Reality Bites a Gen X Dad
By Bruce Myint
It took about two years of being a dad before the light bulb switched on and
I finally realized what surprised me the most about fatherhood. And much to my chagrin, the revelation involved,
of all things, organic fish sticks.
It happened on a Sunday. I had driven around all morning searching for organic fish sticks for my toddler’s daycare lunch. Picture Ahab in a Subaru armed with a shopping list. After coming up empty at three stores, I finally decided to make my own from scratch and filled a shopping basket with organic tilapia, free range eggs and Japanese breadcrumbs called panko. “I’m not sure about the panko, though,” I told my wife over the phone. “The label says it has partially hydrogenated oil.” Light bulb moment: What had I become and how did I get here?
It’s not just about obsessively dehydrogenating my kid’s every entree. I’ve also lost sleep over vaccinations, cell-phone radiation and whether to hold back our daughter so she’s not the youngest in her class. (Would it really be wrong to have the only teenager in kindergarten? Imagine the self-esteem she’d gain during basketball!)
It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, fresh out of college, I was like Ethan Hawke’s character in Reality Bites – a typical Generation X slacker. I wanted to travel the world and buy a motorcycle. Or better yet, travel the world on a motorcycle. Helmet? Heck no. I was young and armed with an English degree after completing the best five years of my life. But at some point when I wasn’t looking, that all changed. What happened?
In an attempt to unlock this mystery of fatherhood, I spoke, ironically, to a mother. Tricia Goyer, author of Generation NeXt Parenting: A Savvy Parent’s Guide to Getting it Right, assured me that my transformation wasn’t unusual. In fact, among Gen X parents (parents born between 1965 and 1979), worrying is the norm. “We’re child-focused because we felt that lack of parenting growing up. Because of working parents and divorce, Gen X kids were often tossed to the side,” she said. “As parents, we realize we have only one shot with our kids and we’re going to do a good job.”
When you look at the statistics, it’s no surprise that Gen Xers have traded in their Joy Division shirts for BabyBjorns. In the 1980s the number of children with divorced parents was nearly twice the number in the 1960s. The ’80s also saw a rise of working moms and dads, so much so that nearly half of Gen X children were latchkey kids. Decades later, the logic goes, these former latchkey children from broken homes are all grown up and are determined to create the childhoods that they never had. While Gen Xers were
slackers during their formative years, they’ve morphed into parents notorious for being hands-on and ultra-involved.
And dads are no exception.
“A lot of times, fathers would go to work and would provide for the home. Interactions happened during camping trips and vacations, but not a lot during the week. The generation before that was even more distant,” Goyer explains. “I think it has gradually changed where the dads are a lot more involved and that’s a positive thing. They know about nap times, dinner schedules and help put the kids to bed at night.”
The Male Perspective
Goyer’s explanation sounded reasonable, but I still wanted to know the fate of my inner Ethan. So one night (after reading to my daughter about bus-driving pigeons), I contacted Christopher Healy, author of Pop Culture: The Sane Man’s Guide to the Insane World of New Fatherhood. I was looking forward to speaking with Chris – man to man – to get a testosterone-fueled perspective on this whole matter, but we had a hard time arranging a call because he was overseeing a kitchen renovation.
Eventually, we managed to connect, and Chris’ version of fatherhood sounded eerily like mine. “I’ve always been a very involved dad and it came naturally,” he says. “I was seeing a lot of other dads taking kids to daycare, going to the playground, and it was very different from what I saw growing up. Back then, if you saw a kid with his dad it seemed special, it was typically all moms.”
He continues, “It feels like there has been a sea of change. Now that Generation X has grown up, for whatever reason, men decided to be more involved. Now you see dads on the jungle gym, holding hands with their kids, shadowing them.” I wanted to ask Chris if he ever missed his inner slacker, but we got stuck chatting about our kids’ eating habits instead.
I had found a lot of answers, but the mystery still remained. When did I transform from brooding slacker to organic fish-stick tracker? My best guess: I think the revelation took two years because frankly I had no idea what I was in for.
Fact: If you’re a guy expecting a first child, fatherhood is generally comprised of two distinct images – changing a baby’s diapers and playing catch. And it’s not until you’re actually a father that you realize there’s actually quite a bit of a gap between those two events. But by the time you notice, you’re too busy to care because it’s three in the morning and you’re driving to Canada to find the last un-recalled bottle of Baby Tylenol.
Father Knows Best
So I can accept that I’ve changed, but have I gone too far? To find that out, I placed a call to a local expert on fatherhood – my dad.
“Dad, it’s me,” I said. “Don’t hang up.”
“I thought you were another telemarketer.”
“I know. I need to ask you a question about fatherhood.”
I could hear the TV. In the background, my mother was yelling at the stove again.
“I’m listening,” my dad said.
“Do you think I go overboard with the fatherhood thing? You know, the organic food and the fact that our kid doesn’t know what a TV looks like?”
There was silence for a while. He said, “You’re a different generation. Trust your instincts.” A toilet flushed.
“Dad, where are you right now?”
Eventually, all of it began making sense. While I thought that life was changing all around me, I didn’t realize that I was changing also – evolving as I tried to create a different kind of childhood. So I’m at peace with this new reality. And I’ve totally let go of my inner slacker. Although truth be told, a little slacking might be nice tonight after I put away the bath toys and wrap up storytime. And pack tomorrow’s lunch of fish sticks and kale chips. And refill the nebulizer. Yes, once all that is taken care of, I should treat myself to some good old slacking.
Bruce Myint is an editor who lives in Larchmont.