I inherited from my father a peculiar form of indolence—not outright laziness so much as a gift for avoiding unpleasant chores without attracting public notice. My father took it almost as a matter of principle that most problems, if ignored, simply went away. And that his children were, more or less, among those problems. “I didn’t even talk to you until you went away to col¬lege,” he once said to me, as he watched me attempt to dress a six-month-old. “Your mother did all the dirty work.”
When I became a father I really had only one role model: my own father. He bequeathed to me an attitude to the job. But the job had changed.
This wasn’t entirely true, but it’d pass cleanly through any polygraph. For the tedious and messy bits of my childhood my father was, like most fathers of his generation, absent. (News of my birth he received by telegram.) In theory, his tendency to appear only when we didn’t really need him should have left a lingering emo¬tional distance; he should have paid some terrible psy¬chological price for his refusal to suffer. But the stone cold fact is his children still love him, just as much as they love their mother. They don’t hold it against him that he never addressed their diaper rash, or fixed their lunches, or rehearsed the lyrics to “I’m a Jolly Old Snow¬man.” They don’t even remember! My mother did all the dirty work, and without receiving an ounce of extra emotional credit for it. Small children are ungrateful; to do one a favor is, from a business point of view, about as shrewd as making a subprime mortgage.
When I became a father I really had only one role model: my own father. He bequeathed to me an atti¬tude to the job. But the job had changed. I was equipped to observe, with detached amusement and good cheer, my children being raised. But a capacity for detached amusement was no longer a job qualification. The glory days were over.
This is a snapshot of what I assume will one day be looked back upon as a kind of Dark Age of Fatherhood. Obviously, we’re in the midst of some long unhappy transition between the model of fatherhood as practiced by my father and some ideal model, approved by all, to be practiced with ease by the perfect fathers of the future. But for now there’s an unsettling absence of universal, or even local, standards of behavior. Within a few miles of my house I can find perfectly sane men and women who regard me as a Neanderthal who should do more to help my poor wife with the kids, and just shut up about it. But I can also find other perfectly sane men and women who view me as a Truly Modern Man and marvel aloud at my ability to be both breadwinner and domestic dervish—doer of an approximately 31.5 per¬cent of all parenting. The absence of standards is the social equivalent of the absence of an acknowledged fair price for a good in a marketplace. At best, it leads to haggling; at worst, to market failure.
A brief thought experiment: Two couples—Bob and Carol, Ted and Alice—get together for dinner. They haven’t known each other for long, and will discover during this dinner that they have cut slightly different parenting deals with their spouse. Carol and Bob split their parenting duties 60/40; Alice and Ted’s split is more like 80/20. Bob and Carol think children shouldn’t watch the Disney Channel; Ted and Alice think the Dis¬ney Channel, properly used, can be an excellent babysit¬ter. After an otherwise delightful dinner they:
a. Go home and leave unmentioned how differently the other couple parents and divides the parenting chores.
b. Acknowledge their differences but agree, privately, to disagree. Parenting chores aren’t chores at all: they’re a joy! Plus, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, or raise children.
c. Go home and haggle. Not right away, of course. Alice gets home and stews and promises herself she won’t say anything. But at some point she fails to suppress the soundtrack in her head. “I really like the idea of reducing the influence Disney has on our family,” she says. Or: “It’s nice the way Bob drives the kids to school and frees up Carol in the mornings.” Meanwhile, down the block, Bob is wondering why the hell he has to drive the kids to school every morning. Just before they agree that they won’t be having sex anytime soon, he says, “Alice really is a great mom, isn’t she?” And a funny thing happens: These two couples never see each other again. They had agreed to get together for dinner but somehow it never happens. Ted’s busy; Carol can’t make it.
If you answered (a) or (b) you can skip the next two paragraphs.
Here’s the question: Why should social interaction with couples who parent even slightly differently so quickly lead to internal strife? How can putatively important and deeply considered decisions—how to parent, and what role the father should play—be so easily undermined by casual contact with a different approach? Why should even fictional representations of different parenting styles be an invitation to argue about who should do what?
One answer: In these putatively private matters people constantly reference public standards. They can live with their own parenting mistakes so long as everyone else is making the same ones. They don’t care if they’re getting a raw deal so long as everyone is getting the same deal. But there are no standards and it’s possible there never again will be. We’re all just groping, then lying about it afterward. As a result, the primary relationships in American family life have acquired the flavor of a Moroccan souk.
Excerpted from Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood by Michael Lewis © 2009. With permission from the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company
Author Michael Lewis is currently a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Bloomberg, and a visiting fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. His new book, Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, comes out next month.