Welcome to An Examined Life. Occassionally I delude myself into thinking that I understand some part of my life (or life in general) and I thought it might be a hoot to share those thoughts with whomever happens to stumble across this. I hope you find something enjoyable here. If I'm really lucky, I'll make you stop and think for a moment.

Friday, August 23, 2013

It’s Not the Same for Men

This blog was meant to share my thoughts about how I got to where I am. One of the most significant things that has ever happened to me was becoming a father. I recently came across the following paper, written for one of my undergraduate English classes just 6 months after Jonathan was born.

Normally, for a week-long vacation, I’d buy ten to twelve books. I’d read them all, too, and sometimes more. This past summer I had two months off and I bought about a dozen books. I read five of them.

It’s not that the other books weren’t good. This summer I became a father and when my wife Diane went back to work, I took over as primary caregiver for our two-month-old son Jonathan. I figured that, while the baby napped, I could take care of the house and squeeze in some reading.

Soon I found that I had to change my expectations. Where once I read chapters in a day, I now read pages. A load of laundry was seldom finished the same day it was started and loading the dishwasher took hours.

Since housework isn’t number one on my fun-things-to-do list, I didn’t mind much. I spent my days playing with the baby, or taking him for walks. Every so often, Jonathan would take a catnap and I’d read a little or do some housework. Before long, we settled into a routine.

Gradually, my fears about my capabilities as a parent disappeared. I developed the ability to tell which cry meant “I’m hungry” and which meant “Dad, please change my diaper, I’m uncomfortable.” Also, I learned that adeptness at changing diapers can, like other skills, be acquired through practice. I also discovered what most mothers already know: it’s easier to watch TV than to read a book while feeding a baby. The TV schedules were committed to memory and He-man, the Thundercats, and Beaver Cleaver kept me entertained while Jonathan guzzled down his formula.

The best times of all were those right after Jonathan had eaten, when he was relatively alert and content. I spent hours watching him discover the world around him. I’ll never forget the look of surprise on his face when he realized that the funny thing waving in front of his eyes was his own hand, or the look of triumph the first time he swung that hand out and grabbed the afghan on the sofa.

It was in the grocery store that I first began to notice people’s reactions to us. They seemed uncomfortable with the idea of a man taking care of an infant. When my wife was with us, other women would stop us to ask about the baby, but when Jonathan and I went alone, no one ever stopped us.

At the doctor’s office, questions about the baby’s behavior were invariably addressed to my wife. Even relatives who knew that I was caring for Jonathan asked Diane how he was doing and left me out of the conversation.

In our neighborhood are several groups of mothers whose children play together. They carpool together, have coffee in the afternoons together, and provide each other with support and friendship. I met several of these mothers when Jonathan and I were out walking. They all seemed hesitant about talking with me and I was never invited to any of the “get togethers.” My offers of coffee or soda were never accepted. It seems that, while men were out creating the “old boy network” in business, women were creating the “mom network” at home and it’s just as hard for a nurturing father to break into the “mom network” as it is for a businesswoman to break into the “old boy network.”

Two months after my wife went back to work, the school year started for me. My mother watches Jonathan for me while I attend classes. Something she once said illustrates the different attitudes toward male and female parents. She asked me how Diane was handling being at work away from her baby. I answered that she was doing about as well as I was being in school away from mine. “Don’t be silly,” my mother said. “It’s not the same for a man.”

She’s not alone in that belief, and I’m not alone in refuting it. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates than in only 1% of the 25 million families in the United States is the father the primary caregiver (Trafford, 1987, p. 13). In a Washington Post article, Abigail Trafford (1987) interviewed David Frank, who detailed a series of experiences similar to mine (p. 12). Robert D. Reed (1987), who spent a year as a male nanny and is now a social worker for the Children’s Aid Society in New York, wrote in American Baby magazine, “What I find exasperating about the job is not the lack of leisure time but the stigma attached to it. My parents are having conniptions, and my peers are baffled” (p. 28).

