Fathers and sons

When my son J. was little, one of his favorite books was a Little Golden book, “The Bunny Book.” It tells about a little bunny who wonders what he will be when he grows up, and shows all the different options available to a grown rabbit. All the rabbits are serious sorts, and work at all kinds of grownup (male) jobs. But the story ends with the bunny finally knowing what he will be when he grows up….a daddy bunny. With lots of little bunnies to tuck in and tickle and love.
I thought of that book as I watched with pleasure J. and his partner getting ready for the birth of their own child. And how he beautifully he loves and cares for his stepson too. They were excited by everything their son did, and also couldn’t wait to “meet” their new baby, as he put it. J. confided to me one day just before their baby was born, “I did something naughty the other night.” My mind went through the things that could mean, mainly extrapolating from all the things that have worried me over the year. But if I have learned nothing else in all these years, it’s that it’s usually better to just shut up and say, “yeah?” “Yeah, I did some online shopping,” he said. I thought again, immediately going to the worst possibilities– what, new video games? Electronic equipment? A new guitar? “Yeah, there was the cutest black onesie that said ‘One Love’ on it with a picture of bob Marley, I just had to get it for the baby.” And I thought, “he will become a daddy bunny….”
My good friend Michael, as I shared with him this unfolding of this new development in J.’s life, said, “Phil, I hope you know that a part of the reason he is so proud to be a father, and so invested in it, is because you worked so hard at it too.” And I smiled, and knew that he was right. I don’t want to brag, and I’m also certainly not one to feel we men should be given lots of credit simply for finally stepping in and really BEING with our kids. But for several reasons I was lucky enough to be able to spend years being home and raising him, from the time he was 2 to 4, and again from about 7 to 11.
The real secret of this, that I try to share with other men, isn’t that you do it because you will help grow children who will be more balanced, who themselves will believe men should be more involved in parenting, or because it’s a gesture for the bigger world. No, the reason for doing it is twofold. One that it’s a blast. And the second, that it will change you and inform your life in ways you never could have imagined. So my pride is selfish, in that I know in that selfish way what it did for me.
When J. was 4, at the time when I’d spent two years with him everyday, staying home to be the primary caregiver, he had spent a Sunday doing the kinds of risky things he loved. He’d driven a go kart, climbed around in a ravine, and hit softballs in a batting cage. The next day, we were playing in the park with pump water rockets, and as he was running across the flat ground, he tripped and fell and hurt his shoulder. Thereby showing the time when we are often most at risk is when we don’t think we are, when our attention is loose because there seems no need for it.
Anyway, he seemed to just take a tumble and roll over his shoulder in a way that shouldn’t have injured him. But he kept complaining that his arm hurt, and I could see no injury there. But I knew him well enough to know he was really hurting. And I knew him in ways I didn’t even realize. They say mothers and newborns take several months after birth to realize they are actually separate from each other. I’d never realized how strong that connection could be. But as he tried to tell me his arm hurt, but couldn’t tell me how or where, I noticed an intense pain in my collar bone. At first I didn’t give it any credence, but it didn’t lessen, and somehow I knew, that’s what J. is feeling too!
So I immediately put him in my rusty old pick up, and drove to the clinic just before it closed. I felt the pain of every bump we hit, as he grimaced too. And walking in to the clinic, they laughed a little at me when I said I thought he’d broken his collar bone. But they ran a quick X-ray and found that, sure enough, he’d had a green stick fracture, like the damage bending a young bough will do.
I never knew I could have such a connection with another person. It was a lesson in what can happen when your own boundaries soften, when you care more about another person than you do yourself, and when you just become still and pay attention.
So last year when J.’s younger son turned 1, I searched and found a copy of “The Bunny Book” for him to read to his sons. He told me just the other day, “I read it to A. every day. He loves it.”
And so the secret is passed on.