Fatherhood: The toughest job

It is said that you should write about what you know. So I shouldn’t be writing about being a father, because after being an official father for more than 11 years, I still don’t know what I’m doing. (I didn’t write a Mother’s Day column because I know even less about being a mother.)

Particularly now, of course. My father worked for 40½ years at the same bank, though with three different names and at at least three different locations. My sixth different job ended March 30, so since then our three children have had a stay-at-home dad. (I should teach them to tell people that I am a journalist. The definition at the UW School of Journalism of a “journalist” was “an out-of-work reporter.”)

On the other hand, this nearly-three-month employment pause hasn’t been all bad. I have been able to go on field trips with all of my kids this spring — to a cave with Dylan, bowling with Shaena, and the state Capitol with Michael. Last  weekend, I went to church camp with Shaena, and I can truthfully say I have spent worse three days. (I wasn’t the only unemployed father there, although we were the only father–daughter duo.)

I know three things  for sure: (1) once you’re a parent, you are never not a parent, at least until the parent–child relationship ends in death (and if the parent is the dead one, probably not even then); (2) there is no substitute for being there, whatever “there” entails; and (3) the most important thing a father can do is to be an example of how to act as an adult.

Understand that I’m not giving advice in that previous paragraph. There are some things where you have to learn by doing, and being a father is certainly one of them. There is no how-to-be-a-father book that any soon-to-be-father will grasp.

Bryan Caplan, author of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, blogged this intriguing thought:

1. Basic biology: A man produces hundreds of millions of sperm every day. Each of these sperm contains (half of) the genetic blueprint for a different person. The slightest physical movement changes the position of sperm.

2. Therefore, any change in my life prior to my children’s conception would have led my children not to exist. If I had crossed my legs differently, or walked to the frig, or even chuckled an extra time, the sperm would have been rearranged, negating my children’s existence. I might have had different children, of course, but they wouldn’t be the ones I have.

3. Like most parents, I have a massive endowment effect vis-a-vis my children. I love them greatly simply because they exist and they’re mine. If you offered to replace one of my sons with another biological child who was better in every objective way, I’d definitely refuse.

4. Therefore, if you offered me a “do-over” on any aspect of my life prior to my children’s conception, I would refuse, for it would mean that these specific children would never have been born.

5. Since I wouldn’t want to change any event prior to my children’s conception, I have nothing to regret. And since I have nothing to regret during this period, I don’t regret anything. …

If you think this is just my egghead way of saying “Happy Father’s Day!,” you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. What I’m really saying is that if you love your children just because they’re the ones you got, you have a special reason to be happy every day. After all, you can survey your whole life before your last child’s conception and honestly say: “It all happened for a reason. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

I read such things, realize that the opposite political side from mine believes there are too many people on this planet, conclude that more children means you have the opportunity to outnumber your enemies, and conclude that we should have more kids. And then I have days where I think that three children was three too many.

I wrote a great tribute (or at least readers said it was) to my parents on their 50th wedding anniversary Jan. 7. Unfortunately my former employer chose to kill the blog on which it was posted, so those who read that blog might get some repetitive material here.

My parents didn’t have nearly the normal-to-the-point-of-dull childhoods my brother and I had. (I’ve chosen to not delve into details, in part because it seems that my grandparents were perhaps better grandparents than parents.) At their 50th wedding dinner at Christiano’s in Wautoma, my parents told me the sequence of their meeting:

  1. Mom was a contestant at the Miss Wisconsin-USA pageant. Dad apparently did some piano work for or with her tied to the pageant.
  2. Then they ran into each other at the Badger Candy Kitchen on the Square in Madison. Dad had been to the dentist, so he drooled chicken noodle soup. Nevertheless, they had a dinner date …
  3. … which consisted of fish sticks and French fries, because that was all Dad could afford, and probably because it was on a no-meat Friday in the pre-Vatican II days.

The period between before their wedding and when I arrived on the scene was about a 400 on the scale of stressful life events. Dad, who was a member of southern Wisconsin’s first rock and roll band, was seriously injured in a fatal crash on the way to a show. Two years after they married, Dad’s mother died of a stroke at 49. And then, not long after their third wedding anniversary and less than a year after Dad had graduated from UW–Madison and got his first real job, their first son died a month before his second birthday. Such events in marriages today, particularly the last one (and, non-parents, you cannot know what that would be like), are grounds for divorce today.

