Jun 21 2009

Good Fathering

The thing that I probably never make clear – but I ought to – is that De-facto is an exceptionally talented father. Sure, it’s much more entertaining (at least to me) to paint him as ever-so-slightly out of touch. But I have to come clean: that’s not how it is.

He’s never been that kind of father who, as a gesture merely to indulge me, takes the kids out for an hour on a Saturday, returning home only to wash his hands of any further childcare responsibility for the day. I have friends with marriage licenses who endure this from their partners. My guy may be a de facto husband, but he’s the real deal when it comes to being a full time parent.

In the beginning, he’d get up and change the diaper before handing the baby off to me for the middle-of-the-night feeding. He’d stay awake and return same baby to her bassinet when she was full, so I could swiftly fall back to sleep. During the pull-your-hair-out toddler stage, he’d sweep them up and disappear for a few hours, so I could read a chapter of a good book, take a nap, organize a closet or something – anything – without being interrupted. Not just once in a while, he’d do this for me every day. We’d go to dinner parties and he’d take the lead doing that silly thing that we parents do, hunched over behind an 18-month old, holding tiny up-stretched hands attached to a waddling short little body stumbling into a new world. And when I’m gone on a trip, I know the girls will be fed, bathed and dressed (okay, maybe not well dressed, but they’ll be clothed) and on time for school.

When it comes to parenting in our home, it’s a shared experience. He may do a bit more of the horsing-around stuff while I’m the one filling out the medical forms and school paperwork, but I don’t have to turn around to find him. He’s standing right beside me.

These days, this is not so rare. Many fathers are more than capable of being perfectly at ease with their kids or even comfortably in charge of childcare. And we keep hearing how the economic bust has upped the enrollment in the stay-at-home-dads club. Yet it’s not uncommon for an on-duty father to be asked if he’s “babysitting for the day.” A New York Times blog about parenting (it’s called Motherlode, so right there you see part of the problem) suggests one reason why men are still getting strange reactions when they act as primary or equal-time caregiver:

Our lexicon for describing what fathers actually do is limited at best: “mothering” is the standard description of what we need when we want to be comforted; “fathering” is a word, just not one I’ve ever heard anyone actually use.

Well, it is a word I can use: Fathering is what De-facto does when he’s teaching his daughters how to throw. Or how he looks forward to walking them to school so he can ask them about what’s happening in their lives. Or how he invites them to cook dinner with him, teaching them how to chop
following_papavegetables and spin a pizza crust. Fathering is how he steals into their room to cut their toenails while they’re asleep. It’s how he says, “that’s not the same answer I got, why don’t we both try again?” when a math equation doesn’t add up. It’s making a big, fun project out of planting the garden or teaching them how to swim. It’s cranking up the volume when his favorite Springsteen song comes on, summoning the whole family to the living room to dance and then explaining what the lyrics mean. Fathering is hearty, exaggerated laughter because his two silly girls have purposely put their pajamas on backwards. It’s putting the yellow stuff on their impetigo scabs. It’s insisting that they brush their teeth. It’s reading Encyclopedia Brown at bedtime and solving the mystery together. It’s respecting both of those little girls as unique and creative individuals, and letting them know it, so they grow up knowing how it feels to be respected by a man. It’s smiling whenever he thinks about his daughters, and thinking about them a lot. Which might explain his persistent smile.

That’s what fathering is. It’s what De-facto does every day, naturally, without ever being asked. And since it’s Father’s Day I thought maybe it might be a good idea just to let him know that I’ve noticed.

Jun 6 2009

The Family Carrot

My father pretended to be furious when my mother gave away the family carrot. Mom had purchased the small plastic carrot for two cents at a flea market, thinking of friend who coordinated a puppet show for children about healthy eating habits. It took my mother at least three months before she got around to delivering the carrot, and in that short time it literally became part of our family.

Funny how it had a way of turning up in coat pockets, or in purses and book bags, in the centerpiece on the dining table, in the coffee pot, and in various other obscure places that one would never expect to find a plastic carrot. It was my father who started mischievously hiding the faux vegetable, and then my brother, sister and I joined in. We hid it everywhere; it was fun to annoy my mother.

