Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Daddy Dearest

I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Petaluma on Father's Day, June 21, 2009:

Two decades ago, my brother worked at the college daycare when he was a student at the University of Connecticut. He changed more than 1000 diapers during the semester.

My father, who is a good dad, loving, kind, quiet, never shouted or hit us, maybe changed two or three, and that might’ve been a lot. I remember when my brother was a baby, my dad got up in the middle of the night to sterilize the bottles before my brother’s midnight feeding. But at some point he fell asleep on the couch and burned the pot. The smoke-fire scarred the cabinets and wall above the stove.

Most fathers of my father’s generation worked hard and were not active when it came to the day to day responsibilities of being a parent: men rarely changed diapers or soothed us when we were sick in the middle of the night. That’s how things were, for the most part. I know there were exceptions to every rule, but dads weren’t expected to be hands on.

Well, today is different. Many dads play active roles in caring for their babies and helping to raise their kids. But still it isn’t easy for us as we navigate the turbulent 21st century waters of life as we try to be good fathers and husbands and life partners and men. How do we cope with the ravages of the economy, the pressures and demands of jobs, family, friends, making time for everyone and ourselves, the instability of the world in so many ways, our own fears about the planet and our families as they grow and change, about what our roles are and should be?

I can’t think of anything more pleasurable and demanding than being a parent, and the rewards and joys are immense. When I was 25, I got a job as a go-fer for the Connecticut State Legislature. I wasn’t interested in politics, but I needed a job and had a background in political issues and organizing. As part of the process, I had to meet the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the State Capitol in CT, Irving Stolberg, a former English professor who had an arrogant-imperial air about him. I think he fancied himself as a kind of mentor to young people.

I didn’t think it was appropriate to inform him that I really didn’t give a crap about the political process, as he was the ultimate boss at the State Capitol and I would be working under his authority. As an aside, the only time he ever asked me to do anything was to get him a coffee, cream and one sugar.

So there I was in his office, surrounded by photos of him and leading dignitaries, and his framed degrees and awards. “So what are your plans? What do you want to do in life?”
I didn’t have a clue. I was 25, had dropped out of college two years earlier, spent two years knocking on doors for a political action group, and now I felt I was in a terrible, soul-piercing rut. But I knew this job might be fun and educational, so I was up for it.

I decided to be honest. And my answer, looking back now 25 years later, might’ve been influenced by the fact that my girlfriend at the time had had an abortion a month earlier and that my two housemates had an almost two year-old son, who I babysat for several times a week and was part of my daily life.

“I’m really looking forward to being a father,” I said. Stolberg appeared stunned but he said nothing. I got the job and spent the next three or four months processing proposed legislation, taking notes during sessions, and running errands for beer and pizza for the House staff.

My feelings then never wavered. In 1999, when I turned 40, I retired from teaching to be an at-home father. I was home with our son, Miguel, for six glorious years, where I got to play with him at parks around Marin, bike him to school, and meet a surplus of moms and nannies.
I have no easy solutions or formulas to plug into. I abhor self-help books, so my talk today is designed to share some of the wisdom I have gleaned as a father and husband, a writer and a student of culture and people. None of this is original, but it is important to me, and by restating it here I am giving it meaning for you, for me, and for everyone we touch. I’m calling it the Daddy Dearest Decalogue:

1. Be There for Your Kids: When you are with your kids, be there and only there. Obviously it’s OK to handle any real emergencies. But it’s best to turn off the cell phone-pager-bluetooth-iPhone-Blackberry device things dangling from your belt loops.

2. Rule #1 leads directly to
It’s OK to be a Hypocrite, Just be Aware of your Severe Limitations: and of course focus on correcting them. I violate rule #1 several times a week as I check the Red Sox scores on the voice activated 1-800 number sponsored by the Chronicle. My family has the mantra memorized: “Sports. Baseball. Red Sox.” Seriously, perfection should not be the goal, but if improvement and a deep awareness of our faults is not part of our daily equations, we are going to be stuck doing the wrong thing much of the time.

3. Yes, Stop and Smell the Roses: I remember walking with Miguel to Petco and Performance Bikes from our duplex in San Rafael, where we lived from 1993-2005, and having him take three or four hours just to meander 300 yards down our street. He saw the world differently than I did. I was in a rush to get from point A to point B. He wanted to zig, zag, loop back, and blaze his own path. He wanted to experience the world as a three, four, and five year old. He lived in the moment, and that is a great place to be.

4. Words Matter: As an extension of seeing the world from our children’s perspectives, we must realize that what we say is very, very important. My family knows I like to joke around and tease, so they can interpret my subtle and not-so subtle oral nuances just about 100% of the time. I often say to our daughter before we leave the car, “OK, Maya, we’ll be back later. Just stay here.” And she knows I am being silly because sometimes she pretends not to let me unbuckle her seatbelt. Or I will say to her, “Maya gets sawdust and worms for dinner tonight. No cake. No treats.” And she will respond, “Naw, daddy’s just kidding.” But other kids, including our own, might not be old enough or savvy enough to detect the humor and good-natured ribbing behind our sarcasm.

One time I had a student who kept whining about being chosen to do something in class. I told her she wasn’t getting a turn this time because I couldn’t pick everyone. She said, “You didn’t pick me because you don’t like me.” I said, with a twinkle in my eye, “You’re right. I don’t like you.” Got a call later from her irate parents. Even after I explained that I was joking and how they knew me, they were still upset that I would attempt what they felt was age inappropriate humor on their 12-year old.

