in part, what being home with my children has taught me to become. And you don’t have to be a stay-at-home father, of course, in order to reap these benefits.

I learned of one such benefit in an issue of Working Mother magazine, which gave the results of a University of Nebraska study on supportive husbands. The researchers looked at over 2,000 married people, concluding, the article reports, that “[h]usbands who are supportive of their wives’ careers and share in household chores are happier with their marriages than other men...” Non-supportive males, in contrast, tend to “feel threatened and resist change, which causes more stress in the marriage.” It only makes sense, I think, that men who give more to marriage actually get more from it, in that old and sacred paradox whereby in giving we receive.

Another benefit springs immediately to mind: the practical education home life can provide for a male, an antidote to that learned helplessness many men acquire when it comes to this most basic part of living. (Just how bad can we guys get? When I read a draft of this chapter to a small group, one woman sputtered with surprise and burst out “I didn’t know any men even knew how helpless you all are!”)

Of course it’s true that some guys learn, as bachelors, how to manage their own domestic affairs. But the independence of bachelorhood is no guarantee that a man has learned basic domestic skills and attitudes. For one thing, a bachelor only takes care of himself, which is a far cry from caring for a family; bachelors are notorious, of course, for going into marriage with entrenched self-centered habits.

Besides, the bachelor’s approach to domestic life is often crude, to put it mildly. Plenty of my college dorm-mates, for example, took a less than labor-intensive approach to their laundry. A guy would wear his clothes until they were simply unwearable, then throw them on his closet floor and choose something else. In this spirit of homage to Huck Finn, he’d go through his wardrobe piece by piece. By the end of the semester you’d see him wearing slacks, dress shirts and sports coats, both to class and to parties and bars--not because he wanted to look formal but because those were the only clean clothes he had left. When even his dress clothes were filthy, he’d push the whole moldy, odorous pile into his laundry bag and take it home to Mom--or give it to his girlfriend, if their relationship had reached that romantic point.

A divorced friend of mine, in his forties, used the same “strategy” for doing dishes. Whatever he used he’d stack in the sink, washing all his cups, glasses, plates and cutlery in one great burst when nothing clean was left. On Friday nights you could usually find him eating with a spatula off one of those ribbed microwave trays.

But not only do men tend to be domestically ignorant to begin with--some of us duck even more of our responsibility by depending on women to take up the slack. This is a dependence many mothers actually encourage in their sons! It’s true, of course, that young males can be stubborn and mindless when it comes to helping around the house. But when frazzled parent “enables” stubborn and lazy kid, the process of training a helpless male adult has begun. Memories of my own adolescence make me hot with embarrassment. One scene sums up just how out to lunch I was. “Now, Tim," my mom told me seriously one day, “I need you to do something for me. I need a package of frozen hamburger. Go downstairs. Open the big freezer. Just to your left will be a wire basket. The frozen hamburger is not in the basket, it’s under it. Not in, but under. So lift the basket out. Right below you’ll see a package. Don’t get me anything but ground beef. That’s ground beef. Okay?”

“Sure!” I said cheerfully, then tromped downstairs, opened the freezer, and stopped. “Mom?” I called up tentatively. “...Uh...what did you want?”

Most wives will have their own anecdotes to add here, some more far-fetched and dramatic, most less so. But even the little things can build up, and a pattern of continual domestic ignorance is not only bad for the marriage but also for the man himself. That typical Honey-where-do-we-keep-the...? dependency can lead to resentment in both partners, since she feels put upon and he feels inadequate and humiliated. (I’m still fighting the problem, in fact. Once you contract this disease, there’s no cure, really--you can only manage it). And this kind of learned helplessness takes larger and more general forms too; far too many men, it seems, actually reach an almost total dependence on their wives for everything from meals to emotional expression.

Men, I think, should acknowledge their often hidden embarrassment about this and let it guide them to new skills. And if by some chance a guy doesn’t feel embarrassed about being a domestic ignoramus—maybe he should learn how to.

Our society values the well-rounded individual. But “well-roundedness” should include domestic as well as other abilities. Many times, after admitting that I don’t change my own oil, I’ve had to endure an auto mechanic’s look of scornful surprise; why is it, I wonder, that men don’t feel the same about sewing on buttons? I have a kind of typical-male belief that I won’t really be well-rounded until I can do things like sail a boat or attempt simple carpentry. Such skills, which I don’t possess, strike me as basic abilities everyone would do well to have. In my life, though, there aren’t many occasions when I need to cross large bodies of water or build huts. But a man is usually home with his kids on a daily basis; it’s many a recklessly yanked-on button I’ve seen go flying. Running a house and caring for children are fundamental life skills; how can a man justify not knowing anything about them?!

And all we have to do to break the cycle of dependence is get in there and learn. For fifteen years I “helped” my wife with our grocery shopping, week in and week out. “Where’s the pizza sauce?” I’d ask her. “What aisle is Pop Tarts?” It was only when she became ill for three months that I finally learned the layout of the store--simply because I had to do the shopping myself. That’s all it took.

And what advantages a little domestic knowledge can bring to a guy! Like any skills, these engender a certain pride and personal satisfaction, expanding both our knowledge of human experience and of ourselves. They can help bring husbands and wives together. They can also lead to the kind of anchoring humility everyone needs.

Besides, being able to take care of something yourself is a hundred times more convenient than always depending on her.

A second general benefit is that time at home allows a man, in psychologist Herb Goldberg’s phrase, to “step out of harness”--to escape, however long, from the narrowness of the male-achiever role. In the high-pressure world of the working male, emotional expression is often frowned on, achievement at any cost is championed, and a man is judged by his earning power, his social or sexual dominance, and his material wealth, often denying his own genuine desires and frustrations. Wordsworth said it perfectly, I think: “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”

In The Hazards of Being Male, Goldberg lays out with great force and clarity just what rigid male sex roles have cost the many patients he worked with as a therapist. (Dr. William Pollack of Harvard has even more up-to-date and research-based things to say about this same problem). “The male...,” Goldberg writes, “is out of touch with his emotions and his body...Our culture is saturated with successful male zombies...[who] have confused their social masks for their essence...Only a new way of perceiving himself can unlock [a man] from old, destructive patterns and enrich his life.” This isn't true about all guys, of course. But for those to whom it applies, I say: Fess up, at least to yourself. We should acknowledge our hidden slaveries, our hang-up's, the deep hurts and false assumptions that can so terribly limit us.

Time at home is a precious opportunity to live in exactly the opposite way. The work-horse can step back, take a breath, begin to savor his life. All those stereotypical behaviors of male mid-life crisis--pursuing sex, living in the fast lane, preening to recapture lost youth--are shallow and bound to fail, since they’re only the “reward” behaviors of the man in harness. But a man can learn to remake himself, to awaken things within him, if he lets quieter, stronger things begin to grow. Many men I’ve talked to, on hearing that I stay home with my kids, have expressed wistful envy for my position. “Man, what I wouldn’t give...” they’ll say, looking off into the distance. Perhaps they’re naive about the difficulties of full-time fathering; perhaps not. But many would clearly love a break from the type of work-life that stifles some of their humanity. “I kind of like, at this point,” a father from New Jersey says, “any occupation that isn’t full of politics, stress, white shirt/ties, and joining the good-old-boy network.” Similarly, in the blue-collar and service sectors, heavy demands from above, monotony, struggles with co-workers or bosses, or the constant feeling of being expendable can lead to the same strong desire for escape--and not just to kick back and take it easy, but to take stock.

