A brief history of the (over)involved father

Do you have to go to every Little League game to be a good dad? An excerpt from "The Bastard on the Couch."

Published April 29, 2004 10:41PM (EDT)

Sometimes it's possible to locate the exact moment when your life changed. In my case, though, it's not so much the moment of change that remains vivid for me; it is the moment of coalescence, the moment when changes that had already taken place began, finally, to make sense. Given how important the movies have always been to me, it seems appropriate that this epiphany hit me while I was watching a movie.

The movie in question was "Kramer vs. Kramer." It had opened in December 1979, roughly coincidental with the birth of my first daughter. But I didn't see it at that time; I was too busy. I was living then the life I had always wanted to live: in a too-small apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, writing plays that were getting produced off-off-Broadway, halfway through a first novel. Oh, did I mention that I had a wife? Mentioning her this late in the game is indicative, I suppose, of how I thought of my life then: achievement was important, with everything else taking a distant second place. Relationships, the birth of children, these were items in the Bildungsroman, but in no way central. If I could be said to contour my life in those days around any image, I think it would be one I grew up with, in the '50s and '60s. It was the image affixed to all those paperback covers I studied in drugstores and supermarket racks, the one featuring a guy with a raincoat slung over his shoulder, a guy on the verge of needing a haircut, with a quizzical, slightly weary, but (don't be fooled) absolutely thrilled look about him. Surrounding this central image were the disembodied heads of women: they were all to somehow feed into this man's story, but the message of the image, and the arrangement of the image, was that he was not to lose any vital part of himself to them. At the end, he was to walk off alone.

In the first two or three years after my daughter was born, I went on trying to live that life, with the raincoat thrown over my shoulder and the weary, sexy, thrilled expression. I went on writing plays and seeing them produced and writing that first novel and seeing it published, and on weekends joining the other parents in Riverside Park, pushing my daughter on the swings and enduring the jostling, competitive chatter of the other Upper West Side parents, until one day I realized I had come to the end of things, or at least to the end of a chapter. It announced itself in nothing very dramatic. One afternoon, after hoisting our daughter's stroller up the stairs of our walkup and entering the dim light of our cramped quarters, I just turned to my wife and said, without knowing I was going to say it, "Let's move."

I didn't mean "to another apartment" or to a suburb. I meant, let's move. To western Massachusetts, in our case, and, given the nature of our marriage then, my wife didn't resist. She was looking to break out of her job as the dessert chef at an insane SoHo restaurant, and the notion of searching for a new career in a more relaxed atmosphere appealed to her. The truth is that I had always been the one to call the shots, the one who cared more about his career, and she was willing to go where I wanted to go. But almost immediately, it seemed, life began to change in ways I'd been unprepared for. My wife took on an interim baking job that required her to work more, not less, than she had in New York, and me, well, all those big thoughts about "career" seemed to get subsumed into a different life, one I hadn't been fully conscious that I was choosing. All I knew was that in place of meetings in theaters and editors' offices, I found myself spending a lot of time in the park, reading to my daughter about a man named Mr. Pumblechoke, and from a book about a mysterious cranberry recipe, a salty sea captain, and a foiled robbery. Our daughter was in day care then, but hell, I was a writer, I could take afternoons off (and it would save us money as well), so I picked her up midway through the day. I gained a new conception of time in that first year: how long afternoons with a child can be. Life seemed to have gone from a tightly shaped thing to something amorphous: sleep, day care, children's books, doctors' visits, puppet shows, library hours. And, oh yes, writing. But writing -- the whole way I thought about it, at least -- began to take on a different weight than it had in the city. In Manhattan, I had thought of children as delightful appendages to the serious business of life: strap them on your back and take them where you need to go. That was where my daughter was -- on my back -- the day I delivered the revised manuscript of my novel to my editor, and one of my all-time favorite moments was standing outside the old Manhattan Theater Club on East 73rd Street while a play of mine was going on inside. It was May, but one of the play's effects had the actors entering the theater from out of a snowstorm. We stood on the street and watched the techie working the snow machine, to my little girl's 2-year-old delight. But now such moments were gone. When a play of mine was done (increasingly rarely) it was done long-distance. Mostly, I was in the park, strapped on the back of my daughter's life: she was taking me where she wanted to go.

It's tempting to say that childhood itself changed when we moved out of the city. But it wouldn't be true. It was me who had changed. I was undergoing what I imagine a lot of men undergo in their mid-30s, particularly those with young kids: that slight dampening of energy, that awareness that the testosterone-fueled will to dominance has given way to a new set of questions: does my life really have to go the way I believed it must in my 20s? The vexing part was, though I can phrase these questions now, I couldn't then. Or maybe I just didn't want to admit to what was happening to me. When my daughter turned 5 and started kindergarten, there was a particular lunchbox she insisted she had to have, and I remember now the intensity of the search for that lunchbox, which was, of course, out of stock everywhere. We drove far afield, in the beautiful late-summer dusk, to Ames and Caldor and Kmart, each of them a tall, beckoning, neon-lit tree on the branches of which the Holy Grail of that phantom lunchbox might be found hanging. Though I felt it intensely, it was still not possible for me to admit consciously that this quest had become more important to me than the quest to complete my troublesome second novel.

