Sunday, April 10, 2011


Many years ago, before I was smart, I dated a woman who was a sort of second aunt to a couple of kids. These kids – a boy and a girl – were the offspring of a friend of my girlfriend’s sister. At birthday time, the parents would have to vet the gifts kids were getting because they had a violent reaction to the standard gifts kids get. For the boy, nothing with guns, fictitious laser guns or otherwise. For the girls, no Barbies.

No mention was made as to whether the girl could get guns.

It was explained to me in no uncertain terms by my hyper-liberal girlfriend that Barbies were about as bad as toys can get, with the vomitous pink and purple palette and the unrealistic physical ideal that all girls are shown they have to live up to.

I asked if that meant that every girl who gets Barbies wants to be less than a foot tall, but questions were not allowed. This was the Way It Should Be.

Moving forward several years, and several relationship IQ points higher, as Kari and I got engaged and got married and got pregnant, I joked with her constantly that I was destined to have girls. I never knew how to talk to them (and remain a smartass no matter what gender I’m talking to), so I fully expect that God, with His wicked sense of humor, would make me the father of little girls.

And He did. (Although if you ever saw my girls, you would note that the “little” designation is not remotely accurate.) It will never be known what kind of toys Cathleen would have played with as she got older, but now that Josie is going to be five in August, one thing is perfectly clear: she LOVES her Barbies.

And to my ex-girlfriend – and any other folks who wish to judge me – I don’t care.

What does Josie do with them? She changes their clothes, shares them with her friends, has adventures with them, washes their hair, tucks them into bed. She just loves to play, and as she does, she is learning how to be an empathetic person. Listening to her play, and use her imagination, is one of the joys of my life, and it turns out that she has her Barbies also share, play nice, and be otherwise empathetic.

I can’t imagine that of the millions of Barbies sold over the years that every girl who plays with them ends up with a poor body image. That kind of negative thinking comes from far more than Barbies, and it’s up to us as parents to create a context so that we raise a young woman who is confident and not afraid to be smart, funny, and her own person. We also work to develop her interests in other ways: Josie adores drawing, loves books, and loves to roughhouse at the park.

As parents, we also have a monumental responsibility to mold our children, to raise them right. Josie has no concept as to the politics of Barbie: to her, they are dolls to be played with, nothing more, nothing less. The concept of Barbie as devil’s plaything is the kind of context that we as adults place on things. We all know that children are a tabula rasa, and what Kari and I do is reinforce Josie’s other interests as well as engage her intelligence and creativity. We also waste no opportunity to tell her how beautiful and smart she is.

The lesson is being learned: we are reminded on a constant basis, by no less an expert than Josie, that she is smarter than everyone.

So my question is this: when she grows up to be the talented, smart, and good person she is likely going to be, should we then give credit to Barbie?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

In this world that we live in, where duplicity is the norm, there are some things that seem to mislead more than any other. Such things are insidious and require you to consider the opposite. Included in this are such time-honored deceptions as:

--Athletes or team owners who say they care most about the fans.
--Politicians of any stripe that suggest that all Americans feel one way or another about an issue.
--That the musicians getting are getting back to their roots and keeping it real, and coming up with digitally recorded musical fecal matter like “St. Anger”.

But the real insidiousness is when you come across a magazine, website, or other media that has the word “Parenting” in it. Because it’s not about parenting – it’s about moms.

Now, I get that moms have a tough job. (I mean, I live with one, and I’m neither blind nor an idiot. By which I mean I’m not blind.) And I know that single mothers have a particularly tough row to hoe; there are some who are personal heroes (heroines?) of mine. But for the most part, “parenting” requires two people. (This is different from mere procreation, which requires parts of two people, not necessarily including heart and soul.)

