Mother Knows Best but Father Knows a Fair Amount, Too: A Review of Four Books on Fatherhood
We all know the double standard of parenting expectations: to be declared a good mom, a mother needs to do anything and everything for the benefit of her child, and every decision she makes may be scrutinized by friends, relatives, neighbors — sometimes even the American public. To be considered a good dad, a man need only be present and occasionally change a diaper.
Here’s another double standard: the first year my son attended school, I received a handmade invitation to a Mother’s Day party. I arrived at the classroom to see tables laden with goodies. The children served their mothers food, then grouped together and performed songs of the “I love my Mommy this much” variety. They ended the party by presenting handprint artwork delicately wrapped with tissue paper and ribbons.
For Father’s Day, my son brought home a paper necktie for my husband that read, “You’re great!”
So much for pomp, and idolatry.
These double standards suggest that in society’s quest to respect mothers and show appreciation, the role of fathers has been drastically, and undeservedly, belittled. Motherhood gets called “the most important job in the world.” Moms are trusted; we’re considered the ones children run to for comfort and attention, to share in their happiness. Don’t dads deserve equal recognition?
Four recent books on the state of fatherhood prove that men reflect on their child-rearing skills and contemplate their actions far more than society might recognize, or credit them for. They worry about their children’s futures and wish to prevent harm and disappointment. They get scared. They say wrong things and regret choices. They marvel at the wondrousness of their children. Indeed, in all these ways, they’re a lot like mothers.
For all that fathers have in common with mothers, though, these books also show that dads take a different approach to parenthood. For one thing, dads seem to seek out the humor in stressful moments, possibly more often than moms. In Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood, Michael Lewis witnesses his three-year-old daughter stand up to ten-year-old boys at a resort pool by yelling a string of jaw-dropping obscenities. His reaction? He hides and does nothing, while one of the boys involved is instantly disciplined by a mother (presumably for teaching the little girl the bad words). “I should be embarrassed and concerned,” he writes. “I should be sweeping her out of the pool and washing her mouth out with soap. I don’t feel that way… I just want to see what happens next.”
Whether Lewis is hiding at the resort pool, defending his ability to dress his daughter fashionably, or comparing his daughter’s bead-catching strategies at Mardi Gras to her future business success, he is certainly funny: “Every small child in America should be flown in to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Those who excel should be offered jobs by Goldman Sachs selling bonds. Those who fail should be taken to the racetrack, to see if they are perhaps better suited to trading.”
Beneath the jokes, Lewis questions his ability as a father, never feeling as good as Mom. When his daughter turns ill, Lewis calls a doctor, who determines chicken pox. After he obtains the prescribed drugs and comforts his daughter, he swells with pride when his wife gets home and he relays how he took charge: “Plucked from the end of the bench and sent into the game with just seconds on the clock, I’d been told to take the final shot. I’d hit nothing but net.” Lewis’ wife responds to his fatherly heroics with questions that he’s failed to ask the doctor — questions that would have changed the diagnosis and prescription — and his pride disintegrates. “Upon review of the videotape, my three-point shot was nullified, the team went down in defeat, and I was sent back to the end of the bench. I was unable to answer even one of the questions that a genuinely caring parent would have thought to ask.” Reading this vignette, the reader laughs and cringes simultaneously, feeling sorry for his self-doubt but appreciating mother’s perspective. After the re-checkup at mom’s behest, Lewis later concedes acceptance of this family dynamic as he reflects, “And there, with my incompetence in dealing with matters critical to my child’s survival fully exposed, I was once again well loved. Some sort of natural order had been restored.”
Like Lewis, Michael Chabon acknowledges mom as the authority over dad. Chabon’s book, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, opens with this description:
Mothers are attuned, in a way that most fathers have a hard time managing, to the specter of calamity that haunts their children. Fathers are popularly supposed to serve as protectors of their children, but in fact men lack the capacity for identifying danger except in the most narrow spectrum of the band. It is women – mothers – whose organs of anxiety can detect the vast invisible flow of peril through which their children are obliged daily to make their way.
Chabon uses his reflections on fatherhood to tell his own coming-of-age story, replete with comic book references and sarcastic adult perspective. In so doing, he also illustrates the synthesis that takes place in the act of parenting: we reflect on our past as we shepherd the future, yet we also want to share our past with the future. Chabon illuminates this sentiment in chapters like “Subterranean,” in which he reminisces about playing with his brother in the basement and laments his own children’s basement-less home. Wanting his children to have the same sort of imaginary playground he had, Chabon decides to build a tree house:
I worry that it is insufficiently dank, gloomy, remote, mysterious, but as they have filled it with random things, randomly broken and repaired, I have had reason to hope: hope that when they shut its bright green door, the world with all its puzzling business feels muffled and distant. Hope that they lie up there on their backs for hours, feeling tragic, and happy, and terribly, terribly bored.
In another chapter, “The Wilderness of Childhood,” Chabon frets over the lack of outside exposure for twenty-first century children. Chabon’s childhood was dominated by unsupervised play, but modern parents, himself included, do not let their children out of their sight for fear of what might happen. Chabon questions readers, “Even if I do send them out, will there be anyone to play with?” The question remains unanswered, but clearly Chabon is daring readers to join him in returning children to the excitement of biking and exploring on a summer afternoon.
Ironically, Chabon looks to his own mother’s child-rearing skills as he takes on the job of parenting. In an anecdote about his mother helping him form a comic book fan club that garnered zero members, he writes, “I see now how much the brief existence of the C.C.B.C. had to do with mothers and sons, what a huge, even overwhelming maternal task is implied by that worn-out word encouragement.”
