When I look into my father's eyes, I see a man I don't know very well. I don't know him because he wasn't around much when we lived in the same house, and neither of us has made much of an effort since. Now we're both fathers, but our experiences as fathers are as different as Prozac and Pez. In just one generation the role has changed into something he couldn't possibly recognize.
My father is an immigrant who didn't finish high school until he was in his 60s. As a young man he built a business and married a woman with a prominent Jewish last name and a master's degree in education. Then he did the only thing that made sense at the time -- worked his ass off and left the child rearing to his wife. He did what was expected of him, not knowing that by working to make our lives better, he'd lost his chance to be a part of them.
My life is different. My father worked hard so I didn't have to, and believe me, I didn't. This pampered childhood led to a lazy adulthood and an antipathy for authority figures that plagued me through my 20s and most of my 30s. Then I got lucky and found a woman who not only put up with my bullshit but found it amusing.
Then, on or about June 29, 1994, my wife went back to work and agreed to leave me alone with our 3-month-old daughter -- my own little independence day. I got to shitcan my lousy job and turn to a career with a future. I had finally found my calling -- as a dad.
But what does that mean anymore, anyway? Who's my role model? Hugh Beaumont? Robert Young? Neil Young? Full-time fathers are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. We're there on the playground (at least I am), but the gaggle of women deconstructing mommy minutiae over by the swing set doesn't know what to do with me/us, so they do nothing.
How stupid is this? I'm there, obviously an enlightened penis bearer, a veritable fountain of male perspective, and I'm a one-man no-fly zone. I know what they're thinking: Either I'm unemployed, which renders me pathetic, or I chose to stay home, which renders me threatening. And if they let me into the conversation coven they won't feel free to bitch about cracked nipples and how their husbands won't go down on them anymore.
It's like some painful junior high school dance -- except I'm on the boys' side of the gym all by myself. I've made lame attempts to infiltrate their ranks, but I don't need to relive that kind of awkwardness. (To be fair, in one-on-one situations most women get positively giddy when they hear that I stay home, and making women giddy is damn good fun.)
Men don't really know what to think of men who stay home, either. Lots of them, when they hear what I do, strike a wistful pose and offer an earnest, "Man, I wish I could do that," which rings as hollow as a chocolate Santa. The fact is that while women have been legitimately complaining for years that they can't have it all, men's claims are every bit as legitimate, if not as time-honored.
If we stay home, we're outcasts, flung from our "natural" role as provider and alpha dog. Less than 1 percent of fathers stay home with their kids, compared with 21 percent of mothers. If we consider, for a moment even, my father's approach, we are cast, quite fairly, as Neanderthals. And if we try to split the difference, we never make full partner at work or at home. We find out what women have known for decades: You can't truly be a star at work if you're truly serious about being there for your kids as often as they need you. There will always be some hotshot who's willing to give up more to get where you could go if not for what you need to do at home.
And at home most fathers take their child-care cues from the mommies, as if possession of a uterus automatically makes you a better parent. Women are typically better parents, but more because of driver's-seat experience than biology. Men are often either reactive or overreactive parents, coming in as a backup to the primary caregiver or as a misdirected disciplinarian, kicking ass and taking names because, well, that's what we can do.
And if by some miracle we do manage to satisfy the scrotum-shriveling demands of husband, father and breadwinner, there's nothing left that's only for us: no time for the ridiculous but cherished rituals of American manhood, things like playing poker with the boys, watching Australian Rules Football with the boys and picking nits from one another's scalps.
I realize that it's unseemly for a man to bitch about something that women have been dealing with for decades. I understand that the 2,000-year-old grip white males have had on world dominance is slipping, and I'm OK with that. It's like Willem Dafoe said in "Platoon": "We've been kicking other people's asses for so long I figured it's time we got ours kicked." He was talking about the U.S. military, but the analogy holds.
The problem for American fathers is that there's no blueprint for what comes next, at least none that is reality based. Looking to television for a reality reflection is absurd in the extreme, but its prism is especially whacked when it comes to poppas. TV loves single fathers, so much so that 51 shows in the 1990s had primary characters who were single male heads of households, a group that in the real world shows up in a full 4 percent of families.
Blend this with the fact that fathers show up as central characters in only about 15 percent of network prime-time shows anyway, add in shlubs like Homer Simpson and Ray Romano and it's no wonder we watch sports all the time. That's where all the good father role models are, right?
Men's groups are obviously on the rise, and though some got started and are fueled by bitterness over America's divorce laws, many seem to be good ideas. Anything that gets my brethren to open up about anything is a good thing, however messy it will inevitably be. And it will be messy, because you don't wake up from thousands of years of emotional hibernation looking good.
But maybe that's the best reason of all to cannonball into the whirlpool of active, involved fathering. Kids have big, brightly colored emotional buttons that scream: "Deal with me!" And you can't deal with their emotions effectively without casting a passing glance at your own, which is a much closer examination than most men have given their emotions since the junior prom.
A generation of emotionally reawakened fathers would be the best thing to happen to American children since "Sesame Street." But as with anything else, we're in a partnership. Changing roles have confused everybody, and if fathers are going to take the bold step of defining and then mastering their new role, then mothers need to be part of the solution.
Mothers need to be less judgmental -- an ounce of shutting up at the right time can build pounds of fatherly confidence -- and realize that different parenting isn't necessarily inferior parenting. When women complain that there are no good men out there, I always respond, "Well, who the hell raised them to be such assholes?" and then I duck. Egos need to be checked at the door and fathers need the freedom to commit dozens of well-intentioned screwups.
And men need to quit being so passive when it comes to their own children. It's an annoying clichi but it's true: Nothing you do in life will be as terrifying, as rewarding or as important as being a father. Learn what you need to learn from your partner or your kids -- hell, read parenting books. (Or do as I do and have your wife summarize them for you.) Just don't whine about it.
It's about choices. My father didn't have many -- most of us do. If you've made the choice to create lives, take the next logical step -- be in them. Yes, it's hard, and at times you'll be worse at it than at anything you've ever tried. But it's the best thing I've ever done, and what's second isn't even on the screen.
Being a father in the year 2000 is an opportunity to be wrong almost incessantly, to have your guts yanked out and stepped on by people wearing Teletubbies sandals, to feel inadequate in nearly every arena of your life and so much more. But it's an opportunity you can't pass up, because the regrets aren't ones you can handle. Just ask my dad.