Many men, Goldberg says, “discover that they are shadows to themselves as well as to others.” But one of the most powerful ways for men to step out of this shadow-life, this practiced grief, is right under their noses. In their own homes, with their own children, men can move toward becoming the full selves many are struggling to be.

And another advantage flows from this pausing to catch your breath: the small magic of just slowing down.

I often use clouds as a gauge of my own life-speed. Sometimes people have to hurry, and hurrying isn’t necessarily bad in itself; it can even be enjoyable. But on every side I hear complaints about the frantic pace of modern life. It’s clear that many of us, at least, are overdoing it. Clouds aren’t like that. They flow across the sky at their own Tao-like pace, steady and rhythmic, usually so unhurried we must consciously slow ourselves even to notice their movement. Sometimes I stop in the middle of a busy day and just watch. If slowing myself to their pace, to the pace of the natural world, the rhythm of wind and water and the deep slow life of the land--if doing this frustrates me too much, and I want to break away before I’ve really seen the perfect motion of the clouds--then I know I’m living too fast. But not necessarily in terms of physical speed; clouds tell me I’m going too fast on the inside. It’s usually our inner velocity, more than our outer, which drives us too hard.

But still, we’re only human, and our bodies dictate much of our interior life. Since many jobs include high stress and pressure, we often respond by internalizing that endless anxious race to get things done. Being home is different. I don’t mean that it’s paradise, that you won’t be busy, pressured, or frustrated. But the overall pace, and the nature of many of your new tasks, will begin to slow you down.

As a Thai proverb has it, “Life is so short that we must move very slowly.” An American’s first reaction to this statement is likely to be confusion; if life is short, shouldn’t we go faster, to experience more? No, Thai wisdom tells us. You must learn instead to fully savor what you do. This aspect of being home with children provides another precious opportunity for men, especially since some of us live in an unnatural fear of idleness, having been taught to be relentless engines of achievement. Time with kids isn’t “idleness” by any definition, but it does impose a more organic kind of life-rhythm on a parent. And the child’s life-rhythm will do even more to shake you out of a rigid attitude toward time--that is, if you let it.

Life at home will always be challenging in its own way. But there will always be those other times too: Shilly-Shally and I lying on our backs in the grass, talking quietly or just drinking in the silence, watching clouds (and for once I don’t have to check if I’m patient enough). Me holding her, pressing my face into her fragrant hair with its little-girl smells. And here I am on hands and knees picking up strands of plastic Easter grass, because she had to have her Easter basket from the attic, since Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast carries a basket in some scene…but suddenly she jumps down without a word, leaving her snack at the table, and begins to search the rug carefully, snatching at stray pieces of plastic grass and carrying them to the trash, both of us laughing when she can’t get the sticky grass off her fingers. Or she’s standing in the backyard at twilight, gazing at the evening star, when the automatic sprinklers suddenly come on, and she screams--the closest sprinkler thirty feet away from her--and I come running, pick her up, within seconds she’s smiling, wiping tears away and telling me, with big solemn eyes, the story of the startling sprinklers...

The truth is that, at home, such beautiful little miraculous times happen far more often than the maddening disasters do. And this leads to another profound benefit. Being home with a child is a magnificent opportunity for adults to reconnect themselves to a whole set of abilities we seem to leave behind in childhood. Emerson says bluntly that most adults take on a kind of blindness: “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun.” A fundamental ability to look at the world with wonder, to really see what’s before us, lies sleeping through many people’s lives, a distant memory they’ve all but forgotten. That’s one reason most of us treasure certain childhood remembrances; it seems a golden time not so much because things were so perfect, but because we had an orientation to existence that allowed us to see the world that way. This orientation--without the sometimes frustrating limitations of our childish minds--is still available to adults. It’s what haiku poetry is based on, and is in fact the aim of much art and spirituality--a re-establishing of direct connection to experience.

And what a banquet of “direct experience” being home can set before you! With your child’s behavior as a model, a kind of lens to peer through--and beyond the frantic pressures or numbing boredom of much of the work world--you can set about really looking at things, really tasting food, smelling smells, hearing sounds. With time enough, and your own willingness--and with the continual example of your child’s wonder-driven heart--you can actually re-learn how to be a human animal in the sensual flow of the natural world. You might even discover again how to see the sun.

But not all the benefits of staying home are so philosophical. A while ago, having called our HMO to see a doctor, I was sitting there, phone on my shoulder, putting in the apparently mandatory half-hour it takes to make an appointment. As I waited, I found myself half-listening to the disembodied recorded voice on the other end reciting health tips. But I perked up when it started to talk about laughter and health. Children, the voice intoned mechanically, laugh 400 times a day--while adults only manage 15.

Now you’ve got to wonder how they counted this; I picture some labcoat following a kid around and marking a clipboard, then doing the same with a tax accountant. Still, we all know kids laugh a lot more than adults do, and we hear more and more these days about the health benefits of laughter and a positive attitude. Being home with children is a natural way to bring more laughter into your life. For one thing, kids love comedy as much as they love candy, if not more, and any parent who doesn’t use it, both to teach and to control, is wasting a precious resource. Your children are the perfect captive audience, eager, interested, and always there. In addition, the slower, warmer atmosphere of home life naturally allows more laughter. For although humor is essentially a spontaneous phenomenon, it occurs more often in certain environments--and it can be pursued. And those who pursue it are happier than those who don’t.

So how to pursue it? You open yourself, you value it, you consider its preciousness, you practice it, you embrace it whenever you can, you consciously look for it in everyday situations.

I was complaining to some friends once about a big gash I’d gotten on my shin. In that typical “trials of parenthood” mode, I launched into the story of how, to calm a sleepless Shilly-Shally, I’d slept on a futon on her bedroom floor (on a different night from last chapter’s story)--had woken in the wee hours with a terrible backache--had crept down to the living-room couch so I wouldn't wake my wife, setting my alarm on the coffee table--and then, when it went off, had jumped up in a stupor not remembering where I was, banging my leg on the table in a frantic effort to hit the button.

But as I told the story, I found myself, in characteristic Irish fashion, I suppose, warming to it, gradually realizing the humor it afforded. By the end of the little narrative my friends and I were laughing, and I’d come to see the night’s events in a whole new light. That’s when I suddenly thought about my dad.

