Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Father’s Fears

If you don’t know me, you won’t know this, but I’m a worrier. Come to think about it, even if you know me very well, you still may not know this, but I am a teeth-mashing, hand-wringing, heart-racing and sweaty-palmed worrier. I’m anxious. I fret. I lose sleep. I agonize and I'm concerned. Most frustrating is that I’m constantly considering the worst-case scenario, like I’m some kind of self-programmed and -appointed FEMA waiting for a catastrophe to happen. This stems from having children, I think, because before I became a card-carrying father, I was once a carefree, happy-go-lucky and relaxed individual with very little care for the future. I am this person no more now that I’m a father, but this character trait’s residual effects are still evident in my current laid-back façade; the relaxed man I used to be is quite dead. Replacing him is vexed, troubled, upset confused little man who jumps at the shadows of history while cowering under the weight of the future. You still see a harmonious man, but beneath that thin fascia of tranquility lies torment, the likes of which could power any hurricane to a torrid fever pitch. This boiling over of my subconscious is rooted in my two children, a boy and a girl, both whom will, no doubt, present a bubbling caldron of challenges unique to each child, based, I’m sure, on what they are rather than who they are. Do you smell a double standard brewing?

As it turns out, I believe in the double standard that exists between men and women, especially those evident in children: Boys are tougher, girls more sensitive. Boys play with toy guns, and girls play with toy dolls. Boys get dirty and girls stay clean. When boys turn 16, they get a beater car that will neither drive very fast nor very well (perfect, no racing or long journeys); when a girl turns 16, she gets a newer car that won’t break down or have a big backseat. As a father of a girl, this is vital.

As this is where the double standard really comes into play. When the boy gets caught making out with the preacher’s daughter in the balcony of the chapel, “atta-boys” and shoulder chucks all around—at least when his mother’s not looking—which usually means this will happen in the garage where we’re building some father-son concoction that will get us dirty, maybe learn something about things that will eventually explode, and importantly, keep us away from the women folk in the finer parts of the house.

When the girl gets caught making out with the preacher’s son in the balcony of the chapel, she gets a stern eyebrow raising and a warning that this sort of activity is not befitting a young lady of her stature and upbringing. Glaring over the top of the Sunday morning paper, she’ll get a firm lecture on the importance of purity, chastity and self-respect. Not fair you say? Childhood isn’t fair. Parenting, as it turns out, isn’t fair. The very equalizer, Life itself, isn’t fair; everything doesn’t wrap itself up in a half-hour sitcom and the bad guy doesn’t get what’s coming to him in the end. Double standard? Sure it is, and there is a reason why it is a double standard and has been for probably thousands of years. It’s called reproduction, and who holds the key to this activity, something men will do and say anything to get a chance to pick the lock? That’s right, the women. Hence, the double standard I’m sure will be inflicted on Natalie (and Matthew) as soon as the slightest situation arises, and therein lies my worries and fears.

Since Matthew was born, I haven’t had the slightest inkling of a worry for him as I project him through the years of his young life under my care. He’s a boy, he’ll be fine. His car will break down on some deserted road and he’ll have to walk home. He’ll probably get in at least one fight in his life. A girl will break his heart for the first time. He’ll get turned down at a school dance. He’ll lose a race or a meet or a match or his favorite jacket. For him, I picture myself using the terms “suck it up,” “walk it off,” “be a man about it,” and my Dad’s favorite: “Dem’s the breaks” (If you know the origins of this phrase, you’d know I didn’t misspell it). He’ll know how to change a tire, how to siphon gas, how not to stand too close to a pile of black powder when you toss on the match, how to sharpen a knife. He’ll own a backpack for camping, a bike for going off of jumps with, and he’ll have several scars on his knees from sliding into home (and one from sharpening his knife the wrong way…the first time). Odds are good he’ll be able to go to a party that Natalie won’t. He’ll probably be able to stay out later, and there will be special circumstances that will be applied to him and not her.

This might not seem fair or you might be saying to yourself, “yeah right,” but I’ll bet if you have children of your own, you know that there are some double standards that have been instigated over the years as they were growing up. There became a point in my life, I don’t know when it happened or how old I was, when my mother stopped being the parent of influence and my father took over. Perhaps it was at that moment when the advice I sought was geared toward man-related things like when is the right time to kiss a girl on a date, what to do when you park on a hill, or how to tie a tie. Maybe it is here when the double standard that I am thinking of will really kick in, as Natalie surely won’t come to me with women-related problems and I don’t know what to say to her if she does… walk it off, take a knee? That won’t fly, therefore I think I will react by tightening the reigns, especially when it comes to the black arts of women’s problems, where the unknown is feared and must be controlled. I’m sure Kara will do most of parenting for Natalie when she reaches a similar age I was when the “parent of influence” switched roles from my mother to my father. She’ll have questions, needs, ideas and emotions that I’m not equipped to handle, or even begin to fathom.

