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Men at Home: Action and Inaction


“The extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever fresh vigor. The whole show has been on fire since the word go!” -- Annie Dillard

“There is a mystical rite under the material act of cleaning and tidying, for what is done with love is always more than itself and partakes of the celestial orders.” --May Sarton

This evening after dinner, Shilly-Shally and I have come to play at a pocket-park a few miles from our house, a small cluster of trees and playground equipment tucked next to a Little League field. Shilly-Shally loves it. Going to the park is, for her, what rum is for me; each brings an automatic fiery response we’re quite fond of. After monkeying over the balance beam and wooden playscape, my darling acrobat runs up to me with her predictable breathless request: Swing me, Daddy!

So I begin to push, feeling the weight of her little body against my palms as the backward swoops return her to me again and again, listening to her singsong commentary and squeals of delight. But it’s been another chore-heavy/ stimulus-light kind of day, and the repetition of swinging makes me even more bored and tired than I already am. I love to play with my kids, but I’m a grown-up--I have limits. Sometimes the dragging uneventfulness of this life gets me down.

Next to us, swinging one of her kids and watching the other play in the dust, is a woman I can only describe as the Absolute Mother. Most of us know this kind of person. Soft-spoken, endlessly patient, constantly solicitous, smiling without fail, she never raises her voice. She’s the kind of woman you always see bending over to help her kids, or someone else’s, in an almost peasant posture, one that reveals what seems to be her basic orientation to life. And you can see in her face how she takes every step with them, watches every move, shares utterly in every small triumph and defeat. This is a mother who never spanks a child, but not so much because she thinks it’s wrong as because she couldn’t bear to do it.

After finally tiring of the swings, Shilly-Shally manages to scratch her leg while climbing the slide, then punctuates the quiet twilight with unholy shrieks. The Absolute Mother hurries over, anxiety in her eyes, looks at me with the deepest, most kind-hearted concern and asks, “Is she okay?”

This is not a slyly over-bearing woman, as can sometimes be the case. Shilly-Shally suddenly realizes she isn’t dying, snaps her mouth shut in mid-cry, and runs for the monkey bars--and the relieved smile the Mother gives me is every bit as beatific as it seems. She’s not trying to one-up me, or show off her dedication to parenting; she’s not trying to teach a male how it’s done; she’s not even trying to strike up an adult conversation, the way bored parents at playgrounds often do.

As the two of us stand there watching our kids, a group of young adults has gathered in the parking lot. These are people in their twenties. They drove here in convertible jeeps or small cars with rock-band stickers on the back windows. Now they’re all putting on roller-blades, joking with each other and skating around to warm up.

I’m more than envious--I’m dying. Lack of time and money has prevented me from learning to roller-blade (among many other things), which I know will be ecstasy. So of course I have to witness this, stand here feeling bleary and overweight, tantalized by this free-wheeling group whose independence is so complete they hardly see it themselves. They move through life with a fluidity of schedule and an ease of responsibility I haven’t known for decades, can give themselves fully to school or job and still have plenty of time for serious recreation and socializing. Desire for that kind of freedom—especially the freedom to do my chosen work in life—never leaves me, seems always boiling just under my skin. After a while they take off as a group, gathering speed on the neighborhood street like a pack of wolves starting a thirty-mile run.

It comes to me then that this is where I am in life: somewhere between the Young Wolves and the Absolute Mother. The Young Wolves answer to themselves, are out doing things, satisfying their own desires; the Absolute Mother leads a restricted life, her central dedication to domestic harmony taking the place of adult work or play.

And I want both, which puts me smack in the middle, suspended over my own life. Which, for most guys, is, yes—a big deal.

The Mother’s little boy is now swinging again; so is my mercurial Shilly-Shally. I’m back to push pause push pause push pause push. “Look, Daddy!” my girl suddenly calls from the height of her arc above me. “A great blue heron!” I lift my head just in time to see the heron gliding on its strong wings over the houses across the street. A pang of envy cuts through me—where I should behold beauty and be grateful for it, I can only rue an elusive freedom. Then I see my daughter smiling with contagious delight as she swoops toward me and away. “Isn’t this perfect weather?” the Absolute Mother murmurs.