It’s from him, and from my mom, that I first learned the profound and simple art of enjoying life as it happens; his status as a workhorse didn’t keep him from that crucial ability. I found myself remembering the night Dad recounted to us, with utter delight, how he’d put his necktie on over his shirt collar before 6:30 Mass that morning--and then had gone blithely through his day, confused by all the strange reactions until someone finally took him aside. This certainly wasn’t high comedy; there was no punch line or hilarious climax. It’s just that he got such a kick out of it, out of the little incongruities of being human, and saw so instinctively--as he almost always did--the funny side of things.

It’s easy to underestimate the power of this approach to life, this instinct for humor in ordinary experience--which constitutes, in fact, a kind of wordless faith in our daily existence. Of course there are things too horrible ever to be laughed about. But in most cases, finding humor is to humans what agility is to cats. People who know how to do it tend to land on their feet. And being home with children is an ideal opportunity to develop this skill.

Besides, kids are funny--sometimes when they try to be, more often just by virtue of who they are. Some examples:

--Shilly-Shally has named her index fingers. “Stinkypan” and “Lady-o” are a pair of giraffes who constantly bicker and insult each other, acting out Shilly-Shally’s negative impulses. The other day they actually attacked her, pulling repeatedly at her braids and calling her ugly names. It was better than pro wrestling.

--When my older son was little, I showed him a map of the Milky Way. “This is our galaxy!” I said, “and this is our sun--one of billions of suns! And somewhere close to the sun is our planet, the Earth! “Hey, Dad!” he exclaimed, caught up in my excitement. “I can see our house!”

--My wife was explaining delicately to our younger son, in answer to his earnest question, how human flatulence can sometimes help doctors make diagnoses. “You know,” she said, plainly embarrassed, “the…frequency, and...uh...odor...” Our little boy looked up at her with big serious eyes. “Does it mean anything if it’s...loud?”

--To explain the seasons to the boys when they asked about them, I got out an orange and a ping-pong ball. “This orange is the sun,” I told them, “and this ping-pong ball is the Earth. The Earth revolves around the sun”--here I moved my models, delighted to see the boys entranced, their wide eyes fixed on my substitute sun. “Now--can you see how it goes?” I asked proudly, convinced I’d given them the gift of wonder. For a moment they were silent. Then the younger asked brightly, “Dad--can I have that orange?”

And it’s not just the outright humor that can lift and re-direct you, but also the sheer zaniness. Living with kids is like running a kind of asylum for very sweet patients--but patients nonetheless. Things are different in a house with children. Shilly-Shally’s bathtub, for example, is often full of balloons, even during the daytime. She loves balloons (which are among the most commanding passions of the pre-K set), endlessly demands them, and delights in filling her bathtub with them. I walk past the bathroom and notice a rainbow-like profusion in the tub, and part of me wants to do that parent thing and PUT THOSE TOYS AWAY. It’s like an itch I can’t ignore. I want order, I want control, those balloons are bugging me, all huddled up together in there like a little group of escaped cartoon creatures.

But then I stop and think. Balloons! Hell, I love balloons too! It dawns on me that I’m lucky to have a tub full of balloons to walk past each day, a reminder of what the world can be, the strange delights our lives present to us. I’m lucky that someone keeps trying to tell me, in the language of balloons, how to loosen up a little about controlling the house, how to let it be a place where life isn’t merely organized but actually happens--how to let delight rise up out of the world even as I impose order from above.

In all of this I keep seeing a beautiful light in things, one I only glimpsed before I spent serious time with my children. Humor is much more than a moment of relief, a physical release, belly-laugh and then back to the grindstone. Garrison Keillor knows it for what it really is:

“Humor is not a trick, not jokes. Humor is a presence in the world--like grace--and shines on everybody.”

Keillor put this truth into words for me. But in fact I’d learned it long before, wordlessly, from Shilly-Shally, and from her brothers before her, and from my own parents and siblings before that. 

Of all the benefits of spending time at home, the next is, I think, the most obvious: It’s the only way to really know your kids. We live in an age when the absent father (in the many forms such absence takes) seems to be crippling whole swaths of our society. How many fathers, I wonder, have secretly gotten teary-eyed or come close to it, sitting alone in their cars as Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” played on the radio? The irony of this has struck me many times: We plod on as a society, with fathers in so many families all but separated from their children, men at work or on the road or living in other cities or locked away behind the fortress of a newspaper--but they hear this song, we all listen. We know it’s true: Kids grow so fast, but we’re too busy. We keep putting off our plans to spend time with them, we keep running, and then one day they’re gone and there’s no real connection, no strength of love and shared experience, only a skeletal version of what family life should be. But the system goes on as it always has, the disk jockeys keep playing that song--and moments of tenderness that should be shared by fathers and children actually take place in cars or offices or hotel rooms where men, alone, sit and wonder who their children are.

How can it be that we let ourselves drift from the center of our lives out to the edges, and then spend most of our time there? How can the family, the human grouping most essential to all of us, become just one more item on our to-do lists? “In America you raise your children; in India we live with ours,” an East Indian once said. His statement strikes me as an over-generalization, but there’s certainly some truth in it as a description of much American family life.

In the time you spend at home you get to know your kids on a whole new level. And this knowledge will run much deeper than a mental catalogue of favorite colors and who likes what for lunch. No human being, in fact, not even a spouse, can know another as intimately as parent knows child. This will not only make you a much better parent--it’ll also make you happier. And if you really know your children, maybe you won’t find yourself sitting in the car one day wondering if your life has any center, awash with sorrow and guilt as you’re transfixed by Harry Chapin's words about a father who watches his own life pass without ever spending real time with his son.

For some men, in fact, time at home with children will be part of a necessary education in learning to love. Some simply haven’t learned how, and some love deeply but can’t express it. Others feel love but don’t channel it into responsible and nurturing action. Whatever his own background, a man won’t find better teachers in the art of loving than his own children. By their very nature they demand, beg for, insist on, may wither without his love. And he too may wither, may already be withering, until he learns to give that love freely, until he grows to that point where giving is as joyous as getting.

You don’t think you’ve got a “feminine side”? Don’t think you can handle that much homelife? Hey, cast your mind back: You didn’t like the taste of beer the first time either, and now look at you. Contrary to prevailing stereotypes, men are adaptable.

In The Tunnel of Love, Peter de Vries says “The value of marriage is not that adults produce children, but that children produce adults.” Although some marriages are an exception, in most cases a man can learn all this at home. The love in him can be more than a mere aching dependency, or dark need, or mute cry buried in the self. His love can blossom out into the world, an overflowing that enriches his own life, the life of his family, even his community.

And another thing. Most males are what you might call “recreation-oriented.” We like to play. Guys hang little basketball hoops in their bedrooms and offices and shoot sponge basketballs at them. We stack beer cans, throw snowballs, lay bets on who can catch the most peanuts out of the air in his mouth. We tend to make games out of almost any activity. So what does being home have to do with this basic masculine urge? Simple: If a guy’s willing to get down on his hands and knees, he’ll find that a kid is the greatest interactive toy ever invented.

