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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Boys Will Be Boys

Advice from TV dads

“When a father gives to his son, both laugh; when a son gives to his father, both cry” –William Shakespeare

I had dreams before my first child was born knowing it would be a boy.  A boy with brown curls wrapping his arms around me saying ‘I love you’.   My wife knew the gender of our child, but I asked her not to tell me.  And the only reason my wife knew was because the sonogram technician blurted out what my wife wanted kept secret.  But it stayed a secret to me.  And the fact that I didn’t know the gender of our child meant that no one else did either. So it really was a surprise, for everyone involved.

You see, I truly did not care whether or not my first child was a girl or a boy.  All I cared about was its health and well-being, and my wife’s for that matter.  The gender of my child was not important.  My wife and I chose names for boys and girls. The fact is that even though I surmised my child would be a boy, I did not know for sure; that is, until I saw that dark little head appear, for what seemed like a breathless expanse of space and time, and the nurses declare, ‘it’s a boy’.  

I was elated to have a little boy.  Well, mostly.  It’s not that I wanted a girl more than I wanted a boy.  I already mentioned that gender was a banal subject.  However, even with that being said, I did not want a child to end up as a mini-me.  You see, I was a terror as a child.  One time I stuck gum in my mother’s hair because I was upset at her for not buying me some stupid toy. I had a big wad of chewing gum in my mouth and just stuck it into her newly coiffed hair (she just went to the beauty salon for a haircut).  She needed peanut butter and some scissors to finally get it out.  Then there was the time my mom and I were at the grocery store and she wouldn’t get me some sugary cereal (which I probably didn’t need).  When she wanted me to leave, I started yelling ‘I’m being kidnapped’.  This was a normal occurrence.  Yes, I was that kid.  Another time, I drew with blue marker all over my carpet because I was bored.  Then there was the time that I threw my sister’s doll on the roof and it fell into a pile of snow where our dog later peed.  But what about the tumultuous relationship I had with my own father?  That’s the best example of why I had doubts of having my own son. 

I will spare you the details but in general, my father and I stopped getting along around the time I turned ten or eleven.  I began to see him as pedantically overbearing and frustratingly annoying.  At one point we had a good relationship.  I looked forward to his days off from work.  We would have adventures.  Like the time that he took me to Chicago on a business trip when I was in third grade.  It was a major highlight of my childhood.  I still remember him taking me to the Sears Tower and the Field Museum.  That was also the time that I got sick.  So he bought me my first Shamrock Shake, which I threw out.  Because that didn’t help my upset stomach, he got me a Sprite.  And when I threw that out, he got me just plain old water.  I watched my first hotel in-room movie, Kindergarten Cop.  I still remember all the details vividly.

Truth is, I loved spending time with my dad.  We even used to have ‘men folk’ time, a sacred time every Sunday where he and I would watch The Tracey Ullman show. I only wanted to watch it for The Simpsons when, at its debut in December of 1989, I was eight years old.  I didn’t understand the confused and dysfunctional relationship between Homer and Bart.  My dad and I were nothing like them.  Nothing.  Little did we know, however, we would mimic it line by line, though without the neck strangulation. 

My dad was never openly emotional, physically or otherwise.  He rarely voiced approval and affection.  I can count on my hands the number of times that he said, ‘I’m proud of you, son’ or ‘give me a hug’.  If we had to work on project together, he would usually take over and do the entire thing by himself.  It’s not that he was deadbeat, rotten dad or anything.  He just stopped living up to my expectations of how a dad should act. Because he never knew how to openly show emotion, it created a major barricade between us.  He has always struggled at expressing his disappointment, fear, love, and admiration.  The times that I have hugged him, it’s usually awkward and stiff.  But this doesn’t make my dad a horrible person.  As an adult, now with my own son, I understand how hard it is to express your emotions to your child.  You want to shield and protect them while teaching them everything you know all at the same time.  What do you say?  What do you hold back?  How do you teach them how to ‘be a man’ (properly) without scarring them for life?

