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In one room, my 8-month-old son is sleeping. The monitor is on, and I can hear him breathe and sigh as he adjusts his fat little body in his crib. In another room, my 4-year-old daughter has lost her struggle to stay awake. It took four books, an elaborate arrangement (and then rearrangement) of her five bunnies, her bear, a doll, her pillow and her father. Her father was afforded the least amount of space.
I can tell almost precisely the moment she falls asleep. Her head relaxes against my arm, the hand that grips her alpha bunny loosens, and her small breaths acquire the softest and sweetest of wheezes.
For a long time I was ambivalent about having children. Then my wife had the good sense to get pregnant, and the luxury of ambivalence was taken away. I found myself thinking, I’m really going to enjoy this.
I noticed a curious coincidence. I was going to have a child at the same age my father was when I was born. So I wondered how I would do things differently from him. Looking back, I have no complaints. I’m a different parent than he was, but my life is very different from his, as is the current parenting culture. I suspect that the way I engage with my children is no better than his. I do things that he didn’t — and he was still a great father.
My dad was an imposing figure. He was an obstetrician and gynecologist, and I’m told he was an especially gifted surgeon. He was a man who was able to make life-and-death decisions. Somehow he was comfortable in that ability. His patients treated him like a god.
Midway through his life he picked up a hobby. He acquired an intense interest in wine and food and, by focusing his considerable intellect, became an internationally known amateur wine expert long before that was fashionable.
Because of that hobby, my father’s house became an interesting place, especially around dinnertime. He cut back on his obstetrical work and became a generous host. The key figures in the wine world would regularly be at his table, and I became his sommelier. Other interesting people would show up. I’m not sure I’m able to describe the pleasure of dining, as a 12-year-old boy, next to the towering actress Julie Newmar. Or, as a brooding young teen being introduced to the dean of King’s College, Cambridge University, England, who came down to dinner in his brown wool cassock and sandals.
I don’t remember my father ever reading me bedtime stories. I don’t remember his being able to finish a family dinner very often, either, as he was always being called away to the hospital. I do remember his going out of his way to drive me into Chicago for school every day one year. We talked about this and that as he smoked his morning cigar. We listened to the local classical station. We tried to guess the period, the composer — and if we were feeling cocky, the conductor and orchestra.
I am more engaged in the minutiae of my children’s lives than my father was with his. I like all the chores that go with children. I’m pretty good at them, too. But I realize that the sort of hands-on parenting I’m doing does not automatically qualify me as a good father. A friend was bragging about how wonderful her stay-at-home husband was with their daughter. He played with her, made lunch for her, was her best friend. A friend who heard this remarked, “You’re describing a good baby sitter, not necessarily a good father.”
In quiet and subtle ways, my father made sure his family was provided for, that their needs were met, that their environment was secure and that he was handling the freight. In addition, he was doing something that is a very important part of child rearing: being an interesting and engaged person himself. My father was a remarkable man, and I hope I can be as good a dad in my way as he was in his.