It’s no secret that when it comes to domestic aptitude, men, and especially dads, are stubbornly portrayed as absolute incompetents, blunt objects and buffoons even. Collectively lacking even a shard of around-the-house competence, we menfolk are thought to be inept at everything from cooking, washing-cloths and ironing, to dressing ourselves or even devotedly attending to the needs of our own children. Images abound on the TV and the big screen of husbands and fathers burning, shrinking, breaking, misinforming and ultimately not correctly executing the most basic of household or childrearing tasks.
Yes it’s true; women generally do perform much of the heavy lifting where kids and the home are concerned. And sure, sometimes we fellas do under achieve where building, fixing and hanging are required (just exactly how many trips to Home Depot do you expect us to make on our “day off”?). Agreed, sometimes we do forget to separate the colors from the whites (on this we hardly care, one large load is more efficient than two small ones, besides, no one sees the resulting tighty-pinkie underwear anyway.). Fair enough, we have been known to sporadically forget to pick-up the kidos from school or the bus-stop (We’ve repeatedly asked you to write notes where schedule changes are concerned.).
Still, these minor shortcomings do not rise to the level of chronic male-pattern ineptness so often thought to exist in the caves of millions of men across the country. Nor does our acknowledgment of these petty, practically endearing slipups, lessen the contributions we dads and husbands make, on a daily basis, in our own abodes. No, we provide much more value than society gives us credit.
Case in point: Recently my wife was duty-bound to take leave of her post as CHH (Chief Head of Household) and bottle washer for seven days (and nights) to attend to some urgent family business out of town, way out of town, leaving me in charge of all things domestic and little girl. This is not a problem I thought, I’m a modern man. I can do this. “Go” I say. “I’ve got this covered.”
There was no shortage of offers to help. Once friends learned we’d be down a (wo)man for an entire week, offers of assistance, especially help with our daughters, sprang forth like Pumpkin Spice Lattes on an October morning. Excellent offers all, coming from mom-like surrogates, and worth consideration indeed, however, I felt I owed it to all my fellow dads-in-arms to ask not for help, but to instead redeem our collectively battered images. “I can do this on my own.” I say. “I’ve got this covered.”
All in all a fine week—no major problems. Lunches were packed, homework was completed, doctors’ appointments were kept, cloths were washed, meals were cooked, and dishes were washed. Was there crying? Yes—mostly theirs. Though there’s always crying. They’re girls and crying is their job, no fascination. However, the house didn’t burn down nor was anyone hospitalized. Nothing broken and the police were never summoned. That said, they nearly drove me around the bend with all their bickering—though this is nothing new either.
Although the requests to call and Skype their mother came sooner than expected—minutes rather than days after her departure. “You can’t call Mom because she’s still on the airplane.” I say. “I’ll help you find some shoes to go with that outfit.” Continuing, I offered even more unwanted assistance, “Also, I know how to braid hair too!”
Looking on skeptically, both girls periodically glared at each other in a kind of shared misery during my assertions of vast hair braiding experience. “Seriously” I say, “I really do know how to braid!” So too did they appear annoyed all through my pitch about having possessed a rich history of matching shoes with outfits—you just can’t look this hip by accident I tell them. To which they responded with matching eye rolls—these kids today are so irreverent.
Sorry to say, husbands and fathers alike have variously been accused of enjoying little creditability in these most important of female disciplines, clothes and hair, and thus are often treated with an indifference usually reserved for, well, morons.
Reflecting back, all that together time with my daughters was nice, but it made me realize several things: a.) My ten year old asks way too many bizarre questions starting with the same four words “What would happen if” b.) The job of stay-at-home mom is a study in perpetual motion—they’re no breaks, it’s exhausting, and there are no days off, apparently. c.) My regular job is not so bad after all. At least I have days off. That is, when I’m not building, fixing or hanging in the cave. d.) For all they do, we owe our wives a colossal serving of gratitude.
That most important of educational institutions has once again opened its doors to throngs of euphoric parents and eager young children for what will no doubt be another exciting year of scholarship and discovery.
Yes, it’s that time of year again—when parents young and old, some still wearing pajamas, many with cups of coffee still in hand, dash off to bus stops far and wide with children in tow, for what has become a back-to-school tradition of back-slapping, high-fiving and broad celebration. Not since the advent of fire or indoor plumbing have you seen full grown men and women so delighted. After all, it’s been a long remorseless summer, the kidos are bored and the parents are ever weary of summertime play-dates, daily swimming pool excursions, and senseless sibling bickering.
Yes, the air is thick with excitement and jubilation as gleeful caregivers eagerly await that big beautiful yellow vessel of freedom, whereupon they’ll thrust, plunk, goose or shove, as necessary, their precious children onto it—we stopped driving our kids to school to reduce our ever expanding carbon footprint...you’re welcome, just doing our part—for another season of kido edification and routine, seven-hour, child rearing sabbaticals. Indeed, after 84 days in the muddy trenches of camp tadpole, the beginning of school is a welcomed acquittal.
Yes, on this first day of school, the air seems fresher, the sky seems bluer, the flowers seem brighter, and the burden seems diminished. Smiles emerge abundant on the faces of parents who wave at anyone, giggle at everything, and who skip a skip only parents know how on this, the first day of school…life is good.
Regrettably, however, the typical school day endures as the speediest seven hours of parent’s life. From the moment the bus drives off, the clock ticks at double speed. All previously established concepts of time and space are off beam in what can only be described as a free-time acceleration continuum.