I’m right in the middle. And right in the middle, it seems, is where a lot of parents are today, women as well as men. Society often seems to give adults with children two choices: Either give yourself completely to parenting and drop out of the world of action and career, or pursue a career and hardly parent at all. These two choices have nothing inherently to do with being female or male, of course, but for a number of reasons they tend to split along those lines.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that the Absolute Mother is a typical female. She is, instead, a particular kind of person, most of whom, at this point in time, may happen to be women. And there’s plenty about her parenting style that should be praised to the skies. She weaves a sweet cocoon of love and tenderness, and, perhaps, servitude, around her children. She’s deeply good, and loving, and empathetic, and she gives unselfishly, continuously. Her version of parental love should be a model for all of us, particularly in a culture that hasn’t always, it seems to me, made the full commitment to its children that it should.

But what happens to her when her kids are grown and gone? Will she be left empty too? Those who live the other life, the life of action, develop themselves as they do so, become independent and self-sustaining. Is she doing that, or has she let her self be eaten up by this role? Will there be anything left when the role comes to an end?

I’m only glimpsing a fraction of this woman’s life, and I could be dead wrong about her. She may be a soft-spoken welder taking the kids out after work, or a concert pianist postponing her career, or a hard-driving executive who knows how to shift gears for her family. But I don’t think so. She seems to have given up the life of action and self-fulfillment for the sake of her children, or to have found all her natural inclinations satisfied by life at home.

And this, of course, is exactly the ideal we’ve imposed on generations of women in our culture, raising its image over our heads, praising it and praying to it, “M is for the many things she gave me...”, etc. I still remember the painting of the Virgin Mary that hung in our house when I was a boy; she wore exactly that same expression of unquestioning devotion to others, and, looking down in rapture, to the Child on her lap. The Absolute Mother here at the park may not be as saintly as she seems, but I sense that such devotion comes very naturally to her. And what she has to give is precious; I remember as a child how my whole self warmed to that tender, utterly loving gaze from the Mother of God on our living-room wall.

The roller-bladers, of course, embody the other extreme, and I deeply value that way of living too. The totally active adult, the do-er and shaker, the person out there eating up the world whether at work or play--this excites me, won’t leave me alone. Of course there are millions of women who feel exactly the same about this, and as human culture slowly swings toward true equality of the genders there’ll be even more. I’m married to one of those “other” women, a person of such dynamic energy and passionate skills that she works a sixty-hour week, is the finest mother I’ve ever known, stays in impeccable physical condition, and would, if you asked her, be ready to leave for Paris in fifteen minutes. And I’ve never in my life met a woman more feminine than my wife.

She and I react to Annie Dillard’s words, quoted at the opening of this chapter, as if they were scripture. Dillard’s fiery sentences remind us that the universe is above all a place of Action, that creation continues, life is constantly amazing, constantly moving forward--and my wife and I long for as much of this action and experience as our own lives will allow. And yet, raising children, for all its “activity” and hard work, is often the opposite of the active life we seek. Because of the nature of family, it’s more often, in contrast to the pop song, what you didn’t do for love.

One night last week we snuck off to see a movie, a welcome break and a long-overdue chance to be together. But by the time we left the theater we both felt frustrated and defeated. Why? For one thing, the movie was set in Kenya; we watched the landscapes with breathless awe and deep yearning. We’ve been to Kenya, and we want to go back; we can’t accept the notion that the active life we knew as younger adults is gone forever. It was painful to see those green hills and yellow-grass savannas only on celluloid, when we can still remember, as if in our own bodies, the smells, the heat, the overwhelming beauty of elephants, lions, giraffes, the white sun, the scatterings of dry acacias.

And as if that wasn’t enough, we happened to see the name of one of my wife’s high-school boyfriends in the credits, a guy who’s having great success creating special effects for films and TV. The contrast between his active, artistic life and our workaday, domestic one was tough to take. We felt sluggish and stuck, as if helplessly watching the world go by.