The latest focus of my dad-sized ire is an article I came across on CNN. It was called “20 things moms should never feel guilty about.” I live with a mom who has a tendency to feel guilty about things, and I’ve made sure she understands that if she was home with a newborn and, say, laundry or dishes didn’t get done as fast as she would like, or if we had to order pizza because she was too tired, it was fine. I can run the freakin’ washing machine, and I’m more than happy to hand-wash the baby bottles. (Just don’t get mushrooms on the pizza. I HATE mushrooms.)

But reading this article, which was in the Living section of, it appears that there is one particular thing moms should not feel guilty about: lying.

As Jules from “Pulp Fiction” might say: “Example?”

Telling your partner you’re going to the doctor for a checkup when you’re actually going for a massage, pedicure, or to have your hair highlighted (it’s not like he’s going to notice anyway).

Which is immediately followed up with:

Paying cash for your massage/pedicure/highlights so he won't discover the credit card charge.

I would suggest that not noticing a hair change in a new mom might be due to a dad’s sleep deprivation. Although, if you believe this magazine dads get to sleep through the night. But if my wife was telling me she was going to the doctor, I’d want to know how the appointment went, and was everything okay, and were there any complications from childbirth. I might not get to bear children and I might not understand that pain and discomfort, but I sure as shootin’ want to be sure my family is alright.

Stereotypes exist because there is some truth in them, but they are also hazardous to perpetuate. Women acting like their partners don’t care can engender partners who don’t care. And partners who don’t care can then engender children who aren’t kind or empathetic.

Particularly egregious are lies like this one:

Putting on the Baby Einstein DVD for the third time before lunch so you can apply some makeup because that cute landscaping guy is due to come by and cut your grass sometime this afternoon (just because you don't want to have sex doesn't mean you're dead).

So apparently, new moms should not feel guilty of not only not including their partners on the details of the day, but completely emasculating them! That’s nice!

There are others in this vein, assuring moms that lying to their in-laws, parents, friends, and so on are just okay. (Kids don’t pick up on this sort of thing at all.)

The worst, though, was the final one:

Driving your baby home from the mall with poop in his diaper because the bathroom is all the way at the other end and you know he couldn't care less anyway.

Lying to the men in your life can’t start early enough!

I find particularly telling the use of the pronoun “he” in this one – anyone who has had baby daughters know that one of the worst things you can do is to not change her right away – poop in the urinary tract is a hazard of little baby girls. But boys? Fuck ‘em, unless they’re your husbands or partners – those you can simply ignore.

In 2011, are we still so blinkered that it’s okay to consider fathers as nothing more than procreative machines, that they don’t have a role in the nurturing of children? Yes, such men exist – and they deserve scorn and approbation. But when you call a media site “Parenting”, you would expect that somewhere, somehow, the roles of fathers would be acknowledged.

I mean, acknowledged positively. (Some of us do notice these things.)

When you travel to their website, one of the topic choices is “moms.” There is no topic choice that includes “dads.” The fathers of my generation, the men in my group of friends are subverting the stereotype: we change diapers, we go to the doctor’s appointments, we take and pick up from school and help with homework. We nurture. And we don’t leave the mall with a poopy baby – if you can’t make it to the other end of the mall, I’ve discovered that the passenger seat of the car serves nicely as a changing table.

My daughter is going to be raised knowing that men care deeply about raising their children, and that we’re more than just sperm donors and ATMs. You’d think that a magazine or website called “Parenting” would recognize this as something that is proven to have an impact on the health and well-being of girls.

But why would they want to? Then they might not subscribe to “Parenting.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Send in the Clown! The Crying-on-the-Inside Clown!

Cathleen has been gone four years now – since July 29, 2006. The grief, however, is not gone, nor do I expect it ever to be. I still cry over what I consider to be the ecclesiastical injustice of her dying so young but Pol Pot making it to 89. I still mourn the loss on a regular basis. But as time has passed, I’ve started to realize that the anger and grief that I feel can be channeled into something positive.

