The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting and Tales from the Dad Side are two books tackling parenting from very different male perspectives. Authors Brett Berk and Steve Doocy join moms Jolene Ivey and Dia Michels to talk about their books and share their stories.
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.
Usually, we talk to a circle of moms, but today, we decided to get parenting tips from the male point of view. Two men have gravely taken on the challenge of offering tips to today's busy parents on everything from potty training to tantrums, but from two very different perspectives.
I'd like to welcome parenting authors Brett Berk, he wrote "The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting," and Steve Doocy, he is the author of "Tales from the Dad Side," and in his spare time, he's co-host of the morning news program "Fox & Friends." Welcome, gentlemen.
Mr. STEVE DOOCY (Co-host, "Fox & Friends"): Hi, how are you?
Mr. BRETT BERK (Author, "The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting"): Hey, thanks.
MARTIN: We're also joined by our moms regulars, Jolene Ivey, she's the co-founder of the parenting support group the Mocha Moms, and Dia Michels, who's also an author and a publisher of parenting books. Welcome, too, to the moms.
Ms. DIA MICHELS (Parenting Author): Thank you. Glad to be here.
MARTIN: Because, you know, we can't let the dads have it to ourselves. You know, we have to get the mom critique in there.
Ms. IVEY: Absolutely because we are the experts.
MARTIN: Yes. Exactly. So, Steve Doocy, let me start with you. What made you want to write this book? Because, as you say yourself, you're not an expert. You're just a guy who's been out there in the trenches.
Mr. DOOCY: That's exactly right. Actually, I did once host a parenting show on NBC Cable, but I only did that for the catering, OK? So, there are tons of books out there written from the moms' point of view, but very few from the dad side. So, that's why I decided to put this together, and, you know, because on sitcoms, we are portrayed as bumblers and knuckle draggers, and sometimes we are. But for the most part, we're just doing our best that we possibly can.
You know, there aren't a lot of books out there for new dads in the very beginning. And it's not like the stuff we read that is targeting us, where we would figure out how to do the job. It's not like Maxim magazine does nine simple cures for diaper rash - yet.
MARTIN: It's true, you know, that it used to be that, say 20 years ago, the sitcoms - 30 years ago - the sitcoms was, dad was the ultimate authority. Dad would come in and fix it.
Mr. DOOCY: Right.
MARTIN: But then, in recent years, dad has been portrayed, as you said, as kind of an idiot.
Mr. DOOCY: A doofus.
MARTIN: A doofus. Why do you think that is?
Mr. DOOCY: It's funnier. When you go back, I think the end of the line might have been Bill Cosby. Because dads in sitcoms were pretty authoritarian figures with the stentorian voice, put down that gun, Billy, now! And Billy would put down the gun because otherwise, there would be hell to pay from dad.
But then, during the late '80s, things just got a little goofier, and the dads became funnier, a little more - and families became more dysfunctional, and now, anything goes. But in the wake, you know, where's the positive, actual dad that resembles the guy who lives at my house?
MARTIN: Brett Berk? Your title says it all, "The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting." You freely admit you are not a parent. You don't even have a desire to be a parent. So, why did you decide to write this book, and who's this book for?
Mr. BERK: Well, I think it's for all parents. It's for anyone who is raising a kid or has a kid in their life and wants to understand a little bit more about how kids work. Actually, the catalyst for writing the book came about when I was at a dinner party with some friends of ours who have rented a house, my boyfriend and I, by our house upstate, and their son was toilet training. And they decided that it would be a good idea for him to drag his potty over next to the dinner table and practice his toileting then. And he practiced successfully, and we were asked to stand up and applaud.
And that was the moment that I realized that I needed to help my friends out. So, I've been working with young kids for 20 years. I'm an early childhood educator by training. I have a masters in education and worked as a preschool teacher and director of a preschool in New York City for many years. And so, I've borne witness to and practiced all sorts of different tactics for dealing with kids. And I think I've come up with some ideas that are actually quite functional and easily implementable. So, I thought I would put some of that advice out there for people.
MARTIN: Good, I want to hear some more of that good advice from both of you in just a minute. But I want to bring the moms into the conversation. Jolene, as the co-founder of a parenting support group and also the mother of five boys yourself, did you find these useful?
And one of the points I wanted to pick up on - what Brett says in his book is that it can be really hard to get advice or give advice on parenting. People will tell you about anything else, but they do not want to hear it when it comes to the kids. True?
Ms. IVEY: That is true. And actually, I really enjoyed Brett's book. I think that, primarily, it's because I agree with 99 percent of what he said.
Mr. BERK: I love you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. IVEY: And I've raised my children that way, too, for the most part. There are a couple of things you and I do not agree on, but that's cool. You're not going to agree with everything. But your whole philosophy of, you know, parents are the people in charge, and kids need to know that. And it's not an adversarial relationship, but it's important, and it's better for the kids that they know that their parents have their own lives to live also, and the kids cannot always be the center of everything. I think that's important.
MARTIN: Dia, what about you?
Ms. MICHELS: I think people wear parenting advice like fashion accessories. They come, and they go, and there's no shortage of parenting advice at all. So, that's what's amusing is, over time, we see how it changes. So, for instance, Brett refers to Dr. Ferber in his book. Dr. Ferber was the king of how to put your kids to sleep for years, and then he recanted everything he said.
And so, I think we have to be very careful when we give parenting advice just how much of it is topical and of this age and how much of it really has to do with what we know about child development and what we know about what kids need to flourish and what parents need to flourish.
MARTIN: Do most of the people who buy parenting books, so far as you can tell, are they mostly women?
Ms. MICHELS: Oh, absolutely. Most of the people who buy parent - mothering books and fathering books are mostly women, women who buy them for the men.
MARTIN: Women buy them for their men?
Ms. MICHELS: Yeah. For instance, we're working on the breastfeeding materials now, and the women will buy it for the men. I mean, men's breastfeeding materials. So...
MARTIN: OK. I'm trying to wrap my head around that one.