One cup of coffee, a hasty cleaning of the kitchen, a quick workout and…BAM—it’s lunch. Wait what? Only three hours till they get home? Better hurry. Quick, run that errand, make that short but important phone call…BAM, guess what, they’re baaaaack. Already? No sooner are those kidos put on the bus then—sigh—they’re getting off, home again, making demands, competing for attention, fighting with one another, fully arresting virtually all rational conversation and any mom-dad starry-eyed considerations—abruptly. The peace and tranquility is over.
Cue the brouhaha and hand wringing: the stillness has ended, the serenity you’ve delighted in since you hugged, kissed and victoriously elbowed them onto that school bus seven hours earlier has vanished—luckily though, they’ve saved their pent-up angst just for you. All their exhaustion, hunger and a full days’ worth of frustration are all coming home with them to detonate right before your eyes, right in your kitchen. Ah yes, the joy of rearing is magnificent to be sure.
This potentially explosive situation requires a delicate touch, one best handled after having made suitable preparations. By the time the tawpies surge off the school bus, and out of an abundance of caution, it’s helpful to have already begun to fortify your positions, to protect your rear flank. To achieve this you must first establish a comfortable measure of equanimity and endurance, that is, pour thyself a glass of something—for me, it’s a Manhattan, served up and with a cherry that best achieves this most important of battlefield readiness.
Second, do prepare a fine snack for the ravenous youngsters. Healthy fruit, vegetables or peanut butter you say? No, No, nothing sensible, just sugar—thereby avoiding the inevitable (and exhausting) back and forth about the need for healthy eating and a balanced diet, they don’t get it anyway, plus you’ll never get back the effort you expend fighting that fight.
We begin with popsicles and lollipops, move on to candy bars, and from there, on the bad days, simply hand them cereal bowls filled with raw sugar. This seems to satisfy their insatiable desire for all things processed and sweet.
Finally, after gorging themselves on empty calories and thirty minutes of mindless TV, everything begins to line up, to look much better. Now the whole family is serene, everyone’s in high spirits, ready to take on that most maddening of school year routines…homework.
Anyone who’s been around kids knows they have a knack for uncleaning the cleaned, unstraightening the straightened and unshining the shined. What’s more, the greater the effort a parent puts into accomplishing these everyday jobs, the more quickly the kidos seemingly take action to “un” them, offering a real-life example of Newton’s law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction—my guess is Newton had kids. And kids are excellent at reversing the accomplished.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the back of the family coach, where the kidos romp about. And, if your family’s truckster is anything like ours, rubber gloves and a mask are first recommended before attempting a go at the biennial vanover and de-stink-a-fication process.
Now then, recently my wife alerted me to a foreign smell in the family van—a hostile foreign smell. A smell that didn’t come with the purchase of the vehicle, which at the time included leather seats (dirt, snot and chocolate wipe up easily), automatic doors (no need to get out during drop-offs and pick-ups), and a sunroof (“If I have to drive such an noticeably un-hip vehicle” says my wife, “I at least want a sunroof.”). No, this was a foul smell. An anti-new car smell. One of those smells that whispers “Gezz, this stench is so revolting I may be forced to set this vehicle ablaze (by accident of course), the resulting insurance money being used to secure mama a fresh new leathery smelling ride.”
So, I dutifully began the unpleasant task of sniffing about the carryall, inch by filthy inch, in search of the belligerent naso-offender—which by now seemed hungry to consume every oxygen molecule it could find, its noxious pong taking on a decidedly menacing strength and pungency.
First, some scattered bits of trail mix. Sniff. Nope, that’s not it. After that, a smashed Burger King cup under the seats. No foul smell there. Uh…What’s this? A gummy bear melted into the carpet? Ahhh man, this is going to require an Exacto knife.
What’s this stuffed in the cubbyhole? A half-eaten, petrified cheeseburger? Note to self: Send Toyota a quick note thanking them for an abundance of compartments in which our kids can, and do, dispose of unwanted stuff, including edibles. Better throw that away. No wait, I’ll cut it in half (using my 18 volt Dewalt sawzall of course) and serve it up as a side dish with dinner—perhaps the wrongdoer will crack under the pressure and admit to stuffing it.
Next up, a few Goldfish. They don’t stink. Actually they look surprisingly edible and fresh, perhaps from the last month or so. Mmmm…I like Goldfish…these are still crunchy, sort of…and yummy too.
But then, oozing from somewhere between the two front seats, from within the center console, I caught a tangy whiff of the offending spice. Slowly, warily, I lifted each lid, opened each stowage compartment until I found it. There it was, the pathogenic toxin and the source of the horrific smell. A plastic kid’s cup, left behind in the aft most cup-holder compartment, the one closest to and facing the area where the little darlings practice their tomfoolery.
The fermenting Ft. Detrick like substance was yellowish in color, buttery in consistency, stunk to high heaven, and had spilled over slightly. What was it I thought? Doesn’t look like milk. It can’t be juice. It’s defiantly not water. So what was the putrid substance? Like my girls are so fond of saying, “Idono.”
Anticipating family van stinkasters just such as this, Toyota engineers presumably made the console removable—luckily. So, after wrestling for five minutes to remove it, and twisting my back in the process, I embarked on an exhaustive decontamination process. Stopping just short muriatic acid, an army of cleaning supplies was necessary to satisfactorily clean and de-stink this most handy van appendage.