The older I get, the more I recognize common traits in both my father and myself, irrespective of our common body types (though I am taller and heavier and far more nearsighted). I’m sure you’ll be shocked — shocked! — to know that we’re both rather right-wing, although I think I am more libertarian than he is and, thanks to my years in the news media, can articulate arguments better. (To complain, for instance, that UW football coach Bret Bielema is not a great coach requires actual evidence thereof.) He and I also have enjoyed dealing with bad backs, although in my case it’s amazing how better my back gets when I’m less of a fat blob.

I also think that, even though he was in one of the most establishment lines of work there is, we share the same slyly subversive attitude toward authority. I have said for years that if I had done one-tenth of what he did when I was in my teenage years, well, I’d still be grounded today. He survived several different bosses, including out-of-town and out-of-state bosses, each of whom, I’m sure, thought they knew Dad’s job better than Dad did.

Many readers may have had difficult relationships with their own fathers. I’m happy to say that has truly never been the case with either of my parents. Which is pretty remarkable given how argumentative their oldest son was as a teenager. (As if that’s changed, my family says.) I compare myself  to him and generally measure up in almost nothing — in ability to keep a job, patience (though he wouldn’t be considered patient, I’m on a whole ‘nother level of impatience — put it this way: I understand this sentiment perfectly), mechanical or around-the-house ability, athletic ability (he was a state champion relay-runner; I played trumpet in the band of a high school state basketball champion) and other areas.

When I got to college age, Dad bought a collectible car — a 1962 Chevrolet Impala convertible — and we went to car shows with it. Those car shows also awakened my interest in, well, music older than I am, including what I’ve heard of the band in which Dad played piano:

Note the poor posture of the piano player.

(This band resulted in two brushes with greatness. The first was when the band played as the backup band for Bobby Darin in a Madison concert. Dad says Darin was a perfectionist and thus not the greatest musical experience. The second was when he was working part-time for a Madison music store when he was called to set up an organ at the new Dane County Coliseum, which was hosting Ray Charles in its first concert. The organ player invited Dad to watch the concert backstage. The organ player did not tell him, however, that at some point Charles was going to thank the organ-installer, and hey, why don’t you come out and play a song with us, Steve? Sadly, Dad remembers none of his unscheduled Walter Mitty experience.)

We’ve taken a couple of trips together. The first and most Israelites-bugging-out-of-Egypt-like was when he and I, several Boy Scouts and our Scoutmaster went to the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. (Dad commented that he hasn’t been that weight since, and I had to point out that I haven’t been that weight since about one month out of college.) It was an epic trip, starting with the first day, when our arrival in Manhattan, Kan., coincided with what appeared to be the arrival of Armageddon. (Put it this way: It isn’t supposed to get dark at 6 p.m. on Independence Day.) Anyway, we survived not just the first night (instead of going to a what-would-have-been-flooded campground, we slept in the basement of a Manhattan Scoutmaster who just happened to be at the same Pizza Hut we were at),  but the entire trip with no one dying or killing each other.

I’ve also been on two baseball trips — the first with Dad and a childhood friend of his, the second with my parents, where said childhood friend joined us. The first was Madison-t0-St. Louis-to-Cincinnati-to-Chicago-to-Milwaukee; the second was supposed to be two spring-training games in Arizona, but turned out to be just one because the first was rained out. Dad was upset about the first, but I thought sitting at a sports bar with the two of them was quite enjoyable.

One of my favorite afternoons when I was in my last term at Marketplace was when he and I interviewed two Portage County microbrewery owners. I specifically invited him because I wanted him to see what I do. He ended up doing at least as much talking as I did, but that was fine; I just sat back and wrote down the answers from the microbrewers.

My parents served as examples. Not once did I ever witness my father ever say anything derogatory about my mother to someone else, or vice versa. Dad taught classes on Wednesday nights to young bankers, which showed me that if you need to augment your full-time income, you figure out how to. I suspect he made more than one career sacrifice in favor of his family, but he never complained about it. My parents aren’t what I’d consider overly demonstrative toward each other, but that, I guess, allowed us to take the fact that they loved each other for granted. And how do you learn about how to be a husband? From your own parents.

Those reading this from Facebook will note that my profile picture is Dad’s photo for Father’s Day weekend. I’m taller than he is, and I’m a lot taller than my mother, but I still look up to both of them.