The Dadly Virtues
Adventures from the Worst Job You'll Ever Love
By Jonathan V. Last
Templeton Press Copyright © 2015 Templeton Press
All rights reserved.
What Do Men Get from Fatherhood?
Besides What They Put In ... P. J. O'Rourke
Babies are output. Input must be considered.
The single strongest motivation, object, aim, intent, and goal of men between the ages of Nintendo Wii obsession and wheeled walkers is to do a thing that makes babies (or a thing that, in the abstract, is similar to it).
Thus we already know what men got out of fatherhood even if, "conceptionally speaking," a turkey baster was involved.
But that is fatherhood in the technical sense. Not that technical sense isn't necessary to fatherhood. Correctly installing the Graco SnugRide infant seat in the back of your minivan requires an advanced degree in mechanical engineering from MIT.
There are, however, general as well as specialized aspects to fatherhood. Generally, "fatherhood" requires a father. A father who is present and accounted for and actively engaged in raising his kids. Or her kids, because nowadays a father may be of the mother gender, just as a mother may be of the father gender, and the kids, for all I know, are transgender. Believe me, it doesn't make any difference. When it's 3:00 a.m. and you're trying to burp a colicky baby while It's Sew Easy is on PBS and Rebecca Kemp Brent is putting the final touches on a tucked bolster pillow and you can't find the remote to change channels, sex will be the last thing on your mind.
(Some advice: Try holding the baby upside-down and kissykissy-wissy on itsum-bitsome's tummy-ummy. That might earn you a belch, and hence some peace and quiet. Or the kid might—mercifully—throw up on the Bugs Bunny bedroom slippers you got for Father's Day. Or you might find the TV remote, which baby has been teething on, and shake it loose.)
One thing men do not get from fatherhood is much sleep. When the worry about the baby crying ceases, the worry about the baby not breathing begins. Then, as baby grows, there are midnight coughs and midnight colds, midnight bed wets, midnight climbings into bed with you (followed by midnight bed wets), midnight demands for a drink of water, midnight fears of things in the closet, midnight snacks, midnight sneaks to the Nintendo, and, before you know it, baby is sixteen and has a driver's license and it's midnight and baby isn't home yet.
So what's in this for me?
Your manhood—or your social construct of male identity, or whatever—has been affirmed. You got someone knocked up. You are a big, swinging turkey baster.
And right here is where many fathers stop. Tempting. And it's probably tempting to mothers to let fathers stop right here, too. Mothers have myriad roles to play in life—nurturer, comforter, healer, educator, inspiration, example, sole support, saint, next president of the United States. Men bump and run.
Men have only one role. They provide a sperm cell who goes where men want to go but takes it to the next level. After that, men are dispensable and can drink, smoke, talk sports, commit crimes, and fight wars.
Fatherhood gives men something to do. If it were not for fathers, real fathers, the world outside the home would be one big cigar bar full of drunk vets with PTSD planning bank heists. And there would be—although women would deny that this is possible—even more sports-talk radio.
Fatherhood introduces men to worry. Worry is not something that comes naturally to men or something we can learn to do on our own. Men know about fear. We can be afraid to jump off the roof of a speeding SUV onto a pile of discarded mattresses. But we have a cure for that. "Hold my beer. Now watch this!"
It would never occur to us to worry about the speeding SUV or the pile of discarded mattresses. We don't get worried until we become fathers. Our woman begins to grow huge. She acquires strange appetites. We worry. Is she going to eat us?
Then we worry that we have to go into the hospital, even though we're feeling fine—indeed quite fine, after three slugs from the vodka bottle when contractions began.
And, more worrisome yet, they want us to go into the delivery room despite the fact that we're not pregnant and no matter how much we explain that we're a lot better at pacing up and down hospital waiting rooms, smoking Lucky Strikes, and paging through decades-old copies of Field & Stream than we are at helping to deliver babies. Which—and this is a real worry—they also want us to do. (More advice: Stay up by your woman's head! Stay up by her head! For God's sake, stay up by her head!)
We worry that the mom is going to die. We worry that the baby is going to die. We worry that, if we don't get more vodka, we're going to die. Welcome to the next twenty-eight years of living, including grad school and the couple of years when the kid moves back in with you "while I find myself."
I say you're in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with the rest of the kids your age, and I say go to Williamsburg and look for yourself there.
Fatherhood introduces men to responsibility, which has also previously been a stranger. No matter how many responsibilities men are supposed to have, we will never, left to our own devices, meet them personally until we are fathers. And, now that we're fathers, the "own devices" that we are "left to" are Graco SnugRide infant seats.