Each time the carrot was found in some unexpected place, my mother would give us a look as if to say “what a nuisance you all are.” She’d beg us to leave it alone, it was meant for her friend. When she finally delivered the carrot to its intended recipient, we all followed my father’s cue, feigning disgust and disbelief. “How could she give away the family carrot?” he said, shaking his head. We all shook our heads with the same dismay.

For several years my father would bring it up. “And what ever happened to the family carrot? My siblings and I would nod along with him. We let my mother know that it was a tragedy to have lost the beloved plastic vegetable and how betrayed we felt. It was awful that she had simply given it away.
Yet the tradition of the family carrot was restored. Once I found a small stuffed cloth carrot in a novelty shop, which I purchased as a birthday present for my mother. My sister found a wooden one at some yard sale and bestowed it upon my mother. Then my brother sent a carrot-shaped magnet to her one mother’s day. Over the years, any and every carrot of any material or function (except the real deal) has been acquired and presented to my mother.

These days she’s in the mood to clean things out, preparing for a time when she will leave her house of more than 50 years. I’m visiting, so I’ve been enlisted to help. Today we tackled the study, one of the rooms that has collected the most memorabilia of her life, throwing out papers and magazines, telling stories, remembering some celebrated event and laughing about the strange objects we end up holding on to for so many sentimental years.
“Mom, where are all the family carrots?” I ask, thinking about the dozens of carrot gifts that we’ve bestowed upon her over the last three decades. She gave me the look, the same one I saw her give my father hundreds of times, a look of “okay I’ll indulge you but you’re really wearing this one out.” Then she pointed toward the kitchen.

Why is it always so much fun to annoy your mother?

Mar 12 2009

The Assignment II

As I write this post, Short-pants is probably standing in front of her class, side-by-side with her two little colleagues, transmitting her recently honed expertise on the history of Paris. Yes, today is the exposé.

A few readers have actually inquired about the status of this assignment, which I chronicled here, so I suppose an update is in order.

Last weekend the triumvirate was assembled; Short-pants and the two boys she’s been teamed with got together to hammer out the details of their presentation. This project has had more than a few hiccups. We made no progress during the winter break. It was an arduous task to find a time when all three students and mothers could coordinate a meeting. This pushed us to the last minute. On top of that, further dialogue with the teacher revealed that the topic was not exactly the history of Paris, as we’d thought, but the gargoylehistory of Paris’ quartiers. I’m not sure what that means: how Paris came to have its little neighborhoods? Or how the nautilus of arrondissements spiraled out into what it is today? That all three mothers failed to notice this distinction in the original assignment is another satisfying indicator that I am not alone in my failings. The other mothers didn’t think it was a problem to ignore this little detail, since the kids had already bought into the idea of telling Paris’ history through famous monuments. A part of me thinks we should have readjusted; we hadn’t made much progress down the other track. But another part of me just wanted to be done with this thing. You can guess which part won that debate.

Assembled around the table, we became a study in contrasts. Edgar had already written up a 3-page report on the Eiffel Tower. Even I was intimidated by his even, deliberate handwriting on the pages of feuille quadrillée (graph paper). He’d also underlined the headings with different colored felt-tip pens. Impressive. Lucas and his mother brought a variety of colorful cards on weighty paper stock and a roll of light-brown craft paper, with an idea for the visual component of the presentation. Short-pants, well, let’s just say she’d had a lesson in Wikipedia.

Going to a French public library was just too much for me to fathom. I’m no stranger to French bureaucratic services; I’ve done my time waiting in line at the préfecture. But it’s been a cold, bleak, winter. I just couldn’t face another functionnaire.

Besides, I’m not convinced that honing the children’s library skills isn’t a bit like teaching them to speak a dead language. Sure it’s nice to know, but will they use it? I can still picture the card catalogue in my high school library, a boxy wooden piece of furniture. And those little labels, typed on the secretary’s Corona and inserted into the tiny square frame on the front of each of its long drawers. You’d flip through the index cards, worn and dirty from years of fingering by semi-curious students, all the while repeating, like a mantra, the title or author you were actually looking for, half the time forgetting and having to start over. All this to find one book, so you could look at its bibliography in order to do it all over again to get another book.
I’m not saying that knowing how to research in a library isn’t important. Or maybe I am. If Short-pants becomes a serious scholar in need of original historical texts, no doubt she’ll be forced to develop her library skills. But even that’s not certain: a friend doing PhD level research at the Bibliotèque Nationale told me he wasn’t allowed in the stacks. He was pointed to a computer connected to the library system and told to write down the titles he wanted. This list was then handed to a smug librarian, who disappeared, returning 20 minutes later with his requested books.

