Twenty years ago I found myself cast in the most unlikely role: a stay-at-home dad to my eight-month-old daughter Petra. I say “unlikely” because the 10 years that preceded my initiation into full-time parenting consisted of drink- and drug-binging, school, late nights working in bars and generally doing whatever the hell I wanted, when I wanted.
My girlfriend and I had talked about having a baby, but as any parent will tell you, talking and planning does little to prepare you for the very real switch from a 3 a.m. bedtime to a 6 a.m. wake time. Because my girlfriend had a better-paying job, I stayed at home when Petra was eight months old. My ocean of free time was immediately and irrevocably drained by the 16-hour days of parenthood.
It was the best thing that had ever happened to me. My new life charged me with purpose and gave me the structure and discipline to finally pursue my dream of authorhood. Better still, I got to shepherd a wondrous, bright-eyed little girl to her first steps, first words and countless other milestones.
No one wants to admit this (unless they’ve had a few drinks), but treating your children equally does not always mean treating them the same, especially when they’re different genders.
Twenty years later I find myself back at home with a toddler, this time a fantastic little guy named Charlie, who just turned a year old (you want pictures? I got pictures). I’ve found out that what many parents say is true, that parenting a second child is easier. You worry less about your baby’s bruises and head colds. The first time Charlie took the inevitable tumble from the bed, there was no rush to the emergency room. I checked his head for bumps and fed him an Arrowroot biscuit. Problem solved. I’d also learned to ignore the army of experts who insist that anything less than perfect parenting will condemn your son or daughter to an adulthood of surfing from one psychiatrist’s office to the next.
Still, I find the biggest difference with my second child is that he’s a boy. No one — at least not in my admittedly progressive circle — wants to admit this (unless they’ve had a few drinks), but treating your children equally does not always mean treating them the same, especially when they’re different genders.
As politically incorrect as it is say, boys and girls exhibit behaviour differences from a very young age. Sure, not all of them, thank God, but most. Like a boy in one of those old Dick and Jane books, Charlie loves trucks, the bigger the better, obsessively watches the boys in the schoolyard play sports, and gazes at the fire station on our street with the awe of a pilgrim approaching a shrine. Yes, he also loves flowers and cuddling with our long-suffering cat, but there’s no denying some fundamental differences with his equally lively, smart and curious sister.
For instance, as much as Petra enjoyed wrestling with me when she was Charlie’s age, he takes wrestling far more seriously — I’m talking, beware of hidden objects seriously. He’s already scratched my eyeball twice with his thumbnails, and nearly broke my nose with a well-timed head butt. Anything he can lift with his little hands becomes a projectile, and his aim is improving.
Am I projecting onto Charlie the social norms I inherited growing up in a society that values aggression in men? To some degree, yes, but I’m not imagining Charlie’s at times overwhelming physicality and aggression, tendencies he’ll have to learn to reign in.
That’s where I come in. It falls to me, as his father, to provide Charlie a model of responsible masculinity, to be the man that I want him to be. With Petra, I had to be a model for the man she’ll one day be with.
I think I did okay. I built, as best I could, a loving, affectionate relationship with Petra based on support, discussion, and respect, and so far she seems to be demanding those traits from the men in her life and from her friends.
So why do I already feel like I’m falling short with my son? Shouldn’t fathering a son be easier? After all, I know what boys are like, the pressures and challenges they face at school and in the playground.
It’s true that parents tend to be more demanding and critical of their same-sex children. Fathers who play the hard-ass to their sons often turn to jelly when they’re forced to discipline daddy’s little girl, while a mother who can call bullshit on her daughter at a hundred paces will refuse to see what is obvious to everyone but her: that her son’s being a total A-hole. I’m simplifying, but studies show that we seem to instinctively grant more open affection and leniency to our opposite-sex children.
But, I’ve realized my anxieties run deeper.
ON THE OUTSIDE, my father could have sprang to life from a Canadian whiskey commercial — well groomed but masculine, hair cut above the ears, starched white shirt and a pleat in his pants you could cut paper on. He was hard drinking, good with his fists, a classic ball buster with his poker buddies and the organizer of many a weekend football game for the neighbourhood boys. He was handsome, funny, and charming as hell.
Studies show that we seem to instinctively grant more open affection and leniency to our opposite-sex children.
He also emotionally and physically abused our mother, drank and often gambled away the rent money, forcing us to live on my mother’s secretary salary. I still don’t know who the man really was: the angry drunk who sabotaged our family with his selfishness, or the funny, extroverted dad the neighbourhood boys all looked up to?