Mr. BERK: Men can breastfeed now?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: I was going to say - the science has really taken us some place I really...
Mr. BERK: That's exciting to me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Steve, your book is very funny. Well, I'm not sure everybody would think this was funny, but there was this one incident where you talked about your trip to a strip club after your child's birth.
Mr. DOOCY: Thanks for bringing that up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BERK: You bring the kid?
Mr. DOOCY: It took me 22 years to live that down.
MARTIN: I'm not sure you've lived it down.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DOOCY: You're right.
MARTIN: But why did you decide to tell all, to strip yourself bare, as it were, in some of these stories?
Mr. DOOCY: Well, see, my book is not an advice book per se. It's a book of observations about what happens along the way. And I based it on, you know, the day I became a dad. And I was working at NBC, and all these people are no longer employed there, so I might as well tell you.
My boss said, look, you just had a son. We always celebrate. Come on, let's go. And I figured we were going to go to Chadwick's or one of those northwest watering holes that we go to a lot. And instead, we pulled up to a strip place, and he said, this is where they brought me when my son was born. So come on, let's go.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DOOCY: And I went in. And to say the least, I got out of there pretty fast. But, you know, it's just one of those things. And back in the day, when my dad became a father, and he was in Germany, you know, his guys in his unit took him out for what they served up best in Germany, which was a huge hangover. And, you know, that's what they used to do before fathers became more involved in the whole having a baby thing and the Lamaze thing and...
MARTIN: Are you nostalgic for those days? I can't really tell. Or are you just saying that dads deserve more respect for their role than they sometimes receive?
Mr. DOOCY: I think I look at it more as something that happened in history. I'm completely happy where we've evolved. I liked being in the delivery room. It was really cool. I didn't want the, you know, the delivery nurse said, you know, I can move this mirror so you can see everything that's going on down there, and my wife and I said, no, that's OK. We're just - we're fine up here. We're just talking to each other.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Steve Doocy and Brett Berk about their new parenting books. And we're also joined by our regular moms, Jolene Ivey, Dia Michels, who're giving their take on these dads' advice.
Jolene, do you think that your husband, Glen, would have appreciated more - something like this when you were starting out as new parents? Something that just - something written from a guy's point of view just to say you're not crazy, you're not alone in this?
Ms. IVEY: It's possible he would have. I know that he was really involved with my pregnancy and, you know, went with me as far as not drinking and stuff when I was pregnant. The first time, of course. The next four times, he lost me there. I've - didn't drink.
Mr. BERK: You both drink?
Ms. IVEY: No.
Mr. BERK: Oh.
Ms. IVEY: I didn't drink, and he kept drinking. It was kind of annoying. But he's always been a pretty involved father and more as the boys have gotten older, which I really appreciate. I think he can write his own book at this point.
MARTIN: He probably could. He probably should. Brett, your book makes a couple of points that I want to raise. One is, you talked about how, on the one hand, people are as immersed in the idea of parenting as they ever have been. On the other hand, they're very isolated as parents. They don't want to admit that they're isolated, and in some ways, their isolation is making them nuts. What's going on there? What's your take on this?
Mr. BERK: The big thing I think it is, is a social issue. We don't really deal with parents and families down any sort of social level in this country on a national level. So, there's no prenatal training. There's no national health care, and there's no national plan for early childhood education, not for parents or for kids.
So, I think people end up in this situation where they feel like they need to go it alone, and they do. And when you need to go it alone you, sort of dig a trench around yourself, and you isolate yourself in this place I like to call the parenting bubble, where you're only getting information that's - that you agree with, and you're only getting information oftentimes from other parents or from online sources.
The other thing that happens is, we've evolved toward what I like to refer to as All-in Parenting, sort of like Texas-Hold-Em-style poker playing, you know, where people throw every single bit of themselves into raising their kids. And I think that, in order to do the job well, it needs to be your top priority. But you can't do any job 24/7, and it isn't healthy for the kid, either. I think kids need to be able to be with other people and to integrate other kinds of situations and other ways that people deal with them in order to sort of synthesize an understanding about the world.
MARTIN: Brett, your book is divided into sections about specific things that parents are going to have to confront, toilet training, tantrums, things of that sort, getting out, getting some me time. But overall, what's your word of wisdom for parents?
Mr. BERK: I think one is a little role-play game I used to do with some of the parents at my school when they were struggling with a situation. They would say, oh, I don't know what to do. I can't get my son to stop watching television, or he'll only eat breakfast underneath the dining room table. And I would say, OK, let's imagine how the situation would be different. I want you to pretend you're the grown up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BERK: So, imagine what it would be like if you were the adult here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BERK: So, then - what - how would you respond to that? So, I think people have lost their perspective. They think that themselves and their child are equals. And I think it's not only dangerous, it's harmful for kids, you know. Their expectation is that you know how the world works. They have no idea how the world works. They were just born. So, I think that's one thing is...
Mr. BERK: Pretend you're the grown up.
MARTIN: The grown up. We can all...
Mr. BERK: It's good advice, right?
MARTIN: Steve Doocy, what's your best advice?
Mr. DOOCY: Plan on ad-libbing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DOOCY: Because whatever you think you're going to do, it never works out that way.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DOOCY: And I think there are a lot of guys out there who - they feel like they're all alone; they're in a bubble, but they're not. We all make the same mistakes. But, you know, there's not a lot of sharing of those stories because guys don't like to admit when they blow it. But we do. And there's nothing the matter with it because we're doing our best.
MARTIN: Dia, what's the most useful advice, do you think, that is contained in these two books?
Mr. DOOCY: Uh-oh. That's a long pause.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: A long pause.
Ms. MICHELS: I think the most useful advice is Brett talking about that kids need boundaries, and parents need to be in charge. And that young kids are not little grown-ups, and we've learned that in so many ways. We've learned it by studying infant sleep. We've learned that by studying infant nutrition.
You can't take an adult meal, shrink it down in calories, and make that a kid's meal. Kids need different things. They need whole milk. You know, they need to be held more. They have different developmental needs. So, I think understanding that we're not dealing with miniature adults is really one of the most helpful things that we can get out of Brett's book.