Chabon is not the only father to view himself in the framework of lessons instilled by his mother. In the essay collection What I Would Tell Her: 28 Devoted Dads on Bringing Up, Holding On and Letting Go of Their Daughters, edited by Andrea N. Richesin, several fathers find that their mothers’ actions influence how they raise their children. Mike Adamick writes in “Thrift Store Bandits” of the pleasure of melding the past and present as he, his daughter, and mother all go shopping together: “Standing there, I studied her developing face, heard her laugh, and smiled at the thought that I was passing on the lessons my mother had unknowingly gifted me.” These words harken back to Chabon’s synthesis of life experience, and further echo the sentiments of other essayists in the collection. In his bittersweet contemplation “Late-Onset Fatherhood,” Rand Richards Cooper becomes a dad for the first time at age 51 as he loses his mother to cancer and comes to a confounding realization:
I physically feel the passage of life itself, flowing from generations past, through me and into the future. My mother, who tottered toward death; my infant daughter, tottering to her feet; and me, right smack in the middle. We humans tend to believe we move through time, but really, time moves through us; and becoming a parent lets you feel it happening.
What I Would Tell Her offers men’s takes on the role of father, providing multiple perspectives unattainable through first-person memoirs like Chabon’s and Lewis’. These perspectives give a true, three-dimensional take on fatherhood. Readers join fathers parenting from the stages of birth to adolescence to adulthood to death, and a common theme of fatherhood that emerges is the struggle to be Superman, the protector. “I’d like to tell her it will be [all right],” Richard Farrell writes in “A Reckless Love” when his daughter cries over the phone to him. “But I’d be lying. Only one thing is certain right now. I can’t tell her the truth.”
This reality that we can’t protect children from everything is an unfortunate and often heartbreaking part of the parenting package. There is a unique pain to the powerlessness of fathers watching their children experience life in all its happiness, and sadness. Dean Bakopoulos, in “On Explicable Weeping,” questions, “Is it possible that men do not fully realize the precarious sadness of the world until they watch their own children try to navigate their way through it?” A mother wanting to protect her child is one thing; a father left helpless when he is supposed to be Superman has a poignancy all its own.
Indeed, as these fathers demonstrate, we cannot protect our children from everything that hurts. We can’t even stop tears from flowing, a lesson Sam Apple learns at the hands of his colicky son in American Parent: My Strange and Surprising Adventures in Modern Babyland: “Isaac began to scream and as the noise echoed in my head, I did something I still can’t believe. I looked down at my beautiful son and told him to ‘shut the f–k up.’ I spent the next week debating whether I was the worst father of all time or only in the top ten worst. Then I said it again during another particularly bad crying spell.”
Like Lewis, Chabon, and the fathers in What I Would Tell Her, Apple aspires to be a great dad — and makes his share of mistakes in his quest. Apple does something different from the other writers, though, an action ubiquitous among modern parents: he researches. If there is one defining characteristic of modern parenting that can be culled from Apple’s book, it is that parents are more inclined to follow advice from a book than trust their own instincts. Apple’s book captures the essence of this modern fixation on research, as if he sat around with new parents for a year and wrote down potential research topics every time someone uttered the phrase, “Who came up with that idea?”
American Parent will appeal to modern parents, and probably trivia buffs. Apple provides the origins of attachment parenting, circumcision, and even water births. But when he isn’t discoursing on the history of C-sections (Did you the know the first cesarean in which the mother lived was performed by a man who spayed pigs for a living?), Apple sneaks in exquisite passages that convey the gamut of parenting emotions:
I rarely feel what I am supposed to feel. I didn’t cry enough at my mom’s funeral and I wasn’t ecstatic enough when I found out Jennifer was pregnant. It’s less a problem of emoting than of timing. My happiness or sadness arrives too early or too late. In the moment the pressure to feel makes feeling impossible. And yet as I gazed at Jennifer holding Isaac for the first time, it felt as profound and good as I thought it should.
Michael Lewis characterizes Apple’s sentiment as “this persistent and disturbing gap between what I was meant to feel and what I actually felt.” Essayist Nick Taylor in “The Kitten Gang” takes a positive, paradigm-shifting stance on not knowing what to expect: “Without the suspense of discovery parenting would be duller than most of us would like to admit.” This clash between expectation and reality is inherent in all life experience, but parenting increases the anxiety over it by making fathers and mothers face this clash through another person: their child.
Watching a child stumble through life and only sometimes being able to guide him or her is simultaneously the honor and bane of a parent’s life. Fathers and mothers share in their depth of concern for their children and experience the same creeping self-doubt about their roles as caregivers. But if the fathers in these four books are any indication, dads take parenting frustrations in stride. One reason for this may be the degree to which dads impose upon themselves the need to be the hero, and the fact that the hero must remain calm.
And maybe it’s also because they know that when it comes to parenting, they can turn to Mom — their own or their partner’s — for the answer. Chabon exemplifies this attitude in the frankest and funniest terms when his daughter enters puberty: “I don’t know what you need to truly understand brassieres, and what’s more, I don’t want to know. I’m sorry. Go ask your mother.”
Chabon’s remarks, and his reaction to them, in which he calls himself a walking cliché, help explain why mothers ultimately get the bigger celebration and the higher recognition than fathers. The heroism of fatherhood – unsung and often underappreciated when compared to motherhood and its endless sacrifice – often lies unnoticed in passing comments like, “Go ask your mother.” These books suggest that while fathers may use humor or employ strategies like Chabon’s, men oftentimes yield to, and occasionally seek out, maternal instinct to guide their parenting choices. In doing so, fathers are holding themselves accountable to the arduous responsibilities expected of all parents, while giving mothers all the credit. In the end, that’s worth far more than a paper tie.