Thankfully, the aroma of my wife’s noticeably un-hip ride returned to its normal stale tang soon after. “Alright girls” I asserted in my best stentorian voice, “new rule: no drinks allowed in mom’s van except for water.” At this they scoffed, as kids will, suggesting there's no need, but obviously there is.
So it is with family vans, kids and stench. Still, during all my musings of parenthood and paternity, and what the experience would look like, never did it dawn on me that I’d be performing such duties. But no matter, just as we parents are expected to play hopscotch, double-dutch and scratch daddy’s back for a candy bar, so too are we expected to feed, cloth, help with homework, and yes, when duty calls, don the rubber gloves and an surgical mask to rid the family truckster of unwanted BO.
Last week my oldest daughter, Emma, celebrated her tenth birthday, they certainly grow up fast don’t you know. And apart from the obvious disadvantages of rearing young children—the noise, exhaustion, virtually no time to call your own, repeatedly repeating yourself, and the endless adjudication of sibling quarrels—so far the process of dadding them has been just swell. From entirely helpless diaper wearing newborns, to wholly dependent, stuffed-animal toting toddlers, to make-their-own-peanut-butter-sandwich preteen wiseacres, the various twists and turns of the entire kid-o-thon have indeed been rewarding—fun almost. Sort of.
And though it’s been a full decade and hundreds of Barbie movies later, I still remember the day, err night, she was born like a jumbled day before yesterday. It was July 26th, 2002, 1:31am—not that I remember the precise time, I don’t. I had to ask my wife. Truth is, dads never remember the exact time their children are born. Rather, dads only vaguely remember the ready-or-not traumatic episode through the fog of frazzled nerves, fatigue and of course, hunger. And as I recall, some of the time, during the less messy parts naturally, was spent fantasying about demolishing a cheeseburger and fries.
Conversely, this notable hour-minute time-stamp is forever burned into the minds, and undercarriages, of any mother forced to remain conscious during the punishing birthing process. This is especially true of any mother who, by choice or necessity, does without the indispensable and all-important epidural cocktail, thus experiencing the celebrated moment, o’natural. Their pain, their unimpeachable memories.
My wife was just such a woman—an o’natural, not so eager beaver that is. Our daughter, having decided to arrive nearly four weeks early, and without delay, sent my wife from hardly, to fully, childilated, chop-chop fast, thus forcing her to pass over said cocktail—by compulsion. Consequently, the birthing process was cervix expanding, skin-tearing, no-fun genuine—or so I gather.
It’s no secret: I’m not big on gore. Honestly, I’d have been just as happy pacing away (while watching TV of course) in the relative calmness of the waiting room. Still, my wife disliked this 1960’s style of matrimonial support during this, her foremost time of need, and instead insisted I accompany her into the labor room. Ugh.
As a compromise we agreed I would instead remain a safe distance away from anything considered icky, which means closer to the top of the birthing table, nearest her head—the yelling part. No bloodletting up there. The nurses downright enjoyed watching my expressions of squeamishness and alarm, repeatedly daring me to “Come look” at the area of devastation. “No thanks” I say again, “I’m good.”
Always the trooper, she handled it just like she handles every challenge in life—with nary a complaint, stoically, always dignified, just press on. And press on she did—until such time baby was out, unrestricted, wiggling freely, and sounding healthy, if not peeved. I was very proud of my wife’s performance. It was nothing short of “So that’s how they did it in the old days” impressive.
Alas, after a very brief—and emotional—parent-child meet and greet, our shiny new vernix covered daughter, apparently looking less than newbornrific, was carried off to the NICU for closer examination. Not to worry though, turns out she was just a little jaundice. Nothing a little phototherapy treatment can’t fix—that pesky bilirubin. And, after a few days, she was given a clean bill of health and released to her mother and me, to botch-up anyway we saw fit.
So, yes, it’s my oldest daughter’s tenth birthday. And to her I raise a glass, no two, plus one dreadfully unassembled Costco bedroom suite, and one fairly sizable ten-giggling-girl birthday party, to the girl she’s become, and to the joy she’s brought to my life. I’m a better man because of her.
But it’s also the anniversary of the day my wife, with incredible poise and competency, assumed the important duty of mother of our children. She’s managed to meet this tireless challenge with astonishing intelligence, ability and grace. She is this family’s ballast, our chewy nougat center, our special sauce, our secret ingredient, absent which, we’d just be another run of the mill nutty family. With her though, we’re an above average nutty family. And the three of us are enormously fortunate to have her at the helm.
When I hear the word “backup,” the first images that come to mind are generator, plan and singer—as in backup-generator, backup-plan, and backup-singer. In that order. But that’s just me.
“No offence,” says my youngest daughter Mackenzie, 7, “but dads are kind of the ‘backup parent.’ Mom is my actual parent because…she had had me.” —with equal emphasis on both the first and second had.
Wait, what? A backup parent? Although no offence was intended (always the thoughtful child that one), it was unpleasant to hear even so. That this child thinks nothing more of my contribution to her rearing than to identify me as the “backup parent,” a mere second-rate menial, despite my total immersion full-frontal parenting, was indeed disheartening.
“Yes, but doesn’t daaaaaaady do just as much work as mom?” I delved. Confident that framing the “question” this way would provide essential context, thus allowing her to see the situation differently, more pragmatically, as it actually is.
“No,” she announced with a thin smile somewhat matter-of-factly “mom does more. And I was in her belly.” Whoa! Huh?