Since we all learn our parenting techniques from our parents, my anxieties around fatherhood are easy to understand. With Petra, I got around those fears by modeling my parenting after my mother, who was patient, affectionate and unfailingly supportive. It’s not that I overtly tried to mother Petra, per se, so much as channel my own mother’s best qualities, especially her patience and sense of humour, a tactic I’ve continued with Charlie. This serves me well, obviously — what kid doesn’t appreciate patience? But I can foresee, in the not-distant-enough future, that fathering a boy will force me to draw on the lessons I learned from my father, as double-edged as many of them were.
MY FATHER WORKED EVENINGS, so my brother and I usually only saw him on weekends — or heard him in the very early weekday mornings, shouting at our mother. He taught us to box, to play poker and chess, and to think on our toes and deliver a great one-liner, but not a hell of a lot else.
When I was in junior school, we lived for five years in one of the rougher neighbourhoods in Toronto. I was an undersized kid with an oversized mouth, and there were only so many scrapes my older, stronger brother could rescue me from. Unless I wanted to go through the school year with a target on my chest, I had to fight.
Winning those fights was less important than being seen to show up to the fight. You lose a scrape and you still earned a ranking in the boys’ hierarchy. Even a low ranking was better than no ranking at all. The trick was to fight someone you had a chance of beating. If no such candidate presented himself, you tried to avoid landing a match with one of the neighbourhood’s budding psychopaths.
Chief among those psychopaths were the Martin brothers (name changed to protect my ass), the sons of a nasty, alcoholic ex-fisherman who’d dragged his family to Toronto from rural Newfoundland in search of work. Nine of the Martins lived in a three-bedroom apartment a few doors down. Often, there wasn’t enough food to go around. Life was hard for those kids, so the kids got harder.
My brother and I hung out with Martins all the time, but every now and then, one of the brothers erupted into indiscriminate but remarkably effective violence. One day, the youngest and smallest Martin brother took a shot at me. Miraculously, I hit him back hard enough to bloody his nose and send him running.
For about twelve hours I was a conquering hero, the boy who stood up to one of the Martins and came out on top. A day later, the next oldest Martin — a year older than me and half a foot taller — tracked me down in the playground. He was there to set the hierarchy back in order.
If you look up the word “turtle” in a slang dictionary you’ll probably see my nine-year-old self lying on the ground getting a first-class ass whooping. It was a Saturday, so when I got home, still weeping from the pain and humiliation, my father met me at the door, not my mom as hoped.
My father offered no cries of outrage. He didn’t march over to the Martins to demand an apology — this was the 1970s for God’s sake. Instead, he asked me what happened and then listened with the tactical dispassion of a cornerman in a prizefight. When he asked why I didn’t fight back, I clammed up. How could I tell him I was so scared I’d almost pissed myself? So I said nothing. His disappointed eyes told me I didn’t have to explain.
He brushed me off and told me I’d be playing hockey with the Martins by Monday, but he offered no pity. He hated bullies — his masculine code of honour forbade picking on a weaker opponent, but it also left no room for cowardice. Life was unfair, he was telling me, even brutal at times. He hadn’t invented the rules, but he’d learned to play by them and I’d better too.
That exchange was one of the most intimate I ever shared with my dad. I can see now that, in his own way, he wanted to make everything okay for his youngest son. He felt my pain, possibly more than I did, but he had no idea what to do with that hurt. More than anything, he lacked the language. His father had told him to toughen up, so he did as his father did and told me the same because he couldn’t imagine a world where boys don’t use violence to settle scores and maintain the pecking order.
Life is unfair, but if I’ve learned one thing from being a father, it’s that a parent can create at least one relationship in their children’s lives based on fairness, love and respect.
It’s funny. I remember a day when Petra, who was in Grade 6, came home in tears because a friend was spreading false rumours about her, trying to turn the other girls against her. It was that same pecking order, played out in a kind of girl’s league. I was furious. I told her to punch the backstabber in the nose. “That’s what I’d do!” I insisted.
This was met by a theatrical rolling of eyes. I tried again, suggesting she confront her nemesis in a less violent way. Petra could only shake her head and say, “Daddy, it doesn’t work that way. I can’t confront her. We’re not boys.” Her frustration — and my uselessness — was heartbreaking. It as if my daughter had entered a foreign country ruled by customs I’d never learned and never could.
But now I have a son, and I have the example of my father, and I still don’t know what I’ll do if Charlie comes home bloodied and snot-nosed after a run in with the local version of a Martin brother. I won’t be disappointed if he didn’t fight back. I won’t tell him to toughen up and get over it, because I’ve never quite shaken my father’s pessimistic view of the world. But, I won’t tell him that everything will be okay in the end, either. Life is unfair, even brutal, but if I’ve learned one thing from being a first time father, 20 years ago, it’s that a parent can create at least one relationship in their children’s lives based on fairness, love and respect. That has to count for something in the end.
James Grainger is the author of Harmless, which has been recently optioned for film by Atom Egoyan.