Thursday, April 29, 2004

The 90s cult of Presence

Where did it come from, exactly, this new insistence that parents be always present at their children's sporting events, and even at the most minor of school events? 50s children like me had seemed to do fine spending their childhood in roles largely subservient to their parents', unwatched much of the time at our baseball games and school activities, at least not watched with the anxiety with which today's parents watch.

You can read "A Brief History of the (Over)involved Father," by Anthony Giardina, at Salon. It's an excerpt from The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom, an anthology edited by Daniel Jones.

Fathers are as befuddled by parenthood in the new millennium as mothers are. The influences behind the confusion may be little different — it all comes down to (re)defining manliness — but there are more male/female similarities than not.

In fact, Giardina's qualms have more to do with giving up the city and the image of his ideal life.

In Manhattan, I had thought of children as delightful appendages to the serious business of life: strap them on your back and take them where you need to go. . . [But now] I was in the park, strapped on the back of my daughter's life: she was taking me where she wanted to go.

There are no easy resolutions, of course.

The Bastard anthology is the male take on The Bitch in the House, Cathi Hanauer's book about contemporary women's issues. (She and editor Jones are married.) Bastard's essays tackle lying, cheating, logging on, being alone — y'know, guy stuff.

Jones in interview doesn't say anything enlightening, but he does note a phenomenon I've noticed and wondered about: "a man's sense that it's somehow not polite to criticize his wife in public. After all, he's got to live with her, and she's angry enough already. For whatever reason, most women I know don't share this inhibition. They tend to fire away. And I don't even think their husbands mind that much."

The essays doesn't offer much insight, nothing new in the male perspective on being male at this point in our history, but men may choose to read it for a sense of camaraderie, to know they're not alone.

The tone of "Bitch" is definitely more aggressive. It's about women going after what they want, making great strides and finding great frustration along the way. But at least they are on the move and going out and grabbing what they want. Men, on the other hand, are often on the losing side of this new power equation in many relationships, and there's something about the men that is more reactionary and on the defensive. They are on the whole very decent guys, trying to please and to do the right thing, but often they wind up feeling frustrated, resented, unneeded. Still, it's refreshing to see among the men here that these aren't men who opt to leave their families because of these conflicts.

I suspect more women than men will be picking up copies.

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