Reader Request 2004 #4: Fatherhood and Pie
Today, a two parter from Claire:
1. How has fatherhood changed you? What is your experience like as a father? How has it changed your relationship with your wife?
2. Pie or cake?
Well, first: Pie. All the way. I don’t believe this should even be a matter of discussion.
Now that we’ve got the important subject out of the way, let’s talk fatherhood.
As a practical matter, fatherhood’s changed me in that a large portion of my life is now given over to what can be described as “child maintenance” — the myriad things you do for a kid. For example, later this morning (I’m writing this very early) I and Krissy and Athena will go to the local school so Athena can have her entrance examination for kindergarten, which she starts in the fall. They’ll ask her to do her letters and numbers while they also talk to Krissy and me, I imagine primarily to see if we’re complete parental idiots that they’ll have to work around or not (let’s hope not).
Later in the day I’ll drive out to Athena’s preschool to pick her up and take her home; since Krissy has class tonight, I’ll make dinner for Athena, and afterwards we’ll probably go out and play in the yard, then Athena will take a bath and afterward we’ll either play a computer game together or watch some cartoons. Then Athena is off to bed, and Krissy and I alternate getting her ready for that (tonight’s Krissy’s turn). In between all this are the usual conversations, questions and so on that go on between Athena and me on a daily basis. The kid takes up a lot of time, in other words, and I imagine she will for a long time to come. I didn’t have to do any of this kind of thing before becoming a father; now I do.
Which naturally leads to the question of whether I miss having the freedom of not having a kid. I don’t think so. I mean, I do wish sometimes I had more time, especially when I’ve got deadlines and Athena is bugging me to play with her instead, which I can’t do and which can cause me to become irrationally irritated that my five-year-old doesn’t understand daddy has to work. As if any five-year-old grasps the actual concept of work — and particularly in my case. When daddy works from home and is sitting around in a bathrobe at 5pm, and he’s using the same computer the both of you use to play your favorite pinball game, I think it’s fair to say that the already-fuzzy idea of work becomes even more jumbled. So, yeah, a little more time would be nice. Somebody work on that for me.
But otherwise, I’m very happy with the trade. People who don’t have have kids often think about children as a matter of what they require from you (time, money, attention), which are resources taken away from other things. And this is of course entirely true, but only half the equation, since you also get something from your kids in return. I mean, having a kid is a lot of work, but having a kid is also a lot of fun: The reason parents burble on mindlessly about whatever allegedly amusing damn-fool thing their kid did today is because they’re having a ball raising that child, and all those clichéd moments of domestic gooeyness are, in fact, different when they’re happening to you. Kids are not merely a black hole of needs, sucking away your time, money and youth. They are also entertaining. So long as they’re yours.
I don’t think fatherhood has changed my personality much. Parenthood is famous for gentling a person’s soul, but I don’t feel any more gentle concerning the world than I did before. Anyone who’s read the Whatever over any space of time can see that the vector of my personality is speeding toward bitter curmudgeonlyness with nary a bump in the road. Nor has having a child curbed my often black and inappropriate sense of humor — indeed, I often use my child as a willing (nay, enthusiastic) prop for my own amusement. Let’s review:
Having said that, I will admit that one of the completely annoying after-effects of having a kid is that I become much more quickly emotional over incredibly stupid things. Hell, we were watching Brother Bear last week and I was getting all teary at the ending. I could die. I have no doubt that the 25-year-old version of me would be happy to smack around the 35-year-old version of me for getting weepy over greeting card commercials. But at the very least I am aware of how much of ass I look welling up like a soap star at the drop of a hat. I don’t seek out opportunities to have a good cry, you know. And it’s not like I don’t know that most the stuff gets me verklempt is ridiculous and lame. So I don’t know that this qualifies as a change in personality, rather than a change in response. If you see me getting all choked up at something, feel free to mock me.
I am happy to say that being a father has confirmed some things about me that I had hoped would be true once I became a father. I was delighted (and relieved) to discover that once I learned I was going to be a father, no part of my brain started looking, frantic-eyed, for an exit (one part of my brain started obsessing about death, but that’s not the same thing). I also think it’s strengthened my sense of responsibility; I’m still a flake, but less so than before, and if it came down to having to work as, say, a Wal-Mart greeter to keep my family going, I’d be willing to do it (I have a hard time imagining a world in which the only job available to me was “Wal-Mart greeter,” but that’s the point — it’s an extreme example). And the love I feel for my child is, as presumed and hoped, unfathomably huge. I simply cannot conceive of having a regret that this child is in my life. Nothing in the world has ever brought me closer to the feeling of a higher power than she has from the very moment of her arrival. Yes, this is probably overdramatic to say. But it also happens to be true.
