An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood
W.W. Norton: 188 pp., $23.95
Pity the poor modern dad. Or at least Michael Lewis, bestselling author and father of three whose cranky and mostly clumsy attempts to live up to the current ideal of fatherhood are breezily and brutally described in the new memoir "Home Game."
Lewis, whose previous books have dealt with the business of sports, high-stakes finance and the Internet's impact on society, here tackles trickier territory -- what he calls "the raw deal" dealt to dads today. Drawn from diaries he published in the online magazine Slate immediately following the births of his children Quinn, Dixie and Walker, "Home Game" mixes cringe-worthy tales of his own failings with repeated gripes about the no-win bind fathers today find themselves in.
On the one hand, fathers are now expected to join moms shoulder-to-shoulder in the child-care trenches: changing diapers, resolving squabbles, divvying up bottles of pumped breast milk, at least appearing to share in the grunt work previous generations shirked with impunity.
But even as they pine for the days when the only real job requirement was a "capacity for detached amusement," dads today are constantly reminded of their own irrelevance, incapability and essential uselessness. While the more involved dads of today get some credit, they're mostly, Lewis says, viewed with pity: "Women may smile at a man pushing a baby stroller, but it is with the gentle condescension of a high officer of an army of a village that surrendered without a fight. Men just look away in shame."
Lewis' style is funny, frank and engaging, and he gets a lot of comic mileage telling tales at his own expense -- his experiences in a Parisian Gymboree class and a Hawaiian hotel pool are just the sort of laugh-out-loud anecdotes that fill warts-and-all parenting memoirs like Christie Mellor's "The Three-Martini Playdate" or Sandra Tsing Loh's "Mother on Fire." The difference here is the gender of the confessor -- precious few of the multitude of books that purport to comically expose the harsh realities of family life are penned by dads (which may have something to do with conventional wisdom in publishing circles that guys are as likely to buy a book about parenting as they are the latest Jennifer Weiner).
"Home Game" may well bury that sad generalization, peppered as it is with sports and financial analogies and gibes at the nurturing, doting ideal of the modern dad. But it's also strangely dispiriting -- those well-intentioned pops who actually read it will likely finish it feeling even less equipped and more demoralized in their efforts to overcome the example set by previous generations who wouldn't know a Baby Björn from a Bugaboo. Men can pretend all they like that they can slip into roles traditionally played by mothers, but to Lewis, they're foolish warm-up acts vainly vying for star turns.
Still, it's refreshing to hear a dad describe so vividly the uglier aspects of the job. The birth of his son Walker, which a mushier father might observe with humbled awe, inspires a particularly intense bout of harrumphing. "No one actually cares how dad is doing," he writes. "His fatigue, his worries, his tedium, his disappointment at the contents of hospital vending machines -- these are better unmentioned." As for the act of childbirth, which fathers now routinely watch unfold in its entirety and even record, "I cease to be able to watch the birth of what is presumably my child with anything but horror." His list of grievances continues outside the delivery room. Inspiring particular ire is the host of services and safeguards now considered mandatory accessories. That commercial pressure, combined with the heightened expectations about housework, add up to what he calls "a Dark Age of Fatherhood."
But is it really so bad for dads? It's hard to work up much sympathy for Lewis, who seems so preoccupied with his own predicament that he takes little note of what many parents, even the most detached dads, view as the true dividend of raising small kids: wonder. Yes, little kids are messy and bossy and unreasonable. They're also miraculous and fascinating and often really, really funny. These are, of course, harder qualities to describe in a comic memoir -- your 3-year-old daughter's ethereal specialness is a lot less entertaining than the humdinger of a story about the time she peed in the hotel pool.
Lewis makes some noise toward the end about how the dirty work forges indelible bonds -- you know, genuine parental feeling. And when confronted with a family crisis like a nasty respiratory virus or his wife's (former MTV journalist Tabitha Soren) debilitating bout of postpartum panic, he displays the sort of compassion that dads from what he longingly calls "the glory days" would surely find hopelessly wimpy. Even so, he's not going out without a gripe.
Noxon is the father of three and the author of "Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-Up."