Let me see if I understand this correctly. Because the father doesn’t physically carry the child in his belly, and so doesn’t endure the pain of the child exiting the birth canal, as fathers, we are forever consigned to being part of the auxiliary parent squadron? An unadorned backup parent? A sort of feckless, gun-less, mall-cop parental equivalent?
Geez, everyone knows a backup, by definition, is a less than ideal substitute for the very thing—somewhat of a counterfeit. As second-string not-as-goods, backups are usually a cheaper and less functional version of what they’re designed to, well, backup.
For example, a gas powered backup-generator has serious limitations for the amount of amperage it can deliver, the gasoline it requires, and the noise and fumes it emits—read: not optimal. Similarly, a backup-plan (Plan B) is never as good as the original (Plan A) or it wouldn’t be Plan B—read: less than best. In the event I should ever lose my glasses, my Plan B is to use my old pair, the pair I replaced because I could no longer use them to read without getting a two martini headache. By the same token, if the backup singer was really talented, they’d be out front for all to hear and see, where the real money is—not ensconced behind headlining superstars and mountains of equipment. No, we dads are not “backup parents”, no sir.
Lest we not forget who buoyed momma during her acute time of need—what with all those additional responsibilities of cooking (what’s the number for Dominos?), cleaning (leaf blowers work great for removing excess stuff from kitchen counters and bedroom floors), shopping (canned soup tastes great, plus it has healthy vegetables already in it) and many of the other essential chores assumed by dads during the infinite tumult, and continuing subsequently after the birth. We dads were there; we lived with mama and all her mercurial ways for—is it over yet—nine months leading up to the celebrated day. Backup? Ha! I don’t think so. Dads are to moms what dip is to potato chips, what beer is to wings, what bourbon is to visits from the in-laws—we’re more or less, indispensable.
Most assuredly, amidst the daily drudgery and high theater, this dad has never felt part of any auxiliary parent squad lying in wait. No, I haven’t been loitering on my couch, hermetically sealed; waiting for the day when I’d finally be needed, to vault from a state of inaction to full engagement. That’s certainly not how I’d characterize the last ten years, exactly.
Strangely, I never felt like the backup parent when my daughters, over the years, sat on my lap, sick, vomiting into trash cans as I held their hair back, providing what little comfort I could under the circumstances. Ditto the time I swept my youngest up in my arms, rushing her to Urgent Care because her sister “accidently” slammed the bathroom door (hinged side) on her fingers. Likewise, I didn’t feel like a backup parent the time my oldest, then just shy of three-years-old, had to undergo a procedure requiring her to be anesthetized, her mother and I holding her hands as she drifted off—with lump in throat and tears in eyes.
And by no means did I feel like the backup parent when I was refereeing all those featherweight sibling bouts, or during the many evenings spent helping with homework—it’s even less fun the second time around. Similarly, I never felt like a backup whilst riding the hot, noisy school bus with poor suspension on field trips to the zoo and state capital, or eating lunch in the school cafeteria with twenty-six other clattery children, or while swatting away flocks of gnats as I looked on during outdoor youth athletic games.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, no way. I’m glad to have had all those experiences with my girls. But to label the average dad a “backup parent” grossly understates a father’s depth of involvement or level of commitment.
So, what’s a father to do you ask? Clearly, there’s only one thing you can do to cement your place as a non-backup parent in the minds of your children—buy them off. That’s right, alter their perception of reality by showering them in gratuitous handouts and relationship sweeteners, all designed to buy their love and affection, thus positively influencing, now and later, their opinion of you as a father and your role in the family.
How? Well, always make every effort to be the first parent to offer your kids dessert, especially ice-cream, they love that stuff. At all times carry a few dumb-dumb lollypops in your pocket to give them at just the right moment—when their mother isn’t looking. Never miss an opportunity to buy them gum or candy in the grocery store check-out line, “Shhh, don’t tell mom, this is our little secret” you insist. Also, bring home gifts—large, medium, small and often, just because.
And of course, when you catch your acrobatic young ones jumping on the furniture, standing on the dining-room table yelling “I’M KING OF THE MOUNTAIN”, or climbing on the kitchen counters, just give them an approving wink—let mom be the one to spoil their fun, not you. And finally, never be the one to say no, let their mother, your competition, always be the buzzkill. Whenever mom says NO, you say YES.
Naturally all this will probably make your wife a little ireful. Sure your marriage will probably suffer. Yes this could further contribute to our nationwide childhood obesity crisis, what with all those treats you’ll be giving them. But hey, don’t you want your kids to think you’re the better parent? Don’t you want to avoid being thought of as the “backup parent” forever more? Yes, that’s right. Well, follow these easy steps and in their eyes, you’ll be great, you’ll be awesome, you’ll be the anti-backup parent.
As I pull into the parking spot in front of Target I have but one thought on my mind—time to get out of the car. Which is precisely what I do every time I park the Griswold Family Truckster, I open the door and get out. This uncomplicated autonomic response (think beating heart, blinking eyes and perspiring arm-pits) occurs automatically for all menfolk each and every time we park our van, truck or car. No questions asked. No last minute do-to lists. No preening. No final peek in the mirror. We just park, remove keys, open door, and get out—often needlessly announcing the obvious, “We’re here!”
