It’s not easy being a dad today. I don’t mean because of things like changed gender roles, redefined masculinity, or even the radical transformation of the family. It’s not easy, because it demands attentive and steady shifting between being hard and soft, which is why I liken fatherhood to ice cream.
Whether a container of hard pistachio (my favorite) from the supermarket, or a soft vanilla cone from the Mister Softee ice cream truck, there’s nothing quite like ice cream. Sure, sometimes you get a brain freeze that sends you reeling into the street, but most of the time it makes you feel great to be alive.
Ice cream can be hard or soft but never both. It cannot exist in some limbo state like sorbet or those neon-colored Slurpees sold at Seven Eleven. It is also unlike quantum mechanics, where a subatomic particle can have both a positive and negative charge or occupy two different positions at the same time.
Not so ice cream. It must be either one or the other to fulfill the purpose for which God created it: human pleasure. I am discounting concoctions like fried garlic ice cream, which represent the loss of subtlety and a long nosedive off the cliff of vulgarity. I put macaroni-and-cheese-bacon-avocado-burgers in the same category. Some things are freakishly unnatural.
Fatherhood, like ice cream at its best, tends toward happiness, which is beyond pleasure and pain. Pleasure is a minor league baseball game with two-dollar draft beer and field-level seats along the first base line. Fatherhood involves duration, intensity, and the realignment of cognitive structures if not actual DNA, which makes it sound like something out of a Noam Chomsky talk. You could also think of it as sacramental, leaving what theology texts refer to as an “indelible mark” on the soul. It certainly is indelible, as in “once a father, always a father.”
I have learned over the years that fatherhood is an action. I don’t mean the initial act of fathering but everything that comes after. From the moment your son or daughter is born, fathering shifts from the physical realm to the moral one, although there are still bottles to make, diapers to change, and, later, wads of money to doll out. Still, it’s all about making choices, the main one related to ice cream. “Which way do I go, hard or soft?”
This was difficult to answer with three daughters, including twins, since they were sugar and spice on the outside but ninjas on the inside. I kept getting it wrong. When they were older and I took dance lessons with them–you know, for fun–it turned out to be Friday night sparring. They don’t like to be led. Still.
I remember spending a lot of time replacing rolls of toilet paper (what, exactly, is the deal there?), closing doors, and turning off lights. The girls were always cold, I was always hot. Once, I painted a fake red line on the thermostat dial to fool them into keeping the heat down. It didn’t take long for them to catch on. I never really had a chance.
Now that they are grown and have families of their own, I miss the chaos. I believe I finally know enough to do a decent job of moral decision making, of deciding whether to go hard or soft. It has been interesting watching them grow, since the more they mature, the softer I become.
With eight grandchildren, I will have opportunities to make that decision again, although I can already see that the decision takes on a different texture. It’s not immediate anymore but aimed at the longer view, the long game. And who knows? Maybe I’ll get it right this time. The thing is, I know I have erred. I just don’t know on which side. That’s the scoop.
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