The Art of Fathering

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The Art of Manliness is one of my favorite web sites. I’ve written for them before, and I like their take on the restoration of manliness from its tarnished reputation to full luster on the current lexicon. But there seems to be a bit of a debate lately on what manliness actually looks like.

After three weeks at home, some patterns have already been established in our house. We’ve been a two-income house for quite a while, and my wife’s choice to work evenings so as not to have to put Gabrielle in day care means that we’ve had a slightly different house management style than most of our friends.

On a typical week Cheryl’s only weeknight off has been Monday, which is the only day we take care of cooking, dishes and putting the kids to bed together. The rest of the week these chores are mine, even if I had a terrible day at work. My days were often 16 to 18 hours without much down time. I’m not complaining though, the value of raising our kids ourselves as opposed to paying someone else to do it has been tremendous.

Gabbers learns how to cook pasta with her dad.

I started cooking for the household back in college as a way to deal with the stress of studying. It helped me separate my school life from my home life. Cheryl is a great cook, a real meat and potatoes girl with a flare for the traditional. But my creativity with limited resources gave me the starting job as home chef.

And while I don’t like doing dishes any more than any other guy on the planet, I have a pretty firm policy about cleaning up one’s own mess. And I can’t stand starting with a messy kitchen.

I’m still not allowed to do laundry, and I believe this stems from my inability to distinguish certain fabrics and their individual temperature settings. My wife’s domain is the huge laundry pile downstairs, and I don’t think I’d trade her anything for it.

The boys clean their own toilet, as we didn’t want to send them off into the world without the knowledge and ability to clean the porcelain throne. And I’m largely responsible for outdoor projects that don’t involve design work of any kind. I cut grass and move rocks around for the most part.

These tasks have always seemed good to me, and I find joy in them. I would say the same is true for my wife, but I think she actually despises the laundry pile downstairs and secretly wishes it would just disappear one day for good.

We take a pretty split role when it comes to raising the kids. Discipline is handled by whichever parent discovered the sin, and that parent is responsible for handing down swift punishment. Though this is often discussed at some length, as it is felt that I am too lenient on one very cute little girl, whose finger I’m apparently wrapped around. I tend to disagree.
I usually get up with the boys and make sandwiches for their school lunches on weekdays, while Cheryl keeps tabs on their homework so I can focus on getting dinner ready in the afternoons. Really it’s pretty economical and fair.

Being laid off has thrown a bit of a kink in our well-oiled machine as of late. Because I’m home during the afternoon when the kids are out of school, I have been getting hit with homework questions that are quite beyond me. I will admit it freely, I’m not smarter than a 5th grader.

While standing in the kitchen with a dirty apron on stirring a pot of simmering vegetables, I was asked to solve an algebra problem. My bowels quivered momentarily as I thought back to Mr. Nordhagen’s 7th grade pre-algebra class. You’d think I was being asked to solve the question on a board for all the students to mock. I was sweating and cursing to myself while my 12-year-old, who doesn’t think he’s cooler than me, he knows he is, looked on with a raised eye brow.

No doubt looking and sounding like a mad professor straining over a calculation for some chemical concoction, I handed back the scratch paper with my answer on it. My son looked it over and checked it in the back of the book. It was wrong, of course.

My solution was that he should just ask his mother, who is much better at math than me. But I found some redemption at dinner when my 5th grader asked a question about a historical matter for which I was well prepared. You see, I excelled at history, and my sons looked on as if I was a professor of history bequeathing a veritable treasure trove of wisdom buried in the sands of time.

We’re not confused about our roles, and I’m not uncomfortable doing roles that are traditionally described as womens’ roles. I would in fact do laundry if I was allowed, and lord knows I’ve cleaned a toilet or two in my life, not to mention all the diapers I have changed from raising three kids.

This Newsweek article called “Men’s Lib,”  suggests that men need to buckle and take on more of the parenting and chores often associated with stay-at-home moms. The idea is that in the wake of disappearing manly jobs like construction worker, logger, empire builder, men need to be equal in the home and in child rearing and domestic duties as well as jobs that haven’t been traditionally associated with manliness like nursing, social work or teaching.

But what about the American business model for the middle-aged male? Well, there are a lot of us laid off right now who are deciding what to do with careers that have gone seemingly nowhere. The skies are the limit, and if what this article says is true is, well, true, then men can become nurses, social workers and teachers. Indeed, they are becoming these things.

But I would argue that the type of the career really has nothing to do with it. If becoming a nurse is important to you, then you should pursue that. But if building things with your hands and creating words and sentences on paper is important to you, then those are noble things you should pursue. Raising kids won’t change just because men are finding themselves in jobs and roles traditionally belonging to women. Neither will it make for a more reasonable and understanding generation to follow.

Being a better father simply means being a better father. It means carving time out of a busy schedule to create moments for fathering. Things like answering a history question at the dinner table or showing your son how to grill chicken are as effective as game nights and father-son camping trips. All are important, and government induced work leave benefits, as the article mentions, might encourage more of this type of behavior, but most men simply need to understand balance in their lives.

I’m no expert on this, but having the last three weeks off has shown me the importance of balancing my own desires and responsibilities when it comes to my role in the home.

I know the whole nature versus nurture argument, and I do believe men and women are gifted differently in various roles, but I also believe a lot of what we do and why we do it has been established by society for as long as we’ve been forming societies.

To recap, it’s easy to get lost in a gender argument or the imbalance of life when you’re out of work. One is inclined to become lazy or grab responsibilities from their partner as one compensates for the loss of income. But if we’re going to become better fathers, it doesn’t revolve around how much time we spend at home or what activities we do with our kids, it’s far more about finding balance between what we love to do and what we have to do.

Tim

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