Now, it goes without saying that there is nothing positive about watching your child suffer and die in your arms. (But I’ll say it anyway, because I love to hear myself talk.) If I didn’t have Josie and Kari, I likely would have let the situation paralyze me, and I’d bet that most of you would understand why. In the last year, though, it’s become clear that although Cathleen was only physically with me for 18 months, she left a legacy that needed to be carried on. A life that short could still have a powerful meaning.

The challenge: define that meaning. Of course, I’m not even sure what the meaning of my life is, much less the meaning of life of a little girl who could only say two words. (“Hi” and “No”, if you’re wondering. The contradictory nature of the two words just shows how complex she was.) And if even if I could figure out what that meaning was, what could I do to live up to it, to share it – to make her legacy live on far beyond her time on earth.

It was like figuring out Fermat’s Last Theorem: The Grief Version.

Kari and I considered starting a foundation. The problem with that was we didn’t have time to do it right, particularly with a newborn, and if we didn’t do it right it would not honor Cathleen the way we wanted it to. We sponsored a team for a brain tumor run and I donated money through my office. I can’t speak for Kari (and since this is my blog, I don’t have to), but for me none of these things, though worthy, were enough.

Although it took almost the whole four years, the answer came, delivered not by providence, but by the U.S. Postal Service.

We get quarterly newsletters from the Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation, or CBTF. This is a small organization based in New York that uses a network of people – parents of patients, survivors, doctors, and the like – to advocate for and fund pediatric brain tumor research. It also provides support to families who are going through brain tumor treatment, not only to the patients but to the parents as well. During Cathleen’s treatment, they provided a great deal of help and information to Kari and me, as well as bags of treats and toys for Cathleen.

But after Cathleen died, it was hard for us to identify any support groups that understood about what we went through as parents of a brain tumor patient – the suffering, the wasting, the good days, the bad days, and then the worst days after we lost our child. We joined a terrific bereaved parents group that was identified through our hospice. The group is great, but as it is for parents who lose kids in varieties of ways – not only diseases like cancer, but car accidents, brain hemorrhages, and bulimia-related cardiac arrests – it didn’t quite offer the focus that I needed. There were also a marked lack of men in the group, particularly now. Most of the dads that were coming when I was there initially have stopped coming. Only one dad comes regularly, and he usually alternates months with his wife.

As should be no surprise, men and women deal with grief differently. As time marched on away from Cathleen’s death, as time is wont to do, an idea began to germinate in my mind. I wondered if it was possible to help other parents as they grieved. I am a battle-scarred veteran with empathy and insight, I thought grandiloquently. Can I use that for someone’s benefit?

It turned out that the most recent quarterly newsletter from CBTF had a note that caught my eye. It turns out that they have a parent-to-parent grief mentoring project. I had no idea such a thing existed. I would have availed myself of it.

What’s interesting is that in our last group meeting, held about a week prior to getting this mailing, I had talked about how much I ached to do something to honor Cathleen’s legacy. And all this time it appeared that the first step in doing so was to call a toll-free number.

I know that there will be some of you who will assure me that God put that newsletter in my hands. You can believe that if you want. While the postal service put the newsletter in my hands, I believe it was Cathleen making sure that I read the article and saw the phone number.

Clearly, Daddy’s Girl is still looking out for him.

I made the call, talked to the lovely lady who is responsible for coordinating the parents, and I am now awaiting training, which will likely happen sometime in September.

Whether or not I’ll be able to specialize, as it were, in working with fathers, I finally have found something that I would hope would make Cathleen proud. It also gives me an opportunity to talk about her on a regular basis.

I’m not sure what it is going to mean, being a grief mentor, once I am doing it. It feels a little like being in the grief airborne division, jumping in to provide whatever succor I can to someone who is in the rawest part of their personal war.

But I’m pretty sure I don’t have to worry too much. Cathleen helped me this far. She’ll help me figure it out the rest of the way.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Arts Jobs and Families CAN Peacefully Co-exist

During a review at one of my previous jobs – very previous, if you get my drift – I got into one of my perpetual arguments with my supervisor about family life. I was agitating about work/life balance, when he said to me that it was clear that family was important to me.