Dr. Kyle Pruett, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale University Child Study Center, studied 17 families in which the mother and father reversed their traditional roles. When asked if the “mothering” job was really different for men than for women, he replied, “Not radically. The fathers would say, “This can be so boring. My mind is sleeping’ – the things we’ve heard from young mothers for years. This has more to do with the job than with gender” (Trafford, 1987, p. 14). Further, when Dr. Pruett was asked what surprised him most in the study, he answered, “How profoundly moved the fathers were by the experience. They changed as men – and as human beings. It surprised me to see how available they were to the complexity of the role” (Trafford, 1987, p. 14).

So it seems that there is very little real difference between men and women in the nurturing role. After all, don’t babies evoke some parental response in almost any adult? As for me, the warm playtimes I’ve shared with Jonathan and the chance to be a bigger part of his life than my traditional role calls for, these outweigh the funny looks I get in grocery stores.


Reed, Robert D. (1987, June). My life as a male nanny. American Baby, 28.

Trafford, A. (1987, April 28). Fathers raising kids – what happens when mom goes to work and dad stays home. The Washington Post, pp. 12-16.

Friday, April 12, 2013


I just got back from a walk around my neighborhood. In the last decade or so I’ve come to appreciate spring (fall used to be my favorite time of year), but tonight it felt – in a way – empty. It seems wrong somehow that the world should awaken, that there should be so much beauty, when Jonathan is gone.

The last few days have been rough. I’ve been struggling with feelings that I cannot express, some because there are simply no human words to express them, others because I think if I dared say them aloud they might cost me one of the few remaining joys in my life.

When I was younger (bear with me, all this will come together), I used to watch the Carol Burnett show. I had the biggest crush on Vicki Lawrence. I also wanted to learn to play the guitar. I had this idea that I would one day – as I believed that Woodie Guthrie had done[1] – hop a freight train to travel across country, learn to play all these wonderful folk songs that no one had ever heard, and then arrive in California where my music would earn me fame and catch the eye of Vicki Lawrence…

On stage at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, in
November, 1986.

In his early Doonesbury strips, Trudeau’s characters all had an internal monologue going on, each announcing their exploits to an phantom audience of adoring fans. What made that work is that a lot of people actually do that. For me, though, it was always a soundtrack. Except in moments of concentration (like delivering a lecture), there’s a song echoing around inside my head behind my thoughts. Usually a folk song. I’ve come to learn that those songs are often my way of trying to clarify to myself how I feel about the things going on in my life. Sometimes a song will get insistent, and I find that to quiet it I have to immerse myself in it, either by listening to a recording of the song over and over or by playing the song myself.

I started learning to play guitar in the summer between 8th and 9th grades. I had gone out for the JV football team, made second string defensive line, then broke my collarbone riding a bike down a hill that I never should have attempted to ride down (I found out much later that the “hill” had been the roadbed of a railroad back around the Civil War – I told you this would all come together). I couldn’t practice with the team, so I bought a guitar for $15 from G. C. Murphy’s, borrowed a book from a neighbor, and began teaching myself how to play. I didn’t play that first guitar long; you don’t really get a quality instrument for $15 (at least you didn’t in 1972). I traded up to a used Yamaha that I played until 1984, when I bought my Martin. That guitar has been with me ever since. We’ve gone a lot of places together, done a lot of things, and shared a lot of joy and pain. That guitar helped me get the songs out of my head and use them to communicate my feelings to other people.

So, I’ve been struggling the last few days, with feelings I can’t express. Then, this morning, I was listening to music as I entered course overrides in my office. It was an album I’ve listened to before, a David Wilcox album called Live at Eddie’s Attic ’11. Suddenly I found myself in tears. The song just washed over me and lodged itself in my head and it has been there since. I couldn’t hear it while I was in class, but as soon as I finished, it was back. So I went for a walk tonight, to listen to the song and try to figure out what it was trying to tell me. One line repeats, and maybe this is my answer:

For in this darkness love can show the way.

[1] It was something of a disappointment when I found out that Woodie hadn’t discovered the songs but had, in fact, written them.