Since my daughter was born, almost a year ago, I’ve been wary of books about motherhood, whether fiction or non-fiction, tender tale or battle hymn. In the precious few hours I’ve had to read, I haven’t wanted to think about what kind of mother I am. It still feels strange—both wonderfully strange and alarmingly strange—to say that I have a child. I hardly ever refer to myself in the third person, as mom, mommy, or mama. My daughter knows who I am. She’ll put some sort of name to my face soon enough.
I do, however, say “dad” all the time, as in: “Your dad will change you now.” “Your dad will put you to bed.” “When will your dad be home?” “Here’s your dad!” The other day at the park, my daughter was sitting in the baby swing, pronouncing her “da-da-da’s,” as she does, with insistent delight. A woman pushing her grandson asked if “mama” was also part of the repertoire, and I told her it wasn’t. “That’s how it is,” the grandmother said. “The mother does all the work. The dad gets all the glory.”
The truth is, dad does plenty. But, as I suspect is the case in most two-parent households, I can’t help noting the amount of time my partner spends changing diapers, managing feedings, and keeping at least one eye on the kid, in comparison with my own lot. Freud’s concept of penis envy seems as ridiculous now as it did when I first learned of it, who knows how long ago. Dad envy, on the other hand, feels as real as the cries in the middle of the night that mean, “I want milk, and you’re the milk lady.” Though fathers are increasingly involved in taking care of their children, they still can’t give birth, or breastfeed, or feel the same kind of cultural—and perhaps biological—pressures that a mother does to attend to her child’s needs. And though it’s amazing to be able to practice these womanly arts, the physical and emotional challenges can wipe a new mother out. (Which is why womb envy, the most prominent feminist psychoanalytic response to Freud, also strikes me as rather dubious.)
But I want to talk about literature—comic, romantic, escapist literature: that is, dad literature. While I’ve avoided reading books about motherhood since my daughter joined the world, I have read three fantastic books about fathers taking care of small children. Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits is the latest novel by a young writer whose previous two books satirize American culture on a grand scale: one features a Las Vegas fight between a bear and a shark, the other a series of assassinations and resurrections of Upton Sinclair. Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature is an early novel by a writer The New York Times recently deemed “The Mad Scientist of Smut.” And Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa is a slim volume of diary entries by one of the patriarchs of American literature, whose most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, gives us a tormented father unable to publicly acknowledge his child. These three writers, then, are not exactly known for tender portraits of domesticity. But their chronicles of fathers tending to little ones are the loveliest I’ve read detailing that relationship. With honesty and great charm, they depict a daily experience that’s alternately surprising, boring, exhausting, enchanting, dismaying, and heartwarming—all within the short (and long) space of a morning or afternoon.
In his introduction to Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny, Paul Auster calls this endearing little book, culled from sections of Hawthorne’s American Notebooks, the first “meticulous, blow-by-blow account of a man taking care of a young child by himself.” Twenty diary excerpts relate Hawthorne’s time with his five-year-old son, Julian, in the summer of 1851, while his wife and two daughters are out of town. Stationed at their “Red Shanty” in the Berkshires, father and son gather beans from the garden, whittle with a jackknife, venture out for milk and mail, wage war on thistles, fling stones in the lake, visit (and defile) a Shaker village, and bump into Herman Melville and invite him over for tea. A close observer of Julian’s developing personality, Hawthorne both admires his pep: “the little man kept jumping over the high weeds, and the tufts of everlasting flowers;—while I compared his overflowing sprightliness with my own reluctant footsteps, and was content that he should be young instead of I,” and despairs of it: “He does put me almost beside my propriety; never quitting me, and continually thrusting in his word between the clauses of every sentence of all my reading, and smashing every attempt at reflection into a thousand fragments.”
Set 150 years later in another Massachusetts town, Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits, just published last year, features the father of a two year old with another child on the way. A humanities professor, Abbott has the summer off, which means he’s on serious dad duty. The novel is structured as a three-month-long record of daily experiences and observations, with titles like “Abbott Takes the Garbage Out,” “Abbott Stumbles Toward a Theory of Use,” and “On the Very Possibility of Kindness,” spanning the range of banalities and profundities inspired by childcare and domestic minutiae. In “Abbott and the Paradox of Personal Growth,” hours of acorn collecting, juice spilling, bead sorting, and other toddler-prompted activities lead Abbott to wonder how he spent his summer mornings, pre-kid. “He cannot even remember, cannot contemplate the freedom, the terrible enormity of Self.” In “Father’s Day,” he proposes, “There is something beyond tedium. You can pass all the way through tedium and come out the other side, and this is Abbott’s gift today.”
