Outside of motherhood, that is. The way I see it, the three most difficult jobs ever invented, in this order, are motherhood, fatherhood, and teaching in an underfunded public school. I’ve taken on two out of three. I find fatherhood exceedingly difficult and this perturbs me. Whose big idea was it in the first place, inventing fathers? They’re inefficient. They’re inconsistent. They don’t know what they’re doing most of the time. They’re trapped in patterns of behavior or responses to behavior that betray their better selves and butt up against what they believe. They allow 7 year olds to the get the better of them. Some fathers have three college degrees and still–the 7 year olds get the better of them. They can be even-keeled, relatively mellow individuals, and be put often in a state of utter frustration, moral or emotional devastation, and sometimes blind fury–by a 7 year old.
Why is this? Why can’t it be easier? And here’s the creepy part of it. Growing up in the world, having been a 7 year old once themselves, perhaps, having become teens, young adults, and men, accumulating years and years and years of being fathered and watching fathers, either they don’t remember or they never see the kind of difficulty I’m speaking about. And no one ever discusses it. Not once did I ever hear my father or my older brothers say about fatherhood, “Man, this is hard, maybe the hardest thing ever.” I think, if someone would have said that to me, I would have listened, and maybe I would have done some studying over the subject. It’s like a kind of conspiracy–one that was perhaps crucial to the evolution and survival of the species, because, if fathers talked openly to other potential fathers about how difficult the job is, no one would ever take it up. That would be the end of us. I guess I’m glad my grandfather never had the opportunity to tell my dad how difficult fatherhood had been for him before he keeled over mowing the lawn and died. I might not be here today to have such difficulty being a father.
I recently blogged about a project I’m participating in with my students to follow Benjamin Franklin’s lead to become, by conscious, deliberate effort, morally perfect. It’s not going well for me. And TRANQUILITY, number 11 on Franklin’s list, is the virtue that I find most severely lacking this week, especially in relation to–actually only in relation to–fatherhood. I want to go one day without losing my cool with the resident 7 year old. One day would be good. It’d be a start. Listen, I am not a hot head. Rarely do I get hot headed. Only in the realm of fatherhood and in the presence of the resident 7 year old do I get hot headed.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret becoming a father. Regret is a fool’s game. And despite the fact that my son is, for the most part, the only one I get physically and verbally angry at, I love him more than any other human being I have ever loved. When it is good, I can find myself weepy with happiness at his beauty, his wit, his curiosity about the world, his budding bilingualism, his artistic streak, his lovely singing, his rare but heart melting tenderness. When it is good, it’s really good (and first, I must confess, that it is good 80% of the time, and I’m sure that compared to many fathers on the planet I’ve got nothing to complain about); but when it is not good, it is bad, bad enough to bring a grown and relatively happy man to despair. That despair is temporary; it passes–but it is about the most awful feeling I know and I wish there was a cure. To my credit, perhaps, the reason I despair sometimes is simply because I give a shit. I don’t want to be so lackadaisical about fathering as to become permissive, or to relegate my parenting to television and video games, or to simply walk away from the oppositional and sometimes nasty resident 7 year old, or to be oblivious, uncaring or dismissive about my own anger . At bottom, and most terrifying, is the fear that the lesson won’t take, that he’ll become resentful, that the opposition will grow, that his teenage years will be just as difficult if not more so. This is a trap, too, I know, and I try diligently not to fall into it.
I have worked with teenagers every day of my real working life now for about 25 years. It happens that sometimes they get under my skin, make me lose sleep, disturb my tranquility, make me angry, but it is rare, especially in comparison to the challenges presented by the resident 7 year old. So, I take that as a sign that every year fatherhood will get easier and easier. But I don’t have to live with the teenagers under my charge–so maybe it would be totally different and equally difficult if we were under the same roof on a permanent basis. That’s not a happy thought. It’s all relative, right? And most of it is dependent upon the kid and the family and the happiness quotient of both. In the end, I imagine that all of this is the stuff that every parent and every father deals with to lesser or greater degrees, but most don’t talk about it, they keep it mum, they don’t let on, they put on the peachy-keen mask. Parenting is hard, fatherhood is hard. As is everything that is worthwhile doing, I suppose. I know I can’t be the perfect parent. I just want to be better. But I want it to get easier, too, which is, in a way, lame. I’d prefer it to get easier than to have to develop new skills for the difficult stuff. Somebody, tell me it gets easier, or, tell me I will get better at this most challenging work.