12 march 1999  

evening with pops

My birthday is approaching. It left me long ago as a day of happy hoo-haw, serving now in middle age as more of a rest stop than anything else: a place where I can quit bucksdriving for a bit, sit down to watch the traffic go by, check the map, and wonder once again just who this Steve person is.

For the last seven years there have been two aspects to my life which, in moments when I'm willing to typify myself, can define me. The first is that I'm an at-home dad. When Amy's not at school, she's home and so am I. The other is that I'm a father of a child with a disability.

There are times when I'm very proud to say I am both of these things, and I've waved the daddy flag so much I should have one of those little strap-on flagpole holders surgically implanted into my crotch. There are other times when my fatherhood is less like a parenting choice and more like a pathology, a chronic condition that can evoke pity in some and derision in others. Sometimes to my own amazement, I've been a part of two support groups: one for each of these circumstances.

It has been impossible for me not to compare the dynamics of these two groups, gatherings which for a long time constituted the majority of my contact with other adults. I can't make a scientific claim that they're typical examples of what they are, but I have a strong feeling that what I found is in keeping with the natures of similar groups out there in the big daddy world.

First off, I have to say that most of these guys were what you'd call sensitive. Since all of us had been through something unusual and decided to get together to share our outlooks on the experience, I credit these men with an above-average willingness to be open. For an average guy, particularly one who isn't pressured by a court order or peeing pure Everclear, to get his body to a support group is an achievement.

Let me describe what it can be like when at-home dads get together. First of all, it goes without saying that most of us are unemployed. And we do a great job of not talking about it. More than half of these guys, if a job were handed to them, would grab it in an instant and finagle some way of getting child care. They don't talk about this either. There are a few men who see their fatherhood as a career, in much the same way that moms did back in the day when moms did. They have clear strong opinions about child-rearing, parenthood, and social responsibility, and generally take the long view when it comes to what they're doing with their lives. And they can afford to.

This brings us to another common trait among these dads. To a man, each is grateful that his wife is willing to work as hard as she does, and he appreciates that by effort and good fortune the family has the means to survive. For the men who'd like to have jobs outside the home again, that appreciation is commingled with some guilt and shame. It's a difficult place to be, emotionally, when you're getting good strokes from the anti-sexism voices in society while at the same time yearning to go out there and "be a man" and not have to put up with the daily household chores or the jibes of friends and family. Ideally, to these guys, those chores would be the job of some hired help, because, having done it themselves, they now know it's not something they'd wish upon their wives.

Also common among at-home fathers is the need to not appear feminine. Rare is the man who feels comfortable with a flowered diaper bag. Today's Man opts for something khaki or gray, or even black if he's feeling particularly rebellious.

At-home dads also envy at-home moms powerfully. It's easy for one mom to call another to set up a playtime with the kids, or to go out to McDonald's or to the park. But for an at-home dad to call up another man's wife to do the same is verboten. He'd love to be able to simply walk up the street, knock on the door, and spend the morning laughing in the kitchen over coffee with Patty and Alice, but no, simply not done.

Sometimes, if the chemistry is right, an ongoing connection can be made with a mom at the playground in the park, but only if the mom is open-minded enough; it has little to do with the man's open-mindedness. For the most part, a woman in the park with a little girl is a mom. A man in the park with a little girl is a suspect.

But back to the meetings. What I noticed most at these gatherings, which were held in restaurants at night, was the power struggle. It is inevitable that, when men gather, factions will arise, control will be vied for and, as the discussion goes around the table, dominance will be the brass ring. It is wrong to fight this. This is what men do. This is why we play army, this is why we go to Sears, and this is why we eat and spill and talk about women when we can get away and into restaurants at night.

We are still guys, many of whom have chosen to be fathers unlike our own. Although some of us are often without our own income, and unencumbered and uncomforted by the occupational roles that define most men in our society, we know that our task is to show our daughters and our sons what it is to be a man. It's not an easy position to enjoy in a world where men feel so connected to the power of currency, and I congratulate the men out there who do this and have the guts to put their lack of money where their mouths are.

Now we come to the meetings of the fathers of kids with disabilities. Whole. Different. Dynamic.

There is no brass ring. Each of us feels an irrevocable brotherhood, a comforting kinship that he'd trade in an instant if he could. What is common to us is the death of The Dream. We saw those inevitable fantasies projected from our minds' eye, long before our child was born, of how they'd be and what kind of men we'd be because of them and their unique prodigious talent and intelligence. The news came differently for each of us, but we all got the same broken heart.

And yet we laugh at these meetings, just like the men in the other meeting. I think it's because we have to.

Also, not unlike the at-home dads, we feel guilt and doubt. How do we measure up as fathers? Are we doing enough? What does this do to our marriage? And what about this desire for control that rises up? We face many of the same questions.

The difference, of course, is that tomorrow or next month or next year the at-home dads can go out and start a new career. The remedy, if remedial is the term, is not readily available to these other dads, and there's something about the permanence of what gets talked about that makes these meetings much more powerful in their ability to refuel, reconfirm, and in some cases redeem who we are as men.

* * * * * * *

HealthWatch 99: I'm happy to report that my cold is no longer my cold, but has moved on completely through my family and out the door, perhaps to someone more deserving like a door-to-door religious zealot or a teenager. And beginning tomorrow, I'll be a strict adherent once again to the tortures of treadmill and rowing machine. Really.

Ooh donuts.

today's music:

"Sweet And Low-Down" -- New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta -- MANHATTAN: MUSIC FROM THE WOODY ALLEN FILM/MUSIC BY GEORGE GERSHWIN


today's wisdom:

"Are you lost daddy, I asked tenderly. Shut up, he explained."

- Ring Lardner/The Young Immigrants