Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Some dad and lad time

I recently left the Grape overnight for the first time. He and R. had a dad and lad weekend at home while I traveled by planes, cars and blown-out flip flops to attend the somewhat hard-to-reach beach wedding of one of my oldest and best friends. When the travel time added up to ten hours each way, and the time at destination amounted to a single day, the decision to leave the Grape behind came easily.

People expressed concern that R. and the Grape would be able to cope for such a long stretch of time, but I wasn't worried. R. is a great dad. He enjoys spending time with the little guy and he's perfectly capable of maintaining the Grape in my absence. By all accounts, the boys enjoyed their weekend together. There was even a photo on Facebook, of dad and lad enjoying beer and fries (respectively, please don't call Child Protective Services) in a local bar.

My only complaint is this: Various third parties shouldn't act like R. did me an enormous, mind blowing favor. So I left my fourteen month old for the first time overnight. Big deal. R. has spent dozens of overnights away from me and the Grape. Nobody congratulated me on keeping the baby alive all by my lonesome on those occasions.

Today in Starbucks, I overheard a guy about my age, sporting a suit and wedding ring, tell someone on the phone that he couldn't make it to an after work happy hour because, he groaned, "I have to get home early tonight to babysit my son."

In case there's still someone out there who didn't get the memo: You don't call it baby sitting if you're watching your own offspring. I almost asked the guy whether he considered his wife to be "baby sitting" on the nights he worked (or played) late. I decided not to risk irritating him, as he looked kind of cranky and was holding a hot beverage.

It's not all Starbucks Guy's fault. Far too many women have bought into the myth that men don't make the greatest child minders. I can think of at least a half dozen friends who leave written instructions when they leave their kids with Dad for even a short interlude. They aren't married to imbeciles, yet they don't trust that Dad can scramble an egg, apply pajamas to the child's person or select an appropriate bedtime story. When pushed to specify the problem with leaving Junior in his father's care, they laugh and say things like, "Oh, you know, he just can't deal."

Nonsense. Most women possess some type of maternal instinct, but that doesn't mean fathers aren't similarly wired - biologically - to keep their progeny alive. Many fathers may lack confidence in their child rearing skills, but I wonder how much of that results from nurture.

Yes, ironically enough, I'm going to lay some of the blame squarely at the feet of their own mothers.

The men in my demographic may have been raised by women who self-identified as feminists, but I doubt most of them witnessed a lot of hands on child care performed by their fathers. Dads back in the seventies and eighties often did fun stuff, like coached soccer or took the kiddies out for ice cream. Sometimes they were the disciplinarians in that old school you-wait-until-your-father-gets-home sense. But I don't recall my father, nor the fathers of my childhood friends, planning children's meals, administering baths or making sure that little Jane didn't leave for the bus stop without her hat and coat on a subzero day. The routine care and feeding of kids fell largely to the moms, as it does in most households today.

What's sort of rich is that many, many, many of these seventies feminist moms have morphed into new millennium mothers-in-law who act like they did such a fantastic job, because they raised sons who will actually watch the kids for a few hours on the weekend or (gasp) change a diaper even though the mommy is on the premises.

In fairness, every family must have some division of labor in order to function, and many moms gladly take on the role of primary child minder. But it's still disheartening how many fathers act like they deserve a medal for spending one on one time with their kids. You can overhear them comparing notes at the playground on weekends, about how long they've been banished from the home with the little darlings. If you eavesdrop on the inter-dad chatter, you'll hear the words "baby sitting" thrown around a lot.

I've developed another theory about why this attitude towards parenting persists, even among smart, seemingly solid guys. It's because many of them weren't expected to do any of the heavy lifting during their earliest days of parenthood. Maybe the new mommy claimed to have it all under control, or she wanted to prove to herself that she could deal once the dad returned to work. Or maybe the new dad felt ham handed around the newborn and gave up because of anxiety. Whatever the reason or excuse, it's a shame that so many new dads watch the first days from the sidelines, posing for photos, warming up meals, but leaving the major infant care to the womenfolk.

It still astounds me how many people express shock when they hear R. gives the Grape most of his baths. He has since the get go, when he had to, because I was recovering from a c-section and another major surgery. Now it's their thing. When the Grape and I go somewhere without R., like my mother's house, he'll look at the bathtub and say, "Daddy!" Then he'll be disappointed when Daddy doesn't materialize to play with the boats. His insistence on bathing with Daddy used to offend me a little, but I've come to think of their nightly fifteen minute ritual as a positive thing. The Grape and I spend lots of time together. It enhances his relationship with his dad to have this routine.

Maybe Starbucks Guy is in the running for father of the year, and I happened to overhear a snippet of out-of-character conversation. His particular story doesn't concern me, except that I've used him as an emblem of a certain type of parent: the kind that misses out on the day to day adventures of child rearing and wakes up one day to find the almost grown kids grumbling that they have to spend time with him.

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