The Pleasure Of Long Days With Dad

Our family was home for the holidays - all three children, two spouses, one girlfriend, and two grandsons: Malcolm, age 13 months, somewhat jet lagged from his flight from Copenhagen, and his cousin Luke, 17 months, up from the Bay area.

My wife and I were attempting to adjust to the sudden shift in the tenor of our day - living as we do, empty nesters, on a quiet island.

Joe, the family dog, was thrilled. As were we. But in the 30 years that have passed since our own time as young parents, we had forgotten just how all- consuming life with toddlers can be.

We were discovering, too, that when we designed our house some 15 years ago, the thought of grandchildren did not enter our minds. Our front deck hangs over a rocky outcrop that drops 200 feet to the bay below as the house works its way back up the outcrop with the help of four stairways.

Stairways have great appeal to toddlers. We laid chairs on their sides at the base of the first stairway hoping to confine activity to the main floor.

Malcolm seemed effectively corralled, but Luke, with four additional months of experiences behind him, figured it out.

On the next floor, he discovered the sliding-glass doors that led to the mud room. The sliding-glass doors make a very satisfying noise when crashed together. Meanwhile, Malcolm had discovered the Lazy Susan in the kitchen.

We watched our children hop to.

At 6:30 a.m., we heard them in the upstairs bedrooms answering the wake-up call - the first demand for a diaper change, a bottle. The crying gave way to giggles - playtime with Mom and Dad in bed.

In the kitchen, the chaos of the day's first meal began with Joe at the ready beneath the highchair. Then there were diaper changes and a clean change of clothes.

Next it was onto the floor for playtime with one or both of the parents. Books were read: ``Goodnight Moon'' two-and-a-half times before Malcolm's attention was captured by something on the other side of the room.

Then on to lunch time, nap time, more play, more books, a walk out to the barn to see the horses, and dinner time (mealtime's chaos hit its zenith as parents, grandparents, Luke, Malcolm, and Joe jockeyed for position in the kitchen. At bath time we heard Malcolm squeal with delight as he and his father roiled in the tub).

Then began the delicate ritual of winding the kids down for bedtime, each family with its own formula: the reading of certain books, the singing of certain songs, the repeating of certain words - code words - that said ``sleep, sleep....''

As these infant-focused days rolled on, I took notice of how involved the two fathers were. Our son-in-law took all the males in the house to a local restaurant for Saturday-morning ``Boy's Breakfast,'' a tradition he and Luke had established in Palo Alto, Calif.

Our son Johnny was involved with every part of Malcolm's day. I noticed not so much because Johnny was performing tasks of parenthood (I had changed diapers, read stories, and gone for walks, too) but because he seemed to operate with the expectation that his day would be devoted to Malcolm.

My generation had assigned that expectation to the mothers. Dad went to the office and made time for the kids when he happened to be at home. On weekends, Dad relaxed - golf on Saturday, the TV game Sunday. Kids fitted in between.

I wondered if I was witnessing the new ``Super Dad of the 1990s'' phenomenon I'd read about. Was Johnny consciously playing the role of ``co-parent''?

``Don't read too much into it,'' my wife said when it was just the two of us again. ``Johnny likes being with Malcolm. He's good at it and he gets something back.''

Maybe so, but I am still struck by the gulf between his attitude - his apparent assumptions as to the father's role - and what I remember of mine as a young father. I think back to when Johnny called with the news of his wife's pregnancy. He wanted to talk to me about how I had felt when I first learned I would be a father. He was excited and he was afraid. How had it been for me when this daunting responsibility first loomed?

``It was scary,'' I said. ``I know what you're thinking - what a huge step this seems to be. But I learned - in fact, I'm still learning - that it is one of life's most rewarding experience. It will be fine, Johnny.''

But if our response to the news of impending fatherhood had been the same, our paths diverged with the arrival of the child.

One difference is that Johnny's lifestyle is miles from mine - actual miles, for he lives in a different country, a different culture.

BUT it's more than that. His work life, his daily routine bears no relationship to mine. There is no office, no weekend golf. As a musician, he works nights. He spends his days at home while our daughter-in-law attends school. He is in fact a ``co-parent,'' and my wife is right: He likes it.

I wonder how Johnny and Malcolm will relate in the years to come. Will this early bonding somehow make it easier for father and son in 10 years? It was in those years that I ``came to'' as a father - became involved in their schools, played music with my sons, dragged the horse trailer for my daughter. Golf gave way to family weekends, working and camping on our island property.

Came to, I say, as in ``came to understand'' that time spent with my children was precious. Maybe Johnny and I weren't all that different. He just figured it out - or was forced to figure it out - earlier than I did.

I ADMIRED him and I envied him these early years with his son. If what I was witnessing was the new ``co-parenting,'' then I was heartened. Here was an example of the human race learning something, taking a step forward.

In January, we received a letter from Denmark that closed, ``Other than that, I'm busy being the happy house-husband. All is well!''

A week later we called. ``How's the happy house-husband?'' I asked.

``Sick and tired of it!'' he snapped, then laughed. Then on a more serious note, he said, ``It's hard work, Dad.''

I pressed, wanting to know more about what he thought about being a father. He responded by talking about Malcolm: how his vocabulary was increasing daily, both English and Danish, how he still talked about Joe.

``Yes, but how is it for you?''

He answered, echoing my own thoughts at that moment on being a father.

``I'm totally proud of him,'' he said.

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