MARTIN: What about Steve's book? I get that dads may not be the ones to call and say, gee, I need a hand here. I need a buddy here, but that dads could use some support, too.
Ms. MICHELS: Well, there's nothing more profound than the simple statement, it takes a village. Moms can't do it alone. Dads can't do it alone. And unless we all start talking to each other, we're all going to struggle. As much as we try to be self-sufficient, we usually hit brick walls.
MARTIN: Jolene, what's your advice there?
Ms. IVEY: Well, I like the advice about being consistent because that's one thing that I have always tried to do. You can't make empty threats. You can't tell your kids some outlandish thing. If you don't eat this, then I'm never going to X.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. IVEY: It's silly. And the kids don't believe you, and you've lost all of your authority at that point. So, if you're consistent, if they know the answer before they ask the question, if there's some crazy request they're about to make of you, and they already know you're going to say no, then when you say no, that's it. They don't - they can go back and tell their friends, my mom's never going to change her mind. There's no point. Instead of having the kids whine and nag and drive you crazy. Who wants to live with people like that? I know I don't.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Now, Brett, what is the secret to successfully intervening - offering advice to people? Is it the fact that you have two degrees in child development?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: I'm sure that has something to do with it.
Mr. BERK: Part of it is just being shameless, that certainly helps. I think oftentimes being an expert on early childhood. I've been in this situation where I have a platform, actually, to deliver that information, so parents come to me with questions. I do not go up to people on the street, though, and offer parenting advice.
I did do that one time on the subway, where there was a little girl who was licking the pole on the subway, you know, where you usually hold on to when you're standing up. And I turned to her mom and I said, I'm not sure that's the best idea for her. And the mother was like, tsk, argh. She did not want to hear it. But nothing bad…
MARTIN: I was going to say, they didn't have to pick you up from the hospital later...
Mr. BERK: No, they did not…
MARTIN: OK. Good. I'm just…
Mr. BERK: I didn't get a beat down or anything like that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Didn't get a beat down. And Steve, what about you? Do people now, now that they know that you have this willingness to share, do people come to you? Do other guys seek you out?
Mr. DOOCY: You know what? Just because it is a collection of funny and warm stories that if you're not a father or a mother, they'll remind you of your dad. A lot of people will come up to me and they'll share a story about their dad, you know. Oh, yeah, yeah. You wrote about when you and your son biked down the volcano. Well, my dad did this. Or, when my son went to college and my two daughters said, well, dad, will you spend a little time with us this Saturday? And I said, sure. What would you like to do? And they said, well, we'd like to go out for manicures.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DOOCY: And I said, you know, I didn't see that coming.
Mr. BERK: He's rocking a really nice shade of red though (unintelligible) right now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: I'm so glad to hear it's so (unintelligible).
Mr. DOOCY: Thank you. That's beach ball red. So, you know, sometimes you do go outside your comfort zone. Besides, the one thing about parenting is that it seems like they're always being cute when they're not being absolutely rotten. So, you make a list and you try to balance it. And my book, and it sounds like Brett's book as well, just kind of a recapitulation of some of the cuteness and some of the pageantry of it all.
MARTIN: Steve Doocy is the author of "Tales from the Dad Side." In his spare time, he's also a co-host of "Fox and Friends." Brett Berk is the author of "The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting." They were both kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Here with me in Washington, Jolene Ivey, co-founder of the Mocha Moms Parenting Support Group, and Dia Michels, publisher of an imprint that publishes Parenting and other books, and they were here with me in Washington. Ladies, moms, gentlemen, dads, thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. MICHELS: Thanks, Michel.
Ms. IVEY: Thank you.
Mr. DOOCY: Thank you.
Mr. BERK: Thank you.
MARTIN: And at Tell Me More the conversation never ends. We just heard from two men who have written two very different books on parenting. Now, we want to hear from you. Do we hear enough of the male perspective on parenting? And in your household, what kind of parenting tips do you find helpful? To tell us what you think, and to hear what other listeners are saying, you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522. Or you can visit us at npr.org/tellmemore and blog it out.
And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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July 21, 1987, was the day I became a father. My wife Kathy had gotten pregnant nine months earlier on or around my thirtieth birthday party with things we had around the house.
My wife had been having contractions for over a month and the doctor decided to induce the labor during the hottest most humid stretch of the year, it was the kind of day when Angelina Jolie would try to adopt a kid from Antarctica. For my wife's induced delivery we showed up very early at the east door of the George Washington Hospital just a few blocks from the White House, this was the same trauma center where six years earlier they rushed President Reagan when the world discovered John Hinckley liked Jody Foster in a much stranger way than Joanie ever loved Chachi.
We have a very romantic story, I met my wife for the first time when she was five. We weren't neighbors or schoolmates or even vague acquaintances, I saw her on television where she starred as the most incredible girl in the world, Mattel's talking doll Chatty Cathy. Pull a string in her neck and without moving her lips she'd start repeating one of numerous recorded sentences, bossing around who ever was unlucky enough to be holding her.
"Please change my dress."
"May I have some tea, Mummy?"
"Will you play with me?"
A limited conversationalist, she'd incessantly repeat the same handful of demands over and over again. No wonder there was no childhood obesity back then, little girls were jumping through hoops for Chatty Cathy, one demanding hunk of rubberized plastic. At age five, I watched the commercials on our black and white Zenith in Kansas, not knowing that twenty-three years later I would not only meet Chatty Cathy but also marry her.
My future wife wound up a child television actress thanks to the confluence of geography, a persistent stage mother, and general cuteness. Their family lived in the San Fernando Valley town of Encino, which was crawling with A-listers. In my wife's cozy neighborhood, Judy Garland, Tim Conway, and Walt Disney, all had houses, as did the biggest movie star of all time. One day at the grocery check out line my future wife was making a typical five year old's demand for her mother to buy her a Hershey bar.
"Please, I want it!" she begged.