One final point, which I’ve hinted at throughout this chapter. There are plenty of reasons for men to be committed fathers. Some, though, are easier to grasp than others, particularly since certain truths can only be fully understood through experience. How could an adult, for example, fully explain sexual love to a child? Since this experience is outside the child’s conscious awareness, any description is inadequate. To a child it may sound silly, even crazy (I recently saw a kid’s “Letter to God” that read, “My brother told me where babies come from—but it doesn’t sound right”). Most likely, though, the kid simply won’t relate to it, with boredom or indifference as the result. And yet some day this same child, now something more than a child, will find these longings stirring in his or her own body, and the human birthright of sexual love will become central to that life. Sometimes telling men about the advantages of home-life is similar.

To learn these deeper truths, men must be willing to let things happen to them--things they may not understand yet. Why should a man truly commit himself to fatherhood? A final, and profound, reason: to find himself.

I’m not lost, you say; I know where I am, who I am. And maybe you really do know some of who you are. But how completely do you know yourself? How fully have you expressed your potential, explored all your capabilities, felt all your inherent feelings? How freely have you fulfilled all the roles in your nature?

I’m at the computer working, hurrying, concentrating on the task before me. I’m a provider, a do-er, an adult, I have plans, ambitions, I move from point A to point B. Just then Shilly-Shally quietly opens the door, having woken from her (always brief) afternoon nap. Then she comes to me quickly, climbs onto my lap, and I hold her--and the suddenness with which she’s come into my arms is like the suddenness with which she came into our lives. This jars me from my narrow-minded focus, lifts me instantly past it, and I’m filled with astonishment: This child, this human being, having come out of nowhere, out of the depths of space, non-existent but now here, warm, on my lap, those little-girl smells in her hair--I marvel wordlessly at her, and passionately thank the powers that brought her to us.

In that moment I’m not anything else but someone who loves her completely. I’m a father, just that, feeling nothing extraneous, nothing shallow or transitory, nothing that isn’t true to the depths of my being. There in the midafternoon light, with the computer still on before me (soon to be reluctantly shut down for the day)--with the silence in the house about to be hurled away, with hours of dish-washing, laundry-folding, table-setting, crayon-wielding, block-building, picture-book-reading and storytelling ahead of me----with her in my arms, I realize, surprised, that I’m most who I am--my deepest, truest self.

So You Think It’s Easy?


A chapter from Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood

“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.”--Dan Stanford

"A model dad demonstrates [that] time is love."--Shana McLean Moore

One of my brothers was married a few years ago, and soon his wife was pregnant--with twins.

Although I rejoiced with them, I was also a little concerned. I know what it takes to raise a kid--and I can multiply by two. In some cultures twins are considered good luck, an indication of divine favor. But I’ll bet a whole pile of cowrie shells the men believe this more than the women do. My brother married after a long bachelorhood; did he really understand what was coming down the pike?

For the first six months after the birth of his daughters, he’d always say things were fine. Two wasn’t really twice as much, since you already had a system going. I knew he was becoming a terrific father, but I wondered about the fatigue factor, which is even more important in parenting than in sports. I couldn’t help thinking about “the Bear.”

If you’ve ever run track, you probably know about the Bear. I heard it from the older guys on our high-school team. “It’s like this,” they’d say. “You’re doing a quarter-mile or whatever, and you’re kicking hard for the finish--you’re right about there...”--they’d point to a spot three-fourths of the way around the track--”…when all of a sudden the Bear comes up out of the ground and jumps on you. Your legs turn to lead, you can’t breathe, you get dizzy--the finish line suddenly looks a hundred miles away...”

“The Bear,” of course, is that phenomenon whereby a runner making maximum exertion suddenly feels exhausted. Young runners nod when they hear about it, but they don’t really understand. Just listen to them, though, once that beast sinks his claws into their backs. Oh man! I was starting my kick and all of a sudden...

I wondered if something similar was in store for my brother.

Then one day he called me, sounding a little down in the dumps. The twins had just turned eleven months. “How’s it going?” I asked.

“Well, okay,” he said, the weariness plain in his voice. “It’s just...well...it’s pretty constant...”

Bingo, I thought; the Bear claims another victim.

Like any worthy labor, spending time with your kids can be exhausting, frustrating, and downright tedious. It is, as my wife says, both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. In addition, and in contrast to most jobs, this one is grossly unrewarded in terms of money and status, with the extra wild irony that some people don’t even consider it work!

Most mothers, of course, know all about such ironies. But some men don’t realize just how brave they’ll have to be in this new world. The level of difficulty, of course, depends on your individual circumstances. But a man needs to go into this with his eyes wide open--and his heart. How hard can it be, you wonder? You’ll find out.

For starters, try this little readiness quiz. It’s designed to enhance mental preparation for the new father. All the examples are taken from real life—I kid you not. Answer each question “yes” or “no.” And be honest.

DOMESTIC READINESS QUIZ

1. Your toddler is, as your wife tells the neighbor, “not such a good sleeper.” Once he’s weaned he stays up till 11:00 or 12:00 at night for about six months, waking at 5:30 each morning, and often during the night. You’re seriously sleep-deprived and beginning to hallucinate; your boss has begun to look sympathetic and kindly. Even the bags under your eyes are getting bags. Finally the kid cycles around to a normal bedtime. You enjoy the luxury of a week’s worth of semi-adequate sleep.

Then Daylight Savings Time kicks in, and he’s right back to midnight.

ARE YOU READY FOR THIS!?

2. This same kid, a little older now and the world’s lightest sleeper, has just settled down for a nap, and you desperately need the break. Once he’s asleep, you get ready to tiptoe out of his room--but like a fool you can’t resist putting a few toys away first. With little plastic tractor and farm animals in hand, you creep to the toy barn where they’re kept--but you’ve already opened the barn door before you remember it “moos.” Your kid sits bolt upright. “I’m done with my nap, Dad. Can I play farm too?”

ARE YOU READY FOR THIS!?

3. You have a guest for dinner, an important guy who works with your wife. He’s an older bachelor. In the middle of dinner, a number of things happen at once: The phone rings and your older son goes to answer it--the doorbell rings and your younger son takes care of that--the timer goes off in the kitchen and your wife jumps up to check the dessert--and you rush upstairs, having heard a thump and the unmistakable shrieking of your four-year-old. Your guest is suddenly completely alone at the table--and in the middle of a sentence. And once you’ve calmed your screamer down, you’re going to have to explain why.

ARE YOU READY FOR THIS!?

4. It’s Christmas day; you want to take the family to church. But your three-year-old NEEDS a bath. You’ve got one hour before the service starts. Before she can get into the tub, however, she has to move EACH of her TWELVE cardboard-cut-out “squirrels” up the stairs to the bathroom. And that means lifting each “squirrel” one stairstep at a time. When you try to hurry her, she protests. “They’re only little animals, Dad!” Total elapsed time: thirty-three minutes.

ARE YOU READY FOR THIS!?

