Confessions of a Mother-Man
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Nothing could have prepared me for fatherhood.
I could not possibly have known what I was getting into. When my wife was pregnant with our first daughter I had the absurd idea that her birth would somehow be the completion of a process. I was shocked that we couldn't even get a good night's sleep. Rachel was not one of those babies who slept away her first weeks of life. She would nod off in our arms and we would ever so gently attempt to transfer her to her bed, as if she were a bomb primed to go off at the slightest jolt. And inevitably she would go off and we would have to start again.
Many a day I would strap her into a Snugli, a cloth marsupial pouch that allowed me to wear her around my belly, and walk up and down the streets, crooning softly to her. In inclement weather I would button my coat over her so that I appeared for all the world like a pregnant man. And felt like one. I moved slowly. I could not lean over and was careful to avoid bumping into things. It was 1970. We were hippies on welfare, before welfare reform did away with Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and turned it into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which would surely have required me to unstrap my Snugli and get a job.
What I would have missed if I'd been forced to get back to work right away, would have been the discovery of the world of women, who move slowly at the pace of children, and are not doing those "important" male things. I became part of their world. I was an odd anomalous creature, a mother-man. I frequented playgrounds and sat on benches in the middle of the day, when other men were working. I was not busy. I had fallen out of the world of achieving and getting somewhere, of making my mark, becoming someone. I had put that all on hold. I felt invisible. I was no longer the center of the universe. Even of my universe. It was a Copernican revolution.
Or so I thought. Ten years later and two years after Emma, my second daughter was born, I became deeply dissatisfied with my marriage. I remember the day I walked out the door as perhaps the most painful day of my life. I sat in my car and looked up at the window of the apartment where my daughters lived with their mother, the family I had torn apart. And I wept. It was as if, attempting to escape the confines of my small planet, I had ejected myself into empty space and was floating further and further away from the source of life.
I tried to knit my life back together. I got together with another woman and stayed for eight years in a relationship that became gradually more terrible and fraught with tension. My home became frightening to my children. Mine was one of those terrible divorces in which the new partner cannot get along with the old wife, and fights with her children. I felt caught in the middle, and although I had thought that the one thing I would never do would be to hurt my children, that is exactly what I did. My bond with my oldest daughter, whom I had carried around in the Snugli, became so strained that I thought she would stop loving me. I finally left the relationship and tried to repair the bond with my daughters.
Both my daughters suffered, and have wounds that have not quite healed and may never heal. I never thought I would hurt the ones I loved, but I did. God help me. They continue to love me. I continue to love them. And now I have the unalloyed pleasure of having my 2-year-old granddaughter run into my arms.
So that is the imperfect, abbreviated, no doubt self-serving narrative of my fatherhood. I would like to say that my experience has as little to do with the insubstantial nostalgic cartoon of fatherhood we celebrate on Father's Day as Mickey Mouse has with the real mouse I startled from the compost bin this morning. But I know that it shares features with what Father's Day honors. And fatherhood is, in fact, worthy of honor.
So why am I reluctant? For Father's Day, Newsweek has as its cover a story a report on sons following their fathers -- and in one case a mother -- into the Army. There we have it; patriotism and family values perfectly united. We celebrate the myth of the family as the foundation of the nation, its basic unit of measure. In the glow of American family values we slaughter the heathen.
Our respect for family values is a lie. When the powerful fall or are pushed from power, they inevitably say, as they tender their resignation, that they are leaving to spend more time with their families. Nobody believes them, and rightly so. Powerful men do not put themselves out to pasture, snap on Snuglis and spend their days happily on park benches changing diapers. Compare the compensation of nannies with CEOs to see how much we value the nurturing of children. Closer to the truth is that there is a radical incompatibility between the parenting of children and the perpetuation of a system that seems hell-bent on blighting their future.
I entered into fatherhood by attending the birth of my daughters. I discovered a shattering truth: that we are all born from the vaginas of women. We emerge in mucus and shit and blood. We slither out like some marine mammal, parting a seabed of pubic hair and grope with our blind mouths for the breast. I cannot help but feel that if birth were in fact the central metaphor of our civilization, the axle around which the world turns, all men would be unmanned of their false and warlike manliness.
Successfully unmanned, we could become fathers. Perhaps then, fatherhood would resemble motherhood and motherhood could resemble fatherhood. The boundaries of gender, once thought of as immutable, would be happily breached and bent, and so would the boundaries between motherhood and fatherhood. Whether the breasts of men would pour forth milk I cannot say, but of this I am sure: Civilization would turn on a new track and never again would rock-jawed men and clench-mouthed women lead their sons and daughters off to the butchershop of war as if it were heroic for the cow to lead the calf to the slaughter. And the world might turn away from death.
Osha Neumann is an attorney, artist, and writer in Oakland, Calif.