When frazzled parent “enables” stubborn and lazy son, the process of training a helpless male adult has begun. Memories of my own adolescence make me hot with embarrassment. One scene sums up just how out to lunch I was. “Now, Tim,“ my mom told me seriously one day, “I need you to do something for me. I need a package of frozen hamburger. Go downstairs. Open the big freezer. Just to your left will be a wire basket. The frozen hamburger is not in the basket—it’s under it. Not in, but under. So lift the basket out. Right below you’ll see a package. Don’t get me anything but ground beef. That’s ground beef. Okay?”
“Sure!” I said cheerfully, then tromped downstairs, opened the freezer, and stopped. “Mom?” I called up tentatively. “ . . . Uh . . . what did you want?”
But all we have to do to break the cycle of dependence is get in there and learn. For fifteen years I “helped” my wife with our grocery shopping, week in and week out. “Where’s the pizza sauce?” I’d ask her. “What aisle is Pop-Tarts?” It was only when she became ill for three months that I finally learned the layout of the store—simply because I had to do the shopping myself. That’s all it took.
And another thing: Yes, caring for children is a kind of science, comprised of learnable skills. A guy gets better if he tries. But if you think your new expertise will bring a general orderliness to your family life, you, my deluded friend, are sadly mistaken. If a b-ball player hits 60 or 70% from the floor, he’s doing great; if a parent can keep things running smoothly even 50% of the time, he or she is magnificent beyond words.
Don’t assume that housekeeping overall is a discrete, neatly scheduled series of tasks. Nothing could be further from the truth. Houses with kids in them get dirty endlessly; waves against the shore aren’t more relentless. You’ll NEVER be able to finally sink into a chair knowing you’re finished. Accept this.
And maybe the biggest idea of all for a father. Like any worthy labor, spending time with your kids can be exhausting, frustrating, and downright tedious. It is, as my wife says, both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. In addition—and in contrast to most jobs—this one is grossly unrewarded in terms of money and status, with the extra wild irony that some people don’t even consider it work! The true father accepts the reality that success at home is usually just breaking even—that the job is never truly finished. He strengthens himself for this, knows he’s working for a magnificent cause. And he may also learn something profound about human happiness: the simple fact that you can’t always tell you’re happy even when you are. The true father learns to look past hard work and boredom and see that the truly important things are going as they should; this makes him deeply happy.