It’s also made me, in public at least, a rather more polite person. If there’s one thing that I and the rabidly childfree are in agreement about, it’s that there are far too many ill-mannered sloth spawn rooting about places where other humans need to be, and the reason they’re ill-mannered is because their parents are complete wastes of protein. Yes, you need to allow for kids being kids, and “public” by and large does not imply “adults only.” Even factoring that in, however, there are still too many obnoxious, horrifying children who need to be mulched along with their parents. I don’t want my daughter to be a mulching candidate, so I’m generally on her in public to be polite. Which means that I have to be polite and set the good example because Athena does definitely cue off what I do. It mostly works in both our cases.
Now, on the flip side, having a child has also made me aware of some of the less attractive aspects of my personality as well. For one thing, I’m lazy and stubborn; sometimes Athena wants to do something with me, and I just don’t wanna. Sometimes I just want to do my own thing, waaaah. For another, I don’t gradiate my anger well; I have a tendency to be very calm as I become progressively irritated and then I suddenly become, well, not calm. This is a decent anger response for adults (it keeps me from saying or doing incredibly stupid things, and most of the time whatever’s irritating me goes away before I go ballistic), but it’s really not great for a kid, especially for kids who (like Athena) take a certain delight in trying to see how much they can get away with before they get in trouble. My problem is that I don’t communicate to Athena that she’s crossed a line until she’s so far over it that she’s not only on the way to Trouble Town, she’s in fact a longtime resident and running for Mayor. As a result, Athena is confused (and a little scared) by a sudden and to her mind inexplicable confrontation with Angry, Angry Daddy. Where did he come from? He wasn’t here two seconds ago! It’s a failing in regards to my daughter. In this matter, I’m trying to make myself more like Krissy, who shows her displeasure quicker but also doesn’t allow herself to get as revved-up as I get.
(In case you’re wondering, the appearance of Angry, Angry Daddy is not followed by a series of beatings. I’m not opposed to spanking, but I also think that you save it for when nothing else works and your child is bent on a behavior that’s going to get her killed — constantly sticking knives in wall sockets would be a good example. Athena is a child who has a sufficient enough learning curve that I can count the number of times Krissy or I have spanked her and still have fingers left over. We are both unbelievably thankful for this.)
As for how being a father has changed my relationship with my wife: Buckle in, kids, because it’s going get sappy. I happen to think my wife is a tremendous mother. For one thing, she’s got a maternal instinct that borders on the terrifying; get between her and her kid and she will gnaw on your heart. If you don’t think I mean this literally, well, I’ll pray for you. For another, she’s always smart with, fair to and respectful of Athena, and as such is a positive model for me as a parent. The realization that she is a great parent on top of all her other qualities reminds me that I hit the karmic lottery in duping her to marry me, and that I’d best be spending the next 50 or 60 years making sure she does not experience buyer’s regret.
All this mushiness aside, the parenthood aspect of our relationship is something of which we’re always mindful. We talk to each other about what’s going on with Athena so we can make sure she doesn’t get conflicting signals from us as parents; when Athena is stressing one of us out the other will swoop in to give the stressed-out one a break; and (I think very importantly), we make sure that Athena sees how much the two of us love each other and also love her. I don’t believe Krissy and I have ever been angry with each other around her (a nice side effect of generally not being angry with each other at all), and any disagreements we do have are generally handled when she’s not around. Athena’s going to have her own neuroses to develop; best not to add to them if we can avoid it.
As with any parents married to each other, we do have to make sure that our entire relationship and life doesn’t revolve around Athena, which means making sure we take the time to spend time with each other. It helps tremendously to have family around for this (family was why I got my ass hauled to Ohio by Krissy, and it was the correct decision on her part), but even just during day-to-day life peeling off some personal time makes a real difference. We also make sure we allow each other time to other things, too. Krissy likes to go out with friends some evenings, and I’ll happily watch Athena so she can do that. Sometimes I like to disappear in my office to write or play a game or read or whatever; Krissy keeps Athena amused and distracted so I can have that time.
It’s just part of the work of maintaining a relationship. But the rewards are significant, in that I I can honestly say I admire and desire my wife more now today than when we didn’t have Athena. All in all, it’s an excellent relationship (from my end at least), and if it’s been changed by fatherhood, I suspect it’s been for the better.
So, in sum: Thumbs up on fatherhood. Lots of work, and lots of reward — the former being integral to the latter. Is it for everyone? Probably not. But it’s for me.
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