“Of course it is,” I responded. My supervisor only had a tenuous grasp of the obvious, so this was a remarkable statement coming from him.

He cast his face in the softest way he could, trying to look as sympathetic as a machine could be. “Maybe production is not the right field for you.”

Like I said, a tenuous grasp of the obvious.

I’ve spent time in fields other than performing arts production, and I hated them. (For starters, I had to wear uncomfortable shoes.) As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that there is nothing more exciting to me than to be backstage, helping artists create or perform, and watching as one-time-only art is created right in front of me. I love what I do and wouldn’t do anything else.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also realized that there is nothing more important than my family. Like the art that I pursue, my family is one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable once lost.

This is not just a factor of losing a child. One of the reasons that touring never appealed to me was because of its rootless nature. It’s right for some, but not for me. I wanted to settle down, have a wife, have children, a house, a dog. Cathleen’s sickness and death just threw everything into sharper focus. I went from making work/life balance a priority to making it THE priority. There were plenty of times that I got into actual screaming arguments with my supervisor about this, and in the process became a work/life balance zealot.

But in doing so, I ran headlong into my profession’s often unreasonable demands on my time.

I can accept – begrudgingly, I admit – that I will never become wealthy being a production manager. Money issues in the performing arts have driven a large number of very talented people out of the field, people I respect and wish I could work with again. I think that what I and my colleagues do have a much larger positive impact on the world than, say “Jersey Shore” or “The Bachelor,” so the fact that we are not compensated equivalently does smack of inequity. But my father worked for 35 or so years as a government employee simply to survive and raise a family, never getting to do what he was really interested in doing and working in places where his talents were never appreciated appropriately. The community of historians and academicians is the poorer for it, too. I swore – and still swear – that I will not let that happen to me.

However, the key phrase in there is “raise a family.” He made it clear that he was willing to do what it would take to raise his family the best he could. I also swore that I would do that, too.

Of course, it helps that I have a wife who believes in what I do and who is willing to work with me to compromise and adjust schedules as needed. True, she brings in the greater income, but she also knows that I am who I am, and so I have to do what I do. It can be tough – I have 65 or so days during the year where I’m out on a weeknight until midnight or gone all weekend for shows – but I’ve done the best that I can to make my schedule flexible at other times. I don’t always succeed, and I do get grumpy when I’m tired but have to entertain and feed and sometimes bathe Josie before my wife comes home. It’s usually time like that that Josie says or does something awesome, reminding me why it is so important for me to be there for her.

After all, as I have expressed on numerous occasions when people give me a hard time: I have lost the opportunity to see one daughter grow up. I will not lose another.

For the first time in I don’t know how long, I have a boss that understands that. She demands that the work gets done, but doesn’t begrudge when Josie has to go to the doctor or if I have to pick her up early from school. And when I interviewed for the job, I made it clear that my family came first. Kari asked me how I express that in interviews. I told her that I said, “My family comes first.”

They hired me anyway. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have minded, because it wouldn’t have been a place I wanted to work.

For the vast majority of us, the arts are never going to make anyone rich. (How does the line go about Broadway producers? “You can’t make a living, but you can make a killing.”) So the resistance of some bosses – including my former boss and my wife’s current one – to allow for the compromise of getting the work done as long as families are given primacy of place is baffling to me. We don’t make enough money to hire nannies, and that’s not how we choose to raise our kids anyway. As important as I consider what we do, we aren’t curing cancer. We are, to some extent, willing to make some economic sacrifices to pursue and, if possible, make a living at doing something that has rewards that transcend the monetary. Besides, having kids gives us a built-in audience, thereby expanding the audience in the future. We make the compromises and sacrifices we have to – monetarily, during tech weeks, or other times where the pressure is greatest – but we should not be asked, lock, stock, and barrel, to sacrifice family.