Another time I had a student at Hebrew school who was talking as if he were an inner city African American, or at least the romanticized hip-hop gangsta cool version some of us have. I blurted out to him, “Hey, Saul, you’re white. Stop acting as if you’re Black.” Got a call from his mother later—she being a prominent defense attorney married to another prominent defense attorney—who was shocked I’d trashed Black culture. Her son was so offended. After I explained that I was trying to tell Saul to appreciate who he was as an individual and not try to be anything or anyone else, she kinda, sorta, not exactly accepted my apology. I think I basically fumbled through an apology to Saul as well. My words weren’t heard as I meant them, and that can happen so easily with our kids, especially the younger ones.

5. Share your Wisdom: I just interviewed Robert Bly, the poet who is widely credited with starting the men’s movement in this country, and he said that men need to gather and share stories, especially older men sharing with younger men. It need not be formal or didactic or pressurized, but there are plenty of healthy forums available. I recently wrote an article about moms and all their anger towards their husbands, and I sat in on a session of MOPS, Mother of Preschoolers, a Christian-based national group, and they have a tightly-knit, superbly friendly, and wonderfully engaging support and educational network. These women have fun, learn, share, bitch, moan, and provide each other with the emotional and physical support parents need. So get out there and join a group or make sure your regular poker night includes conversations about parenting.

Of course, the gender sharing can cross over as well. When I was an at-home father, hanging out regularly with moms and nannies at the park, I was often seen as the voice for all men, given that I was usually one of the only men around. So I fancied myself as an expert on relationships and the male perspective. I used to argue that men are simple creatures: we are mono-focused, we usually do and think about one thing at a time. And we don’t need all that much to keep us happy. Among the few things I mentioned, I said, “We just need to have sex once a week to make us feel special.” One women, whose daughter was in my son’s preschool class, said, “Really?” She admitted she and her husband were literally two ships passing in the night. But she really, really listened to my advice. I saw her a few days later and BOOM, she said, “Steve, you’ve changed our lives.” She made some time over the weekend for some recreational intimacy, and said her husband’s entire attitude had changed, they were communicating better, and it was if the dark cloud hovering over them had disappeared. I am certainly not saying that sex cures everything or anything, but it was sharing my views and her willingness to listen that helped. Hey, a little nookie every now and then is good.

6. Stand and Deliver: It’s vitally important that your kids see you standing up for what you believe in. We used to drag Miguel to protests all over the Bay area. To the Bohemian Grove, to rallies after Bush stole the presidency in 2000, and to those massive gatherings in 2003 before he invaded Iraq. He hasn’t been arrested yet, but we’re working on it. Recently, I ran into some trouble as it were when I made a stand, albeit a tiny one.

Miguel and I had mild interest in the recent NBA Finals and were rooting for the Magic. But after I read an article about the Magic’s owner, Richie DeVos, who founded Amway and donates millions of dollars to ultra-rightwing causes, I decided to root for the Lakers. But before I could explain he shook his head and said, “Traitor.”“Miguel, the owner of the Magic donates tons of money to things Mommy and I don’t believe in.” I’d hoped invoking Verna’s name would increase the legitimacy of my arguments.“Traitor,” he responded.“It’s not that,” I protested. “The owner does bad things with his money and I don’t want to support that.” Miguel never switched allegiances and still doesn’t get that standing up for your beliefs may cause you discomfort or require great sacrifice.

For the Father’s Day article that appeared in HERE, I interviewed Dr. Warren Farrell, who said his father quit his job as CEO of some company in Europe after Warren’s mother became severely depressed and wanted to return to the US. Warren’s father was jobless and even had to work as a Fuller Brush salesman for a while before things got better. But Warren has always remembered how his father put family and his personal values before money and job security.
Be A Hero: Closely related to stand and deliver, let your kids see you doing community service, bring them along when they’re able, and realize that they will closely monitor and absorb what you do and how you do it. My father had a part-time weekend job at a delicatessen, and he always treated his customers with the utmost respect. I have never forgotten that. Everyone mattered to him.

7. Feel Passion: Make sure you have interests outside your family and work. Make sure to find activities that you truly enjoy and can devote yourself to: reading, exercising, sailing, wine collecting, woodworking, gardening, barbershop quartet singing, whatever. Do something, several things with supreme gusto and let your kids see that. They will emulate your passion, I truly believe, by finding their own as they grow.

8. Be Quiet: Sometimes we all just need to meditate or pray or go off by ourselves to regenerate, ponder, contemplate, reflect, cry, become catatonic, solve, or achieve either spiritual, emotional, or physical bliss.

9. And Finally, Sometimes You Just Have to Throw Up Your Hands and Say, “I am stumped.” Shortly after our daughter was born in 2006, 6 days after my wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer, my son and I were in line at Best Buy. There was a young girl of about nine or so in front of us in line at the register. She had on a button that read, “Girls Can Do Anything”.
Miguel looked at it and said, “Girls can’t do anything.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They can’t take out their wieners and look at them,” he answered loud enough for several patrons to overhear. The ultimate embarrassing moment for parents, when we wonder if people nearby are convinced we are raising a serial pervert. My initial impulse was to chastise Miguel for speaking so loudly in a store, but I let it go because I was so impressed with his logic: She couldn't do anything anatomically, as Miguel rightly noted.

10. As I practiced reading to my wife the other day, our daughter ripped out a page from a library book. I raised my voice, which is pretty easy because it’s already so damn loud, and she responded as always by crying. So, in conclusion, all my parenting wisdom dissipated in that moment when I lost my temper. Therefore, in regards to everything I’ve said today, I must quote the eternal words of Saturday Night Live’s Emily Latella and say, “Never mind.”

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