So women can feel it just as keenly as men do. At this moment in history, though, the orientation to action seems more generally characteristic of men. There are plenty of lazy or unambitious men, of course, and the only “career” some guys have is putting up with the dead-end job they let themselves stay stuck in. But since the male in our culture is expected to be active, physical, and adventurous, men often pursue the active role (and are often selfish about it). This reality, of course, can certainly complicate their dedication to parenting.

A lot of guys are ambivalent about being fathers, it seems, precisely because they don’t think they can handle the inactivity and house-bound nature of the job--and because they haven’t been taught all along that they should be able to.

In fact, men have often been told the opposite, and this has taken, I think, some pretty ugly forms. “Curiosity,” a poem by Alastair Reid, contrasts the vital curiosity of “cats” with the stodgy predictability of “dogs,” praising the cats’ restless yearning to know and experience. But this is presented as applying only to males, as the following lines reveal:

Dogs say cats love too much, are irresponsible,
are changeable, marry too many wives,
desert their children, chill all dinner tables
with tales of their nine lives.
Well, they are lucky. Let them be
nine-lived and contradictory...
A cat minority of one
is all that can be counted on
to tell the truth...

Is this the “truth” an active, curious, passionate male should learn--that it’s fine for him to abandon wife and children in the pursuit of adventure and self-fulfillment, including the sexual?

Even men who understand family loyalty, though, are sometimes reluctant to become domestic, fearful they’ll have to choose between being committed fathers and being themselves. But this just isn’t true! If parenting required me to be anything like the Absolute Mother, I’d have hit the road long ago. It makes its demands, of course, but it doesn’t require that.

Imagining the roller-bladers off swarming down the streets somewhere, I remind myself where life is taking these free and active world-eaters. In the excited smiles some of the young men and women were exchanging, I saw my own young-adult years and remembered how my ferocious desire to live and experience things also expressed itself, predictably, in sexual-romantic desire. In time it led me to the woman I’m spending my life with, then led the two of us to having children.

Although lots of movies and TV shows build a great false wall between romance and pregnancy, the two are inexorably linked in human desire. For most of us, the passion for experience and the passion for children, though they may seem diametrically opposed, are just different forms of the same thing. The life of action and the quiet, patient life of parenting are actually the same force in different phases, at different seasons.

So it doesn’t really make sense to split adults between the two extremes. This has already happened, to some extent, for women; I’ve witnessed firsthand the largely unspoken tension that sometimes exists, for example, between “career women” and “housewives.” And now, with so many women leading lives of action, we’ve created an army of nannies, baby-sitters, and day-care workers as substitutes for what all women were once expected to be. I don’t mean to imply that this is automatically unhealthy; many people need that kind of support, and many are happy to provide it. But specialization can easily turn into over-specialization, our lives can become fragmented and compartmentalized, and we can lose touch with the roots of who we are--and this is bad for us. All of us.

Human beings, most would agree, are meant to live broad and varied lives, to take care of the basics even as they reach for higher achievement and excitement. But this goes both ways. We can learn as much about ourselves among dirty pots and pans as we can in factories or boardrooms or lecture halls, or on hiking trails or kayak runs. For all its drudgery, domestic life keeps us grounded and balanced. Adults with children, it seems to me, should take care of those children themselves, even while they pursue careers and personal fulfillment, at least as much as possible.

The last thing we need is for our most active and ambitious adults to opt out of real parenting. Then we have to leave some of our kids to those care-givers whose love and devotion and hard work are preciously important, but who can’t always model for children what it means to lead a fruitful homelife and still be energetically engaged in the wider world.

Achieving this balance, of course, is difficult. And it’s a hell of a lot of work. But for most of us it’s the only healthy option; most people don’t really want to be Absolute Mothers or lonely single adrenalin-junkies living for action--or workaholics consumed by career. The main point, guys, to repeat: You don’t have to be one or the other. You can be both.

But first you have to believe it’s possible to be both, and value that possibility, or it won’t happen—since it’s not going to be any walk in the park. (Figuratively, I mean; you’ll be at the park plenty).

And if men in general became truly committed fathers, their unique approach to parenting would help unsettle some of the old notions, lending precious energy and impatience to the whole mix. I love my children, and I’ll give up a lot in order to care for them, and for however long it takes. But I can’t stop chomping at the bit, and that imperious desire is helping me work out the balance in my life, both for my family and myself. I’m inventing my own tricks of the trade, and some of them are great, if I do say so myself.