If Hawthorne and Abbott are pensive grumps by nature, whose children occasionally inspire moments of fatherly bliss and awe, my third favorite father is a gleeful kook on a fatherhood high. Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature, in which a guy feeds his six-month-old daughter a bottle, appeared before Vox (guy calls phone sex line and chats with equally horny and hyper-articulate gal), The Fermata (guy with the power to stop time removes women’s clothes without their knowledge), and this year’s House of Holes (lots of guys and lots of gals cavort at a fantasy sex palace). The earlier book is, wonderfully, in the same spirit as the racy romps. Baker’s narrators are fascinated by things related to both sex and childcare: basic bodily functions, the usefulness and/or kinkiness of ordinary household objects, and the oddness of intimacy with another human being. These preoccupations inspire both terrific narrative foreplay and wild tangents prompted by the simple act of rocking a baby to sleep. Room Temperature’s Mike even relishes the more tedious aspects of tending to an infant. I don’t have much patience for my daughter’s protestations when I’m trying to pull a shirt over her head. Mike, on the other hand, happily stretches out the neck holes of his daughter’s tops before sending her through them, thinking fondly of the elaborate ritual he used to perform with his underpants after a shower. “Thirty years of such little masteries could now find new twists and applications in fatherhood,” he rejoices. “I held nothing back for her! I loved her!”
The pleasure I take in these books stems partly from their spot-on depictions of an experience common to many, and partly from the precise characterizations of particular parents and children. Another part of the pleasure surely comes from the position of the mother in the narrative. The object of longing, curiosity, frustration, and admiration, she is usually (or always) offstage. As the date of Hawthorne’s wife’s projected return draws closer—it isn’t certain, the postal service and horse-drawn carriages being less dependable than cell phones and minivans—he becomes increasingly anxious for her: “Phoebe cannot fail to shine upon us. It seems absolutely an age since she departed.” When she fails to arrive for several days, her “disconsolate” husband overflows with feeling for her: “God bless her as the best wife and mother in the world! . . . No other man has so good a wife; nobody has better children. Would I were worthier of her and them!”
During Mike’s afternoon of bottle-feeding and ruminating, his wife Patty is at work. Mike’s own mother, “a colorist for Greff Fabrics,” taught him that “women were the only route out of the brown world.” As a pre-adolescent, he masturbated to an Edward Steichen photograph of a woman giving birth, inspired by “the lust-transfiguring generousness of allowing a life to pass hurtfully through her widening bones.” Still turned on by the things women do without men, Mike tells us about listening to Patty writing in a diary before bed. He tries to detect words “from the complicated sequences of felt-tipped sniffing sounds her pen made,” her recorded thoughts like a tantalizing code he can’t divine.
Even Abbott’s somewhat vexed relationship with his wife is satisfying to me, in an admittedly uncharitable way, in that it casts the dad in the more harried and put-upon role. While Abbott wrangles their daughter and collects “acute and contradictory feelings” for his wife, she is often catching up on sleep, completing her own set of domestic chores, or simply existing elsewhere. I found myself cheering these elusive mothers: Let her work! Let her sleep! Let her leave town! Some of my fondest feelings toward my daughter, I must admit, rise up in me when I imagine her at home with her dad, while I’m walking across campus to teach a class, or sitting in a cafe with my laptop and a latte.
Very young children follow the Buddhist path to enlightenment in at least one respect: they exist fully in the present moment. For the attending parent, the present moment is usually a scramble. Occasionally, like Mike, we may rock a sleeping child in our laps, while our imaginations wander across a great terrain of comical reminiscences, curious obsessions, and loving insights. Often, like, Abbott and Hawthorne, we muddle through the daily cycle of feeding, dressing, entertaining, and cleaning up, our physical and emotional resources rigorously tested. Only later, after the kid has, we pray, retired for the night, will we contemplate what a wonderful thing it is to watch a child (our own child!) grow and learn and become her own person. Sometimes in the evening, amidst the miraculous peace that has descended since our daughter’s been sleeping through the night in her own crib, my partner and I will realize that we miss her. Sometimes I’ll scan through my photo library, admiring pictures of her, when there are so many other things to do, things that I was desperate to do during the day, while she was demanding all of my attention.
