“Odd how this is by far the most exciting human experience,” my father wrote in his journal 47 years ago, on the occasion of my birth. Parenthood was a journey upon which he was embarking for the fifth time with my arrival into the world, but one he hadn’t started afresh in two dozen years.
“I had thought that, with age, my capacity for undue nervousness had disappeared,” he recorded. For a well-known historian and public intellectual like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., that was saying something. “I cannot recall being nervous for years — whether meeting presidents or prime ministers, or addressing large crowds or testifying before congressional committees,” he went on. “But, rather to my surprise … my stomach tightened early in the day, and I found myself in an increasingly tense state.”
It was nothing, it turned out, that “several bourbons in quick succession, followed by a steak” couldn’t alleviate.
Really, he should not have been surprised: Parenthood is an inherently nerve-wracking undertaking — the most exciting human experience, as he said, but also the most daunting. This was true for my father and it is true for me. Some things don’t change.
But some things do evolve: The expectations of fathers and mothers have changed dramatically in the years since my childhood.
When I entered the world, my father was sitting at home with his father-in-law, consuming those bourbons and steak. “I was told that I might as well go back [home] and await developments,” he recorded, eventually getting a call from the doctor summoning him back to the hospital.
I’ve become a father twice in the last decade and can’t imagine having absented myself on either occasion. On the first, a medical emergency left me pacing the hospital hall like the traditional, nervous expectant father as my wife, Francesca, gave birth; in the second case I watched our second son enter the world, a wondrous experience. Score one for modernity.
Still, as much as parental roles are changing, traditional expectations often still prevail. I remember when my first son was just a few months old, a friend of my wife’s family told me approvingly that Fran had said I was very helpful with the child, as if parenting was the mother’s purview and paternal involvement was exotic. I was somewhat taken aback — I’m a parent, of course I’m involved with parenting, I thought.
And in time, I became even more than an engaged partner — as our family life has evolved, I have taken on what I call the lead-parenting role, which is to say many of the duties that traditionally fall in the maternal domain. Doctor’s appointments? Check. Making breakfast, packing lunch boxes and getting the boys off to school? That’s how I start my day.
None of this was by design but of happenstance: My job has simply always afforded much more day-to-day flexibility than Francesca’s does.
Then, last year, when the publication for which I worked eliminated my section, I found that my level of flexibility — the ability to take the lead on parenting — was an incredibly important factor in deciding my next move. So I went into business for myself, becoming not so much a stay-at-home-dad as a work-at-home-dad, seeking a balance between generating enough work to uphold my household financial obligations while maintaining the flexibility to do the job of parenting that I want.
My wife and I are not alone in cutting against tradition in this way. A 2018 survey found that 54 percent of women are their families’ primary breadwinners. And the Pew Research Center has found that fathers spent on average 18 hours a week in 2016 on child care and housework, up from 6.5 hours in 1965. That’s still far less time than women spend on such tasks, but it’s a sign of changing times and expectations.
And, I often can’t believe my good fortune that I can do things like declare the first week of summer vacation to be “Daddy Camp,” for example, and take them to see the newly-renovated dinosaur exhibit at D.C.’s Museum of Natural History or catch a minor league baseball game. I feel immensely lucky that I am able to take the role of primary caregiver with my boys — now 7 and 10 — before time inexorably sweeps them into adolescence and adulthood and away from me.
And we do maintain some traditions I got from my own father. I read to my boys as he did with me — “Treasure Island” and “The Hobbit,” with modernity contributing the adventures of Harry Potter. But this too was kind of evolution for my father, I learned when I became a parent: It wasn’t so much a practice of his with my older siblings. His parenting style changed over time, to the benefit of my childhood and then my children.
So much of life is about the endless quest for balance — in our relationships, between the professional and personal sides of our lives, and in familial responsibilities. And it can be easy to forget the fact that balance is often not a 50-50 apportionment but about finding that restive sweet spot where the whole enterprise doesn’t crash down. By necessity and then increasingly by my choice, our family’s balance cut against traditional gender roles.
But as every modern parent knows, the quest for sustainable balance is also a fulsome font of stress, not only of the financial variety but of the personal sort. Parenting is joy but also frustration even for the best (and I am by no means that). I find mornings to be especially challenging because executive functioning is one of the last things to wake up in kids, making the get-them-up-fed-and-to-school process a frustrating exercise in cat-herding. Some days I handle it better than others.
So the father happily buying his kids a pretzel upon leaving the museum? That’s me. And the dad in the local Target fuming as his kids run through the aisles? That’s me too.
Are my wife and I doing the right thing? Would we be better off if I went to an office every day? I don’t believe so; I think that the balance we’ve found is the right one, at least for right now, but really who knows? This is part of what makes fatherhood — parenthood — so exhilarating and so overwhelming. The stakes are huge and clear answers are elusive. We do what we can and hope for the best.
And sometimes we get that best, in small, quiet, utterly fulfilling ways. The other night, I went downstairs to tell my older son — eagerly exploring the Lego trove he had scored for his recent 10th birthday — that bedtime was 30 minutes away. Pausing his populating of the Avengers headquarters, he looked up and said: “Daddy will you play with me?”
Those words can make a father’s day, in any generation.
Robert Schlesinger is a veteran Washington journalist and commentator. He is the author of “White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters”
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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