Recently, a friend posted on her Facebook page a photograph of a form she filled out when she was in grade school in 1974. Headed “When I Grow Up I Want to Be,” it features side-by-side checklists for boys and for girls. The boys’ list offers fireman, policeman, cowboy, astronaut, soldier and baseball player. Girls could choose mother, nurse, schoolteacher, airline hostess, model and secretary. She posted it with the comment that the mid-1970s seems a bit late in our history for such a narrow range of opportunities for women. Indeed, almost 40 years later, we see clearly how absurd that list is. Not that girls should not aspire to be mothers or nurses, but the limits that the list places on them, locking girls into roles of caretaker or being beautiful, is not an absolute boundary most of us would apply to our daughters or our sisters.
On the other hand, it’s possible we might have difficulty seeing the boys’ list as limiting: the occupations all offer some notion of greatness or heroism — even cowboy, which seems archaic, still stands as a sort of ideal for men, at least in beer and truck commercials — and who among us wouldn’t wish our sons or brothers be great or heroic? I was thinking about these lists as I read Tim J. Myers’ interesting, often funny and sometimes moving [booklink isbn=”9781938301018″ title=”Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood”]. Some years ago, Myers and his wife swapped traditional roles when she finished a PhD, giving her greater earning potential than he. She became the primary breadwinner and Myers became a stay-at-home dad and primary caregiver for their two sons and daughter. His book is, in part, a reflection on his experience, mostly centered on his relationship with his daughter, who was a late-in-life surprise and is significantly younger than her brothers. Part of the charm of the book is that Myers often writes about his experience with humor; he’s not shy about making fun of himself for his failures or for his early absurd assumptions about childcare. He describes valiant but futile attempts to deal with tantrums and with the capriciousness of his daughter, whom he nicknames “Shilly-Shally,” like this one:
It’s Christmas day; you want to take the family to church. But your three-year-old needs a bath. You’ve got one hour before the service starts. Before she can get into the tub, however, she has to move EACH of her TWELVE cardboard cutout “squirrels” up the stairs to the bathroom. And that means lifting each . . . one [step] at a time. When you try to hurry her, she protests, “They’re only little animals, Dad.” Total elapsed time: thirty-three minutes.
Myers’ book does more than recount his adventures in house-husbanding. Partly, it’s a how-to guide for men who may want to become more involved in the domestic life of their families, even if they do not become full-time stay-at-home dads like Myers. In these chapters, he gives advice on discipline, on cleaning the kitchen, on coping with what may be unfamiliar sources of stress — like changing diapers or taking trips to the doctor. Beyond the details of Myers’ life and the advice he offers, the book is also partly an explicit argument that men should embrace fatherhood as an important vocation and that the still-persistent ideals of maleness are as limiting as old-fashioned notions of how women might spend their lives. In some ways, he says, those roles are unhealthy for men, especially fathers, since they isolate them from their children and, indeed, even an important part of themselves. At one point, he quotes psychologist Herb Goldberg:
“The male… is out of touch with his emotions and his body… Our culture is saturated with successful male zombies…[who] have confused their social masks for their essence…Only a new way of perceiving himself can unlock [a man] from old, destructive patterns and enrich his life.”
Myers goes on:
Time at home is a precious opportunity to live in exactly the opposite way. The work-horse can step back . . . begin to savor his life . . . [A] man can learn to remake himself to awaken things within him, if he lets quieter, stronger things grow.
While the chapters of practical advice and his discussion of male roles are thought-provoking, the book is most successful when he writes evocatively about small moments he spends with his daughter. He’s a published poet and children’s author, and these passages take advantage of those sensibilities. At one point, for example, he writes about a typical day, which ends as follows:
At my feet, Shilly-Shally is now singing a sad but raucous kid-version of the blues. As her little voice roars out the impromptu lyric, she fixes her eyes accusingly on me:
“OH! I’M SO HUNGRY I CAN’T PLAY ANYMORE, I WISH SOMEONE WOULD MAKE ME A PEANUT-BUTTER SANDWICH, BUT MY DAD JUST KEEPS WORKING . . .”
As she and I walk down the stairs joking and laughing, I think about the amazing balance of chaotic noise and wondrous silence in the heart of every child — in the heart of my child, here, today, this astonishing creature wearing mismatched clothes, a dirty Band-Aid on her knee, ever an obnoxious song on her lips, who at the moment is giggling and imperiously listing just what I’ll be making her for lunch.
More than anything, these vivid glimpses in [booklink isbn=”9781938301018″ title=”Glad to Be Dad”] make the case: To be a father is to be a hero, something a man might aspire to do with greatness and much bravery.