I have a daughter, Catherine, aged thirty. I have a nine-year old son, Nathaniel, a seven-year-old son, Ridley, and a six year-old daughter, Truma. I'm sixty-eight. The age gap between the younger kids and me is not something I think about much, because I feel, physically, about like I did when I was forty—or at least I think I do. I think I...
I just forgot what we were talking about—age?
I do think about age, and as I write, if I have something to say to older dads (a growing population), I'll insert a short section labeled *C.O.D.—which means it's intended for the Considerably Older Dad. For example:
If you read tales from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen (your kids will probably love them), you'll be able to identify words in these stories that are not within the experience of younger fathers. Words like hearth, anvil, harness, scythe, plough, and stockings.
If you are a good person, you will probably be a good father. Try not to worry too much. If you don't feel apprehensive just before your first child arrives, you are abnormal. Though catastrophe doesn't come as often in childbirth as it did a few generations ago, we naturally fear it.
Then once our children are born, if we don't significantly interrupt the flow of childhood through them—that is, if we don't interrupt nourishment (physical and emotional) and play—and if the tone of our fathering is positive and we talk to our kids a lot, we'll probably do well.
A working definition of fathering might be this: fathering is the act of guiding a child to behave in ways that lead to the child's becoming a secure child in full, thus increasing his or her chances of being happy and fruitful as a young adult. This childhood season (spring), lived well, increases chances of a fruitful young adulthood (summer) and so on through fall and winter, each preparing for the next stage.
The early worldview of a child, the experience of seeing the world afresh, can be intoxicating for both child and father. When one of my aunts died about a year ago, this "new seeing" was demonstrated—if a bit morbidly.
Just before the funeral started, I entered the back of the church with our three little ones and my wife, Kristina. A cousin walked up and said, "The casket is still open if you want to view her." I looked at my children standing at my feet and staring up at me in bewilderment. They weren't familiar with what they'd just heard. What I next said to the kids, in large part because my mother took me to open-casket funerals about as often as she took me to the grocery store (a lot), was "Come on. Let's go."
At the casket, the kids lined up with their chins almost on the creamy-white silk lining. I stood behind them. Ridley, aged six, turned, looked up at me, and whispered, "Is she dead?"
I nodded yes.
My five-year-old, Truma, turned and whispered something to me.
I leaned in closer. "What?"
"Was she always dead?"
From a child's perspective, reasonable questions.
From an adult's perspective, odd questions.
Being a father can "unreason" your worldview, or at least make it very flexible, and that can create all sorts of fun and insights. It's sad that children's open-eyed wonder and sense of play begin to fade as they approach adolescence. One grand function of fathering is to keep the fading to a minimum.
By sometimes being playful and silly with my kids, I may help them hang on to some of the best parts of childhood, and thus reduce my chances of impeding that flow of healthy life through them.
I want this book to give you some good ideas, to take away some apprehension about that first year or so with your child, and to help you look forward to fatherhood. So I'll cover several important aspects of dealing with babies, toddlers, and little children in the first few parts of this book before jumping to "the long view" in a later section. I will not usually break things down by months and stages (0–6 months, 6–18 months, etc.). In general, children know more than you think, and if you are wondering whether or not they are ready for a certain game, food, or task, try it and find out. If you're wondering about it, they're probably ready. My older daughter, Catherine, was ready to eat mashed potatoes before she could talk, and Nathaniel, my older son, was eating barbecued ribs very early on.
I will sometimes assume as I write that you have more than one child—but only one is sufficient for what we're about. That reminds me of the elderly woman living in a mountain hollow. She walked with a cousin into town at Christmas one year, observed a nativity scene, turned to her cousin, and said, "She had only the one, didn't she?"
If you were an only child, you remember the ups and downs of that. I was an only child, and I remember wishing I had a brother or sister. If you had a sibling or two, my guess is that you sometimes wished you were an only child.
As for more than one child, I'm reminded of the grandma who, at a family reunion, walked through a living room, past a couch with six or eight baby dolls lined up on it, and on into the kitchen. She said to a couple of women, "Whose children are them in there? They wouldn't even speak."