5. First your kids got “Lite-brites,” thousands of tiny colored plastic reflectors they’re supposed to arrange on a pegboard to make pictures with. What they prefer, of course, is to scatter the damn things everywhere. For years you clean up Lite-brites. Then your wife brings home an “Indian dress” for your daughter, which is covered with beaded fringe, bits of which are constantly falling off the dress. Soon you can’t take a step in the house without encountering this new form of litter. Then, just when you think you’ve finally vacuumed up the last beaded fringe, Grandma comes over with a pink feather boa for your daughter. Within hours your living room looks like a psychedelic henhouse. Grandma, of course, is long gone.

ARE YOU READY FOR THIS!?

6. At 1:00 you’re going to a local photo studio for a formal family photograph. Your kid needs lunch, but you’ve learned that feeding any semi-solid food to a child under five automatically means a complete change of clothes (for both kid and yourself). So you carefully avoid pudding, jello, yoghurt, ice cream, spaghetti-o’s, applesauce, peanut butter and jelly, mashed potatoes, canned fruit in juice, cereal in milk, etc. But you learn rather quickly that some foods normally considered “solids”--like graham crackers--can easily cross into the semi-solid category. Lunch is over, your kid looks like a pig after a good wallow, and the clock now reads 12: 34.

ARE YOU READY FOR THIS!?

7. You've been working your tail off all day for your kid, doing cosmically-important things like finding lost coloring books, trying to wash off a fairy-tale DVD so the picture won't keep hanging and pixelating, and hooking up the back of her doll's incredibly tiny dress. You're right in the middle of some similarly devilish task, and pulling it off beautifully, when you wife comes in from work. Your kid looks up and instantly bellows, "Mom, will you come here and do this better than Dad?!"

ARE YOU READY FOR THIS!?

SCORING: If you finished this quiz without serious thoughts of abandoning your family, you’ve passed. If, however, you answered “No” to four or more questions, you should probably stick with your current method of birth control.

Spending more time at home inevitably presents a number of specific problems. It’s not easy on a number of fronts.

Some of these problems, of course, are practical difficulties whose major impact is on your life as an adult. Your career, obviously, will be affected (like a telephone pole is affected when a car rams into it; can the pole take the shock, or is it coming down?). This is unavoidable; even if men suddenly had years worth of legal paternity leave, a committed father is still taking himself out of the loop to some degree. For some, this is just a bump in the road; for others, it can lead to serious frustration, even bitterness.

Every man has to make such decisions for himself. But there are a few clear principles here. The first is that well-known one about people on their deathbeds not wishing they’d spent more time at the office. The second is that you have to make up your mind and stick with your choices, even when things get rough. To me it’s simple, though difficult: Love is more important than anything else. My family needs me, and I simply won’t let my career aspirations keep me from being a happy and loving father and husband. I have my frustrations, but the compass of my heart keeps me pointed in the right direction.

A second disadvantage is the financial drain of lost salary, resulting either from a man’s giving up a job (or a better job), or from not putting in the longer hours often required for promotion and higher salary. Some couples work around this; you can certainly save money on childcare. But it’s no road to riches. My family continues to struggle; our “Tupperware collection,” to use one small example, consists mainly of old whipped-cream and margarine tubs. Eating fast food is about as high-toned as our celebrations get. We rent; we have no savings; we worry. But we make do.

These problems arise, obviously, because your family commitments keep you from devoting all your time and energy to your job. Most men can easily imagine that kind of frustration. But being with kids also has its own unique difficulties, which some guys seem to have no real sense of.

The biggest shock to the uninitiated, I think, is the endlessness of this job (as my brother recently learned firsthand). Even long hours at a day job can’t really prepare you for being “on” whenever you’re with your kids, or, for the stay-at-home dad, 24/7. And if you think that means time off for meals and sleep, think again. There are kids who sleep all night and take long naps, but there are others who almost never sleep--and even the good sleepers need less as they grow older. Besides, few kids have the moral decency to match their sleep schedule to yours. And your kids will soon teach you what mealtime really means: While they’re at the table, you spend your time either serving them or watching to make sure they don't indulge in those creative disasters they're so good at. And once they finish, you’re still eating, and stuck in one place so they can easily find you to present requests, demands, complaints, and passionate dessert preferences.

Almost nothing in domestic life is ever truly finished. A New Jersey stay-at-home dad says that “trying to clean with two children in the house is like trying to empty a bathtub…with a sieve.” The basic rule? If your kids are awake, the house is getting dirtier by the minute. Children relentlessly seek attention, entertainment, and animal satisfaction, and this isn’t something they can control. Even my teenagers don’t get it when I finally turn off the vacuum and sardonically announce, OKAY, THE HOUSE IS NOW CLEAN--TIME TO GET IT DIRTY AGAIN. They just look up with blank stares like you see on zoo animals--that “Don’t bother me if it isn’t feeding time” expression.

And don’t kid yourself that carrying around that egg-baby for a week in your high-school health class was any real preparation. Taking care of an egg, to mix metaphors, is a piece of cake. Parenting never stops. Family life is a kind of mindless force to which you, with your selfish need for things like sleep, peace and quiet, personal space, etc., must continuously adapt. How many times, while running around madly trying to get things done, have I found myself praying to get back some of the time I wasted in my youth, like listening over and over to all 17 minutes of Iron Butterfly's “Inna-gadda-da-vida”?

I experienced a similar feeling of endlessness when, as a sixteen-year-old, I started work at a grocery store. I was a bagger (or "courtesy clerk," as management insisted on calling us). On the first day I spent eight straight hours watching groceries come down the belt, then piling them into paper sacks. Somewhere during that eternity it occurred to me that this whole process was truly unending; people would always need food, would get hungry and come back to the store over and over, groceries would keep coming down the belts, bags would be ceaselessly filled and emptied and filled again. That night, in the refuge of dream, my teenage mind thrilled as some beautiful faceless girl began taking off her bikini top. But once it slipped from her shoulders, I saw not the treasure I expected--only groceries pouring out in endless streams, apples, bread, canned fruit, cookies, cartons of milk, as if from some horrible cornucopia.

Domestic life is, unfortunately, quite similar. A parent can’t conceive of his role in terms of days, weeks, even years--he has to stretch to decades. This is the reality of family life.

And of course it gets boring. Sometimes I wonder exactly what the difference is between having small children and being under house arrest. Despite the considerable amount of work and endless attention-switching, there’s also a lot of “down time”--which can get to be “bring-you-down time.” And the world of kid culture is often less than reviving. I once took my sons to a Care Bears movie. As the story unfolded--fuzzy little bears oozing ditties and plotting cheerfully, among rainbows, clouds and unicorns, against a nasty wizard--I felt my boredom reach crushing proportions. “This,” I thought, “is Hell. It’s like Sartre’s No Exit. Hieronymous Bosch has nothing on these bears.”