Standing her ground, her mother Lillian, said no. The kid kept begging until some impatient man in line behind cleared his throat. The mother didn't need advice on how to deal with a screaming kid, so as she turned to give the stink eye to the next man in line. The butt-insky was John Wayne.
"Give the little lady the candy, ma'am" the Duke directed.
The fear of insulting Hollywood royalty momentarily immobilized her, so he drove home his point by mouthing the word "Now." A candy purchase was immediately made.
Directly across the street from my wife's house lived the biggest TV stars in the world, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Monday through Friday they were shooting at rustlers and bad guys but by Sunday morning they were always cleaned up for services at St. Nicholas the Episcopal Church. A sign Roy Roger's front yard said Bienvenido which translates, welcome, which they did every Tuesday afternoon opening the front door to the neighborhood kids.
"Who wants to see Trigger?" Dale'd ask as the star struck children filed by the most famous horse in the world. Trigger didn't mind the attention, but why would he, he was dead. When Trigger went to that big haystack in the sky, Roy and Dale had him stuffed and then placed him in their foyer. Maybe it became a neighborhood tradition, because when their neighbor Walt Disney passed away somebody apparently liked the idea of keeping Walt around, but they didn't stuff him and put him in the hall, they just cut off his head and put it in the deep freeze.
"Okay kids when I open the door, look on the left, and you'll see the guy who invented EPCOT."
My wife's father Joe was a salesman for a New York based lingerie company. When I eventually met him I admitted I was unfamiliar with that line of work but he cleared it up by explaining, "I work in ladies underpants."
My wife's mother a one time New York model started reading the show business trades, finding open auditions and putting the kids to work. Barely knee high to a William Morris agent, they did commercials for cars, fast food joints, hair color, you name it, when they smiled and held up the product, and America bought it.
"You deserve a break today!" my future wife lip-synced Barry Manilow's jingle for McDonalds while looking really cute in a paper hat.
"Here' OJ" was her line when she tossed the Hertz keys to O. J. Simpson as he dashed through the concourse of the Palm Springs airport. Just think had my future wife not given him the rental car keys he might never have gotten back to Los Angeles, and American history could have been much different. Slow speed chases are almost impossible unless the car is turned on.
Eventually she wound up at ESPN, as one of that networks' first on-air women, and later at NBC in Washington, where I spotted her in the commissary and made it my life's mission to get a date with her. After a series of awkward encounters I eventually wore her down, for a mercy date. As I left her apartment that night I told her we'd be married. She presumed I was mentally unbalanced but real life never lets you down, we were married five months later, and fourteen months after that, she was begging to have a word with the nurse who controlled her pain medicine as the real life Chatty Cathy was about to birth a baby. Somebody please alert Mary Hart.
Back to that delivery day, after the hospital admission she was escorted to a bleak labor room with very unflattering fluorescent lighting, and changed into what they called a gown but in reality with the back side never fastened it was more of a labor and delivery apron. Asking what to expect, they explained that sometimes a first pregnancy delivery went fast, other times it dragged on, so to be on the safe side, her doctor was inducing the labor by injecting her a potent mix of pharmaceuticals that trigger some sort of hood release on her southernmost parts. That was the theory, however the powerful drug pictocin did nothing to her, she had some immunity to it, and instead we just sat there waiting, think Amy Winehouse in stirrups.
"When should we start a college fund?" she sounded like a Morgan Stanley commercial.
"Why bother?" I said in flippantly unaware of the power of compound interest over twenty years, instead I turned my attention momentarily to pressing matters. "Pass me the PEOPLE magazine, I want to do the crossword."
A five-letter word that means review word for a successful show?
BOFFO I carefully print perpendicular to BORK, waiting for nature to take its course.
Killing time later I walked past the nursery with all of the bassinettes lined up in rows with screaming strangers, and at that moment I wondered what my parents had gone through on my birthday almost exactly thirty years earlier. Family historians remember my mother had contractions for thirty-six excruciating hours, a labor any longer and they'd have made her an honorary Teamster.
Eighteen months after my mom and dad's wedding and honeymoon in the Wisconsin Dells, where they memorialized their big trip by keeping every menu from every restaurant they visited, it was time for my world premiere. In the two o'clock hour the morning of October nineteenth, my mother was in the delivery room of the town's only hospital, when her attending physician made the shocking announcement that my birth was delayed because I was essentially stuck somewhere between the Panama and birth canal. My heart rate was slowing to the red zone so the doctor quickly gave nature a helping hand and dragged me into this world with a set of stainless steel forceps that looked like jumbo salad tongs.
And where was my dad? He was not in the room, he was not in the state, he was not even in the country. Eight months before I was born my father had entertained a hard to resist employment opportunity. The job promised exciting travel opportunities, accommodations and a fantastic new wardrobe if you liked camouflage, he was drafted. After a basic training that made sure he understood the correct end of a rifle to point at the bad guys, the army lickety-split dispatched him to Stuttgart, Germany, to make sure disgruntled Mercedes Benz employees didn't take over the world on their lunch hours.
"Put down the cluster bomb Dieter and go rivet some diesels."
My father saw me for the first time when I was eighteen months old. Despite missing hundreds of diaper changes, crying jags, and a near deadly whooping cough, I was by his account still adorable.
The stern draft notice from the Pentagon was the reason my father was not in attendance for my birth, but back then few guys were in the delivery room for the actual birth. Generally men would drive their wives to the hospital, park the car and wait for an announcement. Fast forward a generation and I was not only in the same room with my wife, but I was her labor and delivery coach, having spent at least half a dozen evenings in various community center basements learning Lamaze breathing, to help my wife during the miracle of birth. Here's a news flash, that breathing is a scam, it doesn't work. I prompted Kathy to pant and blow exactly as we'd been taught and yet during several raving intervals she informed me that it felt like she was trying to pass a Hyundai Sonata.
