A few days ago, I received the following mass email message. Well, I’m sure it was intended for my wife, but, since we share lots of stuff, including an email account, I feel entitled to say it was my message, too. It describes one woman’s vision of a season of the television show “Survivor.”
“Six married men will be dropped on an island with one car and 3 kids each for six weeks. Each kid will play two sports and either take music or dance classes. There is no fast food. Each man must take care of his 3 kids; keep his assigned house clean, correct all homework, and complete science projects, cook, do laundry, and pay a list of ‘pretend’ bills with not enough money.
In addition, each man will have to budget in money for groceries each week. Each man must remember the birthdays of all their friends and relatives, and send cards out on time–no emailing. Each man must also take each child to a doctor’s appointment, a dentist appointment and a haircut appointment. He must make one unscheduled and inconvenient visit per child to the Urgent Care. He must also make cookies or cupcakes for a social function.
Each man will be responsible for decorating his own assigned house, planting flowers outside and keeping it presentable at all times. The men will only have access to television when the kids are asleep and all chores are done.
The men must shave their legs, wear makeup daily, adorn themselves with jewelry, wear uncomfortable yet stylish shoes, and keep fingernails polished and eyebrows groomed. During one of the six weeks, the men will have to endure severe abdominal cramps, back aches, and have extreme, unexplained mood swings, but never once complain or slow down from their duties.
They must attend weekly school meetings, church, and find time at least once to spend the afternoon at the park or a similar setting. They will need to read a book to the kids each night and in the morning, feed them, dress them, brush their teeth and comb their hair by 7:00 am. A test will be given at the end of the six weeks, and each father will be required to know all of the following information: each child’s birthday, height, weight, shoe size, clothes size and doctor’s name -also the child’s weight at birth, length, time of birth, and length of labor -each child’s favorite color, middle name, favorite snack, favorite song, favorite drink, favorite toy, biggest fear and what they want to be when they grow up. The kids can vote them off the island each week based on performance. The last man wins only if…he still has enough energy to be intimate with his spouse at a moment’s notice. If the last man does win, he can play the game over and over and over again for the next 10-20 years eventually earning the right to be called M o t h e r! After you get done laughing, send this to as many females as you think will get a kick out of it and as many men as you think can.”
I must admit, I did get a kick out of it. The mom who wrote this clearly loves her children, has high standards for herself, and she is funny. I respect that. But I have to point out that this piece is not about being a mom. It is about being a specific woman who is a mom and, I presume, a wife. She certainly thinks that motherhood is among the greatest of aspirations. I wholeheartedly agree. Still, after reading it, I felt compelled to write about the season of Survivor following Mother Island.
Six married women will be dropped with three children in a two-story house that can seem like an island. They will leave the children with their partner each weekday. Even though they miss them, Survivors will have to understand that providing the money to buy food and pay the bills is an important role in the family and be willing to take sole responsibility for it. They won’t have to shave their legs, but they will have to shave their face every weekday by 7:30am with frequent assistance from a four year-old girl. Luckily, they will have an electric razor.
Since I’m openly personalizing this, they will be employed family doctors. Every day, they will see twenty to thirty patients, respond to forty to fifty messages, and review fifty to seventy-five lab results, x-ray reports and various pieces of correspondence. There will be no fast food, as there will not be enough time to leave work. Sometimes there will be no food at all. There will be no television for entertainment or providing a temporary distraction for their patients and staff so they can focus on getting something else done. There will also be no Facebook, phone calls to friends or lighthearted conversations while their patients play at the park.
All day, they will listen to the trials and travails of others. They will have no monthly cramps or wild mood swings, but they will interact constantly with people who might not be quite as the author of the above email is. Throughout the day, they will have to appear focused and empathetic, even when their mind is troubled or distracted. When they are ill, they will have to write work excuses for people who are less sick than they are, and do it with a smile. At the end of the day, even the bad ones – like when a well-loved patient dies, or they had to tell someone she has cancer – they will be expected to put it all behind them and come home as Dad.
When the “workday” is done, they will share the child care duties. The children don’t play sports, but there is ballet and 4-H to juggle, and the eight year-old takes beginner guitar lessons. They will coordinate with their partner drop-offs and pick-ups. On Monday, usually the heaviest clinic day of the week, Survivors will not just drop off the eight year-old but take the guitar lessons along with her. They won’t have to review all of the homework, but they will have to be the designated math guy. They will take care of bedtime frequently, since the children may not have seen them all day.
Every two weeks, Survivors will deposit their paycheck into a joint checking account. Their families will assume that the money supply is adequate for whatever the family’s needs or wants may be. Contestants will turn all daily spending completely over to their partners but will keep up with the monthly, quarterly and annual bills themselves and pay them on time. In addition, they will make sure that their abilities and lives are insured adequately to support the family in case they break a leg or buy the farm unexpectedly. Savings, college funds, and retirement planning will be up to them, and they will have regular anxiety that one of these days the money will run out and it will be their fault.
Each month they will assume solo child care responsibility for a night so the partner can hang out with friends. One Tuesday each month they will extricate the four year-old from the house for a school day so their partners can have some much deserved peace. Once per year, they will take a Friday off work so their partner can have a long weekend away either alone or with others to decompress. Even though they spend 40-60 hours per week outside the household routine, they will have to step competently in as solo parent with no assistance from friends or family.
Any woman who can do this for one year does not earn the right to be called Father. But they do earn the right to be called Dave. It’s definitely much easier to be Dave. More on Fatherhood in a minute, but first, let me tell you about the showcase of fabulous Dave prizes.
