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.