The cynic in me wonders whether the whole breathing exercises were developed by nurses and doctors who had grown tired of the expectant father asking "Is it time?" and wanted to give both the man and woman something to do while they waited for the baby to squirt out. It did nothing to ease my wife's pain, but if it was simply a distraction to give her something to concentrate upon, may I suggest they abandon Lamaze and install a Guitar Hero 3. That way she has something with which to pass the time, that'll distract her from her contractions and if she can score seventy five thousand points before the baby is born, she should get free parking.
Thirteen hours after our pre-dawn arrival a nurse noticed that our baby's heartbeat had slowed down considerably, and there was some worry that he was stuck, which could mean the ultimate disaster; a lawsuit. A brief conversation in hushed tones and a flurry of activity, as something was pulled out of a sterile drawer and just as I was delivered three decades earlier, my son arrived courtesy of a set of giant salad tongs. Peter James, the most beautiful child the world had ever seen made his debut with a handsome complexion the same color as Superman's hair, blue.
That event marked the greatest single moment of my life, my legacy weighed seven pounds eleven ounces and stood twenty two inches tall, if he were old enough to stand, which that first day I wasn't going to demand. The only thing he could do at that moment was lay there in a blue knit stocking cap like the neighborhood's youngest felon waiting to knock over a 7-11.
"We'll just wrap him up like a tater and put him under the lamp" one of the reliable nurses said, as she placed him under the cozy glow of what looked exactly like the heat bulb at McDonalds that keeps the fries warm, the only thing missing was the shaker of salt. Daydreaming about how my life had changed in that instant and how I finally had someone to watch wrestling with, I overheard the nurse querying the delivery team members, filling out his APGAR score, which I learned was how one evaluates a newborns physical condition, the closer to ten the better.
"He's a nine, very good." the nurse announced.
His first test, and already he's an A student! Later by the vending machines I met a new dad who proudly articulated his son's grade, "He's a seven" he bragged.
"That's a great score," I said, which was a lie. Already so far behind my son I should have just told that father to forget about Harvard and send an early admission application to Clown College.
There was a further wrinkle to our delivery day, one week earlier, a baby was snatched at a suburban hospital, and now that we could stop being worried about a healthy baby, we could advance to non-stop parental hysteria and worry that our only child was about to be kidnapped by some slug of the earth who craved what we had, a Smurf-blue baby. Ergo we made a pact that the our baby Peter James would stay in my wife's room the entire time and not the public nursery, that meant one of us would have to be awake around the clock eyeballing the baby. We did not consider ourselves overtly paranoid, and the voices in my head reassured me of that, but my wife was positive a direct Bruno Hauptman descendant was circulating nearby with a minivan and an extension ladder on the roof.
"You go home and get some rest," Kathy told me, as I kissed my only legal tax deductions goodbye. Amped up on adrenalin I intended to go directly to sleep but I was too keyed up and so I started calling friends and family members to tell them the good news. First our parents, then our siblings, followed by miscellaneous family members, lifelong pals, our Lamaze coach, and finally people at work.
"What are you doing home? We need to celebrate," said one of my best friends who just like me also had a new son at home. My own father had told me that the night I was born, the guys from his army unit took him to one of Stuttgart's finest beer gardens and served up what they did best, a large hangover.
"I really can't, at six I'm on kidnapping duty" I told him, which seemed like an easy dodge, despite something in my craw that made me want to celebrate the greatest day in my life.
"One drink" he pleaded. In fact an adult beverage would actually help me relax. Besides when somebody wins an Oscar or the Superbowl, do you think they go home and fall asleep with the rich chocolate taste of Ovaltine?
"Alright, but I've got to be home by midnight."
On the way to my house, he picked up my boss, who would give me political cover with my wife if she ever found out about my cocktail guzzling while she was standing shotgun over our son, the future president of the United States. For my extra special single celebratory drink, my friends had selected a very popular spot, which I'd read was a watering hole for celebrities, lobbyists, U. S. Senators and Congressmen and even the mayor of Washington.
"Lets go" my buddy announced as he and my boss handed the valet the keys. Suddenly paralyzed I could not in good conscience party with my pals while the mother of my child was two miles away in a lonely semi-private hospital room with bad lighting strung out on intravenous drugs and delusional that the bogey man was going to stop by after visiting hours. There was one other major reason I was uneasy getting out of the car they'd brought me to a strip joint.
"I came here when my son was born" my friend divulged as he paid whatever it cost to see people naked "When they find out you're a new dad, lap dances are half price!"
The way he said it, it sounded like an unbeatable deal for the value conscious porn addict, which I was not. However it was the end of a very long day and while my wife rode the storm with the benefit of an epidural, I was thirsty, and there was absolutely positively no way she would ever find out. I thanked my boss for paying the cover, which knowing him he'd eventually expense as a business lunch with the sports guy.
Inside it was very dark, and the music volume was set to melt eardrums. Aside from our new father fiesta, there were guys at three or four other tables aimed in the direction of an abandoned stage. The waitress stopped by to take our drink order, an amiable girl who wore a junior college cheerleader uniform that was three sizes too tight and way past anything comfortable. The only one who could pull off wearing it in public would be Polly Pocket.
"What are you drinking guys?" she screamed over the music in a voice at a volume one would usually associate with an airplane evacuation.
Despite my plan to have a single highball, I was told there was a two-drink minimum, so I ordered a double vodka which was actually a sensible selection as it was not only pure alcohol but it could be used as an antiseptic which could be useful in that disgusting hellhole of a club where a sane person would flush with their foot.
Just as the watered down cocktails arrived I heard the police siren.
Simultaneously a door flew open and the room was filled with red flashing lights. My first time in a strip joint, was the night of a police raid. Tomorrow the Washington Post would run a photo of me being led out with my hands over my face with the headline, "TV's Father of the Year", opposite a picture of my one day old boy being held by my future ex-wife, who'd been sitting up bug-eyed all night, with a skillet in hand waiting for the evildoers to take our baby. From the perp walk photo the new dad would appear to be sporting a skillet dent in the forehead.
When in mortal danger one either puts up their dukes, or runs, it's called fight or flight. I'm a flighter, opting for an immediate evacuation, and was surprised that my friends weren't ready to run. Instead they were instead clapping, what were they members of the Police Benevolent Association, happy the cops were about to take us downtown?
