The Madness of Mothers and the Folly of Fathers

Fortunately, in most of the eternal disputes between men and women, discretion prevails over candor. If the truth be told (as it probably shouldn't), fathers often think mothers are insane while mothers think fathers are cold and unfeeling.

I think this mutual misunderstanding arises from a difference in temporal perspective. Mothers often live out their lives under the spell of their First Moment with their baby. Fathers tend to keep their eyes fixed grimly on the future.

So it is that mothers, unless jarred into reality by tragedy or ungrateful misbehavior, always see their children as their babies. And this fixation is reinforced by years of seemingly endless toil -- changing diapers, doing the laundry, preparing meals, and comforting physical and emotional hurts. The habit of mothering becomes hard to break; my mother was buying me shirts when I was fifty.

No doubt, biologists would assure us that this madness is an evolutionary mechanism for promoting the survival of our species. They would patiently expatiate on the release of hormones that makes a new mother gaze upon a scrawny and misshapen newborn and murmur, "Isn't he lovely!" But how can such hormones persist even unto the third and fourth generations? Grandmothers, with their iPhones crammed with pictures of grandchildren, are even more dotingly dotty than mothers.

Fortunately, grandfathers, having done time as fathers, have learned the art of silent forbearance. Hopefully, even before his wedding day, a decent man sees some vague connection between "marriage" and "children" and is at least tentatively willing to accept them as a package deal [1]. And so, when by accident or design his wife becomes pregnant, he bemusedly accepts his obscure supporting role in the mother-centered prenatal rituals.

Then, one day, he looks upon his newborn and sees a scrawny and misshapen creature that is not particularly lovely, but instead frighteningly helpless. It begins to dawn upon him, with a mixture of fear and awe, that he has volunteered to preserve and protect this incredibly vulnerable creature. And he knows he is not fit for the job. It's pretty much like being a raw recruit who is suddenly told to lead a platoon into combat. He will have to desperately improvise and (if he has any sense) pray that his charges will somehow survive.

That is why any responsible father is always looking ahead. The traditional catcher's mitt or college enrollment for his newborn is a symbol of the teenager and adult that he envisions and plans for. The urge to give his children a secure and comfortable future may goad him to work harder, thereby ironically isolating him from them during their childhoods [2]. His oft-unwelcome tendency to push them into college and a profession, and his even more irritating paranoia about his daughters' boyfriends, are misguided but sincere tokens of his worries about their futures.

Even when children are grown and established in their own households, the difference is apparent. Mothers continue to worry about their babies ("Are you getting enough sleep?" "You look thin; are you eating right?") while fathers hesitantly ask how their jobs are coming along.

By then, the most galling frustration of a father is the unwillingness of his children to listen to advice. This is traditionally one of the primary functions of fatherhood. In primitive societies, it was the father who taught his children how to hunt and farm and, above all, survive. But such advice has never been less welcome or more universally ignored than now.

This is a double tragedy since, by refusing to listen to advice, sons and daughters are rejecting not only the wisdom of experience, but also their parents' professions of love. In this harsh age wherein avowals of affection are either sneered at or hypocritically simulated, expressions of concern are almost the only way we have of conveying love.

Mothers, when daunted by popular cynicism from expressing their love, often resort to the method John Patrick described in "The Curious Savage," in a dialog between a delusional young girl in a nursing home and a wise old woman:

FAIRY: ... no one has said they loved me this live-long day.

MRS. SAVAGE: Why, yes they have, Fairy...I heard Florence say it at the dinner table...She said, "don't eat too fast, Fairy."

FAIRY: Was that saying she loved me?

MRS. SAVAGE: Of course. People say it when they say, "take an umbrella, it's raining" -- or "hurry back" -- or even "watch out, you'll break your neck"...you just have to listen for it, my dear.
Fathers try to do it by concealing their shyness with gruffness, as in Kenneth Fearing's  "Any Man's Advice to His Son," written during WWII, which ends:

Remember: If you must shoot at another man, squeeze, do not jerk the trigger.

Otherwise you may miss and die, yourself, at the hand of some other man's son.

And remember: In all this world, there is nothing so easily squandered, or once gone, so completely lost as life.

I tell you this because I remember you when you were small,

And because I remember all your infant boasts and lies,

And the way you smiled, and the way you ran and climbed, as no one else quite did, and how you fell and were bruised,

And because there is no other person, anywhere on earth, who remembers these things as clearly as I do now.

It is heartbreaking to realize that there are thousands of fathers with sons or daughters in our armed forces who would say such things if only they dared. But instead, they try to be cheerful and upbeat.

A mother and father might find some comfort in sharing their anxieties. But more often than not, they hide them, trying to protect each other by being casual. And so mothers solace themselves with trivia, such as sending Johnny his favorite cake, while fathers pretend to be unworried. Thus it is that mothers seem crazy while fathers seem unfeeling.