And yet, repeatedly, managers ask us to do this. This puts people like me on edge, and makes people like my former boss complacent. Not coincidentally, he didn’t have a family.

When I attended USITT a few years ago, I sat in on the Human Issues Caucus, which began as an outlet for gay and lesbian people in the production field. It then expanded to include women. While discrimination in the arts production field does impact these groups, it also impacts anyone – gays, lesbians, women, AND men – who wish to balance their work lives with their family responsibilities. I was surprised that no one in this little caucus would consider family life as a human issue. To me, it’s one of the most important ones.

Pursuing what we love vocationally should not preclude our having a family. The hours are already hard and long enough, and the pay already low enough, without having it be an expectation that work in the arts excludes a life outside the theater. Anyone who wants to keep that balance has an obligation to fight for it until the culture shifts. And until that time, I will be a zealot and piss off whoever needs to be pissed off. After all, I've lost jobs and replaced them. I can't replace family that is lost.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Fringes Should Only Be on Blankets

I was fully expecting last weekend to be a weekend that would go down in the annals of horror. H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe – none of them, nor any of their ilk, would be able to describe the insanity and utter darkness that the weekend would hold.

Yes, that’s right. I went to a four-year-old’s birthday party. By myself. (Well, I went as Josie’s date. I’m not THAT creepy.)

When presented with the necessity to go to this party, thoughts of being the only adult on the island of “Lord of the Flies” occurred to me. I haven’t been to too many kid’s parties, other than the ones I’ve thrown for my kids.

“And that’s exactly why you should do it,” Kari said to me.

“But isn’t that a mother’s job? To go to the birthday parties?”

After much agitation on my part, she reminded me that I get upset with the stereotypes, so I should get over myself and take Josie to the party.

I agreed with her about the stereotype, but insisted that my desire to avoid the Lollipop Guild sprung from an honest laziness which had nothing to do with stereotypes.

It may come as a surprise that I didn’t win with that line of argument, either. Plus, she had a nail appointment. So off I went.

The party was for a little boy at Josie’s school named Jack. He lived close, so Josie and I could walk there. On the way, we stopped at almost every flowering plant and tree so Josie could point out the flowers and remark that they were either cool, beautiful, or cool AND beautiful. Walking hand-in-hand with my daughter on a beautiful spring day was clearly going to be the best part of the day. This was something I should do more often.

Jack’s mom is a schoolteacher, so organizing kid’s activities is her forte. So when we got there, there was a craft table to make crowns (which Josie then wore for the rest of the day), followed by an Easter Egg hunt, followed by cake, followed by a sack race. Four-year-olds, though, tend to have a different idea of what constitutes fun, so other than the egg hunt (and its promise of candy) and the cake (with its promise of copious amounts of sugar), running around and screaming provided the bulk of the afternoon’s activities.

I didn’t know if it meant I was lazy or astute by having Josie’s party revolve around sprinklers and balls in the backyard.

We were among an early group of arrivals, and I was surprised to see that most of the kids were brought by their fathers. I felt a little smug: look at me and all these other Modern Dads. I stood there making idle small talk with some of the fathers, something I’m remarkably bad at: usually the conversation ends up orbiting the topic of my daughter’s height – she’ll be 4 in August and is already taller than most of the 4 and some of the 5-year-olds in her class. I took the opportunity to watch her with her classmates.

It was clear, when she was young, that Cathleen was going to have Kari’s personality – very effervescent, very welcoming, easy to be around, very social. Josie, on the other hand, is more like me: reserved when she’s around new people, friendly and social when she warms up to the situation, fun when she’s comfortable.

It turns out, she is a LOT like me. And I don’t necessarily think in a good way.