Scanning the room, nobody was leaving, and curiously there were on uniformed officers in the room. The siren was actually the intro of an Ohio Players song, and the lights were just part of the show. No police, I was momentarily convinced that karma was punishing me for being there. Add my hyperactive imagination, fueled by exhaustion and straight vodka, and my mind played a funny trick on me. I had punked myself. Thankfully that night at the strip joint there was no bust. Allow me to rephrase that, I didn't have to make bail.
In an ironic turn of events, the first performer was costumed as a registered nurse. Looking exactly like one of the two-dozen angels of mercy I'd met that day, but this Florence Nightingale one was swinging a stethoscope a la Mae West's feather boa. What a multi-tasker, she was not only an exotic performer but with her diagnostic equipment she could detect mitral valve prolapse.
As she tossed her hat with a big red cross on the front into the front row, and long before she was able to gyrate out of her hospital whites I excused myself from the table, but my companions didn't care, they were after all, devoted lovers of live theatre.
Looking for the restroom I found a deserted backroom saloon that had a couple pay phones and an odd feature for this type of business, a salad bar. Momentarily questioning who in their right mind would eat that stuff considering all of the germs and bacteria and belly button lint floating around, I spotted some of those little Chinese corns that have been a weakness of mine since college. Picking up a Styrofoam plate and a plastic fork, I loaded it up with the second pair of salad tongs I'd seen that day.
It was delicious, but then again I was starving. I nonchalantly dined on a plate and a half of salad parts, and when I returned to the room the nurse was gone and a French maid was on the catwalk. I suspected this was a maid who did not do windows, but did everything else.
"I have got to go" I barked on my return but my companions were oblivious as I left to hail a cab, they remained visitors to Silicone Valley.
The next morning I was at the hospital by six, where I found my wife rocking our baby, her head twisted uncharacteristically to the left, I estimated she had a three Tylenol stiff neck. "I haven't had a second of sleep and I'm dying for a bath," she said meticulously handing me the boy. "What did you do last night?"
"Not much, just headed home." I replied, which was technically true. I did go home, and I didn't do much else, unless you counted eating a salad teeming with e coli in the back room of a notorious burlesque theatre. Completely truthful, to a point, I had that same nauseous feeling one has after a Steven Seagal film fest.
Around noon our friend Tommy Jacamo from the Palm restaurant where we'd gotten engaged, brought my wife a lobster that was exactly the same weight as my son, seven pounds, eleven ounces, which at that place would have cost eighteen thousand dollars, plus parking. By the time the lobster carcass was sucked clean, I was helping the new mom remove the napkins I'd festooned around her neck when my friend who I'd left at the strip joint twelve hours earlier, materialized at her door with a wrapper full of grocery store flowers. A lovely thought he then sweetly offered an unparalleled compliment to a mother who'd just gone through over a dozen torturous hours of delivery and a sleepless night in a scary metropolitan trauma center.
"What's with the kid's hair? You're both blonds, he looks Cambodian."
A wonderful bedside manner, he was the kind of person who really needed to sometime edit his conversation but did not, which was evidenced by the next thing to spill out of his yap trap.
"Did you tell her about the strip joint?'
"He's kidding" I guffawed, knowing that he would instantly gauge from the nervous yet brazen tone of my voice that this was a third rail topic that must be derailed at that exact moment.
"The fancy one up from the social Safeway."
Luckily for him we were in a hospital, so in a few moments after I'd choked the life out of him and left his body near a Dumpster outback somebody in a white coat could revive him, as long as he had a valid Blue Cross card in his pocket.
"Are you telling me..." I could tell by the tone of my wife's voice, this would be the mother of all butt chewings. "While I was here after fifteen hours of labor on the hottest day of the year staying conscious so nobody would kidnap our baby, you were at a topless joint?"
"It was bottomless too" my soon to be ex friend chimed in. "But he didn't stay for that."
What was he doing? Was this a hidden camera segment for Montel? This must have been what it was like on that mountain with the Donner party at the moment they realized that they had limited buffet options. "If you're not using your fingers...can I snack on your index?"
An unhealthy period of quiet swept across the maternity ward as he tried to change the subject rapping his fingernail on the side of the plastic see-thru bassinette trying to wake him up. Luckily our blue baby with the thick black hair was a very sound sleeper, sensing his work destroying our family was done, my friend left for work.
"She wasn't really mad, was she?" he asked a week later.
"Not at all" I snapped back as I stared at his ribcage trying to use mind control to stop his beating heart. In reality she was hurt, but she had a seven-pound baby to tend to, and a one hundred seventy pound bigger baby to train. For that next year, I always wondered whether she'd memorized Raul Felder's eight hundred number, occasionally dialing it for practice.
Regarding my foolhardy trip to the strip joint, I would like to say that I had simply lost all mental capacity for a few hours, but no jury would buy the insanity defense so instead your Honor, I'd like to plead it down to a gross misdemeanor.
While it's easy to become a dad, the simple act of a birth does not make you a father, that is something that is learned along the way. Intelligence does not equal wisdom. It's been twenty some years since that night and considering the emotional blowback I can honestly say I have not been to a strip joint since, and I've got the single dollar bills to prove it.
My friend was never invited to share the miracle of my two daughters births. Mary was born the day after Halloween, which I have a feeling God had a hand in, because according to what I've read on Craigslist, November first, All Saints Day, is one of the hardest of the calendar year to book a lap dancer.
Our final child Sally was also born in July and within an hour of her arrival, her brother Peter and sister Mary were in the room, singing Happy Birthday. Mary was a typical three year old who was mesmerized paying rapt attention to the new baby for almost a minute, and then bored silly, must have thought she was at a restaurant, "Me use potty?"
She excused herself to the private bath, and a few minutes later, after some suspicious giggling, the door swung open, and there she stood naked. We knew it was an attention getting reaction to the new baby, but it was also really cute. That was around the time US House republicans had something called the Contract with America. "Look at the nudie" my wife laughed, "She's a regular Nudie Gingrich."