There was, at the time, the mid-'80s, a kind of cultural surround helping me along (one might even say pushing me along) in this direction. Every Sunday I looked forward to reading the now-defunct "About Men" column in the New York Times Magazine, in which, week after week, like reciters at an A.A. meeting, one sensitive-guy writer after another would stand up and profess to having lopped off whatever offending organ had stood in the way of his ascension to Better Fatherhood, Better Husbandhood, Better Manhood. (Full disclosure: I wrote one of those columns myself.) The one I remember best was Carey Winfrey's "Taming Ambition," about losing the old fire in the belly after the birth of twins. Everywhere I turned then, it seemed someone was telling me that my less ambitious, more lunchbox-conscious life was the new male life of my times.

But it really wasn't until I saw "Kramer vs. Kramer" that it all came together for me. I saw the movie on video, or maybe on network TV, and this was years after its first release. But life -- at least, my life -- had caught up with "Kramer vs. Kramer." I remember being struck by one scene in particular. It is the one in which Dustin Hoffman, playing Ted Kramer, the hustling ad executive turned full-time dad, is sitting in Central Park, distractedly talking to a mother while his son plays on the Jungle Gym nearby. Suddenly, there's one of those eerie silences in which you know something has gone wrong, followed by a child's wail. Dustin turns to look: his little boy has fallen, his little boy is wounded. He picks the child up and begins running. No empty cabs are to be found on the Upper East Side. He doesn't think to call for an ambulance. He simply runs, presumably toward a hospital, embracing the hurt child, a look on his face of total absorption in the role. Whatever he has been before, he has whittled himself down now to one pure thing: a father.

For Ted Kramer, it pretty much ends there: work will never again have the same meaning for him. He will do it, but only for the money, only so that he can provide for his son. The world of hustle, of power lunches, of office flirtations, all those lubricants of his previously exciting, superficial existence has been seen through. So has ambition itself. He has ascended to a kind of saintliness, and that is where he will stay.

It ought to have settled things for me as well. The "About Men" column, "Kramer vs. Kramer," and all those sons and daughters of it that filled my Saturday afternoons at the movies in the years to come  "Mr. Mom," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Baby Boom," "Parenthood," "Hook" -- they all cohered around a central premise: we (men) were better off when we let go of hustle and allowed our inner nurturer out. I ought to have relaxed and just accepted this. My daughter, after all, was apparently thriving. My wife had gone back to school to become a labor and delivery nurse, and I had landed a nice, soft job teaching at a college. But a part of me couldn't accept this family-centric drift as the inevitable direction life had to take. I didn't know how to name this other part of me, but it bothered me the way grit bothers you when it gathers in the crotch of your bathing suit: only mildly annoying, perhaps removable, but still something to make you twitch. That was what I did for a couple of years after seeing "Kramer vs. Kramer," those years when I was supposedly lapsing into acceptance of this new role: I twitched, without knowing why.

It's doubly appropriate that the answer (if that was what it was) came to me while watching another movie. This time it was a movie I didn't really have to watch, but only to glimpse briefly, on the TV screen of a beach house in Ocean City, Md. We were there with friends, and my daughter, then about 6 or 7, had turned on the TV, midday. We discovered her watching, rapt, an old movie I recognized immediately. It was "40 Pounds of Trouble," a largely forgettable early '60s concoction in which Tony Curtis plays a Las Vegas casino owner, a man about town who is suddenly handed responsibility for a little girl. There is no point in glossing the plot of "40 Pounds of Trouble" except to say that Tony Curtis does not accept this responsibility as Ted Kramer does, by jettisoning everything about his life that made it exciting and fun. Instead, he takes the little girl along. There he was, on that screen, Tony Curtis in all his glory -- sharkskin suit, porkpie hat, shiny sports car -- living the vivid life of an American bachelor, circa 1963. And the little girl beside him in the red sports car -- did she look deprived because Tony hadn't cast all his selfish pursuits aside in order to settle down and read to her about Mr. Pumblechoke? Did she look as though what she wanted above all things was to be clasped to his bosom while he ran through the streets of the Upper East Side, a Saint of Fatherly Protection? Hell no. The little girl was having a ball.

Two things happened to me, simultaneously, as I focused for five or ten minutes on that movie. The first was that I recognized how much inadmissible pain I carried around at the thought of the life I had abandoned: the life of fun and excitement, the life that I once thought had been my natural inheritance as a man. (Whether he is represented by Tony Curtis or the man in the raincoat, he is the same man: call him -- though, admittedly, it doesn't sound quite right -- Homo '50s). Much as the culture had gone to work debunking that man's life, much as the ascension of women as full partners had utterly changed the way most people would regard Homo '50s, I found I couldn't dismiss him, not all the way. His power was still there to haunt me, in the movies, even the silly movies, that stood as testaments to a way men had once believed it was right to live.