It might be because she’s tall, so people mistake her for an older kid who has a more developed maturity level, or it might be because little kids are intimidated by her, but she’s a bit of an outlier. She watches what is going on and then participates, usually following, hardly ever leading. This was made most clear when a girl in kindergarten – much older than Josie, really – essentially dragged Josie away from where the kids were playing a game only they knew the rules to, and told her to go find more eggs on the lawn. Josie had an expression that shuffled between confusion and hurt until I went over to her and told her she could do whatever she wanted.

It was very disheartening to see that, to see someone as nice, friendly, and beautiful as my child following in my footsteps in this way. I was always the kind of person who would wait on the edges until the middle was established, and then I’d jump in. But I was the fat kid, so I was an easy target. Josie is not that way at all; I hoped and hoped that my children wouldn’t be like me.

I watched her play with her friends – she clearly is well-liked, as there are a couple of little girls who like to give her hugs. But as they ran around the yard, she ran behind them. She followed the lead of the other kids who drew with sidewalk chalk. She looked like she was having a good time (older mean kid notwithstanding). In the meantime, I stood off and listened to the other parents talk about taking their kids to the zoo once a month, and seeing how familiar several of the parents were with each other when I barely know anyone’s name.

I’d call this ironic if it didn’t make me so sad. Because where I was, that day, was where I didn’t want her to be.

I have never been good with other people. I have some friends, many of whom I adore. But many of them don’t hear from me because solitude has become a greater comfort. Everyone enjoys time to breathe, to be within themselves, to have the noise of the outside world cease even for just a moment. But as I’ve gotten older, solitude became a cloak that was warm and comfortable and far more handy than the warmth of other people. (I mean, I don’t have to call solitude up on the phone. Solitude keeps very quiet.) Listening to the parents who have begun forming their own community makes me wonder if that cloak is actually a cloak of antisocialness, and it makes me wonder what I’m missing, or if I’ve missed it altogether.

But I don’t want Josie to miss it. I just don’t know how to do it. I wonder how two parents, who love their kids beyond measure, but who are as busy as we are, can involve our child in the world around her. Day care and school is not an optional expense for us – we both have to work, so the zoo during the week isn’t possible. More and more, thought, it seems like errands during the week can’t happen either, so our weekends get busy with chores. We spend much of the time together, so at least there’s that. But it’s not the optimal life for Josie. Is it?

Being an outlier is not necessarily the worst thing in the world. Many are remarkably successful. She’s smart and funny (clearly, attributes she got from me), and like I said, she’s friendly when she warms to the crowd. So her exclusion from the crowd is not preordained. Then again, neither was mine, but my parents were not hugely social either. I want her to be part of the world, a participant in it, not merely spinning around its orbit.

I don’t like parties. Josie does. I want her to stay like that.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Nobody Expects a Parade Disquisition

My self-esteem is in much better shape than it used to be. Of course, I have some issues; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have this intermittent blog. (My issues are not intermittent. My availability to share them with my audience in the lower single digits, however, is.)

Nevertheless, whatever your level of self-esteem, it’s always nice to receive some validation other than to exit a parking garage cheaply. Non-garage validation can come from a variety of sources: a spouse thanking you for taking care of your child while she has to work late, your child saying you are her superhero, your parents telling you how proud they are of you.

Then there are the unlikely places you find affirmation. Co-workers you don’t get along with telling you how calm you are in a crisis, a neighbor complimenting your garden when you clearly don’t have a green thumb, complete strangers telling you how much they like the way you dress.

(Okay, I made that last one up, moving from the realm of affirmation into fantasy.)

But never in my wildest dreams would I expect to find affirmation from the Land of Small Words, the Town Crier of Small Minds, the Bathroom Reading of America.

Yes, I’m speaking of Parade magazine.

For those of you who don’t subscribe to the newspaper – and you should subscribe to your local newspaper – Parade is a supplement in the Sunday paper. You usually find it mixed in with the ads for blinds and the Best Buy circular. It is provided free to the papers, while at the same time providing a powerful advertising tool.