I automatically felt obligated to add on to her joke "And you know what Nudie Gingrich's Contract with America is...a chicken in every pot and a pole in every bedroom." My wife guffawed momentarily until she made the connection that this was not the first time her husband had been in the presence of a naked person on the birthday of one of their children.
Suddenly angry for the nineteen thousand three hundredth over of the infamous strip joint incident of 1986, she launched into an uncomfortable resuscitation of the facts.
I am never going to live this down, I thought to myself when a light bulb went on over my head and I realized that having your wife repeat the same thing over and over again, is exactly what happens when a guy marries Chatty Cathy.
Our friend Angela smirked guiltily as the waiter gave the cocktail shaker a final tremor. "I haven't done this in ages," she said.
Tal squinted in disbelief. "Had a martini?"
I squinted too. "Thought about your second martini before starting your first?"
"No." Angela picked up her glass with both hands. For someone who'd once been nicknamed Guzzles, she looked out of practice. "Gone out on the town."
"You call this 'on the town'?" Tal gestured at our surroundings. We were in a brand-new, brightly lit, sports bar/pool hall in a former warehouse in the middle of Helena—which, though it seemed to have only slightly more residents than our apartment building, is apparently the state capital of Montana.
Angela shrugged. "It's as close as they come around here."
"So then, this is your regular place? You come here and work the felts? Knock around the old stripes and solids?" Tal had had a pool table growing up, and in the rare circumstance in which we found ourselves around one, he took pleasure in tossing some lingo around.
"Sure. I've been here before. Of course. Though it's been a little while." Angela took another, slightly less cautious sip. "To be perfectly honest . . . it's been a long while." She nodded. "It's actually my first time here since Seymour was born." She sighed. "Truth be told, I guess it's the first time I've gone out at night at all."
My jaw tried to drop, but I held it shut. Seymour was Angela's son—her nearly three-year-old son—the one successful product of her failed relationship with a failed musician, a drummer named Lawrence, who had pretty much abandoned her when she'd discovered she was pregnant. She had subsequently left Brooklyn and moved here, back home, to the allegedly warm embrace of her family. But while her parents assisted her financially—paying for Seymour's day care, and allowing her to work a low-paying job teaching English to female juvenile offenders—the limits of their support ended there.
I glanced at Tal. "I guess we sort of suspected as much."
Angela set her shoulders. "What do you mean?"
"Well, that twenty-minute monologue you delivered while we were waiting for our drinks? It was an annotated history of Seymour's recent bowel movements."
Ever the polite one, Tal perked up. "Not that it wasn't interesting. Really. I never knew that thing about the protective enzyme around corn kernels that keeps them from being processed by our digestive system."
"It would have been more interesting," I said, "if we weren't eating corn salsa."
Angela sighed. "Okay. I know. I should get out more. But it's so hard to motivate. I don't have any real friends here. I'm not dating—unless you count Lawrence dropping by for sex once a year when his band is in town. Plus, I miss Seymour during the days when I'm at work, and he's only up for a few hours once I get home. I want to spend it with him. I don't want to miss anything."
I nodded. "Fair enough."
"You don't mean that."
"You're right. What I meant to say was, you sound like you're suffering from a classic case of the Stockholm syndrome."
"You know. When you fall in love with your captor . . ."
"I know what it is. But he's not my captor. He's my son. It's my job to take care of him—all the time. Plus he's just so cute . . ." She got a doelike look in her eyes. "I don't want to leave him, even for a second, especially at night, when he's so tired and sweet. We've developed our little evening routine, where I give him his dinner and his bath, and we talk about our days. Then we get into bed and I read to him and we snuggle. I curl up around him like he's a little stuffed animal, and . . ."
I cleared my throat, trying to break the spell of their insularity. I had seen this situation many times before: parents' unwillingness, or inability, to take time for themselves—to have a real adult life in addition to their role as a mom or dad. It came up in all kinds of families, from all manner of backgrounds, but it seemed to be more troubling for parents who felt isolated—physically, personally, emotionally—regardless of whether they were in a relationship or going it alone. Feeling stranded, their child becomes more central than they should, creating the potential for problems all around.
I moved my glass aside. "We need to revise your routine, before you become one of those bitter prairie spinsters—Willa Catheterized. Or worse, embarrass Seymour when he's a teenager by trying to accompany him to his prom. You need some You Time."
Angela hemmed and hawed, coming up with excuses as to why she couldn't develop a social life. And though we tried rebutting her, she was tenacious.
"He's too young," she claimed.
"He's almost three. If this were the 1890s, or Malaysia, he'd have a full-time job by now."
"I have no sitters."
"Have you even looked? You can't be the only person in Helena with a kid. There are referral services, online postings, high-school bulletin boards. Or what about one of the young ladies you work with?"
"They're all criminals."
"Well, some of them are also mothers, right? Plus, isn't it part of your job to rehabilitate them?"
Angela looked down at the table. "Um . . . There's one other thing." She lowered her voice. "I'm sort of still breast-feeding . . . ?"
I clapped my hands together. "Now, we're getting somewhere." When pushed as to why a parent can't separate, I've found that this dirty little secret often emerges. And as with most other practices about which we're embarrassed or defensive—watching soap operas, driving an SUV, obsessively checking our BlackBerrys—everyone has their own set of rationalizations as to why they can't stop. One of our friends claimed, without an iota of proof, that continuing to breast-feed gave her four-year-old son "social confidence." Another used the circular argument that she couldn't stop because her boobs got sore if she didn't let her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter nurse. Another said she let her five-year-old suckle only on special occasions, like at night—every night. Yet another said she was planning to stop but was waiting for her son to let on that he was ready. He could type at this point; I suggested he send her an e-mail.
I laid out my theories on breast-feeding for Angela, hoping she wouldn't go all La Leche League on me, but instead of agreeing or debating, her doelike gaze returned. "I just like the way he looks at me when he's nursing," she said. "It's like we're in love."