If you have time (an hour), it’s really worth watching the video of this lecture, A Portal to Media Literacy, by Michael Wesch. He’s an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Digital Ethnographer at Kansas State University and the same guy who produced the famous (and much shorter) video about Web 2.0, The Machine is Us/ing Us. Wesch wants us to test the assumptions we make about teaching students in today’s digitally powered world. Our education system was invented in a different century; it might be obsolete. This is why I believe developing a skill-set for researching on the internet is important.

Or maybe I was just too lazy to take Short-pants to the library.
Prior to this meeting of the troika, we spent about an hour Googling her monuments. She seemed to like Wikipedia the best. I explained the whole Wiki phenomenon. “Really?” she said, “Anybody can add whatever they know about Notre Dame?” That didn’t sit right with her. “Yeah,” I said, “that’s why you always have to double check the facts.” I’m sure I’ll be having this conversation with her again a few hundred times during her scholastic life.

We printed out a several pages of information for each monument. We read through them together and then I asked her what she thought were the key points to put in her report. She wasn’t sure. We read them again. She shrugged. “Well, let’s not get too far ahead before we meet with the others,” I said, sliding the printed pages in a folder. Then I had a beer.

Later I asked De-facto if he thought Short-pants ought to be able to read a few paragraphs and then summarize, or if I was expecting too much. “In my experience,” he said, “7-year olds usually plagiarize.”

The craft-paper is being put to use to create a large map of Paris, with its quartiers (aha!) outlined in dark ink. We used the colored cards to draw a notre_dame_pinkpicture of each monument (six in total), to be tacked on this map at the start of each oral report. Each child has composed his or her own texts to read. The teacher wrote in the initial assignment, “you may help them research, but do not do the work in their place.” That’s a tall order. I spent every evening this week nudging and prodding her along. I did my best not to help.

This morning, Short-pants was giddy. I asked her if she wanted to practice her presentation or just wing it. She wanted to test it out on us. Standing tall and straight, she held her notes in one hand, waving the other for emphasis. De-facto, who goes to Toastmasters, coached her a little about remembering to look at the audience, about timing, and how and when to pass out the photographs (downloaded from Google Images). She was receptive to his suggestions.

At the door, I buttoned her coat, and gave her a big good-luck hug.
“I’m excited,” she said, “and a little nervous.”
“Nervous is okay,” I said, repeating some advice my father gave me more than once, “it means you respect your audience.”
“Oh, I do,” she said.
Then she turned and headed down the stairs.

Feb 9 2009


Photo by Pablo Puga

Photo by Pablo Puga

My mother used to say that if we learned how to ice-skate and water-ski, we’d be popular. This became embedded in our family folklore; it was sport to tease my mother about it. When she’d complain about the hours I’d spend talking on the phone, I’d remind her that if she hadn’t suggested I take up water-skiing I wouldn’t have so many callers. If there were too many invitations in one weekend, which meant she was driving me here and there and back again, it was, “Geez mom, you shouldn’t have taught me to water-ski.”

I wasn’t a bad water-skier. I could throw the ski over the gunwale, jump in after it, slip my feet in the binders, rush the rope through my grip until it was taut, deliver the thumb’s-up signal, and stand up on the first go. (Okay the first few times I tried, it wasn’t that easy. My friend Penne drove the boat in circles for an hour before I got it right. But after a bit of practice I was pretty confident.)

I don’t believe knowing how to water-ski made me popular, but it is true that when one of my friends suggested it, I didn’t hesitate to join in. And being able to join in is a huge part of how you gain confidence as a child, certainly as an adolescent. I think that’s what my mom was getting at: you could do fun things with fun people – if only you knew how. Growing up on a lake, ice-skating and water-skiing could be useful.