This Sunday, April 4, Parade featured such things as:
--Walter Scott’s Personality Parade, which is actually written by right-wing hatchet man Edward Klein.
--Ads for such healthy fare as Pepsi, frozen pizzas, and regular salad dressings.
--In place of its normal advertising for commemorative plates, an ad for a prayer cross that shines the Lord’s Prayer on the wall if you shine light through it
--Ask Marilyn, a column of puzzlers with Marilyn vos Savant, who is no longer billed as the world’s smartest woman (although a gig that has been as ongoing as hers in Parade – since 1986 – certainly makes her savvy, if not smart).
--A standard softball interview with celebrities, this time Tina Fey and Steve Carrell.

At least they don’t have the hi-LARIOUS escapades of Howard Huge anymore. Howard Huge is a big dog that makes Marmaduke look as funny as, well, Tina Fey or Steve Carrell.

I don’t even read Parade anymore, and wouldn’t be writing about it, if there wasn’t an article on the back page (the part of the magazine called “BackPage”) that caught my wife’s eye.

It is called “A Dad Who Handles it All,” with the tag: “Kids need new stories about the real fathers and mothers in their lives.”

It’s an article written by an actual journalist, Connie Shultz, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. She has her mid-America bona fides for Parade, though – she’s married to Sherrod Brown, a U.S. Senator from Ohio.

She writes about how her son Andrew, who is an exemplary father to a son, is irritated by the lack of good stories about fathers. An example was his frustration at a kid’s book that seems innocuous, but actually has as a plot point a father’s failure. Shultz recognizes that she didn’t think it through, apologizes in print, and then provides a story of a good father: her son.

Shultz extols the kind of father her son is, the kind of father pretty much all dads of my generation are: “From the start, he knew the difference between the hungry cry and the lonely wail and, like every young mother I’ve ever known, shared updates of incremental changes in his baby’s gastrointestinal habits as if they were breaking news.”

(“Gastrointestinal,” by the way, is the longest word ever printed in Parade magazine.)

She says, “I embarked on a search for children’s books full of smart and capable daddies,” and although she said she found some (which is harder than she makes it appear), she very touchingly tells the story of her son, who started out as Andy and becomes a generous, gentle father. As she “fills the pages” of her story, she says, “Clever Grandma thinks (grandson) Clayton will love his new book. Because in this story, Daddy is a hero.”

I told my wife how surprised I was that Parade had this article. She accused me of being unappreciative.

“I didn’t say I wasn’t appreciative,” I responded. “I’m just surprised.”

I’m surprised that this article appeared at all, much less in Parade. Usually, this kind of article only rears its head around Father’s Day, and even then it’s more about the unusual, like the single dad who adopted 10 or so kids. Very seldom do you hear anything about the day-to-day of fathering, about the normal life most dads of my generation lead. Even Parade had to hedge their audience bets, putting “mothers” in the subtitle when mothers played little part in what Schultz was trying to say.

It’s highly likely that next week there will be more stories or features on mother’s issues. I will, however, enjoy this moment, and enjoy a little validation.

Having some mid-American recognition that fathers are more than sperm donors and bread winners can’t help but move the needle on cultural recognition of the importance and competence of fathers, even incrementally. And the more stories like this are told – and the more we tell our own stories – the more that fathering is going to be considered a greater part of parenting than it feels like it is now.

Friday, March 12, 2010

You May Ask Yourself, My God, What Have I Done?

Three days after we buried Cathleen, Josie was born.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that was quite a week. A guy I used to work with came up to me and said that he didn’t know if he should offer condolences or congratulations.

“Both are appropriate,” I said. “It’s nice being twice as right as normal.”

What this means is that Josie never knew her older sister (at least on this plane of existence). Although I’ve been a parent for five years, and have had two daughters, I have only had one daughter at a time. (Again, at least on this plane.)