You can glimpse the inherent boredom of domestic life in what my wife and I call the “Kathy at Farrraday’s” phenomenon. Long ago, in that now mythic time before we had children, we went out one night to Farraday’s, a local pizza place, with my sister and some friends. My sister introduced us to Kathy and her husband; Kathy was a housewife, with two small kids at home. This meant nothing to me at the time. But Kathy’s behavior certainly made an impression. She drank too much beer, talked too loudly, kept laughing and whooping it up--in fact, she couldn’t seem to get enough of anything. And this was at a family pizza place where the wildest possibility was plunking a quarter into the player piano. It pains me to admit that I looked down on her a little for this; I mean, you’d think she’d never gone out before!

But Allah is merciful; if justice were automatic, He would have struck me down then and there. My karma finally rolled around years later, when I became the housewife, and went out one night with some people, so delighted to be free of my duties, so thrilled with adult company, that I drank too much, talked too much, laughed too hard and too long, like a sailor on shore leave or a prisoner after a jailbreak--acting, in fact, just like Kathy at Farraday’s.

Only if you’ve known the hours of ticking clock, the half-coherent twists and turns of a pre-schooler’s conversation, the endlessness of laundry and dusting and sandwich-making, only then can you understand why parents sometimes get a little crazy out on the town.

And the nature of the child, of course, adds to the challenges. Kids really are wild animals; I don’t think Miss Manners understands them nearly as well as Charles Darwin might. Emotional instability is a natural and essential part of childhood. A good parent accepts this, but that doesn’t make everything easy. For one thing, kids tend to communicate through noise and action rather than through language. A screaming child is to life at home what Old Faithful is to Yellowstone. She wants this or that; you say no. Suddenly she becomes an air raid without planes, a rock concert without melody, an invisible jack-hammer assaulting your cochlea. When she gets a good one going you’re sometimes tempted to run out into the street. You know it’s your job to put up with this, so you go to comfort the little car-alarm, but silence has become your drug, and you crave it with a junkie’s despair. If you have more than one kid, they’ll look after each other, right? Sure, occasionally--except for those times when they all scream at once, keening like lost souls, endangering your own. Or those equally priceless moments when, as your pre-schooler is shrieking with the force of a North Atlantic gale, your teenager blithely asks, “Dad, could you make me a sandwich?”

If the two of them were mad cows, you could shoot them. But they’re kids--and you don’t shoot kids.

This, however, is only one of the things that can drive you nuts. At times this life takes almost insane twists. Yesterday, just as I’d picked up the full laundry basket AND the ten shirts on the multi-clothes hanger and started up the basement steps, the phone rang. All right, I told myself with jock-like determination, I can do this. So I rushed up the steps, balancing the basket on one hand and carrying the multi-hanger with the other, in a flurry of flying socks and underwear. But I had to pause at the top of the stairs; our refrigerator is so close to the basement door we have to lift the laundry basket over the fridge to get it out of the basement. This is usually a two-handed job, but I managed to do it with just my left. More clothes went flying, of course--and the phone rang a second time.

Still balancing the basket, I pulled the shirt-heavy multi-hanger through the tight space and quickly hung it on the refrigerator door handle. Its weight, however, pulled the door open, and with that movement the flashlight on top of the refrigerator crashed down, bouncing off the door-shelves and into the refrigerator. I can leave it there! I told myself. Surely no one would eat a flashlight!--and the phone rang a third time. I dropped the laundry basket, pushed the refrigerator door shut, and sprinted for the living room.

But when I picked up the phone--take a wild guess.

What kind of person calls a house where kids live and lets it ring only three times?! I slowly replaced the receiver and closed my eyes. The bastards!

(It was partly my own fault, I suppose—I'd so desperately wanted to hear another adult at the end of the line, be it telemarketer, survey-questioner, or phone evangelist. Hell, I would have settled for a robo-call).

An experienced parent learns that you can never predict the craziness this life will bring. You just have to roll with it. Why should I get upset when my young sons have removed every book from our five-shelf book case and piled them on the living-room floor? Why should I lose patience as Shilly-Shally belts out her forty-third identical verse of “The Song That Never Ends”? And surely I’m not the only parent in America who stands picking peppercorns out of the sliced salami for my sons’ bag lunches, dropping the foul things into the trash can where they belong. They feel no compunction whatever in saying, We hate salami with peppercorns--but we like how it tastes when they’ve been picked out...

A further problem with life at home is the way your own needs and desires are often crushed under your parenting role. Committed parents can’t avoid feeling, at times, like overworked servants. This is an intrinsically thankless job. For one thing, it takes twenty years just to find out how you did! And thanklessness goes with the territory. Children just aren’t capable of understanding parental behavior, and by the time they’re teenagers their own developmental needs tend to overwhelm any appreciation they might feel. Parents have to more or less check their personal lives at the door. I sometimes find myself mutely crying out, in an immature yet heartfelt way, But who’ll take care of me?

Our recent experience with the “evaporating week” is a good example of this.

On the morning of our anniversary, my wife and I sat at the breakfast table “talking calendar.” It was a rather pitiful discussion; money-wise and time-wise, all we could squeeze out for this august occasion was a quick dinner-date (“Anywhere but Mac’s!” my wife pleaded). What we really needed, of course, was a weekend’s worth of the various blisses available in any decent Montreal hotel, just an hour north of us. But that was okay; the whole situation, in fact, struck us as funny, and we laughed. (Of course we still had all the Saturday house-cleaning to do, which wasn’t quite as humorous).

So how did we manage to be so accepting, so unselfish, when we hadn’t been on a date together since Grandma Moses danced disco? Parental altruism, you ask? No. It was partly because we had no choice, and partly because we had a much-better-than-average week planned.

But then we started talking details.

My older son had agreed days earlier to babysit Tuesday night so I could go hear the Pulitzer-Prize-winning feminist journalist speak at the university (my wife had to work; ironic, eh?). But a time-check revealed the talk didn’t start till 8:00 p.m. I’m Shilly-Shally’s bedtime guy; she simply won’t sleep till she’s gotten two picture books, a story, and usually a lullaby out of me. If I don’t get back till ten, she’ll be up till at least eleven, and we’ll all pay for that the next day, her most of all. Besides, I’m not comfortable with the irony of supporting feminism by disrupting my little girl’s life that way.

But that was okay--my wife and I had planned to catch a jazz concert on Wednesday night, and our younger son, mirabile dictu, volunteered to babysit. But then we find out it’s a 7:30 start (normal enough for everyone in the world except the parents of small children with sleeping problems). And I just remembered I have to give a talk to an out-of-town group on Thursday night, which Shilly-Shally will have to deal with. Two late nights in a row, and their inevitable fallout, just aren’t worth it.

“Hey,” I say to my disappointed wife, “maybe the boys could go to the lecture and the jazz concert.”

“Uh, Dad?” the younger says, with a charming smile (quite aware of the brownie points he’d earned by offering to babysit). “I’m broke. Could you guys...pay for my tickets?”

In less than five minutes, a week we’d looked forward to for some serious adult fun simply...evaporated. There’s no other word for it.

