Monday, 27 December 2010

On Being a Good Father

When Father papered the parlour
You couldn't see him for paste
Dabbing it here! dabbing it there!
Paste and paper everywhere
Mother was stuck to the ceiling
The children stuck to the floor
I never knew a blooming family
So stuck up before.

Soon dad fell down the stairs
and dropp'd his paperhanger's can
On little Henrietta sitting there
with her young man,
The paste stuck them together,
as we thought t'would be for life,
We had to fetch the parson in
to make them man and wife.

- Robert Patrick Weston and Fred J. Barnes

The family gathered today for Christmas, that is to say, son, daughter, son-in-law and grand-daughter. I remember when I first contemplated the idea of being a father. There were three models, four if you included God.

One model was my own father, about whom I wrote in Reel and elsewhere, a mystery, but secondary to my mother, the soft distant hill behind her volcano. Secondary also in the sense that I got to know him second, and best after she died. He never seemed to me a figure of power, more an absent provider and whatever status he might have enjoyed at work meant nothing at home.

Another model was the stern Victorian pater familias, ruling with a rod of moral iron, and his alter ego - Hyde to his Jekyll - the drunken bully to be feared and to be overcome or escaped. I knew this Jekyll and Hyde only through literature and the imagination. He seemed real enough as an idea and as a nightmare. He was a probability we were always feeling lucky to avoid.

The third kind was the comic Pantaloon, a kind of diminished, incompetent male of the sort that papered the parlour as above. He was, by unconscious association, henpecked, impotent, more pitiable than contemptible. His emasculation was part of his fatherly job description. Joseph the carpenter appears in the Nativity then vanishes. The woman's son is conceived by God. The human figure can get stuffed.

There was potentially a fourth model, a kind of white-bearded benevolent patriarch surrounded by dozens of squabbly children, served on by a bunch of kindly squabbling women, muttering wisdom and blessings, producing multi-coloured birds as presents for his children on special occasions. But then this actually was God so it doesn't count.

There was something shameful in fatherhood, I suspected, something almost unbearable. The first and third kind were related in their diminution, a diminution so drastic it was almost deathly. This was the one Tommy Cooper sang about in 1961:

Daddy came home from work tired
His boss had been driving him mad.
The kids were all shouting, the dog bit him too
His dinner was nothing but boiled over stew.

I guess it was then he decided
Up to the rooftop he'd go
He was about to jump off when
The kids started howling below

'Don't jump off the roof, Dad
You'll make a hole in the yard
Mother's just planted petunias
The weeding and seeding was hard

If you must end it all, Dad
Won't you please give us a break
Just take a walk down the park, Dad
And there you can jump in the lake

- Cy Coben

A touch melodramatic possibly, but I sometimes imagined my father might feel like this. This father was the shadow on the stairs and in the parental bedroom. Fathers were not romantic lovers, not adventurers of the passions. Passion was what they could no longer afford. Adventure was what they should not attempt. Responsibility and the diurnal routine of providing meant passion had to be discarded. The best they could aspire to was Walter Mitty status, daydreamers of the time when it might have been possible to follow a male course of life.

I don't imagine any man grows up with the ambition of being a father. That comes or does not come, though it has been a source of shame - a curse - when it did not come. It is not accorded honourable estate in public discourse. There was no such thing as The Good Father, the best you could be was a good-enough father. Fathers in advertisements generally are incompetents, like the Pantaloon. With a great deal of training they might, just, become good-enough fathers.

But the course of human life entails procreation and the perpetuation of the species. Few couples, I imagine, make love with this as a primary consideration, but we know it to be a central part of human affairs. So we had children, children out of passion - and they are wonderful children - and, like most men, I suppose, I learned to love them as they grew, meaning I grew more and more attached to them, so much so that the attachment became an ache - one of the essential meanings of life. And as they grew through adolescence into independence and adulthood, I felt something of the expected personal diminishing, if only in feeling less necessary, less useful. Fortunately I had, and have, my resources and enjoy the same aching love from C as I feel for her. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish the ache from the various definitions of love.

Does that make me a good father? I don't suppose I am any of the possibilities I had considered in my youth, and I don't quite know what would make me good.

It comes back to something I first thought many years ago, when I first became a father. I considered the possible paternal models and what harm they might do to my ambitions, primarily to my ambitions as an artist. The enemy of promise was the pram in the hall, wasn't it? And didn't one need to experience the wilder, more unruly passions in order to know life as it should be known?

But then, I thought, human life was this, wasn't it? It was the whole, proper cycle as the world knew it, and if that was the cycle then I would go through it, because if I couldn't write out of that, if there was no poetry in it, then poetry was somehow beside the point. Then I'd rather be a human being than a romance. And so it happened I became a father, and so it is we are here, and though I am less useful in one sense, maybe in another I am not altogether useless, if only to say - look, here is the arc of life, and here is my position, and see, it's bearable. It is partly the ache that sees me through. In effect, the ache has been the poetry.

This is from Reel, a memory of my father in my early childhood.

My fathers, coming and going

Moustaches and grey homburgs: our fathers were
Defined by properties acquired by chance -
Or by divine decree. Standing behind her

In rooms, on stairs, figures of elegance,
They came and went in a murmur of soft voices,
Objects of bewilderment and romance.

