As with lengths of skirts, lapels on men’s suits, breastfeeding, and other more or less important customs, there are also fashions in fatherhood. The institution changes from generation to generation. As a man of un age certain—if numbers be wanted, mine is 78—my experience of fatherhood, both from the receiving and giving end, is likely to be different from those of younger contributors to this august volume.
I had the good fortune to have an excellent father. He was fair, utterly without neuroses, a model of probity, honorable in every way. Born in Canada, my father departed Montreal to make his fortune in Chicago at the age of 17, without bothering to finish high school. Until his forties, when he came to own his own business, he was a salesman, but without any of the slickness or slyness usually associated with the occupation. He made his sales by winning over customers through his amiability, his reliability, and the utter absence of con in his presentation. He was successful and became rich enough, in Henry James’s phrase, “to meet the demands of his imagination,” which weren’t extravagant.
When, at the age of 18, it was time for me to go to college, my father told me that he would of course pay for my college education, but since I had shown so little interest in school, he wondered if I wouldn’t do better to skip college. He thought that I would make a terrific salesman. This, you have to understand, was intended as a serious compliment; one of two I remember his paying me. The other came years later and had to do with my taking care of a complicated errand for him. After I had accomplished what he wanted, he said, “You handled that in a very businesslike way.”
If this sounds as if I am complaining, the grounds being emotional starvation from want of approval, be assured that I’m not. Approval wasn’t an item high on the list of emotional expenditure in our family. (When in my early thirties I informed my mother that I, who have no advanced degrees, had been offered a job teaching at Northwestern University, she replied, “That’s nice, a job in the neighborhood,” and we went on talk of other things.) I cannot ever recall seeking my parents’ approval; it was only their disapproval that I wished to avoid, and this because it might cut down on my freedom, which, from an early age, was generous and extensive.
The not-especially-painful truth is that my younger brother and I—and I believe this is true of many families of our generation—were never quite at the center of our parents’ lives. Their own lives—rightly, I would say—came first. So many in my generation, I have noticed, were born five or six years apart from our next brother or sister. The reason for this is that parents of that day decided that raising two children born too close together was damned inconvenient. The standard plan was to wait until the first child was in school before having a second.
My parents were never other than generous to my brother and to me. They never knocked us in any way. We knew we could count on them. But we also knew they had lives of their own and that we weren’t, as is now so often the case with contemporary parents, everything to them. My mother had her charities, her card games, her friends. My father had his work, where he was happiest and most alive.
My father’s exalted status as a breadwinner was central to his position in our household. The breadwinning function of men in those days, when so few married women who worked, was crucial. Recall what a dim figure Pa Joad, in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, is; the reason is that he is out of work, without financial function, and so the leadership in the novel is ceded to Ma Joad, the mother and dominant figure in the family. Although my father was the least tyrannical of men, my mother felt that he was owed many small services. “Get your father’s slippers,” my mother would say. “Ask your father if he’d like a glass of water.” We were instructed not to “rumple up the newspaper before your father comes home.”
As a Canadian, my father had no interest in American sports, so he never took my brother and me to baseball or football games. (He did like boxing, and on a couple of occasions, he and I went to watch Golden Gloves matches together.) He certainly never came to watch me play any of the sports in which I participated. But then, in those days, no father did; his generation of fathers were at work—my father worked six days a week—and had no time to attend the games of boys. (I’m talking about pre-soccer days, and so girls in those days played no games.) Nor would it ever have occurred to me to want my father to watch me at play. One of the fathers among my friends did show up for lots of his son’s games and was mocked behind his back for doing so; a Latinist among us referred to him as Omnipresent.
Although my father did not take me to sports or other events, or attend my own games, I nevertheless spent lots of time with him. From the age of 15 through 20, I drove with him to various midwestern state fairs, where he sold costume jewelry to concessionaires. I was, officially, his flunky, schlepping his sample case and doing most of the driving. We shared hotel rooms. What amazes me now that I think about those many hours we spent together is how little of that time was given to intimate conversation between us. I never told my father about my worries, doubts, or concerns, nor did he tell me his. We never spoke about members of our family, except, critically, of dopey cousins or older brothers of his who had gone astray. We talked a fair amount about his customers. He offered me advice about saving, the importance of being financially independent, about never being a show-off of any kind—all of it perfectly sound advice, if made more than a touch boring by repetition.
Neither of us, my father or I, craved intimacy with the other. I wouldn’t have known how to respond to an invitation to intimacy from him. I would have been embarrassed if he had told me about any of his weaknesses or deep regrets. So far as I could surmise, he didn’t have any of either. Since I was a small boy I recall his invocation, often repeated, “Be a man.” A man, distinctly, did not reveal his fears, even to his father; what a man did with his fears was conquer them.
This generation of my father—men born in the first decade of the 20th century who came into their maturity during the Depression—was distinctly pre-psychological. In practice, this meant that such notions as insecurity, depression, or inadequacy of any sort did not signify as anything more than momentary lapses to be overcome by hitching up one’s trousers and getting back to work. My father and I did not hug, we did not kiss, we did not say “I love you” to each other. This may seem strangely distant, even cold to a generation of huggers, sharers, and deep-dish carers. No deprivation was entailed here, please believe me. We didn’t have to do any of these things, my father and I. The fact was, I loved my father, and I knew he loved me.
