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In Practice There Is: Three stories about progressive fatherhood

I'm a working dad and H, my daughter, is three, so I'm busy, busy the way only other parents and short-order chefs at the lunch rush understand. I don't have Scheherazade's luxurious thousand and one nights to draw out my narrative.

Bradley Berens

Issue #67, April 2004

I'm a working dad and H, my daughter, is three, so I'm busy, busy the way only other parents and short-order chefs at the lunch rush understand. I don't have Scheherazade's luxurious thousand and one nights to draw out my narrative. Three stories and their implications will have to do.

My theme is simple: it doesn't matter whether you're conservative or liberal (I'm the latter), the most political thing you'll ever do is raise a child. Forget marching on Washington, or writing impassioned political reinterpretations of great works of literature (or TV Guide). You want a piece of real political action? Try bath time. This is true for all parents, but when it comes specifically to progressive fatherhood the stakes both political and personal are slightly more abstract and theoretical.

The First Story
in which my three year old makes known her sexual orientation, sort of

"M. and I are going to get married," says H. The M in question is her best friend, another three year old little girl. "I'm going to wear mommy's white marry dress."

My daughter the lesbian. What's a dad to say?

In the moment, the Ward Cleaveresque narrative finds its unsummoned way to my lips, "no honey, M. is a girl. You'll find a nice boy to hold hands with." I nearly say it, but I stop myself. Barely. If this were a movie, we'd smash cut to an image of me with a gag, or me with another me standing behind me with my hand (dizzy yet?) covering my mouth.

Welcome to progressive fatherhood, where the order of the day is often quite simple: Just. Shut. Up.

My wife and I are a relatively standard issue Best Coast straight couple. I'm Jewish. She's not. I like Hollywood movies with action or comedy. She likes Swedish films with subtitles and a side of angst. We're contemplating having another 1.7 kids after H֠just as soon as our schedules calm down. We have a dog and a house in the Los Angeles burbs. Perhaps the most unusual thing about us is that we each hail from intact homes, and ours is a first and, we hope, last marriage for both of us. We're straight but, as the Bay Area lapel pin proclaims, not narrow. We have lots of gay friends and we can say that without irony. We supported gay marriage even before it started hitting the news approximately every seven seconds.

Hearing about my daughter's (as far as she's concerned) imminent alternative wedding plans I cannot help but take them seriously. Being gay is hard, I think. Does she know what she's getting into? Is it really biological? Does that matter? And what about having kids? Finding a partner with a penis would help in that regard. Should I mention these things? No. Of course not. Not only would this be a ridiculous overreaction (did I mention that she's three?) but, and here's where it gets political, it's my job as a liberal dad not to foreclose that option. If anybody should have a gay daughter, it's me: coastal, liberal, me. Not Newt Gingrich. Not Dick Cheney. Me.

H and M (a.k.a., my daughter-in-law) have an intense friendship. They play and fight passionately, often excluding the dismayed other little girls at their pre-school. Their relationship is so focused on each other that it makes me wonder if they will indeed get married some day. It would be quite fascinating for my child to have met her life partner at infant day care.

Every parent knows the power of speech. It's why I had to stop using words like stupid, shut up, fuck, shit, damn, asshole, and all their colorful combo-platters out loud within earshot of my daughter's spongelike mind. My nightmare is having to hear my three-year old turn to me and say, "goddamn it, daddy, just what the fuck do you think you're doing?"

So, parents of all political persuasions censor our reflexive vocabularies, at least around the kids. It is, however, just as important for progressive parents to censor the reflexive politics that work, if not unconsciously then often, at least, unadvisedly, to reinscribe an idealized form of our own life trajectory onto the kids. Translation: we want our kids to win every trophy we won and avoid every heartbreak. That can be narrowing. So, I mentally clap my hand over my mouth in an effort to leave the realm of what my daughter can understand as possible somewhat wider than what it was for me.

That doesn't mean that I'm reserving a spot at the San Francisco courthouse for an agnostic, multi-cultural, multi-denominational, same-sex wedding ceremony for H and M quite yet. They have to wait until they're at least five.

At present, I should add, this betrothal is in trouble. H insists that she wear mommy's white dress and that M wear pants and a t-shirt. M is more open. She's perfectly happy for H to wear a dress so long as she gets to wear one also. The ship of their relationship may run aground on the rocky coast of bridal fashions.

What in all this is specifically paternal rather than generally parental? Keep reading.

