A while back I wrote some fatherhood fictions about my family. A few fake anecdotes to pass the time. But recently, I’ve been considering more serious matters. Painful truths about being a father, which I have uncovered. I want to write about the greatest riddle of parenting: why is there such a horribly unfair distribution of innate parenting skills between fathers and mothers?
There are times when I feel I would be truly more comfortable—more natural—hunting a wooly mammoth with a wooden spear than performing many of the parenting duties that I’m currently responsible for undertaking. In fact, there’s no small number of hours each week that I contemplate rebuilding the DNA code for those ancient pachyderms, just so I can clone them back into existence and then stab them back out. I’m actually coming around to the conclusion that the reason mammoths are extinct in the first place is because generations of Neanderdads, shamed by their lack of utility, fled their claustrophobic caves with mammoth murder in their hearts.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about spending time with my kids. I L-O-V-E that. I’m not talking about some deep immature denial of responsibility. I’m all in. I’m saying that nothing in my spear-carrier brain reacts when my daughter comes to the breakfast table without a hair clip. No electrical impulses are triggered when I start to walk out the door with a kid, but no diaper bag (or jacket, or socks, or sun hat). And when my wife points out, incredulously, that I’ve again forgotten some import step in the bedtime procedure, I react like a dog who has accidentally triggered an Argon Laser at his master’s science laboratory. I know I’ve done something wrong, but I have no ability to comprehend it.
With my wife, as apparently with most mothers, some parental pre-programming seemed to exist. When the kids arrived, I actually heard her hard drive whirr up and load the code. There was a very short rebooting process, then the Mom.exe launched. (Note: I know her program is a DOS .exe program, because it sure the heck doesn’t have a Mac’s user interface, if you smell what I am cooking).
From the start, she seemed to know all the important processes. The what, when, where, when, why and how of parenting. Blankets swaddled, lips shushed, arms rocked, mouths latched, bib attached. As the kids grew, the systems changed flawlessly. It was and remains an incredible sight. Of course, this new application deleted the majority of WIFE OS, but that’s a topic for a separate, twenty-part series.
For me, the only programming that launched when my kids arrived was a series of worms and viruses. Fear, anxiety, insecurity, confusion; they’ve all bogged down my core processes. I’ve read books. Listened to podcasts. I’ve watched videos. But while I can understand completely the strategy of parenting from these sources, in the end, I am left struggling to to grasp, with my metaphorically inferior, opposable, grasping digits, the tactical details and habits of successful child maintenance.
Just the other day, I prepared a lunch for the girl (age 2 1/2). Quesadilla, apples and grapes, in case you care. It was a pretty darn complex meal by a Dad’s standards, and I was starting to feel good about myself. However, my satisfaction didn’t even last through the first bite. She looked at the food, then looked up and gave me a look of complete disappointment. “Daddy, you’ve forgotten to give me my milk.” My pride at her impressive grasp of language and context paled beside my recognition of her condescension. Even at two, females knows the processes of parenting better than a 40-year-old male.
The conclusion I’ve come to with all of these revelations, is that whoever thought up the Hunter/Gatherer paradigm to describe humanity was completely correct. Unfortunately, men get the majority of the ‘Hunter’ genes. And women, I posit, have somehow gotten the majority of the ‘Gatherer’ genes. (Before I dive into this premise, I’d like to say, as a side note, that I am fearfully aware that I’m teetering on the edge of age-old chauvinism with an audience of mostly women. I will, therefore, try to be very very careful.)
What are traits helpful to a mammoth hunter? First, they must have the ability to generate brief bursts of tremendous focus and energy. You can’t make a mistake when you’re trying to bring down a mastadon that can effortlessly crush you like a beer can. You’ve got to be sharp, almost manic, at the moment of the kill. Second, you must be able to deal with extended periods of downtime. Multi-ton, hairy beasts are kind of hard to find. You’d drive yourself crazy if you couldn’t zone out for a while. So, you amuse yourself by watching prehistoric monkeys chase their tails (prehistoric Wii). Third, operational spontaneity is helpful because the circumstances of each hunt are unique. You might drive one long-nose over cliff and the next week, bog down another one in some tar pits. Consistency is not required, or perhaps even desired. Finally, constant vigilance isn’t that important. After all, mammoth hunters are surrounded by large numbers of other hunters. Everybody has a spear. Somebody’s bound to be paying attention. So it doesn’t always have to be you.
Now, lets examine ‘Gatherers’. First, if you are collecting off-the-hoof cuisine, persistent awareness if far more important than intense focus. Anybody who’s gone looking for truffles knows that you have to look hard and for a long time (unless you have a wonderfully helpful, truffle-sniffing pig, which I’ll assume, for the purposes of this article, you do not). Second, there’s never any downtime with a gatherer. You have to go all day, every day, to get anything out of gathering. If you get ten basket of frustratingly small, pre-gentically-modified, totally-organic micro-apples an hour. Then you need to work ten hours to get ten baskets of micro-apples. Slack off and you’re family will starve (especially because your husband Thog has disappeared for three weeks chasing mammoths). Third, consistency is a huge advantage for a gatherer. Its not like some patch of primordial rhubarb is going to grow in new places overnight. You have to create a plan. Go to the same places. Learn the terrain. Build a routine. Finally, constant vigilance is a necessity for a gatherer. Daydream while you’re collecting acorns and a prehistoric armadillo the size of a cadillac will gobble you up. That snotty hag over by the walnut tree sure isn’t going to help you.
So now tell me. Which sets of skills best match those needed for effective parenting? Chime in if you think brief, paint-peeing, Al Pacino-esque intensity is the correct demeanor when reading a child a nursery rhyme? Raise your hand if you believe that the ability to zone out for hours is useful when the kids are poolside, cliffside, roadside or fireside. Anybody find any value in operational spontaneity when you’re trying to establish a bedtime routine? And surely nobody thinks that constant vigilance has anything, whatsoever, to do with good parenting?
Of course, none of a man’s innate, hunting skills are worth a tinkers darn for parenting. At least not when kids are young. And deep beneath our vestigial, warmth-conserving back hair, we father’s know it. And if we weren’t totally convinced after a few months with the tikes, our wives were certainly kind enough to point this fact out to us. The only question remaining is which parent has the greater degree of frustration. Is it the mother, who has all the skills but not enough hours in the day? Or is it the father, who lacks the skills, and only makes things worse, the harder he tries?
Wiser, more seasoned voices than mine have suggested that things will get better. They claim that these hunter instincts will become more important as the kids get older. They say that a father’s true role is to take his children out into the world and teach them to take on challenges. In the meantime, they say, a father must stay patient, accept his limitations, and do as many dishes as possible. That last part seemed like it had been slapped on, but I can’t be certain.
So I will continue to trudge down to the garage when the kids are napping. I will space out, as I slowly chip away at flint spearheads and attach them to branches. I will use my brief, intense focus to visualize taking out my frustrations on large, long-nosed, terrestrial quadrapeds. And while, with all of the father’s here in the Bay area, I find it completely unsurprising that on my recent visits to the San Francisco Zoo, there has never been an elephant in the Elephant Paddock. I promise to carry, as a matter of operational spontaneity, that spearhead in my backpack. Just in case.
First Published in the Burlingame Mother’s Club Newsletter, June 2009