When Dad Gets a Case of the Guilts

CLARENCE PAGE

April 17, 1992|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- "How's your column, Papa?''

My son, Grady, who will be 3 in June, spoke those magical words during breakfast, as I was trying simultaneously to sip coffee, scan the headlines and make sure he spooned more Cheerios into his tummy than into his little lap.

Grady is too young to know what a ''column'' is, except that, whatever it is, it competes with him for Daddy's time. Since he is just emerging out of that Mama-is-God stage in life to want to tag along with Dad a bit more, he is particularly difficult to leave in the morning.

So forgive me if I feel a twinge of resentment when I hear someone complain about how working papas don't feel sufficiently guilty about their absence from home. Who says?

The latest offender to cross my desk is a new book called ''The Working Mother's Guilt Guide'' (Penguin), by Mary C. Hickey and Sandra Salmans, two working moms who left newspaper and television journalism to free-lance and, presumably, be closer to home.

Its basic theme is expressed in a cover line: ''Whatever you're doing, it isn't enough.''

That's a feeling well known to working moms. No matter how much ''quality time'' she squeezes around her busy work schedule, a little voice inside her head will tell her the children will grow up to join strange cults, because Mommy was too busy trying to make a dollar.

Too bad Hillary Clinton didn't read this book before she made her unfortunate statement about how she could have ''stayed home and baked cookies'' instead of pursuing her legal career.

She might have benefited from the chapter on how to get along with stay-at-home moms that leads a section called ''The Guilt Provokers.'' (Hint: ''Don't ever say anything that indicates you think her mind has turned to Jell-O just because she spends her entire day going around in a circle saying, 'Ashes, ashes, all fall dooooowwwn.' '')

But I take issue with the chapter titled ''Why Men Don't Feel Guilty (With Apologies to the Half-Dozen Who Do).''

Ah, here we go again. No matter how much men do, even those of us who are trying to be Today's Dads, it isn't enough. (Why do I suspect my wife talked to these women before they wrote this book?)

For example, ''Fathering the Nest,'' an article about famous Today's Dads discovering the joys of fatherhood that appeared in the May issue of M, the yuppified men's magazine, tells how the filmmaker Steven Spielberg enrolled in a how-to-father class after having trouble saying no to his son, Max, now 6.

Not that the guilt guide's authors don't offer another good explanation for why Today's Dads don't feel guilty or, at least, don't express it. It's because, they say, we tend to compare ourselves to our fathers, who did less to raise the kids than we do, while they compare themselves to their mothers, who did so much more.

That's progress, at least. After all, it's our generation that has brought about changing tables in many newly constructed men's rooms and (thank you!) jetliners.

But if society has taught Today's Dads to feel less guilt, Today's Moms often become unwitting accomplices, guarding their positions of authority over child-rearing at home as jealously as men traditionally have guarded the workplace as a male preserve.

The result: Dad often is made to feel like an intruder in the special bond moms begin to build with their children even before birth, says Derrick Miller, professor of psychiatry at Chicago's Northwestern University medical school. ''The fact is that most fathers see themselves as having the primary responsibility for bringing home the bacon, not for child-rearing beyond, say, taking them out to play ball,'' he said.

Admittedly, when given the opportunity, we dads will grab up all the fun moments in child-rearing and leave the rest, poopy diapers and all, to Mom. We dads are no dummies.

The answer, suggests Aaron Latham, author of the M article, may come from fathers and mothers dividing up specific responsibilities, so Today's Dad can feel more involved and Today's Mom can take a break.

Dad, for example, can take charge of the morning rituals of

getting children ready for school or the evening bathing and reading-aloud rituals that prepare the children for bed. Sounds good for starters.

It certainly beats the feeling I have heard fellow fathers express, after their kids have grown up, that their little tykes' childhood disappeared before Dad got a chance to appreciate it or the kids got a chance to appreciate Dad better. Is that guilt or something else? Either way, it hurts.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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