How many of them on the premises?
Some worked twelve hours a day in an office
In the city, some placed bristly kisses

On our brows, some would simply embarrass
Us for no particular reason. Their age
Was indeterminate. They would promise

Anything befitting their patronage.
Were all these fathers one? And was it you,
My father, who pushed me in that carriage

I can’t remember now before time flew
And took her away as it will take us all?
I feel myself flying. It’s like passing through

Clouds in an aeroplane in its own bubble
Of air, a slightly bumpy ride down
Towards a runway as we rise and fall

Above the brilliant lights of a big town.

So there's the runway, and there are the brilliant lights, and I'm on the plane somewhere looking down. Good enough, I say.


dana said...

Congratulations on making it through, and sounds like it was a wonderful holiday. I'd be interested to hear your models of moms. Of course one is the advert perfect mom pulling the perfect dinner together in a snap, which is about as degrading as the father images.

Still not sure where I fall. I'm the one who pushed a four year old son down a steep snowy hill on a sled straight into a tree yesterday. He's fine, but I'll never be! Please don't mention to my husband, thanks.

George S said...

Well, I'm just trying to say it as it seemed to me and how I guess it might seem to some other men, Dana. On the other hand I can't quite see how the mother being able to do brilliantly what everyone wants is degrading. I think it might be degrading if she made a total botch of it in most adverts and the father had to come and clear it up.

I understand what you mean of course - it seems to delimit the role of the woman in the family, entirely to the family. But at least she has a competent role. Personally I am very glad my daughter had other things to aim at and did so.

As for trying to describe a good mum / mom you know you are inviting me - very nicely of course - into the jaws of hell and ridicule, but tell you what, I'll have a go.

dana said...

Dinner isn't necessarily what everyone wants, but what they need. It puts mom in the role of cook (alt housekeeper), alone, which is degrading. She gets put on a pedestal for it, so that makes it manipulative, as well. Just our adoration, mum, for taking care of our physical needs! It's degrading to the rest of the family, as well, creating dependents. It's not how I was raised, nor was my brother, and not what I'm attempting here (obviously, given the sled).

You'll get no ridicule from me if you give moms a shot. I suppose another model is the screaming harpy -- she may be the same as the emasculating, controlling one you alluded to. A third might be the serene one (virgin Mary?). Is there a distant model of mom, corollary to absent but providing dad? Maybe, but she's got some very negative images attached.

Maybe these are all just the oversimplified views of children. I'm finding the reality to be much messier, more exhausting, and tougher than I ever imagined.

George S said...

Dana - Do you really imagine I haven't been through all this before, every last detail of it? I have been through it countless times for the last thirty-five years. It's practically classic literature by now. I am not sure where I implied that a woman's place was in the kitchen, or that she ought to be stuck there. Then again, see my last answer.

And in the end, why object to me saying what I feel to be true from my experience. Is it so impermissible? Perhaps it is.

You asked me to do something that I don't feel empowered to do, but I agreed. If you feel like it stick with me if you will. If not, so be it.

thegedle said...

I enjoy your thoughts on things. Very pleased the "next blog" button took me to your site when I was exploring blogger a month or two ago.

Christmas is obviously a time for contemplating one's role in the family as your post roams almost exactly the subject matter my mind has been slowly chewing the past few days, though my children are younger.

dana said...

Nothing's impermissible, especially here, for you! Sorry to give that impression. I'm relatively new at all this, please forgive me.

panther said...

Dana, I think "the serene one" (Virgin Mary in her usual wan/passive depictions) is related to the Cook/Housekeeper on Pedestal. I can't help noticing that cultures that put (some) women on pedestals are also the cultures that crucify (other) women (metaphorically-speaking) for not being Serene and/or Cook on Pedestal.

And, of course, these two groups are not mutually exclusive. Because it's perfectly possible to fall off a pedestal. Or to get down voluntarily because you realize there's more to life.

I find the whole "mother" thing difficult too. Having one. Being one. Having one who has given me so many mixed messages over the years about being one. . .I try to take my cue from my kids i.e. how can I be a helpful mother to THEM ? . .Other folks' opinions, prejudices can go hang.

dana said...

Panther, yes, how can I best help My kids? Not others'... Thanks for this. It helps to hear other moms who struggle with the reality, as opposed to the image, too.

I know some moms, one in her late 60s, who cling to the role, even as grandmothers. It's so gratifying to be needed! I can understand not wanting to give that up, but of course if you do the job right, you're not needed any more. It's like a drug. I wonder if the cult of motherhood, and the whole smug fertile thing came from that? What an awful way to make the singles of the world feel!

panther said...

Yep, it's a cult. I see a lot of women in my neighbourhood here hanging onto that role even through grandmotherhood and finally, to the grave ! And, inevitably, this means a lot of dependent offspring, physically-grown men and women who might well be married with their own children but who are still Dependent on Mother. . .It's the sort of place that the media love to describe as "close-knit." The backbiting, malicious gossip and point-scoring among many of the women is off the Richter scale. I'm sure it's all related somehow.That the aforementioned backbiting, malicious gossip, etc is reminiscent of the school playground is a giveaway : these women haven't really grown up.

Am not saying the men have either, just that it shows differently. A lot of them are lacklustre, curiously emasculated and very passive. As far as I know, they don't backbite or point-score.

My experience,for what it's worth, is : it is pointless and destructive to live your life, as mother or anything else, according to the (apparent) dictates of public opinion.