Monday, July 16, 2012

George and Wilt

Having kids is hard. If you already have them, you know this. And for men who are committed to it, being a dad poses its own specific pitfalls. Lately I've been snagged on some of these, and I've tried to figure out why. I think many of you dads (and moms) could relate.

Earlier this year my job began to ask more of me than I could take. After a few years of Recession-related chaos and overwork, I said "Enough." The new job I landed was like a dream: I was doing the work of a single person — something I hadn't experienced in a long time. The pace was more relaxed; there was no skeleton crew death march to the next issue, no mad crush to beat the better-staffed Web site. It was almost like a vacation.

A couple of months went by and I began to feel something strange. I began to feel, well, unused. The last gig had turned me into a high-performance machine. I was strong. I was dependable. I never broke down and cried. I never complained. My wife could lean against me when she felt the heat and frustration of her own gig. I was steady and fireproof.

Most importantly, I was pulling my weight at home. I worked two days with the kids, sometimes more. I was so proud when Erika would return after 8 on a Thursday, and I had been with Ella and Archer for more than 12 hours, including a busy work day, and there they were: fed, bathed, hair combed and brushed.

Sometimes in selfish moments, I even thought the kids had grown to prefer me more than mom, who was so saddled for months with work and grad school. Wishful thinking, I know. But it did enter my mind more than once. Spattered with dirty bath water, apple sauce down the front of my shirt, I at least felt heroic.

It was my chance to shine and become a stronger partner in a concern that had already seen my wife shoulder countless late-night breast-feeding sessions and trips to the pediatrician, among many other glamour-less duties. I wanted to show I could hang as the kids got bigger and demanded more of our attention.
There is competition inherent in any serious relationship. It's natural, human and healthy, as long as it doesn't get out of control. I definitely felt it at this time when I was taking care of our kids. It motivated me, even if it only existed in my mind and not my wife's. The kids were the ultimate winners. Dad was a big part of their lives.

If you'll permit me to use one of my favorite metaphor sources — professional basketball — please consider George Mikan — a slow, lumbering goon who couldn't jump but ruled the '50s NBA simply because he was always the tallest guy on the court — versus Wilt Chamberlain — one of the most dominant forces in basketball history, who was exponentially bigger, stronger, faster and more talented than all the clods trying to guard him. George wisely retired before Wilt entered the league, but if they had matched up it would've been no contest. Wilt would've blocked all George's shots and dunked on him again and again and again.

I am George Mikan. Erika is Wilt Chamberlain. Head to head, I will never, ever beat her. She simply has too much power and skill, for reasons of her upbringing and just who she is naturally. I've tried, believe me. She's dominant. Sometimes it's a hard fact to face.

But I did feel in those 10-some months when I was working at home that old George was at least able to stay in the game. Maybe Wilt had hurt his knee or his mind was somewhere else on some looming paternity suit. George kept grinding away, lumbering up and down the court, driving to the basket and taking elbows to the face, getting his minutes the ugly way. The numbers on that 1950s scoreboard began to maybe get a little closer together. Maybe George could get a win on Wilt's one off-night of the season. Maybe he could prove he was for real.

The goal, of course, was not to upstage my wife. The goal was to be the new kind of dad all the guys of my generation want to be — not Working Overtime Dad, or Newspaper Dad, or At the Bar Dad, or Shut Up Terry Bradshaw is About to Pass It Dad. I could maybe, just maybe, be 60/40 Dad. And sometimes, in a hushed moment of hubris, I thought I might even be 50/50 Dad. The pinnacle. A man who, sadly, only seems to exist in third wave feminist textbooks. Or Germany.

I know I'm starting to mix metaphors here, so let me bring it back to basketball. Bear with me. An unused player starts to feel bad, focuses too much on himself, pities himself, is lead astray by distractions, feels insecure about his skills. Being relieved of so much work in my new capacity, a great weight was lifted but also a great purpose.

When duties are taken away from you, it's natural for a human being to begin to relax. You have nothing to do, and we all ultimately want to rest. I was suddenly given shitloads of rest time after years of the opposite, at work and at home. I started to luxuriate. Take plays off I used to be a part of. Disconnect from my team and focus on my individual experience. My needs and mine only.

That might sound sad — that parents aren't allowed to be individuals. Maybe that's not what I mean. We can't stop being individuals. It's forever part of the mix. But when we become parents, it's truly no longer about us, and we have to find that balance between the one and many. It often comes at the sacrifice of the one, but that's what a team is. Many parts working together for one goal: stability, progress, happiness. We all get our personal stats, sure, but those alone can't help us win.

Okay, I'm overdoing it with the sports. I guess all I can really say is change is hard. When you first become a parent it's a tremendous change. As your kids hit each new milestone it's a change you feel too. As you attempt to interface your personal goals and ambitions with the rhythm of your family life, it can lead to changes you never anticipated. It's something you have to work through, but if you have the right support, they can help keep you steady while you find your balance again. You do it because you love each another.

Right now Wilt is in there, cleaning the glass night after night and, frankly, having an MVP season at home and at the office. George gets some minutes toward the end of the game, but there may come a time when he's asked to be a starter again. He just has to stay in shape for now and be effective when he's put in. Help the team no matter what and remember he's a pro-caliber player in his own right. They put George in the Hall of Fame, after all. He could take an elbow to the face like nobody's business.

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