The other part of my response had to do with my daughter's reaction, or with what I read into my daughter's reaction. She looked -- well, is "envious" the proper word? Had she, too, been deprived of something in having a father who'd signed on to the '80s notion of fatherhood? There was no way I could know these things, of course, but it began, at the very least, a line of questioning. Hadn't I grown up under the sway of movies like "40 Pounds of Trouble," and hadn't they created in me a fierce desire to become an adult?

What were the images of "Hook" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" -- those adulthood-hating stories we were now telling our children -- doing to my daughter's sense of what was to come? In those movies, whether the parental figure is Robin Williams as the hustling businessman of "Hook" or Michelle Pfeiffer as his female counterpart in "One Fine Day," the main narrative thrust has to do with getting this worker drone to face the boss, jettison work, and sacrifice the career so that he or she can make it to the place where we all truly belong -- on the sidelines of the soccer game!

It may seem silly, or at least wildly eccentric, to have been this affected by watching ten minutes of an old movie. Nonetheless, it began something for me. I started watching more carefully the movies of the '50s and '60s, comparing the culture of those years to the one in which my daughter and I were living. And as a result, I found myself asking more and more questions about the '90s cult of Presence.

Where did it come from, exactly, this new insistence that parents be always present at their children's sporting events, and even at the most minor of school events? '50s children like me had seemed to do fine spending their childhood in roles largely subservient to their parents', unwatched much of the time at our baseball games and school activities, at least not watched with the anxiety with which today's parents watch. As always, the movies offered helpful clues as to what might be going on: at a certain point in the movie "Multiplicity," the chronically overworked Michael Keaton comes home, late at night, to watch a video of his child's grammar school play, one that work has forced him to miss. So dreadful does the play seem that you find yourself thinking he must be secretly glad he missed it, until you look at the screen and see Michael Keaton weeping uncontrollably. It's a deeply unbelievable moment, but it says a great deal about the ways in which, between 1979, when "Kramer vs. Kramer" opened, and 1996, when "Multiplicity" made its bow, a generation of parents enshrined the notion of itself as childhood-worshipers, unforgivable unless we're there, a notion deeply at odds with the experience many of us had as children. No one had bought into this notion more than I had. But I became determined, once I'd seen through it, to sneak away from my identification with Ted Kramer, and to move ever more consciously back toward an earlier version of myself.

Seven years after our first daughter was born, my wife and I found ourselves pregnant with a second. Just as she was about to be born, I was invited to premiere my new play at a prestigious venue that would require me to be away from home for a month. Perish the thought! the more enlightened of our friends all shouted. (The women, mostly; the men tended to keep silent, while looking at me out of the corners of their eyes with a certain envy.) Of course I went. I committed the cardinal sin of missing my new daughter's sixth through tenth weeks on this earth. Further, I did it pretty much without guilt.

It has been, in fact, a different experience with this second child, one who came into existence just as I had determined to take a fresh look at my old, banked ambition. I vowed from the beginning that I would bring her up less guiltily, less voraciously, that I would deliberately miss some of her events, that I would try consciously (at least some of the time) to put Career ahead of Presence. In the past several years, there have indeed been moments when I catch sight of myself in the mirror and can almost see, like the covered page of a palimpsest, the old image -- the man in the raincoat -- looking back at me.

Almost. Mostly what I see in the mirror is a man on whom fatherhood and domestic life have exerted undeniable claims. Yes, I drove this new baby back and forth to rehearsals of a play of mine in New Haven, holding her in the famous crotch-hold while delivering direction to the actors. And yes, ten years later, at another of my plays, I got the tech crew to give her rides on the moving sets, and as I watched her, I could almost convince myself that I was as footloose a careerist as Tony Curtis in "40 Pounds of Trouble." But mostly, what I have to admit is that, having once given myself over to fatherhood as I did, it requires an extreme effort to boost career up to something like an equal footing. In spite of all my "seeing through" what the culture of the '80s and '90s tried to do to us as parents, I have to own up to the fact that those movies were on to something. Give yourself over to a child, and you are more or less spoiled for overweaning ambition.

The remarkable thing about all this is how little it has manifested itself in a struggle between me and my wife. There have been fights, to be sure, but she's also been remarkably generous, and largely unburdened by the conflicts between career and home life that drive me. (It might also help that when I am home, which is most of the time, I am so overbearingly overinvolved with domestic detail that she could well be relieved when I divert a little energy to career.) The battle has come to seem not a marital one but a struggle between competing ideologies I hold within myself: the image of men I grew up with, and could not quite let go of, and the emotional discoveries I made on those long afternoons with my first daughter in the park, which pointed to another way of being. Perhaps the best you can ever expect from a battle between internal contradictions is a truce. As my younger daughter turns 15, and wriggles out of my grasp, the pain I feel at this loss makes it clear that I have used my identification with Homo '50s not as a clear directive, but as a kind of guardianship against excess, a handhold to keep me from slipping entirely into what remains a much-desired embrace.

By Anthony Giardina

Anthony Giardina is the author of "Recent History."

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