Not so for the typical twin-X, damsels of all things dilly-dally. Sure, stopping the car is critical to exiting without injury, however, doing so doesn’t automatically signify it’s time to get out, if you have a uterus, apparently. Perhaps a genomic defect, perhaps not, but unlike the countless number of husbands, sons, brothers and fathers, the uniquely distinct twin-X believes the simultaneous stopping of car, removal of keys, and opening of door, all signal a time to begin the process of finding shoes (often needlessly removed), coats and sweaters (never mind it’s 95 degrees, don’t want to get cold), amending hair styles (if it’s up, take it down, if it’s down, put it up), and eyeballing themselves in the mirror for the proposes of performing last minute spackling and powder-coating, if necessary, which evidently, it always is.
Did you know the cosmetics industry generates a $170 billion per year in world-wide commerce? Neither did I. I looked it up while waiting on my wife, who needed something make-up related, and daughters to get out of the car. I look up lots of stuff while endlessly waiting for them—did you know there are 2.5 million rivets holding together the Eiffel Tower’s 18,038 parts? Neither did I, I looked it up in a parking garage, once more, while waiting on them.
Yes, the simple task of getting out of a vehicle has become painful for its lethargy. Alas, while our brides and daughters slowly and obliviously perform all varieties of supplementary grooming and restyling efforts, the typical husband or father idiotically stands outside in the cold, heat, and sometimes rain, waiting for his twin-X(s) to egress the truckester—mumbling senseless concerns of time management and schedule efficiencies. Waiting. Googling stupid stuff on their smart-phone—just exactly what is the Higgs boson particle?
Announcements like “Look, there’s Costco now!” and “Wow, we’re entering the Safeway parking lot already?” or “Great! There’s a spot. Everybody have all their stuff?” do little to hasten the process. Mostly ignored, my prompting is in vain. I’m standing outside the van, waiting. Sweating. Googling.
Notice if you will, the positive relationship between the difficulties of getting into the parking spot, and the wait time. The more difficult the parking challenge—I’m thinking parallel here, though my wife sometimes even has trouble getting the truckster parked straight in our garage—the longer you can expect to wait for them to get out of the vehicle. Why I wonder? What’s the big deal? What takes them so long?
Women, naturally, say this is a necessary step in the ongoing beautification, get-ready process. Men, predictably, are skeptical, and view this as an unnecessary foot-dragging and lack of planning obstacle. Could this chronic dawdling be a passive aggressive rebellion? An insurrection of sorts designed to remind all men that though we park the van, truck and car better, significantly better even, we are, in spite of everything, “at will” spouses serving at the pleasure of our wives? In other words, husbands can be replaced. And to that I give a big eye roll and say, yea right, just try and find another semi-healthy, beer drinking, procrastinating, sarcastic, balding, middle-aged man to replace us—we’re rare.
Always standing ever ready to highlight our shortcomings, our wives may be collectively offering a kind of message, one designed to remind us that, superior parking skills aside, we needn’t get too carried away with ourselves. After all, they chuckle, we virile masters of our own universe cannot give birth to a child, whereas they, the women can. That Royal Flush of maxims will be held over our balding domes until the end of time— there’s nothing you can say to that. Game over.
We will pause here to assert there is, of course, no intent to pick a fight with the entire twin-X genus. Openly conceding to having our own genetic defects, we menfolk know our Y chromosome remains the male Achilles' heel of human chromosomal malformations—linked to an army of maladies, conditions, and physical shortcomings, all of which point to an abbreviated life expectancy, and ultimately our very undoing as men.
Despite all this, gentleman, we must continue our struggle for recognition of the few things we Y’s do better (enthusiastically watching sports whilst littering the chesterfield with potato chip crumbs, stepping over and around baskets of clean, folded laundry and yes, quickly parking and egressing the truckster) then our double-X counterparts. And in the meantime, and while you wait, be patient and by all means feed your inquisitorial Y chromosome with all the Googling you can stand—Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel? 23 miles. Huh.
For a smashing example of today’s politically correct, tail wag the dog, hypersensitive society gone wild, look no further than a child’s birthday party and junior athletic league.
Thinking back to when I was a kid, circa eight track tapes, Watergate Scandal, and 55 cent gas, kids’ birthday parties where something of a non-event. An occasion where boys—young women were strictly prohibited from attending these androcentric celebrations of alphabet burping and insufferable arm-pit noise making—assembled briefly to pay homage to a playmates’ birthday by generously offering a poorly swathed Matchbox car or Lone Ranger figurine, and shoveling substantial quantities of homemade cake and ice-cream into their mouths as hurriedly as possible before returning to a now-impossibly named game of “Smear the Queer,” where one kid with a football would run—with friends in hot pursuit—for his life, until tackled by his pals in a heap of boyish merriment.
Indeed, back then birthday parties were simple, but most importantly, low-cost. Not so these days. No longer are kids, or some parents for that matter, content to have such underwhelming birthday celebrations.
The modern-day parent-child party planning coalition insists on far more, and so plan birthday party extravaganzas chockfull with magicians, pony rides, moon bounces and tilt-a-whirls, renting entire ice and roller skating rinks, gymnastic and pool facilities; for girls, manicure and pedicure parties are now the new normal.
What to do when your kids’ friends are having elaborate parties and swapping extravagant birthday party stories? When your child’s party plans, though ambitious, are but an amalgamation of elements from parties they’ve attended themselves? “Hey, listen, about that skating party you wanted for your birthday? You know, the one with eighteen of your friends, the magician, the pink unicorn and the twenty-five stilt-walking, juggling, unicycle riding clowns? Well, mom and I were talking….and…that’s just a bit beyond our price-point. So, instead how bout we invite your sister, grandma, one or two of your friends. We’ll eat some home-made cake and ice-cream, and afterwards we’ll play a good ole fashion game of ‘Smear the Queer’ in the backyard. Whaddya think? Pretty good idea huh?” No, I don’t think so Homer Simpson.
