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Jewish Journal

The figurative father

By Lori Gottlieb

June 12, 2008 | 2:33 pm

Every year, as the third Sunday in June approaches, it happens: along with the ads for neckties and iPods come the endless conversations on single-mom blogs and parenting sites about what to do on Father's Day with kids like mine who don't have fathers. One mom wanted to honor her daughter's anonymous sperm donor with a "family picnic" comprised of half-siblings also conceived from that donor -- a sort of thanks for the DNA, if not the memories. Other suggestions ranged from volunteering at a soup kitchen (you don't have a dad, but at least you have clam chowder) to going on a camping trip (you don't have a dad, but at least your mom kills spiders).

This year, though, the whole discussion bores me. Because after raising a kid on my own for the past two and a half years, now I have a man in my life. And this has made handling Father's Day without a father feel like small potatoes compared to handling the other 364 days of the year with one.

Don't get me wrong -- I've wanted, even craved, a male presence in our family. In fact, as soon as I found out I was having a boy, the first thing that occurred to me was, how could I teach him to be a man if I'm a woman? I know it sounds silly -- as one friend pointed out, you don't need to have cancer to be an oncologist. But an oncologist thoroughly understands carcinomas. I, on the other hand, never quite understood the male species. If I understood men better, I told my friend, I'd probably be living with one more than 20 inches tall.

Even worse, after Zachary was born, I noticed that I couldn't fill in my knowledge gaps with Google. Sure, I could easily learn what an excavator truck looks like, but I did not find information on whether wielding a blow drier as a surrogate penis to help show a flummoxed toddler how to urinate while standing would result in his college fund being diverted into a therapy fund. Nor was Google helpful on the subject of what to do when your 1-year-old calls his female nanny "Daddy."

Meanwhile, the fathers I knew seemed loving, involved and willing (if not proud) to carry a Diaper Dude bag -- despite my married friends' complaints about their husbands not helping with the kids enough, or doing things "wrong." I don't know all the details, because just like their husbands, I'd completely tune them out the second I'd hear a whiney tone of voice that began with, "Can you believe he...?"

I didn't get it: What could possibly be so bad about a "he" who changed diapers and walked around wearing a Baby Bjorn?

I imagined it must be nothing short of fabulous.

Then, six months later, I found out. Or, rather, I got a boyfriend, and he and Zachary hit it off in a testosterone-fueled love-fest. Suddenly, there was a father figure around, and let me tell you, be careful what you wish for. Oh, sure, it was fabulous -- at first. While I got an extra hour of sleep in the morning, my boyfriend would dunk Zachary in the hamper, "fly" him around the house and "read" the newspaper to him at breakfast. On weekends, he'd kick a soccer ball with him at the park or shoot baskets with him in the yard. Mostly, though, Zachary would chortle and yell, "Again!" while my boyfriend tossed him up and down, side to side, and in dizzying circles.

But the more involved in our lives my boyfriend became, the more I discovered definite downsides to having a dad-like presence around. To my surprise, unlike the mythical fathers I'd conjured in my mind, my boyfriend wasn't, shall we say, on the same page with my parenting style. My boyfriend, who boxes at the gym and talked about teaching Zachary one day, didn't understand why I felt boxing was too violent (Me: "How can you not understand the difference between boxing and karate?") and he, in turn, didn't understand why I'd exclaim, "Good job!" whenever Zachary made the slightest move (Boyfriend: "What does 'good talking' even mean? What's 'bad talking' -- silence?").

When Zachary asked why he couldn't stand in front of the microwave, I was taken aback when my boyfriend said matter-of-factly, "Because you'll get cancer" -- leaving me to explain what the heck cancer is -- instead of just saying, "Because microwaves aren't safe." (Cancer, in case you're wondering, is "a really bad cold.") As I told my boyfriend later, not only did I think rampant cell division was beyond the typical toddler's comprehension level, but I wondered why we couldn't keep the world a safe place for his tender young soul.

"But if we're not honest with him," my boyfriend said, "how is he ever going to trust us?"

Us?

Wow. When I was single, there was no "us." With just a "me," I had the luxury of raising my child my way, without third-party interference. Now, everything had changed. Unlike bumbling sitcom dads, who are annoying but innocuous, my boyfriend wanted to be an equal, adult partner. Which sounded great in theory, but in practice, it meant that while he'd be acquiring some of my more unpleasant responsibilities (like running out to buy Pedialyte at midnight), he'd also be taking away some of my more pleasurable ones (like having final say in the gazillions of daily issues that arise).

Juice or water? TV or no TV? Time-outs or no time-outs? Private school or public school? Now, instead of dismissing my married friends' gripes about their husbands, I totally sympathized.

"Can you believe he..." they'd say, and I'd answer with a raucous and supportive, "Ugh! How frustrating!"

But unlike them, I'm done complaining. I've wanted a guy around for a long time. It's just that it's been a little like trading in one set of problems for another.

Meanwhile, I still don't know what we're doing on Father's Day. Maybe we'll just go iPod shopping and call it a day. Or maybe I'll let my boyfriend decide what to do.

Now that's a gift he'll appreciate.


Lori Gottlieb is a commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered" and she is currently writing a book based on her recent Atlantic piece, "Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough."

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