Sunday -- should you have missed all the ads for ties and watches -- is Father's Day. Here are one man's meditations on fathering, as he experiences it.
For the past 10 years I have spent more than half my time doing what mothers do. I nurture my sons, now 10 and 7, with food, care, play and presence: Being there when needed. The 90 percent presence makes possible, of course, the 10 percent actual snatching from car or beast, nursing a bruised knee or feeling.
Children do not need on schedule.
In my parenting I have discovered the value of the maternal. I treasure memories of feelings given and received. My sons and I already have a long history. Holding, feeding, burping, changing, peek-a-boo, running, swinging, throwing, batting, yelling a lot, fighting, homeworking, and on occasion, a soulful talk when we look, touch and then say the actual words, "I love you."
I feel self-conscious and, at times, embarrassed by my maternal feelings, especially in the presence of men. To admit the maternal is to admit the power of Mother, who taught us nurturing. A typically masculine view associates the maternal with Mama's Boy, acting girlish, or worse, being effeminate.
Most men leave maternal activities and feelings to women.
In my struggle to be a good father I am learning how much I resemble my mother. I have learned to value touch, respect tone, suspect silence and, at times, to stay in view. I can calm my sons; the calming empowers me. I have decoded the rhythmic squeeze/release of a whole wee hand on my finger during feeding: the thank-you-Papa-I know-you-are-there-keep-it-coming-you-are-a-good-daddy -message.
Feeding feeds the feeder.
The care of my sons stirs in me those maternal skills I put to sleep in my struggle to become a man. My 10 years' practice in nurturing, trusting intuition, playing and singing silly, running and skipping, laughing at mistakes, and jumping in leaves are not masculinely marketable.
I can read tiredness in tone, mood in the hang of head, know when hurt feelings are denied. I have seen the soothing power of rocking when hurt holding when tired, hugging when excited. I respect, the renewing power of a warm bath. I can spot a will struggle and recognize energy drops that warn of illness. When passed by in my hiding place, I feel a silly high: I may sometimes giggle.
I learn these maternal skills the same way every mother does; by practice. Maternalism is much more a learned skill than it is instinctive. In repeated experiments young animals seek the caring adult, regardless of gender. Mothering is learned. Ask a new mother.
Nurturing with milk or kindness, trusting intuition, going with the moment, dancing, singing and romping, unseen by the adult world, unleash a playfulness often denied to the masculine world. My mothering has taught me the wisdom of silliness. The masculine endeavors of deciding, competing, achieving, and making money sap the enery of men. As boys we learn well and early that being a man excludes feeling the maternal.
When my first son was born 10 years ago, my wife and I struggled with the parenting-career choices. Gradually, fearfully, we began to think about shared parenting. In the beginning it was not easy and at times, it still is not easy. Though our arrangement gives each of us a balance of parenting and working, we have struggled with sharing our respective roles. The conflicts focus on specifics: for my wife letting me dress the boys for school; for me, having to depend partially on her income.
And there are flashes from the past.
My boyhood was surrounded by women. My three sisters -- two older, one younger -- and I played together. It was great fun, easy, gentle. They gave me their discarded white ice skates. They showed me how to skate. They taught me to throw a ball, jump rope, hopscotch and play house. I did not feel like the sissy. No one does, unless he is told. When I was 10, I graduated from the brook behind our house to the public ice rink, and I got my first lesson in masculinity.
"Hey, Lovett, you skate like a girl."
It was Burbo, my classmate, whizzing by on his long-bladed black racers. I tried to catch up. Too slow. What did he mean? The contempt in his voice hurt. I looked around. Every boy had hockey skates or racers. I looked at my figure skates. A faint black, they still showed the white, despite two coats of Shinola black. Burbo sped by again.
"Hey, Lovett, dig a little harder.
He had not noticed the blackened white skates. It was something else. He was taunting my style. I dug my toe in and pushed. I looked around. No other boy was toe-digging to start. I saw other diggers; all girls. Only girls begin skating with a dig. I felt betrayed.
I had felt that pain before on the ball field, I threw the ball as my sisters had taught me, underhanded. Some laughed. I wound up and threw it hard, underhanded again. More laughs. I refused to cry. Crying was not allowed on the boys' field.
I did not play ball or skate with my sisters again. I promised never again to play any girls' games. By eighth grade Burbo and I were leaders of our capture-the-flag teams. The girls, in two's and three's held hands as they skated slowly by, laughing and taunting. Burbo and I seldom were caught in rescuing-prisoners heroics.
I learned to skate like a boy and throw like Joe Dimaggio. I learned to live like a man.
My sons have taught me the joy of living like a man.
It is this horror of living like a woman, of depending on another, of becoming the contemptuous "ordinary housewife" that I think keeps men sweating at the office and dying 10 years earlier than women. The most powerful lesson of nurturing has been accepting my own need to be cared for and nurtured.
Maternal means to give another food, care, play, acceptance, toleration, discipline. Maternal demands trust of the other.
Maternal is to trust the intuitive, the poetic, the feelings, as sources of learning as much as the rational.
Maternal trusts the value of dependency and passivity as much as achievement and competition.
Had I not chosen to parent my sons, I think much of my nurturing would have remained dormant. Nurturing lies uneasy in the male heart. Yet, who, but a man, hungers more for nurturing. He cannot give what he is unable to receive. And who in the marketplace of competition and goals has time?
Often father-starved and male-friendship-shy, men settle for hard work, or money, or power.
The tightrope between manly example and nurturing person grows narrow as my sons grew older. Will I be man enough to stay maternal? To say I love you to my adolescent boys? To hug them when I feel it? Or will I be girlish to the challenge?
I run four miles every day. I split by hand four cords of wood each winter. And last week someone told me I looked like Pete Rose.