I tightened the cords in my neck. "Thanks for the honesty. But I think it's best if we all pretend you didn't just say that. The two of you will have to work that out later. In therapy." I folded my hands. "So, any other excuses why you can't leave the house?"
Angela thought for a moment. "Where would I go?"
"I don't know." Tal shrugged. "Out? Here?"
"You call this fun?" Angela sighed. "Anyway, who would I have this said fun with? Who would even want to have fun with me? I'm a thirty-six-year-old underemployed single mother. I'm overweight. I'm financially dependent on my family. And I apparently have nothing to talk about but the quality of my son's shit."
"If that's going to be your personal ad," Tal said, "I think we should probably do some revising."
Angela smiled but then squinted, almost looking like she was going to cry. "Do you ever get the feeling that you're playing a part—that you're acting out a role that's not the real you? I'm not sure if that's exactly what I'm feeling," she said. "But I left New York so suddenly, and I've been doing this mom thing so vehemently, that I'm not certain who the real me is anymore. I know that I miss some parts of what my life used to be like. I miss playing the guitar at 2 a.m. after sex. I miss sex. I miss the guitar. The last time I even picked mine up was to pluck out a song from the Finding Nemo sound track. Try to tell me that's not enough to make me afraid to ever leave the house again."
Before she left Brooklyn, Angela had a great job teaching acting at an after-school program in the South Bronx, and a huge circle of super-funsy friends. But her true joy was performing in a lauded Heart cover band: Heart Attack. She had a tight wiry body, which she would throw around the stage with abandon, wailing and trilling, and the audience loved her because she was so obviously into what she did and not just one of those ironic hipsters for whom everything is an inside joke. She got a lot of play.
I could definitely see how she would miss her old life—especially since her decision to have a kid had not been something she'd planned but rather a scrambling reaction to an accident (read: mistake). But more than simply longing for her carefree past, her confession seemed to reflect two much more profound issues: (1) she was feeling bad about herself, and (2) she didn't have an outlet for these feelings.
Just so you know, many, if not most, parents feel this way at some point. As a teacher, as a preschool director, even as the moderator of focus groups about kids' snack foods, I've had scores of parents tearfully confess their feelings of isolation to me for the simple reason that they feel they have no other audience. Parenthood can be a decidedly lonely place. People feel stuck inside their bubble, with no means, energy, or "justifiable" reason to escape. They feel as though they've lost touch with their former lives and aren't exactly certain about what they've become. And for all of the talk about the instant camaraderie extended by other parents, I've heard many more stories about people feeling excluded, derided, or misunderstood by their cohorts than I have about their being pulled into the warm embrace of parent-on-parent companionship.
This may be particularly true for the people I know, many of whom are, like me, total oddballs. But I imagine that it runs much deeper than this. Our friend Bridget says it's easy to find parents to talk to about superficial things—like her son's school schedule or his tantrums in the grocery store—but that when she tries to open up, saying things like "I kind of miss the occasional bump of cocaine," people tend to put their hands up in surrender and back away. She has taken to saying, about each new mother she meets, "That's another woman who's not going to be my new best parent friend."
I'm not suggesting that parenthood is solely a solitary slog. And I'm sure there are people out there who are entirely fulfilled by it and have no secret resentments or regrets whatsoever. I just haven't met these folks yet. What I often see around me are people, good people, who feel in some way stuck, scared, and/or cut off.
I'll say it over and over again in this book: we live in a country without a social support structure, especially when it comes to having and raising kids. Other countries have national prenatal programs to prepare parents for what to expect. Other countries have extensive family leave laws that help foster communication, cooperation, and partnership among families. Other countries have universal child-care initiatives to care for and educate parents and young children and to relieve some of the burden of trying to juggle work, home, and personal lives. Through a lack of foresight, a grotesque faith in "the market," and a blind mistrust of anything remotely resembling communism, we don't have any of these useful things. This leaves parents here with a dearth of resources. Perhaps more important, it also leaves them without a sense of community. Parents often feel like they have to do it all alone, and this places inordinate pressure on them: pressure that sometimes prevents them from realizing that in order to take care of their child and be an effective caregiver, they have to take care of themselves as well.
"You need to get out more," I said to Angela.
Angela sighed and seemed as though she was about to say more, to open up and avail herself to the idea that she deserved and needed breaks. But instead, she checked her watch, and acquired a panicked expression. "Shit," she said. "You guys have kept me out way too late. I have to go, right now, or tomorrow's going to be hell."
It was only 10 p.m., and the next day was a weekend. Even if Seymour got her up at 6 a.m., she could still get a decent night's sleep. But we'd had many of our parent friends act this way when we got them away from their kids: they feel guilty, they try to make us feel guilty, and they generally act as if we're all sneaking around, shirking responsibility by enjoying quality time with one another.
We gave Angela special dispensation because she was running the whole show on her own and had been since day one. But, in truth, our only parent friends who seemed immune to this tendency were the ones who were separated or divorced. Being a couple with a child seemed to create a wall of insularity for many of our friends, a cocoon that no one was allowed into, or out of. But once the first round of separations began, a magical freedom seemed to emerge, wherein our divorced friends with kids suddenly found themselves able to go out, and stay out, without remorse.
At first, this seemed based solely on custody arrangements: our friends could have fun on the nights their kids were sleeping at their exes'. But their behavior soon bled over into other occasions, and these folks became more likely to get sitters, set up sleepovers, or make child-care arrangements, even on the nights when they had custody. They became more fun, and found a more centered sense of self. Certainly there's nothing like a bad relationship to destroy your self-esteem and drive for amusement, but the change felt more comprehensive than this. It was almost as if, in disbanding their dysfunctional nuclear families, they'd been able to burst out of their parenting bubbles and liberate themselves from other restrictive structures in their lives, discovering that they didn't have to be slaves to their kid, they deserved to have some time to themselves, and didn't have to function solely as part of a conjoined whole.
This change clearly begged the question as to why all of this—sharing child-care duties, gaining perspective, being themselves—couldn't have happened before, back in the days when they were still in wedded bliss.