Thursday, May 20, 2004

I finally finished "How Tough Could It Be: The Trials and Errors of a Sportswriter Turned Stay-at-Home Dad" by Sports Illustrated's Austin Murphy. I should say up front that I went into the book wanting to like it. I knew it would borrow heavily from the dopey-sitcom-dad school of humor, but I was bound and determined to find the emotional compass of the book. I wanted to proudly point out that even an adventure-sport-competing, football-metaphor-spouting, kitchen-impaired man could be changed by spending nearly every waking minute with his kids.

It didn't entirely develop that way.

But let me first get the praise on the table: Murphy obviously gained an appreciation for the household and childrearing labors. An almost-absentee father for most of his tenure as parent, Murphy develops an admiration and respect for not only his wife, but every other mom (and dad) who devotes themselves to keeping a family upright. And I have no doubt that Murphy will be a better husband and (probably) a better father in the years to come. I once tried to bait Ann Crittenden into saying that men just don't get the importance and challenge of childrearing. She stopped me immediately and pointed out that people who haven't done the domestic thing -- male or female -- are the ones who don't get it. Gender, she said, has nothing to do with it. Murphy proves Crittenden's point. He spent six months in the trenches. He now gets it.

But there were two problems that nagged at me. The first and most obvious was that the book felt like a stunt. Murphy did the gig for only six months, a pre-determined length, and he kept calling the experience "the experiment," as if the goal was something measurable. And Murphy spends the length of the book trying to do the at-home dad job *exactly* as his wife did the at-home mom job, and any deviation from that "right" way was chalked up as abject failure. He wrote about no effort to leave his own particular stamp on the household routine. Murphy simply sought to follow his wife's instructions to the letter, letting hilarity ensue when he failed to measure up. (The underlying theme, and another of my pet peeves, is the idea that running a household is mind-blowingly complex. That's a myth I can do without. The job isn't always easy, to be sure, but it ain't brain surgery either.)

More subtly, and most disappointingly, the kids hardly appear in the book, except as sources of frustration and errands. He devotes two of the book's 237 pages to detailing the joy that his children bring him. Just two. Hogan Hilling managed to write a whole book about that joy. So did Marc Parent (and a number of other dads whose names -- and books -- escape me right now). The omission taints "How Tough."

At the end of the day, I don't judge myself primarily by the cleanliness of the house or the professionalism of the dinner I serve. I judge myself first on whether my kid is happier, more fulfilled, more curious, more educated than the day before. I judge myself on whether I was able to share in any of the wonder that comes spilling out of children. The other stuff (which I am admittedly lousy at) is important -- crucial, really, to a functioning household -- but it shouldn't be the focal point of being an at-home dad. Being a dad should be the focus. And that was often a point Murphy seemed to miss.

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