The Second Story
Krispy Kreme Klose EnKounters

His name was David and he was a few years older than me. As our children pell-melled around the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop on a Sunday morning sugar run — with my wife acting as supervisory grownup — David and I held up a wall, shoulder-to-shoulder, and chatted. Within minutes I knew that David's daughter, S, was seven and his son, JD, was two and that the reason for the gap between them was that David's wife had miscarried in the middle. I confessed to David that my wife and I had a similar, pre-H, miscarriage, as do so many professional couples who wait until their thirties to have kids.

"You never know how many people it's happened to until it happens to you," David said. "Then it turns out that everybody you know has gone through it."

We spoke more about our feelings, about the challenges of combining fatherhood and work, and eventually it was time to drive in different directions with different cars, car seats, and little-person-dictated soundtracks.

Driving home, I realized that I knew neither David's last name or what he did for a living, nor did he know my corresponding information. I'm a relatively open guy, but I have close friends with whom I haven't shared as much as I had with David in the safe instant intimacy of weekend fathering. (It's not just the divorced dads, by the way: all working fathers like me are weekend fathers.)

For most guys, there are three things you can safely discuss with other men: your job, sports, and your kids. Of the three, the only one likely to expose emotion and vulnerability to daylight is the latter. I'm not a big sports watcher, and when I became a father I was bowled over by the deep and complicated conversations I suddenly had with strangers, acquaintances, coworkers, even cousins, all of whom are fellow dads.

Dad intimacy is sudden but cautious. Watching moms meet in the park, mall, market, store, or library, I often witness a bafflingly instantaneous devil-may-care camaraderie sometimes across immense linguistic and cultural divides. Mothers who have never met before trade diapers, hold each other's children, and generally team up to herd kids hither and thither in an elegant dance that makes me wonder if there's a high sign that has been unobtrusively exchanged over a frequency inaudible to men.

When two dads meet there's the cautious nod, the "how old is yours?" and the rapid-calculation about whether or not you have to explain why you're at the park, hot dog stand, mall, zoo, bookstore, toy store, etc. with the kids and without your wife. This is another version of the caution that prevents a urinating guy from talking to the guy at the urinal next to him unless it's a close friend, long-time coworker, or the team has just won the big game.

Unlike the moms (or, to be more precise and fair, my perception of the moms), we dads have no clear cultural script for soloing with our kids in public. Many of us do it anyway, but it can be a weird exercise in self-consciousness. Particularly when you're a dad soloing with a very young child, people just look at you funny. No stranger ever walked up to my wife in a restaurant where she was dining with H and praised her as a mom, but I've been lauded by women after supervising a meal of chicken fingers and fries without accidentally chopping off someone's finger or incinerating the deli. "You're doing very well," one random grandma told me with a pat on my shoulder. One of my actor friends also has a young daughter. He works nights, and says that the oddest looks he has ever received (and he's been in some weird plays) came from moms watching him take care of his daughter during the normal workday. "Unemployed bum," their faces said.

Even though the most precious piece of my identity right now is being H's dad, it's not a routinized part of my identity during the week, aside from cooking breakfast. I do what I can when I can — and it's a lot — but the pickups at daycare are a special treat rather than a steady diet. There are endless dishes and late-night laundry folding and the like, but for me and a lot of dads like me, the practice of fatherhood is an endlessly improvised quest for the regular and quotidian.

This gets theoretically interesting as a politically progressive dad because so much of lefty politics constitutes itself against the white guy as actual or symbolic locus of power. There's a fine line between being paternal and being paternalistic. If I discipline my daughter for being a bad girl, am I being a good parent by giving her boundaries and rules or have I suddenly reverted to being an unreconstructed old-style dad? I went to college in the late 1980s and grad school in the 1990s, and the identity politics of the time meant that being a liberal white guy involved a careful tango around self-hatred.

I don't want to be an old-fashioned patriarch, but on the other hand I refuse to be a wuss. I'm making it up as I go along. Do moms face similar problems? Yes. Of course. Absolutely.

But differently.

Fatherhood is more of a theoretical exercise than motherhood. To an extent, everything is theoretical, but most mothers start with a physiological connection to their children that the fathers never share. For example, a mother's decision whether or not to breastfeed her child is, like everything, politically and theoretically (although also practically and contingently) informed. Breastfeeding is theoretical. The breast and its milk are not. The mother's nipple in the child's mouth is irreducibly concrete. Likewise, the child emerging from the mother's body is irreducibly concrete. Are our understandings of these concrete experiences framed and filtered by our political expectations? Of course, even if we don't call them "political." But the physical and physiological connection to the child exists more readily for moms than for dads, even when (and I'm convinced this is natural selection at work to make sure that dad hangs around to help feed the family) the child looks uncannily like the father, as H looks like me.

Quite simply, most of the time moms are necessary and dads aren't. Yes, we dads are important. Yes, studies have shown that we're really really important to a child's development and later ability to function happily in the world. But we're just not necessary in that absolute mom sense.