As the grief at Cathleen’s death began to abate – although it did not disappear – and as Josie got older, Kari began to talk to me about having another baby. I claimed that I was ambivalent about it, but my words tended to be a great deal more forceful.

“Josie needs a sibling,” Kari said to me.
“Josie HAS a sibling,” I said, forcefully enough to end the conversation.

Of course, Josie didn’t have a sibling that she could actually play with, fight with, or otherwise hang out with. There was a definite pang when we would go to the playground, and Josie would be running around trying to play with the other kids, most of who had a brother or sister in tow. I would begin to wonder what part of my adamancy was grief and what part was merely a stubbornness that was masquerading as grief.

Not that I’m stubborn. No, sir. Not ME. I mean it – NOT ME!

The conversations that Kari and I would have about this would circle around and around. Joining the “think of Josie” trope was the “I’m not getting younger” trope. I knew the statistics were less than favorable about having kids later in life. Obviously, when the mother is older, the risks increase. Even in men, as we get older, the DNA begins to break down and the chances for birth problems increase.

But I could not. Pull. The. Trigger. I was so scared that I would have to go through the emotional devastation that I went through with Cathleen that I would not have enough love to go around for Josie, Kari, and Expecting. Reassured repeatedly that I would, that humans are capable of deep wells of love and kindness, particularly to their own offspring, I would retort – usually in my head – that the wrenching of emotions you feel holding your child as she leaves the world makes it harder to summon emotions when you hold a child as he or she comes into it.

And then Kari told me she was pregnant.

(Don’t get too excited. This was a couple years ago.)

We began the rounds of doctors and ultrasound appointments, all the while Kari asking me if I was excited, and me responding that I wasn’t sure. (No, of COURSE I’m not stubborn.)

But over the first few weeks, it became clear from the expressions on the doctor’s and nurse’s faces, usually bracketed by lines of concern on the forehead and around the mouth, that something was amiss. In particular, we saw that there was something in the ultrasound – something that had stopped developing at about four or five weeks.

That was when I was reminded that emotions aren’t summoned. Rather, they are like surprise but not necessarily unwanted guests – they come when they want, stay as long as they want, and it’s up to you to get used to them.

What we saw on the ultrasound screen was nothing more than a lifeless lump of protoplasm. No heartbeat. Nothing would ever grow from it. And as I stared at this mass of dead chromosomal tissue in my wife’s uterus, I felt my breath go out of me and not come back, my heart slow, and a hand squeezing me in the approximate area where my soul might be.

And I felt a crushing sadness, the worst since Cathleen had died. As I felt my insides compress, I knew then that I wanted another baby, wanted one more than anything. I felt cheated again, like something great was going to happen and, once again, it was not to be.

That was two years ago. Since that time, Josie has gotten older and has begun to notice babies and has even begun asking for one. We’ve also had three more miscarriages, one of which had to be dealt with by a painful surgery. Certainly, getting pregnant was not an issue (and getting to THAT point isn’t an issue when your wife looks like mine), but staying pregnant became constant struggle.

I wonder if my stubbornness (not that I am stubborn, mind you) has wrecked my family’s chance for expansion, and has wrecked Kari’s desire to have another baby, which she wants and deserves. I’m 40 now, and Kari will be 42 on her next birthday. I know that prenatal care is exceptional nowadays, when you have access to it like we do, but Mother Nature is the one who has the final say.

At a restaurant the other day, I saw a family with a three-year-old daughter and a baby, maybe six months old or so. In so many ways, I looked at that family and became despondent that that should be how my family looks. Not only losing Cathleen, but four attempts to have that little baby and…nothing.

Both Kari and I are remarkably busy so finding time to, well, get the ball rolling – so to speak – is hard to come by. As stubborn as I am, the clock and the calendar are even more so, remorselessly and ceaselessly marching forward. But as stubborn as I am, I will do what I can to make it work, joining Kari in a jump into that inexorable stream.

Kari deserves it. Josie deserves it. And I’m excited about it.