Still pushing Shilly-Shally as the sun begins to set, I find myself remembering a book I once read. It featured a prominent writer’s arduous search for the snow leopard of the Himalayas, an elusive creature who also became symbolic of the writer’s search for himself and for spiritual fulfillment. I read these chapters with the deepest interest and excitement; his treks through the mountains, his contacts with Tibetan Buddhist monks, his experiences with local people--all this was breathless adventure, the kind that made my mouth water. But he also wrote--with admirable honesty, I must say--about leaving his young son behind in the States so he could make this journey of many months, and about the pain this brought to his child.

The whole thing has haunted me ever since. Such separations for professional reasons aren’t automatically traumatic for a child, but this one seemed to be. Why, I cried out silently again and again, why would you leave your son in order to find yourself? Can’t you see that your child’s desperate need for you is part of who you are? That your relationship with him is who you are? That what the two of you are together is part of your essential self, your deep spiritual being? Why go to the Himalayas when the first place to look is into that boy’s eyes?

Besides, being a parent doesn’t mean giving up the life of action--just postponing it. The Himalayas aren’t going anywhere; they’ll still be there when your son’s old enough to look after himself. But that’s not true of his childhood.

The writer never saw a snow leopard. I can’t help but admire the love of action that drove him to look, and the titanic effort he put into his search. And I know that my own envy sharpened my criticism of him, since I’m often impatient with my fathering role these days, and have to remind myself forcefully why I’ve postponed my own career for my kids. But I still think his search was backwards.

Darkness has begun to gather under the close-standing trees of the park. It’s time to take Shilly-Shally home. She throws the obligatory fit, of course, swears she could stay forever in this pleasant little chain-link cage. I work her through it. The Absolute Mother, kneeling before a child as she ties his shoe, smiles sweetly up at us, says goodbye, maybe they’ll see us here again. I drive home very slowly. With Shilly-Shally’s mom at work till nine or ten tonight, I’ve had a little too much one-on-one with this angel of mine (and not nearly enough with the other). I’m fatigued, but not with the good fatigue of strenuous effort; this is the grogginess of standing around, counting the hours.

I give Shilly-Shally a bath, a snack, read her some picture books, tell her a story, tuck her in. As we lie there together, me on the floor with a couple of old pillows under my head, she suddenly asks, “Daddy, you’re not mad at me, are you?”

I look up. She’s leaning over the side of her bed, peering down into my eyes with that heart-wrenching expression of sadness and fear--and this is my reminder that I’ve momentarily lost sight of what I mean to her, of why I take care of her, of how important every minute I spend with her really is--a reminder that I’ve temporarily lost track of myself.

It’s not that I’ve done anything wrong. I don’t expect myself to be a perfect parent. And fatigue, after all, is fatigue. But being a parent will always mean giving some things up, paying a certain price. And in life we get what we pay for. (They know about that in Tibet—they call it karma).

Besides, what’s the alternative--letting my child languish and wither while I’m off chasing my dreams? Or teaching her a daily and heart-chilling unease as I stew or fantasize about my own postponed adventures?

I’ve learned as a father that fatigue doesn’t so much lead me to regret--as to forgetfulness. On a long day like today, I often lose sight of my deeper realities. So what have I forgotten this time? It comes to me as I look into my daughter’s beautiful blue eyes: that right here before me is one of the extravagant gestures of creation Annie Dillard speaks of--that this little girl in fish pajamas clutching a stuffed armadillo is a complex and astounding creature--is, in fact, one of the intricate bedazzlements of the universe.

So I shake myself, put all the crap behind me, smile at her from the bottom of my heart. It’s time to be Dad. I sit up. And as I give our family’s standard reply to her question, her face lights up with relief and shining happiness:

“I’m not mad at you,” I say, “--but I’m mad about you!...”

©2012, Tim Myers from Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood

Tim Myers is a writer, songwriter, storyteller and university lecturer. He won a poetry contest judged by John Updike and and has published much other poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. His Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood is out from Familius.com He's also published 11 children's books. Find him at www.TimMyersStorySong.com
 



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