Adding to the work and expense, as if the aforementioned carnival for kids wasn’t enough, parents are now expected to provide party favors--gift bags filled with treasures including sweet treats, stamp kits, erasures, pencils, balloons, glow sticks, lip-gloss, hand sanitizers, something glittery, cupcake or princess shaped notebooks, and at least one wind-up toy—to all attendees, just for coming. What’s that all about? “Hey, thanks for coming to my kid’s birthday party, thanks for the gift, and thank-you for smearing chocolate cake and melted ice-cream so deeply into my carpet I’ll never get it out, but here’s a gift for you too, as I’m concerned about your self-esteem and wouldn’t want you to feel left out.” Wait what?
Are we that concerned our sons and daughters are incapable of appreciating (in the absence of their own gifts to unwrap) the experience of a friend receiving and enjoying a birthday present, that we feel the need to give them one of their own even though it’s not their birthday? That he or she must be given a gift to open—even though it’s not that child’s special day—lest we risk the child’s self-esteem being mauled and mutilated is simply irrational.
So it is with kids’ sports too. Giving every kid a trophy, so the argument goes, assures no child will be made to feel bad about his or her scarcity of performance, which, so the argument continues, promotes healthy self-esteem in all children alike. At great risk of sounding like a tyrant, I disagree—save the six and under crowd who we’re trying to encourage and who are still too young to understand not everyone can be the winner.
Important to remember is the reality that we are raising adults. And, like it or not, in the life of an adult, there are winners and losers. Winning is good, wanting to win is natural, and trying to win—by working a little harder than the next guy or girl—is healthy. Equally important is losing. It provides good life lessons for all who experience its frustrations and humility. And, coming for someone who's failed many times at many things, I can attest to its galvanizing and motivational force.
However, changing these practices will no doubt be met with great resistance by many, but the changing of such feel-good practices is always met with great resistance.
To that end, and risking life and limb if my daughters ever find out, might I suggest we abolish the practice of party favors altogether. Limit the stilt-walking, juggling, unicycle riding clowns to just two, and keep the magician and pink unicorn appearances to every third year—at most. Likewise, let us all just say no to the practice of gratuitous trophy giveaways, breathing a collective sigh of relief for doing so, as these artificial accolades of false optimism have a tendency to inflate our children’s sense of self-worth—theoretically risking the possibility of having a generation of exceedingly confident underperformers.
When I think of all those traditional father’s day images—breakfast in bed, un-wearable ties, sweaters only Bill Cosby could appreciate, and “World’s Greatest Dad” tee-shirts—none are more central to the event than the uncomplicated image of a father and his children spending time together. Whether enjoying a game of catch, an afternoon visit to the fishing hole, or watching ole dad nod off during a “Dads-Are-Great,” American Chopper all-day marathon, dads’ and kids’ enjoying time together is what the holiday strives to achieve.
So named for the person it’s designed to honor, as well as “other paternal bonds and the influence of fathers in society,” Father’s Day was first celebrated on June 19, 1910, 102 years ago. This magnificent day, second only to Mother’s Day in parental significance, is recognized around the world every third Sunday in June, and is intended to celebrate all things dad. A day on which, if exploited properly, fathers can presume to have their entire family waiting on them hand and foot, jumping through hoops to satisfy his many manly requests, and performing all his daily chores—one exception being the grilling, the abdication of which no father worth his weight in mutton would concede—if only for a day, if you’re lucky.
But, as a father of two decidedly lovable, though undeniably determined and sometimes even exasperating (though their mother euphemistically favoring the term “extremely passionate”) daughters, I often ask myself the following questions: Am I sacrificing enough? Do I set aside adequate time to play, talk, and hang-out with them? What regrets, if any, will I have when they’re grown? Am I worthy of their love and devotedness? Often, I think yes, I am. Sometimes, however, I think, not so much—try as I might, I’m enormously imperfect.
And so, with Father’s Day approaching, what better time for us dads to contemplate the actual assignment, to set about the difficult task of evaluating, through the use of facilitated critiques (I’ll explain in a moment), just how good a job we’re doing. Or not.
To help answer this difficult question, I thought it only appropriate to enlist the help of two experts in this field, my daughters. Who better to evaluate—this is where the facilitated critique comes in—my competence and brilliance as a father? Or not.
“So guys,” I began, “with Father’s Day just around the corner, I’d like to know what kind of job you think I’m doing as your dad?”
“Medium” my oldest said, much too enthusiastically “and I’ll tell you why.” Happy to go on, she continued, “Most dads don’t yell at their kids like crazy. And usually most dads let their kids have more treats than you.” Then, lowering her voice to an near whisper, as if to say this is going to hurt, she punctuated her critique “Also, you could be a little stronger…..and a little less hairy too.” Stronger? Less hairy? Yikes, that does hurt. The balding guy, too hairy—mull that over.
Incensed her father was being viciously attacked, and for no good reason, her younger sister, who until now had been sitting quietly in the back of the van listening, leapt to my defense “He can’t help how hairy he is!” Her words somehow lacked the desired effect of softening her sister’s crushing blow. “Yes he can,” quipped my oldest, “he can shave!” Ouch—tough crowd.