But then that’s pretty much the way it is, once that plastic stick in the home pregnancy test turns blue. Parenthood is by definition an exercise in selflessness. But even parents are only human, so it also becomes a difficult kind of balancing act. Marguerite Kelly and Elia Parson’s wise words about mothers can be applied equally to committed fathers:

“Motherhood brings as much joy as ever, but it still rings boredom, exhaustion, and sorrow too. Nothing else ever will make you as happy or as sad, as proud or as tired, for nothing is quite as hard as helping a person develop his own individuality--especially while you struggle to keep your own.”

Another of the hard realities of domestic life will probably surprise some men: Being with kids is a surprisingly complex undertaking. Despite a lot of ignorance on this point, the job actually requires great skill, and experience can make a huge difference.

I learned this the hard way. When LeBron flies toward the hoop, he makes it look easy; Jimi Hendrix would fling off those amazing guitar riffs with a fluid power that seemed simple. In the same way, what looks uncomplicated in domestic life is usually the grace of the experienced professional.

I love this caption from a picture, in Baby Talk Magazine, of a father feeding an infant : “Feet and hands in motion, Maggie eagerly downs her cereal. She’s a neat eater unless she can get her hands on the bowl. Then it’s all over.” You want the bowl as close to the mouth as possible, for obvious reasons, but that of course puts it in the danger zone. If you fail, guess what? Wipe down the highchair, mop up the floor, launder the clothes, and bathe the kid. And keep in mind—they eat more than once a day! Talk about pressure; it’s worse than a potentially game-winning free throw. Another section in the same article features a mother’s struggles to get her two daughters to nap at the same time; the difficulty of this task is matched only by its intense desirability from a parent’s point of view. Think about it: Just how do you get such a thing to happen? It’s possible, I suppose--but you need at least the patience and skill of a bonsai gardener to ever win any success.

Some examples will underscore the point. The following chart is my attempt to bring some order to Shilly-Shally’s drinking cups. (Encyclopedic knowledge like this has always been tucked away in the already overcrowded brains of hard-working mothers). And remember, there’s more than a little at stake here. Kids love routine; they crave it, demand it, go crazy without it. Offer your charge the wrong cup at the wrong time and you’ll hear about it. And if you’re callous enough to insist that “it doesn’t really matter,” your monkey may freak on you.

What—don’t tell me you thought one cup was enough!

Cup Name
Preferred Liquid
Place of Use
Straw Use

sippy cup

apple juice, water

universal

can’t

“fishie” cup

apple juice, milk

bedtime snack always causes spills

occasionally dinner so sometimes

“walking cup”

apple juice

outdoors

sometimes. Alice in banana milk bedtime snack never

Wonderland cup, tea-set cups

apple juice

tea parties

the very idea!

ordinary cup

whatever

I’m anywhere, anytime

Oh no! That would drinking, which prevent her from

she will then want back-washing

And note well: Straws are a very big deal. At last count, Shilly-Shally had the following types: regular, bendy elbow, dolphin, turtle, and four kinds of crazy (a phrase which, coincidentally, describes Shilly-Shally herself). And her straw preferences can be as intense and whimsical as those for cups.

But this is nothing compared to footwear.

Raising kids is a kind of perpetual war, with battles breaking out suddenly after long periods of boredom and slogging work. But the World War III of dealing with pre-schoolers is footwear. Yesterday, for example, I gently suggested that Shilly-Shally wear her tennis shoes to school. But she insisted that her hiking boots “look Indian” and match her Pocahontas dress. The fact that the boots no longer fit was irrelevant--that is, until she couldn’t get them on and started to cry and it was suddenly all my fault.

And yet there’s one thing worse than these almost daily battles--and that’s your usually doomed attempts to actually buy new footwear. If I had my way, we’d all have our kids’ feet sprayed up to the ankles with some kind of heavy porous polyurethane--hand-washable, teflon-coated, and grip-soled--that could be re-sprayed on a yearly basis.

But there’s really no way around the hell of buying shoes for kids; it’s just something you have to do.

The situation: Shilly-Shally in a shoe crisis. Her tennis shoes are too short; she screams. Her sandals are too tight; she screams. Her “aqua-socks” are not only losing their inner pad (the only thing that keeps them from actually being socks) but have begun to smell like dead things on the beach. We won’t let her wear them; she screams. She’s worn her black dress shoes twice; now they pinch her feet. She screams. We kiss that forty bucks goodbye, suppress screams.

So we go out to buy new shoes. But don’t let the simplicity of that statement fool you.

Walking into the store, we’re met with a vision of footwear paradise. There are rows and rows and rows of shoes for kids. Our hearts brighten; surely we can find something in this Store of Wonders!

But once each of the interested parties has asserted its own demands, the actual number of possible purchases shrinks dramatically--the interested parties being, of course, myself, my wife, and Shilly-Shally.

You might think Shilly-Shally is underrepresented in this process, or at least out-gunned by parental authority. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have the authority, but she has the lungs. And we’re in public. Although we’re the ones who usually initiate legislation, Shilly-Shally exercises her ear-splitting veto quite freely. It constitutes a kind of final vote.

My wife is, naturally, the Prime Mover. But her ideas about what to buy are fairly complex. She knows we need something that (a) fits, and (b) Shilly-Shally’s little magpie-heart will love enough to actually wear. But my wife entertains other notions too, dangerous ones, to my mind, about style, matching color, season-appropriateness, and the like. This complicates things enormously. When our daughter’s godparents sent her a tri-colored sweatsuit with matching troll-doll barrette, for example, we had to find sandals to “go with” the new outfit. The pair my wife decided on fairly bristled with straps and buckles; they looked like little strait jackets. I cringed to imagine the tearful, scream-punctuated scenes each morning as I struggled to get Shilly-Shally into these sandals-from-hell and then buckle all those tiny buckles with my thick dumb male fingers. But my wife insisted, and she had an incontestable principle on her side: The sandals matched the outfit. There’s a federal law about it somewhere. How could I possibly object?

You may have already surmised my only request when it comes to children’s footwear: Velcro. I feel nothing but pity for parents who lived before its invention; they were ignorant savages, and they suffered for it. Mt. Rushmore should have five heads: those four political guys and the NASA hero who invented this miraculous material.

My wife’s reaction to this enthusiasm for Velcro is very interesting; in fact, she’s downright ambivalent, though she hates to admit that. On one hand she’ll dismiss the whole topic as one more example of male laziness. And she has a point. If left to themselves, many men would live without the “finer things”: no pictures on the wall, no curtains at the window, no flower beds, no holiday celebrations. My wife has helped me see how sad this actually is, and how, as I've already mentioned, parents must continually enrich family life with rituals, celebrations, niceties, all the special touches. I agree with her, though of course I can only take it so far. To her, my insistence on velcro is akin to my affection for old torn sweaters or a steady diet of hamburgers and tater tots. From a certain female point of view, men are pretty much like dogs.

I’ve come to understand and appreciate her perspective on this, and I’m grateful to her for teaching me. So I try to apply the general principle in my fathering. But buying shoes for a pre-schooler is, by definition, a crisis. So I go with Velcro every chance I get--and watch with amused detachment how my wife sometimes waffles on her principles as the pressure at the shoe store builds.

