Fatherhood in First Person / "The Ace"
My wife and I have very clear roles in our family's two-person pitching staff. She is our ace, and I am not. Sure I take the mound, but after a poor outing I've often found myself in the bullpen. I'd like to think of myself as an involved, modern dad, but I generally display little knowledge of the game, and am only on the team because the star likes me.
It wouldn't be fair of me to say my mother didn't work, because caring for my sister and me was a full-time occupation. She taught elementary art when my sister and I were older. But in the corduroy swooshing legs of my Oshkosh youth, Mom raised us kids. Dad raised the dough.
Sometimes Mom's ominous afternoon refrain was, "Wait 'til your father comes home." Dad was the heavy hand, the authoritarian enforcer of balance and order. Often, Dad's gavel ruled an undetermined amount of isolated hard time in "the chair." I suppose sitting in one of the dining room chairs in my parents' Victorian duplex was the '80s version of timeout.
My wife, Lynne, is The Ace, because she has good stuff on bad days. If the two of us are engaged in the activity of unloading our day from the car: the coffee mug, water bottles, our son's mini-cooler of plastic little bowls and a sippy-cup, our toddler will dump his cheddar cheese Goldfish on the floor and stomp them into orange powder. My reaction is to point to the landing of the stairs, and say, "Step!"
Lynne is a full-time high school guidance counselor. She is in her third trimester with our second child. She takes James by the hand, walks him to the step and sits down in front of him. When Lynne is exhausted she nurtures and disciplines at the same time. I, on the other hand, take out the trash.
Memory is unreliable, but I can't remember either of my parents really explaining my behavior to me. Lynne helps James articulate his emotions. I'd like to think I'm more evolved than my own father, that it's more than simply greater participation in the necessary duality of two working parents. But any good coach will tell you it's not practice that improves skill; it's incorporating the right fundamentals, ingraining proper muscle memory. And often my delivery is as emotionally intelligent as pointing to the stairs and exclaiming, "Step!"
I stopped getting up with our son in the middle of the night a year and a half ago because he yelled for his mother even louder when he saw me leaning over the crib in the green glow of the monitor, and the street lights creeping in through the sides of the window blinds. My face is abrasive to his soft skin and sounds like his palm is rubbing sandpaper as he strokes my cheek up and down saying, "Daddy. You have your beard on." I'm not the comforter, The Ace is.
Which is why, when I take the mound, when the team needs some quality innings out of me, and The Ace is asleep on the den couch at 6:15 p.m. on a Wednesday, I make a game out of whispering with James in the living room while we eat grilled cheeses. We make a new wooden railway layout on his train table. I bounce a foam baseball to him and he stares at the red laces while I explain that if he rolls it to me, I'll roll it back. I encourage the bodily recklessness of leaving his feet and launching himself onto me for a tackle hug. I get on all fours and woof in a lowered bark. I squat and hop up and down like a monkey. I am the clown, the entertainer. And I don't feel bad letting James watch the same episode of The Backyardigans for the third time that day, because The Ace is sleeping, and she needs her rest, before we do it all again tomorrow.