Friday, March 03, 2006

Do Men Change Diapers? – One Mom’s Impact

From Po:

As promised in an earlier post, this is about how my Mom taught us to be New Dads.

My mom went to college in the late 1950s, and she married in 1960. She had three sons in six years. In 1972, my parents divorced. Within ten years, many of the families on our block would divorce. But at the time, we were the first. (One of my mom’s greatest friends had divorced just prior, but they didn’t live in our neighborhood). It was enormously hard on my mom. Her parents criticized her, rather than supported her, and she was shunned by many of the people she considered her friends. She jumped into the workforce, relegated to the kind of administrative work that society considered appropriate for women. Her three rambunctious boys were on the verge of puberty.

Much of that time is lost to confusion. My memories are fragmented and aren’t ordered chronologically. But there is one exception – one clear thread, within the chaos. My mom was concerned with what kind of men we boys would turn into. And whenever she could bring this topic forward, she touched on it.

1. She wanted to be sure we didn’t grow up thinking that cooking was “woman’s work.” So she taught us to cook, from an early age. Once a week, we were supposed to cobble together dinner. I can’t say that I did much more than boil hot dogs and make cinnamon toast until I was twelve, but she had planted just enough of a seed that by high school we were really learning to cook all of the comfort-food basics. My familiarity with food helped me get jobs in restaurants, from seventh grade on.

2. Mom wanted to make sure we learned the language of emotion. She didn’t want us to turn into the Stoic Man, who pretends to hold his feelings in check merely because he doesn’t have the capacity to discern his feelings and articulate them. We were classicly uncommunicative, shoveling through dinner with our heads down. Every night, she’d pry words out of our mouth, make us verbalize our confusions about girls, about school, and about our parents. She made us talk. She didn’t want feelings to be taboo. We were prone to fighting each other, and I’m sure much of her coaching and coaxing was an attempt to get us to use words, not fists. The less we bottled up inside, the less we’d strike out as a way to get heard. I pretended to a reluctance, but I was honestly grateful that she gave us a place where it was safe to put our emotions into words.

My mom retired last year. She worked for thirty years, and she has a part-time job now, which she talks about and enjoys. But I don’t think she would ever say that her job was her life’s work. I think her sons were her life’s work.

When I look back, I was hardly a cook, and I was hardly expressive. But I was maybe just good enough at those things to get over the hump, and to find, as a young adult, that I had some facility in these areas. I wouldn’t be a writer today without those years my mom pushed me to articulate. I’m also a great cook and a serious foodie. I don’t mind cleaning the kitchen every night – I think of it as just part of the art of being an efficient cook.

Confession/clarification: I don’t do half the work around the house. I do a lot, but my wife does most of the grocery shopping and laundry and emptying of the dishwasher. Other than that, it’s close to equal. But I make better eggs, so my wife gets a fancy breakfast every weekend morning. And I rub her feet every night. (While watching Sportscenter.)


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