Standing there in the aisles, we’re hoping to get our kid a sensible, long-lasting, convenient pair of shoes with a decent fit. (We also dream of world peace and an end to the budget deficit). Our daughter, though, takes one sweeping look, immediately fixes on the Princess Jasmine sandals, then grabs them and won’t let go.

You people at Disney--what the hell's the matter with you?! Did you have to design these cheap plastic sandals, encrust them with rhinestones, and then slap HER picture on the side?! It’s like a box of chocolates in the middle of a broccoli farm. Every little female in North America was currently going weak in the knees over that cartoon Madonna, parents standing pitifully behind, wringing their hands. And the sandals themselves! Somewhere under all that glitter is a pair of truly crappy shoes. They pinch, they don’t stretch, the plastic rubs--have mercy on us! Do we have to start blindfolding our kids in the shoe aisle like we do in the cereal aisle at Safeway? We go to your movies, buy your videos, your t-shirts, pajamas, what not; couldn’t you give us a break on the plastic sandals?

It takes ten minutes to talk Shilly-Shally out of the sandals--and we have to muster all the pre-school reasoning we’re capable of. But those ten minutes take their toll. Shilly-Shally’s emotional resilience, never that strong to begin with, is wavering. She looks like she’s about to use her veto...!

But suddenly my wife spies a pair of white loafer-type sneakers. No snaps, buckles, laces, buttons, or deadbolts. The slip-on kind! Can it really be true? Yes! They fit! And the kid wants them!

We take them home--she still loves them! That is, for twenty-four hours. The next day she decides they don’t fit and she hates them. She screams. And we have to face facts: If a kid doesn’t like the shoes she won’t wear them. So we drag ourselves back to the mall (stopping on the way to buy rum and coke for the aftermath). “I’ve learned my lesson,” my wife declares. “We just can’t buy cheap shoes. That’s why they don’t fit.” (Forgive us, oh mighty American Economy, for our reluctance to drop $40 or $50 on a pair of shoes this weed will grow out of in two months).

At the pricier store we find a pair of sandals. Velcro straps--I’m satisfied. Big black bulky things like the kind Mexican farmers wear--but my wife is now well past aesthetics. We start in on the big sell. “Oh, honey--what beautiful shoes! They look cool!” (a word our daughter’s recently begun using, though God only knows how she defines it). “I bet you could run like the wind in those! Hey! They’re the same kind Alex has” (the little boy next door). “He got them last week, remember?! And they’ll match all your dresses...” (Black goes with everything, right?).

Looking tentative, Shilly-Shally stands in the sandals, peers in the little foot-mirror, then, saints be praised, begins to jump kangaroo-style.

“How much are they?” I whisper anxiously to my wife.

“I don’t care if it’s seventy bucks!” she hisses.

When we get home the three of us rush in, all excited to tell the brothers. Then of course we invite in the neighbors, slaughter the fatted calf, set out food and drink, hire musicians. The war is over.

So I decide not to say anything when I notice how the soles of Alex’s sandals--the little boy next door, remember?--are beginning to flap apart and obviously won’t last the month.

There’s plenty to get you down in life with kids; it would be naively dangerous to think otherwise. I wish I could say I’ve never lost my temper, wallowed in self-pity, snapped at people, etc. I’ve done all this and more, have acted just as childishly as my child does. You probably will too, if you haven’t already. We all fail as parents from time to time. And what we hate most about such failures, I think, is simply having to face the fact that we’re capable of such things. But that, as Stuart Smalley says, is all right.

In fact, it’s more than all right; such lapses are an essential and natural part of the overall process. They remind our kids that we’re just as human as they are, that no one is free from error, that adults too have limits. And children, whose lives are shaped by adult power, very much need to be reminded of such things. Besides, our mistakes with our kids, if they’re not truly damaging, help us to maintain our compassion and empathy for the struggles of childhood, inspiring us, through a certain amount of shame, to do better. And we do.

All the problems I’ve mentioned so far can in fact be overcome by hard work, loving patience, a willingness to learn, and an active sense of humor.

Not everything, though, can be attacked so frontally.

The hardest thing of all, at least for us, is what my wife and I refer to as “the siren call”--which at times has seemed almost capable of destroying us.

An adult home with kids can get to feeling very strange, almost unnatural (which is odd when you consider how profoundly natural parenting is, with all the force of evolution behind it). But there are times, as I’ve said, when your house feels like a prison. You get lonely; your brain begins to go soft; you feel so out of it! The neighborhood streets are empty except for occasional children, very old people, cats and squirrels. Sometimes it's as if you’ve been marooned. From time to time I’ll glance out the living-room windows and happen to see some adult walking down the street--and suddenly feel strong unbidden emotions rushing through me. I should be out there, an inner voice says, out in the world. That should be me.

For a moment then I can’t shake off the passions I usually manage to keep quiet: pride, ambition, my love of physical activity, my career, even the echoes of my male upbringing with its emphasis on action, reward, and respect--and I look at myself and my life with something like disgust. What am I doing here? I wail silently to myself; I’ve turned into a goddamn housekeeper !

But even this isn’t the truly difficult moment. For one thing, I recognize such outbursts for exactly what they are: frustration, selfishness, impatience, all the shallower emotions growing restless beneath the primacy of love, which rightly holds sway over them. As quick and hot as such feelings burn, they pass away--because I know what my presence in this house means to my children, to laying the foundations of their lives. But my sudden vehement protest leads me, sooner or later, to the other moment, the truly difficult one--difficult because it’s not mere indignation but a profound call, a power trying to seduce me not with weak and childish selfishness but with the deeper reality of myself and the world.

Just as the sirens called Odysseus when his ship sailed past their rocky islet, the world itself suddenly sings to me with overpowering sweetness, right in my ear, as if a divine temptress standing next to me. I’m bending over the wash machine in our little basement, lifting soggy laundry out, when I suddenly picture Mt. Kilimanjaro above the savannah, clouds sweeping from its dark summit, just as we saw it that long-ago afternoon--and then see stilt houses over shining mud at twilight, a fishing village on the South China Sea--and then Paris, the Pont Neuf and the Orangerie--all places I’ve been, in a life we had to give up, at least for a time. Then I imagine myself with a real office of my own (we don’t have the room just now), with hours and hours before me for the thrilling labor of writing or music, the life of art I crave--and then with even greater suddenness the Call itself comes, searing through me like a summons from some Rilkean angel. For a moment I feel an indescribable pang. To be stuck here like a janitor or cleaning woman, in this basement with its half-dirt floor, in this little house, this little town, day after day, when I should be out in the world living my life to its uttermost!...

I hang my head for a moment. Then I notice water from the wet clothes dripping onto my tennis shoes. So I push the sodden load into the dryer, take a deep breath, feel my heart begin to slow.

Not yet, I whisper to myself. Not yet. Love is more important.

©2013, Tim Meyers

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