Of Fatherhood: The Most Difficult Job Ever Invented

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.

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

11 thoughts on “Of Fatherhood: The Most Difficult Job Ever Invented

  1. I, like you, do two of those jobs. Mum for 5 years and teacher for 20. On most days I find it easier to teach a class of 30 than take care of my own 2. For me it’s the relationship that is the underpinning factor. My eldest is ‘good as gold’ for his teacher. At home, a very different story because he knows he can get away with more. I can’t tell you it gets easier-sorry! My sons are both younger than yours but from what I’ve been told it’s gets easier and harder at the same time. Little people have little problems. The bigger they get the more complex the issues they face and consequently so do parents. Sending all the very best of luck your way.

  2. I wish I could say it gets easier… but instead I will say that it gets less surprising. I would think “hey I think I’ve got this. No wait – that’s not right – she must be getting ready to change and I’ll be having to figure it out again.” So, fewer things throw you. Sort of.

  3. Remember the 1989 movie Parenthood, with Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen? Their youngest son repeatedly bangs his bucket-covered head against a wall, and his mom explains apologetically to the ‘seemingly perfect parent’ played by Rick Moranis, “He likes to butt things…with his head”, to which he sarcastically replies, “How proud you must be”.
    Embrace your bucket-head-banging, imperfect child, as well as your own parenting imperfections. Parenthood only vaguely resembles what any of us envisioned. There, I said it.

  4. I think you’re on to something when you say that boys don’t hear their dads or brothers or men talk about how it is to parent. Or they didn’t. Now I hear men talk about their kids more often. But not as often about the tough parts. You are.
    Wasn’t Ben Franklin hoping for people to be honest with their struggle to get it right? Otherwise the list would be much good to anyone, would it? Something happens when we’re aware of a problem and get to be part of other men (and women) talking about it.

  5. I recommend starting your mantra (“it’s not personal–he’s not doing this TO me”) early and often. Developmentally, children are doing what they are wired to do. Try not to take his bad behavior as an attack on you or your parenting.

    That said, parenting is magnificent and dreadful. Gorgeous and disappointing. Inspiring and sickening. I hate who I am sometimes when I parent–as much or more than I have hated anything. And sometimes I am happier and more in love than ever before in my life. Yep. I’m a parent, too.

  6. As mother of said resident 7-year old. I think you are a WONDERFUL father (and husband to boot!). Yes, our lively boy can be a handful when he’s in that mode (like all kids are), but often times you keep your cool when I am about to blow a gasket. You are my best friend, partner (musically and otherwise), and I knew you’d make a great dad. You demonstrate it every day. And you are a great TEACHER. Not only to the hundreds and thousands of students you’ve taught at your job for over 24 years, but to me and our son. No wonder you have been so popular at your school! I am honored to be your partner in life and I’m your number one fan. Am I biased? Hell yes. But, that counts also as one objective vote. I am an individual as well. Love ya, Your Wife, Ren

    1. It appears that my wife has hacked into my wordpress account. Otherwise, it would appear that I believe I am married to myself and very happy about that. Thanks, my partner in life and crime. Love you too.

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