I hardly ever have to go to the grocery store and never do laundry, and thank goodness because I hate doing those things. I’m willing to help with dishes, but my wife can’t stand how I load the dishwasher. On weekends, I eat homemade waffles and fried eggs made to order. Not every weekend, but a lot of them. I never have to make cookies, but I am offered the first one out of every batch. Fortunately, neither my wife nor I care that much about fashion, jewelry, shoes or make-up, so we don’t waste our time worrying about them. Ditto birthdays outside the immediate family, but we do suck it up and share carpal tunnel syndrome writing Christmas cards. The kids’ height, weight, and favorites are in constant flux, so when we need to know them, we measure and/or ask, and neither of us expects anything more than that from the other.
If I am too overwhelmed by work (or anything else) to participate in a social or family pseudo-obligation, I get a pass with a smile and no strings attached. When I screw up, the only thing I have to do to get out of the doghouse is say a simple “I’m sorry.” Even though we’ve been married for sixteen years and have known each other for twenty-four, I still have someone who is interested in “being intimate,” as the author of the email puts it, despite the fact that all I have in common with Vin Diesel is the hairstyle. On top of all that, I have someone who will scratch my back if I can’t reach the itch.
When I come home from work, the cheers rival Beatlemania, and my leg is hugged so hard that I know how patients with peripheral arterial disease feel. I may not share their gender, but my ten year-old loves watching old Twilight Zone episodes with me, my eight year-old rocks out to Black Sabbath’s Iron Man with me, and my four year-old wants to be my personal valet. But here’s the best part: I hear “I love you” every day from people who mean it, usually more than once. People miss me when I’m gone, and they’re glad when I come back. I have patients who dream of such a thing, convinced it doesn’t exist. That alone puts me in the 99th percentile of quality of life.
So that’s how you earn the title of Dave, and that’s what you get in return. Frankly, it’s pretty sweet being Dave. But earning a title like Father? I don’t think it’s as straightforward as mimicking someone else’s daily routine. Fatherhood is awfully complicated. Let’s build up. How about earning the title of Husband? That’s simpler, meaning not as complicated. But simpler does not always mean easy.
I think to be called Husband, you accept that your spouse will never know all of the small, medium and large sacrifices you have made…and that you will never know the specifics of the zillion similar sacrifices they have made. You just know that it’s so. You factor what’s best for your spouse into every decision you make because you know she’s doing the same for you. It’s all about the team. When you fall short, act selfishly or take her for granted, you admit it to both of you.
But what about when your teammate falls short? Also simple. You call them on it. Candidly, I sense this mass email is really about a teammate falling short, although I may be totally wrong. If so, mea culpa. Regardless, I’m not sure projecting one’s habits, preferences and routines onto the definition of something as broad as Parenthood is the right thing to do.
Fatherhood has even less to do with income, bills or baked goods than Husbandhood. There is no formula for how many times a Father cleans a soiled posterior or rocks a fussy baby. Trust me, I write as someone who has done both many, many times. For the record, my wife says that even when I’m at work, our four year-old’s potty alert is “Daddy, I pooped!” As flattering as it may be, I’m certain Motherhood is more than being the preferred poop wiper, too.
A Father embraces that he is responsible for, in my case, three future women who will take his example, guidance and love – or, heaven forbid, lack thereof – with them as they make their mark on the world. Clarification: embracing begins the journey to the title of Father. No other job, including Doctor or even Husband, is as important. Whether you’re sick or well, rich or poor, married or not, you never get to abdicate that responsibility if you truly want the title. Another caveat: if you choose to try to be a Husband and a Father, you’re constantly judged by your children as an example for both. Real Fatherhood is as heavy, I state unabashedly, as real Motherhood.
I think I’m good at Dave (especially the cookie eating part), fairly competent at Husband albeit with some shortcomings, and, by definition, a work in progress as Father. Actually, I’m not sure when I get the title of Father. Perhaps it is years from now when my children are raising my grandchildren. If I’ve done well, they will learn from my mistakes yet use my performance as a benchmark. They will hope to exceed the benchmark as all good parents do, but they will be proud if they meet it.
This is my humble opinion: Fatherhood, just like Motherhood, is defined not by what you do day to day, but why you do what you do and how your children carry that with them, even if their understanding ultimately may be decades away. I agree that parenthood is indeed a marathon, not a sprint, but it requires accepting unending change and challenge, not repeating the same rituals over and over. My version of Survivor will look entirely different in one year, much less ten to twenty. I’m forty-one, and I still expect my dad to give me advice and help when I need it. I’m not sure he intended to sign on for that 41 and ¾ years ago, but he stepped up. I hope my kids say the same about me.
Unlike Survivor contestants, I have no competition. If as mature adults (note well: not teenagers!) my children dwell on the ways I disappointed them and make up excuses for why they can’t come home for the holidays, then I have been voted off the island. But if there are three women in the future who realize that I’m flawed, yet still appreciate the job I’ve done and maybe, just maybe, want to be a little like me, I will have won no matter how much better the other guys on the island did with the cupcakes. Until then, I have the apprentice title of Dad.
Full disclosure: I have never watched Survivor, so I’m probably not even qualified to respond to the opening email. I’m not sure why I’ve consistently missed it. Perhaps all these years I was putting my kids to bed when it was on. That said, if I were going to mass email this missive, I would want to close with some kind of appropriate wisdom for men and women, husbands and wives, even parents and children. Since I have no such wisdom of my own, I’ll have to borrow some. You give what you get? The love you take is equal to the love you make? Different strokes for different folks?
All of those are good, but maybe the Greek philosopher Philo summed it up best: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. Especially if you meet them in your bathroom wiping a child’s rear.
Submitted by Dave Switzer, MD