The most wonderful moments in these books gesture toward the future consciousnesses and emotional lives of children now dependent on their parents for companionship, as well as round-the-clock care. Watching Julian “riding on his rocking-horse, and talking to me as fast as his tongue can go,” Hawthorne concludes that his son’s “desire of sympathy . . . lies at the bottom of the great heap of his babblement. He wants to enrich all his enjoyments by steeping them in the heart of some friend. I do not think him in danger of living so solitary a life as much of mine has been.” To envision your child free from some personal failing or unhappiness of your own is, of course, one of the fondest dreams of parenthood. More selfishly, you hope that the child, grown to a contemplative adulthood, will think of you as a good parent.
After reading my marked-up copy of Abbott Awaits, my partner chided me for not putting a check mark next to a particular passage. Reading the section over again, I saw that he was right: it’s one of the most affecting parts. After Abbott tries, and fails, to teach his daughter a lesson about delayed gratification by preventing her from immediately opening a package of stickers, he imagines her, 25 years later, bringing home a lover. In the comfort of their shared bed (Abbott and his wife, progressive parents that they are, permit the young couple to sleep together), the boyfriend reflects: “‘Your parents are great. Especially your dad. He’s really great.’” Abbott’s daughter responds: “‘When I was a kid, he was the kind of dad who wouldn’t let me put stickers on my face. And he’d correct my grammar in a way that he thought was fun and loving. And he’d tell me to be careful all the time. God, he’d tell me to be careful when I was making toast.’” The fantasy concludes, “And then they will lie together in that old bed, most likely naked, and for a long time talk about fathers, the failures of fathers.” Abbott is a wise enough dad to know that fathers inevitably fail. But the mistakes he hopes to make are of the best kind, motivated by protectiveness and care.
The ever-vigilant Mike (in matters, that is, of his own idiosyncratic fascinations) contemplates the “many mouth sounds the Bug was going to notice and master in time,” including “woodblock tock[s],” “ducklike squirts,” and “the little kissy noise you could make by sucking the air from the blue cap of a Bic pen.” At the very end of Room Temperature, Mike proposes, “if in ten years Bic pens were still around, and the Bug, inconceivably long-limbed, were to chew on one as she sat in class . . . she might taste the same quizzical six-sided plastic taste and wonder why it tasted so good and so awful at the same time . . . and why the sound of her saliva fizzing through the tiny airhole in the side of the pen’s barrel was such a peculiarly satisfying, calming, thought-provoking sound.” When she brings the chewed pen home, it allows her dad to explain this odd attachment to the Bic, that it “might have something to do with the hint of plastic in the warm evaporated milk that Patty and I had fed her from a six-sided bottle on magnificent fall afternoons when she was a tiny baby, only six months old.” And so, he confesses, “Everything in my life was beginning to route itself through the Bug.”
It’s hard to say, without reinforcing the obvious gender stereotypes, what makes these characters distinctly dad-like. There’s a certain sense of humor, a certain playfulness, a certain grumpiness, a fixation on some things and not on others. I don’t want to suggest that a father cares for and feels toward his children in a way that fundamentally differs from the care and emotional involvement of a mother. I’d rather read literature about parenthood than advice manuals because I want the story, not the tip; the particular impression, not the general rule. But I suspect that I’ve taken to these dad stories, as opposed to stories from a mother’s perspective, as a way of identifying with a narrative about the experience of a parent, while keeping myself a little apart from that identity. Dad envy, I think, ultimately stands less for the actual role an individual father plays in taking care of his child, than for the idea of a dad at his best: funny and easygoing most of the time, fiercely loving and tender when it counts. For a mother, for me, it comes with the opportunity to see how the man with whom my life is routed discovers for himself, day by day, what it means to be a dad.
Image Credit: Pexels/Jordan Benton.