A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
As I write this, I have just returned home from my vasectomy, and I am lying in bed waiting for the local anesthetic to wear off. It seems a good time to think about parenting.
Physically, I have become impotent. Since we use sexuality as a metaphor so obsessively in our culture, the irrational fear here is that I will become impotent on some symbolic level as well. Ludicrous, of course, unless I choose to believe it, in which case it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a writer, I dance on the lip of an abyss of self-doubt every time I send a query, and if a faltering of confidence shows in that letter's tone it's a lost cause. Psychologically, I need to redirect my "fertility" into other areas of my life, and not think of it as lost.
That starts with my offspring, I think. I'm pretty darned sure that Jan and I don't have the energy for any more children. We're getting older, and Jan's last pregnancy was extremely hard. With two, each child can often have the full attention of one parent, while a third would mean someone was always left out. Slamming the door on the possibility doesn't change any of that. It's just jarring.
What it does change, because I am very conscious of thinking of it this way, is that it makes the singular and magical product of my genes even more precious to me. It means that I'm through changing diapers and that my role as dad can advance and grow with each milestone the boys pass. The constant exposure to toddler interests that makes adult conversation seem somewhat foreign has an end in sight, an exit sign that it will be bittersweet to pass. For the most part, I am very ready for the parenting equation to keep growing up.
Much more urgently, though, I am reminded how minute a fraction of a dad's role is the joyful play of siring offspring when compared with the vast lifetime of day-to- day details that is the real work of being a parent. Inviting a new child into our lives was fun, dammit, and included more sex than years of caring for the new addition affords. But ultimately, there's so much more richness and depth and personal pride in the small successes of doing dad's job. I feel part of the boys' triumph when I see them use a skill we worked together to develop, and when they go beyond it with an insight or innovation of their own it resonates to the depths of my soul. THAT is what it means to be a father. Virtually anybody can donate genetic material, but to foster the mental, emotional and spiritual growth of a fully realized human being is work. Challenging and rewarding. The oldest profession, and the toughest: having your heart walk around outside your body.
And that brings me to Keefe. Although I've known him since he was two-weeks-old and I'm the only father he can remember, our just-turned-nine-year-old is my stepson. There's none of my genes in him, a difference that, oddly, I notice most when they come out of the bathtub and he fails to display the fuzzy butt Hugh's already inherited from me. Keefe was the child that first showed me how much I wanted to be a parent. Unlike calling into my life whatever baby came, as it was with Hugh, becoming Keefe's dad was a journey of conscious choice: THIS is the son that I want, that I'm proud to have. He proves the nurture over nature argument time and time again. Even the parts of his character that piss me off the most often -- his pride, stubborn tenacity, opinionated-ness and need to do things on his own terms -- are exasperating because they are such a mirror of flaws I've passed on. It's the consistent routines, shared stories and the choices you make that shape the influence you have as a father. None of that is lost to me.
So as I use my writing to keep my
mind off a hollow ache in an area I'm irrationally sensitive about, I ponder
Julius Caesar. Would history remember him if he never got past the first
part of "I came. I saw. I conquered."? I certainly don't want to
'conquer' my children, but there are many dragons to vanquish in my quest to
be the best dad I can. I didn't lose my ability to father children today. I
just decided I don't have to go back to page one of the lengthy, varied,
exhilarating, terrifying and deeply fulfilling novel that is the story of my
life as a dad.
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