But for some reason I never learned to ice-skate. I went out on the ice two or three times, in a borrowed pair of skates, holding the hand of some boyfriend who was not nearly as patient as my friend Penne was at the helm of her boat. (No doubt he was more interested in other things than teaching me how to skate.) Because of this, as an adult, I avoided opportunities to go ice-skating. Every year the city constructs a huge rink in front of the Hotel de Ville, but I invented plenty of good excuses not to use it.
Then De-facto found an old pair of ice-skates (Hans Brinker-styled) in the basement of our building. They happen to be exactly my size. He sharpened the blades and presented them to me. Whenever he could persuade me to go skating with him, he was just as patient as Penne was, ushering me around the rink while I struggled to keep my balance. But my progress was, well, slow.

Saturday he was energetically rousing the girls to get to the rink; we’d signed them up for a lesson, and for good measure I agreed to take it with them. “But I already know how to skate,” Buddy-roo said. (She lies, by the way.) “You’re never too good at something to learn more about it,” I’d humored her. “You have to practice to get really good. It’s called mastery.”

The night before, I admittedly had one glass of wine too many (okay, maybe two). When De-facto saw my head hidden under the pillow, he offered to let me off the hook. I burrowed my head further under the covers and considered the pleasure of a longer lay-in, especially given that he would remove the noisy creatures from the house. Sleep was reestablishing itself fast, until I heard the voice. My father, dead more than 20 years, still manages to converse with me, usually at the most inopportune moments (like this one).

He called me by my full name. This got my attention when I was 15, and still does. I turned to face the other way under the comforter, hoping a mere repositioning of my sleepy head would remove his voice from my inner consciousness. No luck. He reminded me that all week we’ve been promoting this skating lesson to the girls, including my promise to take the lesson with them. My father reminded me that if I simply blew off the lesson because I had a head-ache and cotton-mouth (okay, he didn’t actually use that term), I wasn’t really setting a good example to inspire these young, observant minds looking to me for cues on how to live their lives. What kind of message would that send? His final words (the ones that cinched it): “What about mastery?”

My father was usually right when he was alive, and this is a talent he’s retained in his grave. Since I couldn’t argue with him, I shoved one leg out of bed and then the other and pattered painfully into the kitchen. “You’re coming after all?” De-facto said. “Coffee,” I groaned.

A half-hour later, on the ice, I’d mastered my mild hangover and was slowly mastering my balance on skates. I was the tallest (by a lot) of ten students standing in a line in front of the teacher. The girls were with me, one on each side, bawling. It was too cold. They were too tired. They didn’t like the lesson. They wanted to go home. “I understand,” I kept saying, I did feel their pain, “but I need you to stay and learn to skate with me.”

At one point I leaned over the railing of the rink, bending backwards to stretch out my back. I looked left and saw De-facto, leaning over the rail, further down. Our eyes met and the mutual understanding was immediate: “Aren’t our children pathetic?”

When it became evident that the girls were not extracting anything from the lesson, and in fact their more-or-less continuous wailing was inhibiting the other students, De-facto skated over and removed them to the children’s section where they could balance with colorful chairs or big plastic penguins. I continued with the lesson all by myself, walking backwards girls_on_ice, carving Vs in the ice and trying to balance on one leg and then the other. Not only was I the tallest (and oldest) student, I was the most dedicated.

When they left the rink, De-facto and the girls came by and leaned against the railing for a moment to watch me. “Way to go, mama!” a little voice shouted. “Shut-up.” I said. (Not out loud, though.)

I’m still a bit unsteady on the ice. But I’ve made huge progress; even that one lesson helped a lot. Now I actually look forward to going ice-skating.

Today, De-facto tugged me out the door at quarter-to-twelve. He was in a rush because he likes to get on the ice before it gets crowded. The security guards wouldn’t let us in – we were too early – so we crouched outside the entrance, replacing our boots with our skates. When they unlocked the doors, we stomped straight through the changing room and right out onto the ice. The rink was absolutely ours; we were the only two people skating. The clock in the Hotel de Ville tower struck twelve, sounding off its hollow mid-day echo. Hand-in-hand we carved a wide arc along the perimeter of the rink.

Popular? I don’t think so. Content. That was it, content. I guess I have Mom and Dad – and De-facto – to thank for that perfect little moment.