By the time I had children of my own, psychology had conquered with strong repercussions for child rearing. Benjamin Spock’s book Baby and Child Care (1946), said in its day to be, after the Bible, the world’s second-bestselling book, had swept the boards. Freudian theory was still in its ascendance. Under the new psychological dispensation, children were now viewed as highly fragile creatures, who if not carefully nurtured could skitter off the rails into a life of unhappiness and failure. As a young father, I was not a reader of Spock, nor was I ever a Freudian, yet so pervasive were the doctrines of Spock and Freud that their influence was unavoidable.
I was not a very good father; measured by current standards, I may have been a disastrous one. Having divorced from their mother when my sons were ten and eight years old, and having been given custody of them, I brought to my child rearing a modest but genuine load of guilt. I do not have any axiomatic truths about raising children except this one: Children were meant to be brought up by two parents. A single parent, man or woman, no matter how extraordinary, will always be insufficient.
Children, according to Dr. Spock and Dr. Freud, needed to be made to feel secure and loved. I couldn’t do much about the first. But I proclaimed my love a lot to my sons, so often that they must have doubted that I really meant it. “You know I love you, goddamnit,” I seem to recall saying too many times, especially after having blown my cool by yelling at them for some misdemeanor or other. Thank goodness I had boys; girls, I have discovered, cannot be yelled at, at least not with the same easy conscience.
Fortunately, my sons were fairly tough and independent characters. Neither of them as kids was interested in sports, so I didn’t have to attend their Little League games. I took only a modest interest in their schooling. (My parents took none whatsoever in mine, which, given my wretched performance in school, was a break.) Nor did I trek out to Disneyland with them. My sons spent their Sundays with my parents, and my father, who turned out to be a fairly attentive grandfather, took them to the Museum of Science and Industry, the Adler Planetarium, the Shedd Aquarium, and other museums around Chicago. Raising children as a single parent, much of life during those years is now in my memory a blur—a blur of vast loads of laundry, lots of shopping, and less than first-class cookery (mine). “Dad, this steak tastes like fish,” I remember one of my sons exclaiming, a reminder that I needed to do a better job of cleaning the broiler.
My oldest son, unlike his father, was good at school. When he was in high school, he took to playing rock at a high volume in his room. I asked him how he could study with such loud music blaring away. “I seem to be getting all A’s, Dad,” he said. “Are you sure you want me to turn the music down?” He went on to Stanford, my other son to the University of Massachusetts. I drove neither of them on what is now the middle-class parents’ compulsory tour of campuses while their children are in their junior year of high school. Nor did I tell them to which schools they should apply. What I said is that I would pay all their bills, that I didn’t need to look at their course selection or care about their major or grades, but only asked that they not make me pay for courses in science fiction or in which they watched movies. I visited each of them once while he was in college. I pasted no college decals on the back window of my car.
Some unknown genius for paradox said, “Married, single—neither is a solution.” A similar formulation might be devised for the best time to have children: In one’s twenties, thirties, forties, beyond—none seems ideal. In my generation, one married young—in my case, at 23—and had children soon thereafter. The idea behind this was to become an adult early and thereby assume the responsibilities of adulthood: wife, children, house, dogs, “the full catastrophe,” as Zorba the Greek put it. Now nearly everyone marries later, and women often delay having children, whether married or not, until their late thirties, sometimes early forties.
In one’s twenties, one has the energy, but usually neither the perspective nor the funds, to bring up children with calm and understanding. Later in life, when one is more likely to have the perspective and the funds, the energy has departed. In my own case, along with having children to take care of, I had my own
ambition with which to contend. I worked at 40-hour-a-week jobs, wrote on weekends and early in the mornings before work, read in the evenings, picked up socks and underwear scattered around the apartment, took out garbage, and in between times tried to establish some mild simulacrum of order in the household.
Because of this hectic life, my sons got less attention but more freedom than those of their contemporaries who had both parents at home, and vastly more freedom than kids brought up during these past two decades when the now-still-regnant, child-centered culture has taken over in American life in a big way.
I have a suspicion that this cultural change began with the entrée into the language of the word parenting. I don’t know the exact year that the word parenting came into vogue, but my guess is that it arrived around the same time as the new full-court press, boots-on-the-ground-with-heavy-air-support notion of being a parent. To be a parent is a role; parenting implies a job. It is one thing to be a parent, quite another to parent. “Parenting (or child rearing) is the process of promoting and supporting the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development of a child from infancy to adulthood. Parenting refers to the aspects of raising a child aside from the biological relationship,” according to the opening sentence of the Wikipedia entry on the subject. Read further down and you will find dreary paragraphs on “parenting styles,” “parenting tools,” “parenting across the lifespan,” and more, alas, altogether too much more.