Sting's haunting "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying" captures this:

Park is full of Sunday fathers and melted ice cream
We try to do our best within the given time
Kid should be with his mother
Everybody knows that
What can a father do but baby-sit sometimes?

Lots of politically conservative dads still embrace the old Ward Cleaver role. They get to be sure about their role and function where I am bedeviled by uncertainty.

Sometimes I envy them. But only sometimes.

The Third Story
Funeral for a father, or, "quality time, shmality time"

In January, a good and righteous man — neither adjective do I ever use lightly — named Ben Salzman died at 92. Ben had two sons and a half dozen grandchildren, and at his funeral each of them stepped to the podium to speak about him in detail. The leitmotif of this collective eulogy was, like Ben himself, elegant and integrated: Ben was always around for his wife, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, driving them places, going to ball games, singing songs, comforting the sick and cheering the well. The Salzman family's memories are crammed with the bric-a-brac of Ben.

Hearing these stories one by one, some funny, some tearful, all eloquent, many of them saying the same things that had been said by others, moved me. Ben's family, I think consciously, refused to nominate a single spokesperson to deliver the eulogy because doing so would have missed the point of Ben's long happy life.

At his funeral, each of the Salzmans spent one last span of time with Ben. Watching this, we onlookers, sitting, rapt, on a warm Los Angeles winter morning, briefly experienced for ourselves how Ben lived his life and what it meant to his family. Ben devoted time to them, each and all, lots of time, most of his time, day to day, year to year, decade to decade, prosaically.

As a word, "prosaic" gets a bad rap. Here I don't use it to mean boring or dull, but rather in Mikhail Bakhtin's vivacious sense of prosaic as the antithesis of theoretical. Bakhtin stood passionately against what he called theoretism. He argued that you cannot get to the eventful real world from within a theoretical strait jacket because the world isn't tidy and complete the way theories are. The world always exceeds theory; the world is incomplete and unfinalizable. Approaching the world from theory, says Bakhtin, drains the eventness out of life.

Being a dad is overwhelmingly a prosaic and cumulative exercise while theory thrives on generalization and extrapolation. Ben Salzman knew this (although I doubt he ever read a word of Bakhtin) and his long life was correspondingly eventful and meaningful. For all his kindness, Ben was also legendarily a tough guy, and only a tough guy could have made his choices. Decades before feminism, identity politics, and a changing workforce opened a space where dads can, with effort, take paternity leave and make family-first choices without ostracizing themselves, Ben was already that kind of dad. He and I never spoke about politics, so I don't know what Ben believed about the world. As a father, though, Ben was far more than merely progressive. He made actual progress.

As we watched his family bury Ben I turned to my wife and said, "I hope that when I die my family feels that way about me." Looking back as I write this article I realize that if I really want such a legacy then I have a lot to do. The good news is that I have the next fifty or sixty years to do it.

After Ben's funeral I came home and took a nap with H in mommy and daddy's "big bed" because mommy was busy and because I (fighting a nasty upper respiratory infection) needed a nap as much as my daughter did. H is always hard to coax into sleep, and the novelty of the big bed didn't help matters, but she and I had just spent many hours as a duo the previous day, so she was sufficiently used to me that she tried to be quiet. I started to drift off, then woke silently to feel her putting her beloved pink blankets on top of me, and kissing me a dozen times on the cheek. "I love you daddy" she whispered, taking care of me. I didn't move, but privately my heart went nova. She then fell deeply asleep next to me and we snoozed for a couple of hours.

Napping. Changing diapers. Making PBJs. Reading stories. Scolding and praising. Bathing. Tickling. Roughhousing in ways that make mommy nervous but that delight H infinitely. Cleaning up the kitchen while mommy puts the child to bed. Arguing with H and either winning or losing. Being bored by and boring to her. It might seem paradoxical, but having crappy time with my daughter is just as important as having terrific time.

Time is. You can't save it or put stitches in it, particularly for young kids whose experience of time stretches elastically or snaps into a compact space in rhythms entirely different from that of adults.

There is no such thing as "quality time" in the generally accepted sense of special, high-impact time that makes up for the absence of other, ordinary time. To put it more baldly: quality time is compensatory bullshit made up by fathers who cannot or do not choose to be with their kids. It is theoretical rather than prosaic.

I don't know if he really said it, but Yogi Berra, another philosopher, perfectly encapsulated everything I'm talking about here in one sentence: "In theory there's no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is."

Fatherhood is all about practice that never makes perfect.

Father and daughter


Bradley Berens is a writer, editor, and family man in Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2004 by Bradley Berens. All rights reserved.