Mr. Traffic Patrol Policeman: "Sir, are you responsible for the installation of this infant seat in the back of your minivan?" You: "Officer, I swear those are brand-new bungee cords."
Fatherhood explains love to men. Previously men used love as a technical term meaning "roll in the hay." Then comes Snookums. And there's not even a proper word for the love you feel. The classical Greeks divided love into four kinds: Eros is certainly not what we're talking about. Nor is philia, brotherly love. Nor agape, benevolent love of the whole world (from the Greek gape, meaning, "had too much wine"). Nor storge, which means mere affection or acceptance or putting up with someone. That's the kind of love the baby's mother feels for you.
Herodotus, a classical Greek, says in The Histories that among the Persians, "Before the age of five a boy lives with the women and never sees his father, the object being to spare the father distress if the child should die in the early stages of its upbringing. In my view this is a sound practice." (Which proves that American public schools might be better than we think and that perhaps too much Herodotus is being taught to students from trailer parks and the inner city.)
Fatherhood presents things for men to fulminate about, fulmination being a favorite activity of the mature male. Those public school educations, for instance. It's bad enough that they're teaching kids to read that old liar Herodotus. But when they start teaching kids that FDR was a role model for differently-abled persons who excel in life ...
"Excel in life, my behind," I fulminate when the kids get home from school. "That communistic, skirt-chasing gimp kept the fact that he was in a wheelchair secret from the public for forty-four years! And don't even get me started on the New Deal! His darn cousin Teddy's Square Deal had already ruined the nation! Then Teddy Roosevelt ran on the Bull Moose third-party ticket in 1912, depriving America of one of its finest and most decent chief executives—and role model for all of us differently waistlined persons—William Howard Taft, thereby allowing the wet-smack, buttinski, warmongering, racist Woodrow Wilson to...." But it seems the kids have wandered from the room.
On the other hand, your children's education sends you back to school again. And this time I was determined to learn something. I followed my children's schoolwork carefully and did fine through the sixth-grade vocabulary quizzes and the multiplication table, up to 7 x 7. Fortunately my kids have been taking Spanish, and I already know all the Spanish I need to know:
"Uno más cerveza fría, por favor."
"¿Donde es el baño por los hombres?"
But then we got to middle school math and there was Chief Soh-Cah-Toa lurking in the primeval forest of Trig, right where he'd scalped me almost fifty years before. Now when my children are studying after school I just tell them, "Beats me. Google it."
Fatherhood provides men with a home. I was a bachelor until my late forties. I had a house—a little house in the woods. There were shotguns and fishing rods propped in the corners. My fly-tying vice was screwed into the dining room tabletop. Firewood was stacked in the kitchen cabinets, conveniently near the woodstove. The chainsaw was in the bathtub. (It leaked oil if I left it on the floor.) And the refrigerator was stocked with beer, bait, cans of hash, a skillet, ammo, and more beer. (Not that cans of hash, skillets, and ammo need to be refrigerated. But putting them in the refrigerator meant I always knew where to find them.) Décor was taxidermy animals and unframed Helmut Newton photographs.
Now I have a home. The refrigerator is filled with yogurt, fruit juice, skim milk, vitamin water, turkey bacon, and what I initially took for a houseplant, but turns out to be "kale." The kitchen cabinets are stacked with five-grain breads, seven-grain breads, nine-grain breads, and breads of grains to the nth power—none of them containing trans fats. Central heating and air-conditioning has been installed, lest the children somehow be baked in the woodstove the way Hansel and Gretel almost were by the Wicked Witch. Wicked Witches being poor role models for parenting. The shotguns are in a closet with a Yale lock on the door. Willow Ware covers the dining room table. Rubber ducks are in the bathtub. And the Helmut Newton photographs have been replaced with pictures of babes of an entirely different type.
Fatherhood defines bravery for men. We thought it involved beer. Now it has a larger meaning. And still involves beer. I have two teenage girls. I'm having a brass plaque engraved for my front door:
This is my house. I am O'Rourke.
Well-armed, well-oiled, and choleric.
These are my daughters. Lay not a hand
Upon them. Now, get off my land.
My children are adored. And they give as good as they get. No one else "adores" a man. A woman (who has lost her contacts and had too many Jell-O shots) may think we're "hot." A man, if he gets a look at the way we secured the infant seat with bungee cords, may think we're "cool." A mom may think we're "good"—when she's talking to another mother who has a son in jail. But Baby thinks the sun shines through our burp cloth. Who else can throw Baby so high in the air and (usually) catch him or her? Who else can get down on the playroom floor and (too plausibly) imitate the Hungry Hungry Hippo? You can prolong this adoration of the almost supernatural powers of the father, if you try. For example, learn to burp the alphabet. The kids will adore you all their lives. (If they're boys. My seventeen-year-old daughter has told me in no uncertain terms not to burp the alphabet in front of her friends.)
