An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood
by Michael Lewis
Norton, 192 pp., $23.95
Pope John XXIII once said that “it is easier for a father to have children than for children to have a real father.” Since the birth of my fourth child last year I’ve given substantial thought to this, and I’m not sure I entirely agree. If by “have children” he meant bringing them into the world, he’s more or less correct—although, of course, as we fathers are reminded time and again, it’s the mother who “has” children. (Perhaps “sire” is the more apt, if antiquated, verb.) But if “having” children means having them in one’s life, the comparison is murkier: Indeed, some fathers do nothing more than sire children and then vamoose. Others deign to have them in their lives but are too busy with work, or preoccupied by other pursuits, to appreciate the joys and hardships that attend child-raising. And others, the much-ballyhooed stay-at-home dads, consume their fatherly duties with relish, serving as primary caregivers.
But what about the great mushy middle: those fathers who hold down full-time jobs but play an active role in bringing up their kids? This ranges from fathers who take weekends off to those who shoulder equal (or near-equal) responsibility for raising Dick and Jane. I count myself among these “moderates,” striving to get home from work every night in time for dinner, bath, book, and bed—and returning, inevitably, to computer afterward for several hours. I rise early with the children each morning so that my wife, who spent the night nursing the baby, can snatch an extra 90 minutes of sleep. Weekends are sacred family time: (almost) no work during waking hours, no political events, no “guys’ day out.”
Yet for putatively modern dads, delights aside, is it easy to raise children? In comparison to our wives—who manage most every aspect of their childrens’ lives, from doctor’s appointments to summer camp registration to properly fitting sneakers—the answer is yes. If we liken a mother’s toil to years of hard labor in Siberia, father’s work more closely resembles a brief tenure in Bernard Madoff’s current digs. But in the abstract, what does it mean for a working father to bring up his kids in today’s society?
Michael Lewis’s Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood is a humorous, engrossing, fresh look at a well-worn subject that weaves together anecdote and analysis by way of crackling dialogue. In many ways, Home Game does for fatherhood what Lewis’s earlier books did for baseball, football, and the Internet. (In particular, I commend the recounting of his three-year-old daughter’s profanity-laced defense of her older sister in a Bermudan resort pool.) Unlike most of his other works, however, Home Game is a highly personal, even poignant, look at fatherhood, in which Lewis exposes his own family life without permanently scarring his three children.
The most thoughtful section is the introduction, in which Lewis analyzes the evolving role of fathers in our time and bemoans the “unsettling absence of universal, or even local, standards of behavior.” Among his neighbors, Lewis is regarded alternately as a Neanderthal or a unique combination of “breadwinner and domestic dervish.” This lack of standards results in part from his residence in Berkeley, California (where I grew up, incidentally), which he nicely skewers for its incorrigibly faddish liberal sentimentality—at least when it comes to childbirth:
The ideal Berkeley birth has probably never actually happened, but if it has, it happened far from civilization, in the woods, without painkillers or doctors or any intervention whatsoever by modern medicine. Along one side of the birthing mother was a wall of doulas wailing a folk song; along the other, all the people she had ever known; at her feet, a full-length mirror, in which she watched her baby emerging; at her head, a mother wolf, licking and suckling. Incense-filled urns released meaningful, carbon-free odors.
No such voodoo for Lewis’s wife, the former MTV veejay Tabitha Soren, who “longs only for painless, antiseptic, impersonal modern medicine.” Lewis, for his part, doesn’t seem to disagree; but then again, he is not in any position to do so. Still, as entertaining as Home Game can be, it lacks coherence in places, betraying its origins as a series of disparate reflections originally published in the online magazine Slate. Lewis promises to probe what he regards as “the persistent and disturbing gap between what I was meant to feel and what I actually felt” during key moments of fatherhood. Yet he doesn’t entirely keep his promise, largely taking readers on a fun-filled, and occasionally harrowing, romp across oceans and hospital wards. And while, after three thorny birthing, post-partum, and neonatal experiences, Lewis appears to emerge stronger, wiser, and much more exhausted than before, the reader may be left wondering, exactly, what to take away from it.
Lewis does offer this parting thought: “If you’re not bothered by [fatherhood], or disturbed by it, or messed up from it, you’re probably doing something wrong that will mess up your kids.” So it’s possible such disquietude may simply be the modern father’s plight. Just as it isn’t easy for a father to write about raising children, it doesn’t seem to be easy having them, either, no matter how rewarding the effort.
Michael M. Rosen is an attorney in San Diego.