The Fraternity of Paternity

It was one of those dreary early-December mornings, the kind that requires an extra cup of coffee to prepare you for human contact. The sky, the ground, everything just sort of … grey. To be honest, the early morning had proceeded relatively smoothly, getting my four children up, fed, and dressed. But these kids are ingenious in at least one respect: their ability to conjure a to-the-death fight out of nowhere. They are like a finely tuned debate team in their capacity totake any side of an arbitrary topic, turn on a dime, and defend it until there are tears and even blood.

By the time we arrived and parked, my six-year-old was in hysterics. Beyond consolation and impenetrable to any logic or intervention. Antagonistic toward any- and everyone. As I practically dragged her the remaining two-block walk to school (late), another dad passed me and quietly, sympathetically, nodded. “Been there,” he said, “you’re doing great.”

Those words—the simplest gesture from a nameless face I’d seen on the blacktop a few times—made all the difference. We were in solidarity. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t pretty, but it was parenting: a noble, if Sisyphean, undertaking. 

What I’m about to say might come as a shock: parenting is hard.

For most of us who aren’t members of elite Special Forces units, parenting is the hardest endeavor we will ever undertake. Physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. Like any “amazing,” “ indescribable,” “transformative” experience, it tests your limits in order to transcend them. If this sounds hyperbolic, it’s because you don’t have kids.

You can find sage (or otherwise) advice at your fingertips about how to deal with any parenting problem. Give Google a question and half a second, and it will give you back 49.7 million options. In about that same time, Amazon has over 500 books you might find helpful. But nobody is writing about the real hero of my story: that kind stranger.

It Takes A Village

It’s proverbial that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Damn right, we all need help from time to time. The trick is knowing when and how.

My family found our caregiver, who was with us for six years, when we saw her interacting with other nannies at our son’s preschool. On cold or rainy days, or when another sitter had to look after an infant squirming in a car seat, she would offer to walk the student from the car to the preschool door. She was a helper, and that’s how we knew she was the one. We snatched her up as soon as we could.

I’ve noticed that the caregiver community is much more functional and supportive than parent communities tend to be. I believe that’s because nannies recognize the work of caring for kids to be just that: work. We parents tend to be self-conscious and overly concerned with the image we’re projecting. As though needing help is admitting defeat. I don’t know about you, but I definitely see “why can’t he control his kids?” thought bubbles hovering over other parents’ heads whenever I’m parenting in public.

But if you take the nannies’ approach and view parenting through the lens of work, you can see how prioritizing an urgent need while handing off less-immediate ones just makes you more effective and efficient. True, this is predicated on trust (I wouldn’t let a stranger walk my daughter to the bathroom) but pulling together as a community is as much a matter of accepting assistance as it is of providing it. If this is a great dad fraternity, let’s be willing to pitch in, lighten the load, and to let someone else do the same for us.

When In Doubt, Be The Kind Stranger

I’m not a “parenting expert,” and this is not a “parenting advice column.” I’m just a parent with a writing problem and a writer with a parenting problem.

I make this distinction because “expertise” implies a certain ascendancy of skill over circumstance. But as far as I can tell, the more parenting you do, the more you realize that parenting is not one size fits all. There’s no secret technique that can be learned from a revered guru. The irony of our age, where we all proudly boast of our parenting prowess, is that nothing says, “I don’t understand parenting” better than saying “I know the right way to be a parent.”

My kind stranger didn’t say “I’ve got just the thing for eliminating tantrums” and then invite me to his webinar. He just offered empathy, which was just what I needed—and, frankly, all I would have been receptive to at that moment.

Parenting is not a competitive sport; the only time any of us “wins” is when we look into our children’s eyes and see our love reflected back to us. There is no “right way” to be a parent, there is just the unique chemistry between parent and child. And if you believe, as I do, that parenting requires compassion, then you probably recognize the importance of empathy in everyday interactions as well. So I say we should all lead with that, especially now.

I don’t need to remind you that the world is on fire. The irresistible force has met the immovable object, and our lives are stripped of pretenses. All we have right now is family and each other. With a global pandemic and strict social distancing measures, the difficult job of being a dad has gotten immeasurably harder, but even from six feet away, we dads can extend a little solidarity.