This Fathers Day I received a copy of the new Michael Lewis book Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood (Norton). Within a few pages of starting the book, I knew I was going to like it. Lewis writes: "the main reason I kept writing things down [is] this persistent and disturbing gap between what I was meant to feel and what I actually felt." I think any father who is honest about his emotions knows exactly what Lewis is talking about.
Lewis, the author Liar's Poker and Moneyball, has been primarily a financial writer for the past 20 years. This autobiographical new book on being a father (thrice over) is based on journal entries Lewis made after the births of each of his children. Throughout the anecdotes and observations he presents, Lewis struggles—sometimes consciously, sometimes not—with this central dichotomy of emotions: how he thinks he should feel, presumably based on some cultural norm or some cultural notion of an ideal father, and how he actually feels as a father, be it angry, annoyed, frustrated, bemused, indifferent, maybe even homicidal. As Lewis suggests, we're told—by who? nobody knows—that we should feel a wide variety of levels of joy in fatherhood, yet those joyful moments, in real life, can sometimes be too far and in between.
I have two sons, 10 and 6 years old, and I can honestly say I have never loved any two people in the way and with the complete dedication that I love them. But they drive me fuckin' NUTS half the time. Maybe even 53% of the time. It appears to be their job, to drive their parents crazy, and they're really quite good at it. Like Lewis, I sometimes find my sons' antics absolutely hysterical, or simply amusing, or a bit tedious, or really, really stupid, or annoying as hell. And like Lewis, when my reaction to the kids' behavior is of the more negative brand, that's how I react—negatively. The cultural ideal of how a "good" father "should" react often rears its head in these instances: I should be more tolerant, I should celebrate their ingenuity and natural curiosity, I should revel in their joyous being!
I should react the way I react. Sometimes it's us parents against them kids, and as any student of war knows, you never expose to your opponent a soft opening or chink in the armor. It is said that Sun Tzu, the 6th century Chinese author of The Art of War, slept with one eye always trained on his children, even the infants. He knew better than to leave an opening—I mean, you don't think The Art of War was strictly intended for military strategy, do you?
While reading Lewis' book, I found myself hyper-aware of these conflicting fatherly emotions. In a drugstore the other day, my youngest son, when told for the 50th time that no, I wasn't going to buy him a toy, told me that it "really pisses me off when you say no, dad." I was surprised to hear such an adult phrase come out of his mouth. I almost cracked up—partly because it was so funny, and partly because, as someone who works with language both as work and meaningful endeavor, I find it hard to get to worked up about "bad" words and "good" words (they're all good in my mind) and this situation seemed to demand I manufacture some jive about inappropriate language. So I split the difference: I began my admonition sternly and with parental disapproval, but quickly softened it because I knew he probably didn't understand how weird it would sound to people other than his dad. I quickly moved to the next aisle before he could ask me why "piss me off" wasn't such a good thing to say for a 6 year old.
My older son presents far more complex issues, thus far more complex paternal feelings and emotions. He is by nature a gentle soul, and though he's not above an occasional big brother cheap shot if he's annoyed by his younger sibling (like an elbow to the back of his little brother's head as he walks casually by), he's a very self-contained and considerate 10 year old boy. Bit of a space cadet at times, but he's well-liked by his friends and appears to be rather popular among the 4th grade boys and girls.
As a dad, one of the things I worry about with my older son is that he too willingly acquiesces to other people's wishes—even when he really doesn't want to do something or go somewhere or whatever the case may be. Not to MY wishes, of course—if he doesn't want to do something I'm suggesting (like, say, clean up all the shit he's dumped out of his overstuffed backpack on the kitchen floor), his kid deafness kicks in or he gives me the 10 year old "O.K.," which essentially translates as "Screw you buddy—I'll pick up that stuff after request #3 and no sooner."
But I do worry about this easy acquiescence in all non-home/parent matters. For example, we recently installed a portable basketball hoop in our driveway, and as I struggled in the hot son to get the infernal thing put together, both my sons dribbling basketballs dangerously close to my head, the annoying neighbor kid who seems to appear magically as soon as my kids step outside to play came running up to us, wanting to shoot some hoops. "Sure," I said, all the blood vessels in my head thumping in time as I struggled with a recalcitrant support beam, "but let the boys shoot a bit first—it's their hoop." My six year old, apparently more naturally territorial than his older brother, echoed this stipulation: "Yeah," he said, "it's our net so let us play first."
The portable hoop in place, I tugged on it a few times to make sure it was secure, and dropped the green flag. "Shoot away, boys." My six year old whipped a ball so close to my head—and so far from the bottom of the net—that I nearly hit the deck to avoid my glasses slamming directly into my eye sockets. The annoying neighbor kid turned to my 10 year old and said, "Here, pass me the ball." And my son did. Without hesitation. The neighbor kid started tossing the basketball up at the hoop, grabbing his own rebounds and shooting from all over the driveway. My 10 year old—who played basketball on his 4th grade team—stood by watching, obviously wanting to take some shots. Even my six year old seemed baffled: "Hey," he said to the annoying neighbor kid, "give my brother the ball—it's our hoop." (I know it's 6 year old possessiveness, but I was so proud of the little guy for standing up for his older brother.) The annoying neighbor kid went on shooting. Now I was starting to get annoyed, both at the annoying neighbor kid and at my 10 year old—but more at my son to be honest. I asked him, " Did you want to try out the new hoop?" "Yeah," he said. "So why don't you ask for your ball back so you can take some shots?" A shrug. "O.K.," he said. But he made no effort to ask the annoying neighbor kid for the ball.
This happened recently, while I was reading Michael Lewis' book, and I must say it's been stuck in my craw ever since. Why was I getting progressively annoyed at my 10 year old that he wouldn't do anything to rectify the situation? That he wouldn't stand up for what he wanted? I suppose I should've ignored it and let the three kids work it out among themselves. You know, let boys be boys, that kind of thing. The kind of thing the distant "should" fathers Lewis recalls in his book might do. But it's my 10 year old son, and I worry quite a bit about this acquiescent behavior pattern. Is it simple fatherly protectiveness? Possibly. Could it be that I want my boys to stand up for themselves and learn not to be easily pushed around by other people? I'm sure that's part of it. And is that far too judgmental of a father about his own child? I'm guessing some would say yes. Yet, this is the very core of Lewis' book and, I believe, his honest assessment of fatherhood: it's complicated, it's funny, it's demanding, it's rewarding, but it's ultimately as much (or more) work than bliss, and that anyone who tells you differently is either yanking your chain or really isn't all that involved in his children's lives.
Postlude: Yesterday, I watched a three or four year old boy gripping a medium-sized tree branch and swinging for the fences at a row of flowers in one of the public parks near my house. I looked around to see if there was an adult attached to this wee deviant. Yes, there was. A dad. Sitting on a park bench, fiddling with his iPhone and glancing up every few seconds to check on his son or smile broadly and bark half-assed encouragement every time the boy said "Look daddy." I watched this duo for a minute or two, and the kid really figured out how to actually decapitate the flowers with consistency. As I thought to myself that I should probably go over and say something to the guy about letting his kid destroy someone's dedicated gardening, I saw a woman holding an infant making a beeline toward the boy and his father. Whatever she said got the dad's attention. He looked up from his iPhone at the woman, looked at his son knocking off flowers like Mickey Mantle, and smiled a big fatherly smile. I could barely hear him saying something like "he sure does love baseball" or something similarly asinine. He made no immediate move to get up from the park bench.
Man I wanted to punch that smiley asshole.