Fatherhood makes men proud. Proud of everything your kids do and say. Recently I was deploring the exceedingly messy state of my children's bedrooms and gently urging them to "PUT EVERYTHING BACK WHERE IT CAME FROM!!!"
"What if it came from the floor?" was my ten-year-old son's rejoinder. He'll be chief justice of the Supreme Court someday.
A father always has someone to play with. I play "Hide-theCar-Keys" with my seventeen-year-old daughter. I play Carrie (the original 1976 version) on the DVD over and over again for my fourteen-year-old daughter, so she'll know how to handle bullying at school. And nobody but my ten-year-old son will spend hours in the backyard tossing a baseball instead of doing his homework, or me doing his homework, or me doing my work, or him writing this. Actually our Labrador retriever will play catch, too. But it's hard to get the mitt on her nose and she throws like a girl.
Speaking of which, a father gets to pass along his sports skills and knowledge to his children. "When you're batting," I tell my son, "always pull your lead foot away from home plate. Put 'your foot in the bucket,' as they call it. That way you won't get hit by the pitch." And I tell him, "When you're playing outfield and the other team has a man on third and a man on first and the batter hits a grounder to you, throw the ball to the pitcher. He'll know what to do with it." Things like that.
A father always has someone to laugh at his jokes. For example, when you're driving by a cemetery you say, "The graveyard is the most popular spot in town."
"Why?" the kids will say.
"People are dying to get in."
And the kids will laugh. (If they're boys. My daughters reminded me that we were on our way to Great Aunt Dotty's funeral.)
Plus you can make everybody else laugh with the hilarious things that your kids are always saying. I remember one time when my eldest daughter had just started to talk, and my wife took her to the grocery store. When they came out of the store it was pouring. My wife was standing in the rain outside the minivan, trying to get my daughter buckled into that infant seat I told you about. And my daughter was wiggling around and not cooperating at all, and my wife said, "Mommy is starting to get mad."
To which my daughter replied, "And wet, too."
That one's immortal. And so are you. Fatherhood means your chromosomes will eternally replicate and you will, in a sense, live on and, in a way, perhaps achieve everything you ever hoped for. Such as being president of the United States. I mean, "And wet, too"? That girl will be Hillary Clinton someday.
You live forever. Or maybe it just seems like forever. I'm sixty-seven with three children under eighteen. I just did some math. I'm going to get a huge drink. But I'm also going to get—assuming grad school and a couple of years of finding himself for the youngest—huge bills to pay until 2043.
The Moment You Realize That "Bundle of Joy" Is a Euphemism for Something Very Different Matthew Continetti
Ever since my son was born ten months ago, I've been thinking of a scene from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
The valiant crew of the starship Enterprise has commandeered a Klingon bird-of-prey for their return to planet Earth. Spock, the Vulcan science officer who has just come back from the dead—it's a long story—is on the bridge, where he is monitoring interstellar communications. His longtime friend Leonard "Bones" McCoy, the ship's doctor, approaches him and sits down.
"Perhaps we could cover some philosophical ground," McCoy says, hoping to start a conversation about mortality. "Life, death, life. Things of that nature."
"I did not have time on Vulcan to review the philosophical disciplines," Spock says.
"C'mon, Spock. It's me, McCoy. You really have gone where no man has gone before. Can't you tell me what it felt like?"
"It would be impossible," Spock says, "to discuss the subject without a common frame of reference."
McCoy is flabbergasted.
"You're joking," he says.
"A joke—is a story with a humorous climax?"
"You mean I have to die to discuss your insights on death?"
My attitude toward fatherhood is the same as Spock's attitude toward resurrection. It is impossible to understand unless it is happening—or has already happened—to you. Becoming a father changes one's life so quickly, so substantively, and so comprehensively, one finds it increasingly difficult to identify with, or relate to, single friends and couples who have not crossed the barrier separating the carefree, childfree life from the duty-bound, child-saturated one.
* * *
For example: The other day I asked a single friend of mine what his plans were for the evening. He and his girlfriend maintain a busy social schedule, and I wanted to know if he was free for an impromptu business meeting.
"Well," he told me, "we're thinking of meeting for a drink."
"Ah," I said. "With whom?"
My friend, not having reached the point in life where leaving the house requires an amount of logistical preparation similar to that which preceded the invasion of Normandy, looked upon me with pity.
"With each other," he said. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Dadly Virtues by Jonathan V. Last. Copyright © 2015 Templeton Press. Excerpted by permission of Templeton Press.
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