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Fatherhood's on-the-job training

By Margaret Renkl

My husband and I share almost everything: our bed, our home office, our household chores. We even share our profession (teaching) and our avocation (writing). We share curious things like the experience of a Southern small-town, Catholic childhood and an unaccountably precise memory for the lyrics of John Denver songs.

One thing we do not share is equal ownership of our children: the 5-year-old belongs to both of us, but the baby is all mine.

I've always believed that it takes two full years of a child's life before the father's investment in the project even comes close to the mother's. Nine months of pregnancy, along with its attendant nuisances and pains, combined with 18 or so hours of labor, several weeks of postpartum bleeding, and months of leaking milk in the shower--this combination of physical and emotional upheaval entirely overwhelms even the most earnest father's participation in the making of a child.

None of this is to say, however, that fathers are expendable or that the father's role in a child's life does not begin until age 2. On the contrary, it's an argument for a father to be ardently involved in every aspect of early parenthood in which he can reasonably participate. It's only by providing endless prenatal back rubs, by patient and nonjudgmental listening to hideous maternal fears and irrational complaints, by stumbling again and again into the baby's darkened room to return her dropped pacifier, and by changing a whole lot of poopy diapers that fathers eventually reach parity with mothers and earn full parental rights.

It's a difficult journey fraught with more pitfalls and tests than any classical hero ever endured, but with the help of the gods it can be done, and a good father is, for a child, a greater blessing than almost any other. Where fervent fathers are concerned, I've been blessed three times--first by my own irreplaceable father, later by a warm and loving father-in-law, and finally by my husband, who six years ago transformed himself, before my very eyes, from an unfettered boy-man into the very paradigm of fatherhood itself.

I was in high school when an event occurred that forever afterward served as a constant reminder to me of my own father's status as a hero. A paranoid school principal had hauled me out of geometry class and suspended me from school because of a controversial article I had written for the student newspaper. He told me to stand outside the building while he called my father to come in immediately for a conference.

I waited in the parking lot in tears. I come from a long line of schoolteachers; in my family teachers and principals are considered minor deities. School suspension was an unprecedented event at our house; I absolutely could not bring myself to guess the disciplinary ramifications of so flagrant a violation of the Renkl Code.

When he drove up, though, Dad just invited me into the car, waited for me to calm down enough to speak, and listened silently to my side of the story. We walked together into the school office and were shown immediately into the principal's inner sanctum. Dad listened without interruption while Mr. Gross explained the severity of my crime and solemnly informed us that he would be forced by these unhappy circumstances to forgo signing my high-school transcript.

"You understand, Mr. Renkl," he lied, "that no university in this country will admit a student whose transcript is unsigned?"

Dad sat silent for a moment, evidently considering the bleak future now facing his first-born child. After a pause of truly epic proportions--lengthy silence not being a family trait--he rose, leaned on his fists at the edge of the acre-sized desk, and grimly pronounced: "I will not allow you--now, or ever--to threaten my daughter, and I don't think she has anything to fear from a man as petty and small-minded as you."

That was it, the end of the story. Hemming a little, Mr. Gross sent me back to class, Dad went back to work, and a different principal signed my transcript when I graduated two years later. But watching my father stand up to that bully masquerading as a teacher was one of the stunning moments in my life, one of those rare, amazing times when the Gordian knot of family life resolves itself into an untangled line of genuine kinship and connection.

A similar thing happened when we told my husband's parents we were expecting our first child. At the time, we were renting a tiny apartment and hadn't yet saved enough money for a down payment on a house. The medical bills and unpaid maternity leave necessitated by my surprise pregnancy would considerably diminish our small nest egg, and we were both just a little worried about this turn in the long-term financial plan. My father-in-law, who had raised six unplanned children on a wing and a prayer himself, listened to our concerns. He finally put a sympathetic arm around my shoulder and said, "Don't you worry, Sugar. You're going to like that little baby a whole lot more than you ever liked that savings account." It would take all the ink in Office Depot to describe how right he was.

My husband's father and my own have been parents since the moment I met them, but I could only guess when I married him what sort of father my husband would be. Luckily, I guessed right. Our first child, for instance, was one of those babies who had his days and nights confused for a while, wanting to sleep all day and to look around at stuff for a couple of hours in the middle of each night. It was all I could do just to feed him when he cried; good-natured baby entertainment was utterly out of my realm at 2 o'clock in the morning. That's when my husband would take over. I peeked into the baby's room one night to find the two of them lying in the middle of the double bed looking at each other while my husband recited Shakespearean sonnets: "Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds," he explained to our infant son, who listened faithfully, night after night, to every word his father spoke, whether it was Shakespeare or Tennyson or bar songs by Tom Waits.

When the media began to report that Scottish researchers had cloned a living sheep from a single cell of an adult animal, radical columnist Ann Northrop said, "Essentially, this is sort of the final nail in men's coffins. Men are now totally irrelevant." Clearly, she doesn't know my dad or my father-in-law. And with her comment in mind, I'm beginning to realize that my theories about child ownership are nothing but nonsense. My husband has already earned full rights to this baby after all.

I look out the window and see him riding down the street on a scooter, the baby screaming gleefully in a pack on his back, our little boy racing against them on his bike, the dog leaping around them all in total confusion. I look at my happy children and at their kind, funny father, and I find myself hoping with all my heart I'm half the parent he is.

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