No doubt regretting the severity of her critique, she then volunteered two more encouraging appraisals. “Also, you’re not as stubborn as mommy, (no kidding, I could have told you that) and sometimes you set back time to play with us.” Sometimes? How about all the time. Yelling? Whatever. I’m just emphatic. I’ll have to work on that…Not necessarily the setting back of more time, or the reduction in yelling, rather her perception of the time already “set back” and her appreciation for the concept of emphatic.
As for my youngest, she sensed an opportunity to gain favor (candy of some kind for sure), and therefore took the surreptitious-road, offering only “I think you’re awesome Dad.” The though being she’d counter her sister’s yin with her own yang, eager to set herself apart, which she didn’t—I saw right through her, it was obvious.
So, am I sacrificing enough? Do I set aside adequate time for playing, talking, and hanging-out with them? What regrets, if any, will I have when they’re grown? Am I worthy of their love and devotedness? The answer is I really don’t know, exactly. Having been described as a “medium” father surely must mean I’m not great, but maybe not terrible either—defiantly considerable room for improvement.
And though not exactly a referendum on my parenting ability, being thought of as “not strong” by your daughter doesn’t do much for the fragile male ego, nor does the observation that you’re “too hairy." However, my new weight routine has me reaching for the stars—one set, three reps at 10 lbs. each, impressive, I know. And, like my youngest said, “He can’t help how hairy he is,” it’s simply a cruel joke to be the balding guy and at the same time proclaimed “too hairy.”
To be sure, being a father is the toughest job I’ve ever had, which may explain my “Medium” job performance assessment. But then again, being the father of my girls’ is also the best-toughest job I’ve ever had, and I’m a better man for it.
So, as an act of deference to all those great fathers out there, and the countless others like me who endeavor to be so, I include this prayer, written and made famous by General Douglas A. MacArthur. My own father, who, having departed this earth when I was merely ten years old, thought so much of it he went to the trouble of having it laminated before placing it in his bible, which is now mine. My hope is, given the occasion he’d grant, that while his life was indeed too short, it was not in vain. For my liking, however, I prefer to substitute the more androgynous designation of “child” for his label of “son.”
Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak, and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid; one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat, and humble and gentle in victory.
Build me a son whose wishbone will not be where his backbone should be; a son who will know Thee….Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenge. Here let him learn to stand up in the storm; here let him learn compassion for those who fail.
Build me a son whose heart will be clean, whose goal will be high; a son who will master himself before he seeks to master other men; one who will learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep; one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past.
And after all these things are his, add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously. Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.
Then I, his father, will dare to whisper, “I have not lived in vain.”
As the proud father of two terrific daughters, ages seven and nearly ten, I’ve become a resident expert on the get-ready habits of little girls, and the un-gazelle like movements with which they inch about. So maddening is their sluggishness that I sometimes forget that children this age lack the executive skills necessary to walk and chew gun at the same time, and so I find myself on occasion suspecting brain-damage (Theorizing their mother irresponsibly participated in a PTA kick-boxing tournament or similarly dangerous activity while pregnant and without my knowledge or consent.) as the root cause for their chronic absentmindedness and inability to focus—thus lending explanation to the exhaustive cycle of expectation and disappointment for all.
Hurry up…It’s getting late, it’s time to go!” I yell again.
Rational efforts to speed things along are met with cool resistance, these girls rarely ever share our sense of urgency or cognizance of time, leaving little choice but to regress to what I know best, hyperbolically yelling from the bottom of the stairs in an unimpressive effort to move things along—a vestige of my childhood and a proud family tradition, yelling was once thought to motivate children to achieve grand things, my mother mentored me for years in this practice.
Unfortunately, yelling accomplishes little, only deepening the divide and further escalating matters. And though always effective in getting everyone’s attention, isn’t a child-rearing technique I’d ordinarily recommend or use during moments of greater clarity, as it generally leaves a disagreeable aftertaste in the mouth of this conscientious parent.
The problem is though, like most children, our girls tend to view clocks and watches, the oldest of human inventions and essential life tools, with complete and utter contempt, opting instead to trust their highly sophisticated internal boredom sensors to signal when it’s time to move from one activity and on to the next.
If it’s fun, keep doing it. If not, stop immediately and wander off into another room to look for something more entertaining—ah, the life of a child.
Never mind parental requests and household schedules, the clock and watch only serve to spoil the child’s fun—that is, unless it’s time stop brushing teeth, cleaning rooms, or doing homework.
It isn’t that children can’t tell time either, many can; rather, it’s that they’re indifferent to its passage. And, it’s this indifference that astonishes and frustrates me because my life absolutely revolves around schedules, mostly theirs—school activities, homework assignments, music lessons, meal times, gymnastics, lacrosse games and practices, play-dates, and bed-times. And though they often approach the process of getting ready with good intentions, less helpful are their frequent disappearances into their bed and bathrooms, where the smallest of shinny objects can, and usually does, provide unwanted distractions, arresting all forward movement.
Asking these girls to go upstairs and brush their teeth, hair, and get dressed—with its multi-component process of several top and bottom choices—will most certainly produce a disappointing outcome for the adult who waits patiently downstairs. Predictably, they’ll present themselves with at least one, maybe two, tasks left uncompleted.
“Thank you for getting dressed.” I exalt to my youngest.
“Did you brush your hair?”
“Thank you. Did you brush your teeth?”
“No?” I repeat, frowning now I’m gobsmacked, and ask the obvious question, “Didn’t I tell you to brush your teeth too?”