You see, I was afraid to have a son, at first, not only because I was a holy terror as a child but because my own father did not express himself exactly as he wanted.  In many ways, for a long time, I saw my father as a failure.  Now, however, I thank him for everything he gave me.  He was not the Wally Cleaver or Mike Brady dad of television fame.  He didn’t sit me down on his lap while he smoked a pipe and fidgeted with the buttons on his cardigan offering sage advice.  My dad didn’t work with me out in the garage building bird houses and pinewood derby cars.  He didn’t play catch with me or teach me how to fish.  It was my father’s father that did more of that.  My grandfather was more of a ‘hand’s on’ father while my dad was content to hire or watch someone else teach me all of these ‘manly’ things.  I don’t hold any grudges, though.  And that’s because I’ve realized that fatherhood should but doesn’t come with a manual.

Despite this, I have been pleasantly surprised at having a son.  I’m not scared anymore whether or not he will turn out like me.  He has some of my disposition.  He likes to play tricks and he is very stubborn.  He doesn’t like hearing ‘no’ and wants everything his way, exactly his way.  Yes, all kids go through this but he definitely gets the impulsivity and egomania from me.  He also likes to perform for guests and he hams it up at every chance he gets.  That’s also me.  However, he is also shy and reserved when meeting new people.  He enjoys numbers and figuring out how things work.  The pieces of his personality that are taciturn and more introverted, he gets from my wife.  The boisterous and humorous is from me.  But, I see a nice melding of me and my wife which makes me breathe easier.  So, he won’t end up a holy terror like I was. Phew!

However, just as my wife did not want a daughter; too much make-up and pink frills.  She didn’t want to go there.  And I was frightened of my son looking to me for answers on how to ‘be a man’.  I’m not the most masculine guy.  I’m not effeminate either, though.  I just fall somewhere in the middle.  I guess I was afraid that I would end up repeating my dad’s mistakes and ending up with my son hating my guts for a long time.  Or, was I afraid of not living up to TV dad’s expectations?  How can I teach my son how to ride a bike if I don’t know how to ride one myself?  How can I teach my son anything about sports when I don’t really understand the rules or like the idea of teams?  More importantly, how can I recreate the bond that my son shares with my wife?  Is it even possible?

Mothers always have that intrinsic automatic bond with their children.  Even though I was adopted, my mother and I have the same type of bond that other mothers have.  Perhaps the bond I share with my mother is somewhat stronger than that of mothers who birth their own sons.  But a father’s bond is not defined by anything biological or spiritual, at least not in the same way.  Traditionally, fathers stand by while mothers change diapers and fuss over weather appropriate clothing.  So where does that leave us dads?

Yes, there is a father’s day too.  But the role of being a father is less defined and transcribed than that of being a mother.  The definition has certainly changed, as there are now more stay at home dads.  In fact, I had a friend in high school, Virginia, whose dad stayed at home to take care of the children while her mom worked full-time.  Today, that is a lot more common place.  Also fathers have a bigger role in selecting the right stroller, car seat, crib, and other baby accessory.  Fathers cook and clean.  Fathers take their daughters to ballet or baseball practice.  Fathers kiss their sons after falling down and hug them whenever a new crucial stage is surpassed.  The question nowadays to ask of fathers is ‘what don’t they do’?

I guess what I’m left with is teaching my son how to be compassionate and morally upright.  I can teach him how to be a good person, a kind and gentle soul.  I can teach him how to be a human being.  I think that counts more than worrying over whether I can teach him how to hook a worm on a fishing line or measure and cut wood for a tree house.  So I will rest easy with the thought that I should be the best father according to what’s in my heart rather than what I read or am already imbibed with.  And anyway, I’d rather have a few flaws that I can fix rather than being fake, TV smile, plastic Ken doll dad. 

And for the record, at almost 32, I love my father and cherish every moment I spend with him.  I’m proud of what he was able to teach me and do for me growing up.  Though, I’d never tell him this.  So even if my own son and I fight when he becomes a moody, angst ridden teenager, I know our relationship will eventually come back around.  No fear, onward we go!

    Paternally yours,


                                               'You're Golden' by The Polyphonic Spree
                   "Bear in mind, you're golden.  Caught up in my eye.  You've stolen my heart."

Some further reading I recommend for reticent fathers:

·     Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon

·     The Book of Dads: Essays on the Joys, Perils, and Humiliations of Fatherhood by Ben George

·     Fatherhood by Bill Cosby

·     So You’re Going to Be a Dad by Nik Scott

·     Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama

·     You’re Not Doing it Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death and other Humiliations by Michael Ian Black

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