A week ago, Kara took the kids to the park, a different one not near our house, and she came back with a story about Natalie’s experience that struck in me the kind of fear I will never have with Matthew. Apparently Natalie met another little girl at the park, which she said to Kara: “There’s a pretty girl to play with,” but that little girl, who was older than Natalie, didn’t want anything to do with her, even though Gnat followed her around the playground for most of the afternoon, trying to make friends and not fully understanding that the girl didn’t want her around. At the end of the day, as they were leaving, Natalie said to Kara, sadly, “My nice girl is not nice.” As a parent, I wanted nothing more than to throttle that little girl until she succumbed to the charms and magic that I see in Natalie. You will love my daughter like none other and she will be your best friend as long as you occupy space in this world. I won’t have it any other way, and that is a typical response to this attitude, as I felt genuine pain for Natalie’s feelings, like she is a fragile little piece of clay still baking into an impressionable form in the oven.

Controlling these fears as Natalie’s father is my desire to protect her against everything and anything that comes her way, no matter how small or insignificant. Like The Catcher in the Rye, I just want to make sure she doesn’t run off of the cliff, as I see the smallest malady becoming a crashing blow on her psyche, forever altering her from the cute little girl she is into the sordid, sarcastic, pessimist I developed into later in my life. I want her to be innocent from this world’s evils, free from the afflictions that rob children of their youth and blind to life’s problems that adults are forced to deal with.

But the double standard here, something I can’t quite explain, is that all of this changes for Matthew. Getting hurt is a part of life. Feeling heartbreak or loss or failure is growing up in this world, and I’m fine with it, as he’s a boy; he’ll walk it off or take it like a man, and that doesn’t bother me. He’s a boy, and he’s going to someday be a man, and men are tempered, hardened and sculpted by failure, hardship and pain. The bad things in life are what makes a man a man. Writing these openly sexist comments makes me cringe, and I’m sure many of you will feel the same way, but I’m not going to change how I feel. I’m not sexist with society—good for women executives and hooray for women in politics (boo for women in the military however)—but when it comes to my children: Natalie will not play soldier and Matthew will not play Barbie dress up.

The point here is that I don’t worry about Matthew in the same way I worry about Natalie. I don’t fear for his safety, his future choices, his well being because I understand him as a fellow male. I will know what he is thinking as he grows because I thought the same thoughts and felt the same feelings. I will appreciate his point of view because there’s probably nothing in his life that I haven’t felt before. Puberty, girls, staying up all night to see if you can do it, cars that break down, shaving, proper hygiene, the right thing to do, the fact that your world revolves around the fort you just built in the backyard and that you need to stay out just 10 more minutes after the streetlights come on. I know what that’s like and there will probably not be anything he will tell me that will come to a shock (provided I raise him right). I know nothing of periods, PMS, makeup, giggling sleepovers, ponies, tea parties, or expensive pants that just have to go with certain kinds of shoes that all the other girls are wearing. Boys will wear jeans, Monday through Friday, and they’ll get a new pair when they wear a hole through the knee in the old one.

I want to protect Natalie because I think I have a natural affinity to look after the things I think can’t do so on their own. The sexism in me is convinced that little girls are delicate and need to be shielded from the malevolence of life, that they can’t leave me and go out in the real world because they won’t be able to do without me watching over them, making sure that nothing will hurt them and that nobody will disregard them in even the slightest way.

Is there any reason for this attitude, these fears and my constant worries? I can’t answer that, as I don’t know what the world has in store for Natalie as well as Matthew, but I do know this: There are more crimes against women than men in this world, and there are predators feeding off of youth that justice never seems to appropriately reach in today’s court systems. That’s just a sickening fact of life, something neither child shouldn’t have to know (any child), but it is a force that compels me to shield my children as long as I possibly can. But how can a parent defend against such cruelty, such wickedness? Sometimes we can’t and we trust in fate and luck. We can only teach our children to do the right thing, to make a conscious effort to realize the consequences of their actions and to do the best make the right decisions every step of the way. The parent in me knows that this is our only true defense, but the daddy in me doesn’t want Natalie to have to make the right decisions; I want to make them for her. I don’t want her to get hurt, to know pain, to have fears, regrets, heartbreak, anything that will fade the innocent smile from her face.

That is my turmoil, as a father, but the real torture is that I have to steel myself to the time in her life when I have to let her go, as each and every day she will drift farther and farther away from me. Not so for Matthew. Matthew’s supposed to grow up, become a man after his father and start a family of his own, and I expect him to do so according to the virtues and values that I teach him, and this is where the Double Standard gets capital letters: Natalie will always be my little girl, three feet tall and knowing nothing but the love of her daddy, and I never want that to change, not for anything.

I’ve lamented about this before, but daddies are replaced by dads, then fathers, then pops, then a phone call every once in a while after they move a way and raise a family of their own. That’s the real fear I have for Natalie, not that she’ll be successful, as I have no doubt about that: Her stock in life will constantly rise, and I hope that when I’m 60 and she’s 30, I’ll laugh at myself for ever having a single worry about her at all.

But for now, Natalie and Matthew have me to look after them the best that I know how, and double standards or not, I will try to be fair, considerate of their feelings and reasonable in my fathering. If only it will be as easy to do as it is to say. Time will tell.

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