“No you didn’t” she says, now with her hands on her hips and a predictable agitation in her voice. Wondering if I’m losing my mind, I now begin to doubt myself. I’m sure I said that, I think.
But when pressed though, she concedes “Well, maybe you told me….but I forgot.”
“Why can’t you do what I ask you to do?” I ask rhetorically, in a voice not meant for her.
“Because” she argues, not realizing the rules regarding rhetorical questions “I can’t remember everything you know!”
The irony in her assumption is nothing short of laughable. Her mother is the one who’s expected to remember everything, and frequently does, whereas I’m a distant second, and the girls, well, they don’t seem to remember much beyond the convenient and where we keep the cookies.
The fact that she thinks she’s expected to remember “everything” is no less preposterous, however, than when asked to empty the dishwasher, she not-so-rhetorically responds “Why do I have to do everything around here?”
“Please go back upstairs and brush your teeth” I ask impatiently.
Mumbling now to no one in particular and beginning to sound like the father I so hoped never to become.
Our daughters’ operate at one speed, best described as glacial. That is, except where ice-cream or glitter are involved—ice-cream and glitter are to little girls what special-interest money is to politicians, they’ll do exactly anything for it including sprint to ambush the bearer of such coveted fortunes.
This is our routine, day after day, week after week. Often depreciating into something of a hopeless game of beg, bribe and threaten. A logistical debacle; always behind, rarely on-time, wholly fatigued by the process.
If you think this an unfair characterization, I kindly direct you to be at my house on Monday morning for what will surly prove to be an entertaining (because they’re not your kids), if not entirely frustrating morning of coffee, muffins and yelling.
So sigh no more, clocks and watches evidently are not for kids. Your priorities are not theirs. No, you’re not losing your mind, your kids have just pulverized your parental equilibrium by making you repeat yourself over, and over, and over again, it will get better when they go off to college; and watching them get ready is a study in going nowhere fast.
While no parent looks forward to having those awkward talks with their children—the birds and the bees, Viagra commercials, the national debt and their portion of it—none seem more disheartening than the conversation all parents are eventually forced to have concerning the tri-pillars of every kids' make-believe world—Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, and The Tooth Fairy. And, nothing showcases a parent’s excellent communication skills better than giving explanation to fat, fluffy, flying immortals.
This past Easter I was forced to have just such a conversation with my oldest daughter—mostly to protect her younger sister, who still believes in these folktales with every fiber of her being, genuflecting at the utter mention of Santa Claus or Peter Cottontail, and who sat unknowingly on the floor of the family room, surrounded by Easter gifts and fortifying herself with Easter chocolates. I didn’t want her to overhear the smart-bombs of skepticism or the commentary of doubt launched with increased frequency by her older, now incredulous sister—who, using her deductive powers, recognized this for the fantastic charade that it was.
But what do you say to your child when, at nine years old, they begin to question the existence of these legendary supernaturals?
“Yea…uh……well…um…I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that…actually…we’ve…um…basically we’ve been lying to you all along…sorry. Please pass the salt?”
No, I don’t think so Homer Simpson.
Circumstances like these call for marked sympathy and thoughtfulness, at all times cognizant of the child’s devotedness to, and investment in, these celebrities of all things pretend. Initially winking, occasionally nodding, and thereafter avoiding all eye contact all work well, followed by a Q & A session, which is the path I took—thus sidestepping the hardship of admitting to being a big fat liar, to a large degree then, it’s simply implied.
Still, demanding as we’ve been all these years that our children always tell the truth, sponsoring such fabrications, though fun and well-intentioned, smacks of hypocrisy even in the unsophisticated mind of a child. For nearly a decade my wife and I’ve been teaching this future adult to tell the truth, not to lie, yet paradoxically, and all the while, we’ve been feeding her the biggest whopper ever—this side of the Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme.
So we can’t blame our kids when they look at us, as my nine-year-old did, with complete disbelief at the news, sneaking up on her as it did, that we’re the ones putting the Barbie dolls, bicycles and iPads under the tree, hiding the eggs in hard to find places, and putting the five-dollar-bills under their pillows. Though I stopped short of confessing to eating Santa’s cookies, drinking Santa’s milk and, employing my best herbivore impression, gnawing off the ends of the carrots left for Rudolph and Peter.
To no one’s surprise, when asked if she was upset at the knowledge that these gift-giving characters weren’t actually real, but rather a massive hoax perpetrated by a troubled society, my wounded daughter responded as you might expect, “Ah…yeah…..kind of,……I mean,…you’ve been lying to me for nine years!”
Whoa there little sister.
"Um…..well…yea but all parents do it!” I blurted out defensively. “Now whatever you do, don’t tell your sister!”
And so it was, with a wink, a nod, and an offering of a hug—to which she refused though I can’t imagine why—I skillfully navigated another of parenthoods most difficult errands. Although I knew the day would eventually arrive, strangely I hadn’t rehearsed and I wasn’t prepared, but I managed nonetheless.
Yes, its days such as these when a parent truly earns their money, eluding, deflecting and deferring the inevitable series of difficult questions posed by our children, as we set about the task of preparing them for a life of unmake-believe-like realities.
In the end I’m not sure who was more disappointed; me because she no longer believed, or her at the discovery that a perfectly wonderful imaginary world was just that. After all, isn’t it always more fun to have a true believer in the house during the holidays? And wasn’t life more enjoyable when you believed in all those fat, fluffy, flying immortals?