“Not many Dads would go along with what you’re doing.”
No, I suppose not. It’s their loss, although I shouldn’t brag too much. The way I see it, I’m just doing my job, for once.
It all has to do with my views about fatherhood. Did I ever tell you my views on fatherhood?
“We’re going to have to wash your hair before we dye it, Dad,” said Natalie. “How long has it been since you washed your hair?”
“I’ve been a little busy since you got me admitted to the psych ward and then disappeared on me.”
“Yeah, um, sorry about that,” she said over the noise of the water. “I was really, really worried about you. You’re not still going to, like, kill yourself still, are ya?”
Is this what waterboarding is like? Bent over backwards into a sink, faucet running, questions asked, choking on answers.
“No, Honey, I was trying to tell you, I’ve been over that for weeks. I was just scared to death to see you again, that you’d be angry with me.”
She massaged the shampoo into my hair, a little roughly, I thought.
“No, Dad, I wasn’t angry. But if you try to commit suicide, I’ll kill ya.”
I laughed, even though I wasn’t sure she was kidding.
“Mom kept going on and on about what a loser you are. I was, like, `Arghh, Mom, would you stop it? I don’t wanna hear it. That’s my Dad you’re talking about there.’”
Some shampoo must’ve gotten in my eyes. I started to tear up a little.
“What’d she say?”
“She got all, like, huffy and everything.”
Natalie ran the water again, hosing me down. Jets swirled around in my ears. Pride swelled in my chest, mixed in with equal parts of regret.
The way I see it, there’s an inherent conflict between mothers and fathers; even mothers and fathers who don’t move away to different states, divorce, and try not to talk to one another again; and sometimes it gets ugly. A father’s job is to protect children from their mothers. It’s not like mothers would eat them, or anything, although mine would’ve if she could’ve; it’s more like a mother resists her child growing up, and a father helps them escape.
A mother might be excused for being overprotective. It’s a set up. The child comes out of the mother’s body, you know, and is even attached to it at birth. How long before the mother regards the child as a separate person, rather than an extension of herself? Even after the umbilical is severed, the mother feeds the child from her own fluids. The mother is the first person who people blame when things go awry and she gets the most credit when they go well. When it comes to rocking the cradle, mothers rule and fathers drool.
It is not too much of a generalization to say that fathers do not have the same perspective. Even modern, stroller pushing, diaper changing, family leave act fathers loitering on the benches at the playground do not look at things the same way that mothers do. They are much more inclined to check their Blackberries and to glance up only after the umpteenth time the rug rat says, Daddy, watch this. Then, when the father looks up and sees little Ashley or Evan doing the tightrope at the top of the monkey bars, he will likely snap a picture and upload it to Facebook, while the mother would have a conniption.
The reason is because fathers cheer independence, even at considerable risk, while mothers promote dependence and its associated safety.
I’m not saying that it’s always like that; I’m just saying that’s the way the system is designed.
If you doubt me, just look at the stereotypes, they’ll tell you everything. Fathers are criticized for being irresponsible, they act like children themselves, say the stereotypes, mothers are the steady ones. Look at the Berenstain Bears.
In every episode, Small Bear faces a problem and turns to Papa. The father’s solution only makes things worse. Then Mama enters to set everything straight.
The first time I read a Berenstain Bear story to Paul, I refused to read it again.
“He’s going to grow up thinking men are buffoons and women know how to do everything,” I said.
“Well,” said his mother, “he’d be right.”
Now I’ve changed my mind. The last time I saw a Berenstain Bears story, Mama bear came off as a prissy, petty, conventional stick in the mud, who cares more about how her house looks than whether anyone was happy inside. Papa Bear was the fun, playful one, full of creative solutions. Small wonder Small Bear comes to him with his problems.
That’s why I consented to dying my hair Manic Panic Vampire Red. I wanted to be Papa Bear.
That and it felt good getting my hair washed, Natalie’s fingers massaging the dye into my hair.
Kim watched the whole process. “I think Natalie’s mom was pissed that we were waiting for you to spread Paul’s ashes. She needed to go back to Kansas.”
“Didn’t we already bury Paul?”
“Oh, that was just an empty casket. He wanted to be cremated and his ashes spread on Pike’s Peak. I thought we’d go first thing in the morning.”