Under the regime of parenting, raising children became a top priority, an occupation before which all else must yield. The status of children inflated greatly. Much forethought went into giving children those piss-elegant names still turning up everywhere: all those Brandys and Brandons and Bradys; Hunters, Taylors, and Tylers; Coopers, Porters, and Madisons; Britannys, Tiffanys, and Kimberlys; and the rest. Deep thought, long-term plans, and much energy goes into seeing to it that they get into the right colleges. (“Tufts somehow feels right for Ashley, Oberlin for Belmont.”) What happens when they don’t get into the right college, when they in effect fail to repay all the devout attention and care lavished upon them, is another, sadder story.
I began by talking about “fashions” in fatherhood, but I wonder if fashions is the right word. I wonder whether cultural imperatives doesn’t cover the case more precisely. Since raising my sons in the hodgepodge way I did, I have become a grandfather, with two grandchildren living in northern California and one, a granddaughter now in her twenties, living in Chicago. My second (and final) wife and I have had a fairly extensive hand in helping bring up our Chicago granddaughter, and I have to admit that, even though there is much about it with which I disagree, we have done so largely under the arrangements of the new parenting regime.
When this charming child entered the game, I had long since been working at home, with a loose enough schedule to allow me to bring up my granddaughter in a manner that violated just about everything I have mocked both in person and now in print about the way children are currently brought up. I drove her to school and lessons and usually picked her up afterward. I helped arrange private schools for her. I spent at least thrice the time with her that I did with my two sons combined. I heartily approved all her achievements. Yes—I report this with head bowed—when she was six years old, I took her to Disneyland. Worse news, I rather enjoyed it.
Not the “debbil,” as the comedian Flip Wilson used to say, but the culture made me become nothing less than a hovering, endlessly bothering, in-her-face grandfather. (Pause for old Freudian joke: Why do grandparents and grandchildren get on so well? Answer: Because they have a common enemy.) The culture of his day condoned my father in his certainty that his business came before all else, allowing him to become an honorable if inattentive parent. The culture of my day allowed me to be a mildly muddled if ultimately responsible parent and still not entirely loathe myself. The culture of the current day dictated my bringing up my granddaughter, as I did with my wife’s extensive help, as a nearly full-time job.
The culture of the current day calls for fathers to put in quite as much time with their children as mothers once did. In part this is owing to the fact that more and more women with children either need or want to work, and in part because, somehow, it only seems fair. Today if a father does not attend the games of his children, he is delinquent. If a father fails to take a strong hand in his children’s education, he is deficient. If a father does not do all in his power to build up his children’s self-esteem—“Good job, Ian”—he is damnable. If a father does not regularly hug and kiss his children and end all phone calls with “love ya,” he is a monster. These are the dictates of the culture on—shall we call it?—“fathering” in our day, and it is not easy to go up against them; as an active grandparent, I, at least, did not find it easy.
Cultural shifts do not arrive without reason. Kids today, it is with some justice argued, cannot, owing to crime in all big cities, be left alone. They need to be more carefully protected than when I, or even my sons, were children. Getting into decent colleges and secondary and primary schools and, yes, even preschools is not the automatic business it once was. The competition for what is felt to be the best in this realm is furious; thought (and often serious sums of money) must go into it. Children are deemed more vulnerable than was once believed. How else to explain all those learning disabilities, attention deficits, and other confidence-shattering psychological conditions that seem to turn up with such regularity and in such abundance? The world generally has become a more frightening place, and any father with the least conscience will interpose himself between it and his children for as long as possible. One can no longer be merely a parent; one must be—up and at ’em— relentlessly parenting.
As a university teacher I have encountered students brought up under this new, full-time attention regimen. On occasion, I have been amused by the unearned confidence of some of these kids. Part of me—the part Flip Wilson’s debbil controls— used to yearn to let the air out of their self-esteem. How many wretchedly executed student papers have I read, at the bottom of which I wished to write, “F. Too much love in the home.”
Will all the attention now showered on the current generation of children make them smarter, more secure, finer, and nobler human beings? That remains, as the journalists used to say about the outcomes of Latin American revolutions, to be seen. Have the obligations of fathering made men’s lives richer, or have they instead loaded men down with a feeling of hopeless inadequacy, for no man can hope to be the ideal father required in our day? How many men, one wonders, after a weekend of heavily programmed, rigidly regimented fun fathering with the kids, can’t wait to return to the simpler but genuine pleasures of work? Only when the cultural imperative of parenting changes yet again are we likely to know.
“He that hath wife and children,” wrote Francis Bacon, “hath given hostages to fortune, for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.” Yet many centuries earlier, when Croesus, the richest man of his day, asked the wise Solon who was the most contented man in the world, thinking Solon would answer him—Croesus—Solon surprised him by naming an otherwise obscure Athenian named Tellus. The reason this was so, Solon explained, is that “he lived at a time when his city was particularly well, he had handsome, upstanding sons, and he ended up a grandfather, with all his grandchildren making it to adulthood.”
Fathering children puts a man under heavy obligation and leaves him vulnerable to endless worry, not only about the fate of his children but of his children’s children. This being so, the most sensible thing, one might think, is not to have children. But one would think wrong. Not to have children cuts a man off from any true sense of futurity and means that he has engaged life less than fully. Fatherhood, for all its modern-day complications, is ultimately manhood.