And, oh yes, there was the older nurse and the younger nurse with me in the emergency room one time. I'd brought in my five-year-old son, who'd stuck one of my hearing-aid batteries into his ear, way down into the canal, barely visible. It was finally removed with a little suction apparatus (and my hospital bill thus included a significant charge for "surgery"). But before the battery was removed, the younger nurse and I were discussing children. We laughed and talked for a while. The
older nurse remained quiet, over in a corner, doing something.
The younger nurse said, "My aunt has five children."
The older nurse looked over her shoulder and spoke: "I had two. If I'd had five, I'd a cut my throat."
The personal stories above are about women. It's not easy to find written stories about only babies and fathers. In America (and much of the rest of the world), the duty of child care has been cast to mere women—for all kinds of reasons.
Because we men have been physically stronger, and more arrogant, we've influenced much of the cool stuff of the world, like basing the definition of courage on what we do on battlefields rather than on the patience, or endurance, or tolerance necessary for a sometimes painful daily grind that includes small children. Manly courage sometimes pales when placed beside the womanly courage that is demonstrated in all sorts of places around the globe, day after day. Many women are alone as they care for children, without the readily available camaraderie or supplies that usually come to soldiers. Many of them die in the "line of duty."
As a consequence of the mother-baby, father-baby setup, many books and websites are dedicated to just Mom stuff. Dr. Mom; Mother's Duties; Mother-Child Interactions; Your Baby and Your Breast; Breastfeeding with Ease (keep reading); Letting the Left Breast Know What the Right Breast Is Doing; Breast to Mouth (no, not that); Lymphatic Drainage and Your Cat; When One Is Bigger; Breastfeeding in the One-celled Organism; Breast-feeding in Church, Synagogue, Mosque, or Food Lion; When the Breast Won't Speak; and finally, yourareolaandyou.com.
With this book, I aim to work toward evening things up.
Our fathering instincts, especially our ideas about "discipline," depend somewhat on the parenting we got as children.
I want to talk a little about my parents so you see where I'm coming from:
My mother usually stayed on top of her only child's activities, except when I was playing or hunting in the woods (with my own shotgun at age twelve, as was the custom in my place and time). (I don't suggest this.) She'd monitor me through a window when I was near the house.
She started taking piano lessons when I did at age seven; she was forty-seven.
She smothered me in some ways and pushed me out into the world in other ways. She took me on visits to nursing homes, jails (to see an uncle, and others), and she took me to see the electric chair when I was six. She was the dominant parent. She shaped me. And she (and my father) spanked, though not often. No, not each other. Me.
For a while, as an adult, I didn't like some of what I remembered of my mother's parenting style. That was when I was beginning to try to be an intellectual. Now I think of her in positive ways almost every day. She was a good woman.
Though my father was relatively passive, I remember him in positive ways, too. He was gentle and kind—but a bit afraid of the world somehow. He was able to add long lists of numbers in his head as part of his job as a life-insurance salesman. Cautious. Very loyal to, and caring of, his blood family. He enthusiastically introduced me to quail hunting and baseball.
That I remember how they lived better than what they said to me is of course a cliché you read in parenting books— and is an important part of my message in this book. I also want to suggest that after they are gone, you will think often about your parents and what you learned from them directly and indirectly. If you did not grow up with your parents, you probably had parenting models you will come to think of often, negatively or positively.
While I was a child, my parents did not ask for my perspective about things, did not instruct me and then listen to my perspective without apparent judgment. That part was left to Uncle Bob, and in my twenties, to my cousin Barbara. If—for my younger children—I can be Uncle Bob; cousin Barbara; my daughter Catherine; my wife, Kristina; my mama and daddy, I think I'll do okay.
All eyes may now seem to be on your wife and her tummy, and nobody's throwing you any baby showers. Nobody's even thinking about you, it perhaps seems.
I'm thinking about you, although I'm not a professional parentologist. When I started to write this book, my aim was not to tell you what to do, but to just describe some things I've been through. I wanted to be more descriptive than prescriptive. I've been both, and I hope you take from these pages only what might be useful and forgive the rest.
And if you are out of work in these hard times, you may have major concerns beyond the scope of this narrative. But I hope to convey that in spite of your hardships, your willingness to listen to and respect your children is an everlasting, priceless gift to the world.
From Papadaddy's Book for New Fathers: Advice to Dads of All Ages by Clyde Edgerton. Copyright 2013 by Clyde Edgerton, Drawings by Daniel Wallace. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.