Fortunately, both can confide in God, who understands more profoundly than we can comprehend how it feels to have ungrateful and unheeding children ruin themselves or to see a beloved son suffer and die. That is why we call him "Father."

NOTES:

[1] I have of course idealized by attributing the feelings I have described to all mothers and fathers. They were sometimes absent even a half century ago when I was young. And in these callous times, many young men and women become parents without any serious thought or parental feelings. But hopefully, as their children grow and their needs and struggles become pathetically obvious, such feelings do sprout and develop. Woe to the family wherein they don't, for these feelings are the sinews that hold a family together in hard times.

[2] This is one of the few cases where post-baby-boomer fathers have proved wiser than their predecessors by appreciating and taking advantage of the precious years when their children are still young. Fathers of my generation often awoke one morning to discover that their children were men and women -- and virtual strangers -- and that nothing remained of their childhood years except a handful of fugitive memories. Phyllis McGinley has described this angst in her poems "Ballad of Lost Objects" and "First Lesson."   
Fortunately, in most of the eternal disputes between men and women, discretion prevails over candor. If the truth be told (as it probably shouldn't), fathers often think mothers are insane while mothers think fathers are cold and unfeeling.

I think this mutual misunderstanding arises from a difference in temporal perspective. Mothers often live out their lives under the spell of their First Moment with their baby. Fathers tend to keep their eyes fixed grimly on the future.

So it is that mothers, unless jarred into reality by tragedy or ungrateful misbehavior, always see their children as their babies. And this fixation is reinforced by years of seemingly endless toil -- changing diapers, doing the laundry, preparing meals, and comforting physical and emotional hurts. The habit of mothering becomes hard to break; my mother was buying me shirts when I was fifty.

No doubt, biologists would assure us that this madness is an evolutionary mechanism for promoting the survival of our species. They would patiently expatiate on the release of hormones that makes a new mother gaze upon a scrawny and misshapen newborn and murmur, "Isn't he lovely!" But how can such hormones persist even unto the third and fourth generations? Grandmothers, with their iPhones crammed with pictures of grandchildren, are even more dotingly dotty than mothers.

Fortunately, grandfathers, having done time as fathers, have learned the art of silent forbearance. Hopefully, even before his wedding day, a decent man sees some vague connection between "marriage" and "children" and is at least tentatively willing to accept them as a package deal [1]. And so, when by accident or design his wife becomes pregnant, he bemusedly accepts his obscure supporting role in the mother-centered prenatal rituals.

Then, one day, he looks upon his newborn and sees a scrawny and misshapen creature that is not particularly lovely, but instead frighteningly helpless. It begins to dawn upon him, with a mixture of fear and awe, that he has volunteered to preserve and protect this incredibly vulnerable creature. And he knows he is not fit for the job. It's pretty much like being a raw recruit who is suddenly told to lead a platoon into combat. He will have to desperately improvise and (if he has any sense) pray that his charges will somehow survive.

That is why any responsible father is always looking ahead. The traditional catcher's mitt or college enrollment for his newborn is a symbol of the teenager and adult that he envisions and plans for. The urge to give his children a secure and comfortable future may goad him to work harder, thereby ironically isolating him from them during their childhoods [2]. His oft-unwelcome tendency to push them into college and a profession, and his even more irritating paranoia about his daughters' boyfriends, are misguided but sincere tokens of his worries about their futures.

Even when children are grown and established in their own households, the difference is apparent. Mothers continue to worry about their babies ("Are you getting enough sleep?" "You look thin; are you eating right?") while fathers hesitantly ask how their jobs are coming along.

By then, the most galling frustration of a father is the unwillingness of his children to listen to advice. This is traditionally one of the primary functions of fatherhood. In primitive societies, it was the father who taught his children how to hunt and farm and, above all, survive. But such advice has never been less welcome or more universally ignored than now.

This is a double tragedy since, by refusing to listen to advice, sons and daughters are rejecting not only the wisdom of experience, but also their parents' professions of love. In this harsh age wherein avowals of affection are either sneered at or hypocritically simulated, expressions of concern are almost the only way we have of conveying love.

Mothers, when daunted by popular cynicism from expressing their love, often resort to the method John Patrick described in "The Curious Savage," in a dialog between a delusional young girl in a nursing home and a wise old woman:

FAIRY: ... no one has said they loved me this live-long day.

MRS. SAVAGE: Why, yes they have, Fairy...I heard Florence say it at the dinner table...She said, "don't eat too fast, Fairy."

FAIRY: Was that saying she loved me?

MRS. SAVAGE: Of course. People say it when they say, "take an umbrella, it's raining" -- or "hurry back" -- or even "watch out, you'll break your neck"...you just have to listen for it, my dear.
Fathers try to do it by concealing their shyness with gruffness, as in Kenneth Fearing's  "Any Man's Advice to His Son," written during WWII, which ends:

Remember: If you must shoot at another man, squeeze, do not jerk the trigger.

Otherwise you may miss and die, yourself, at the hand of some other man's son.

And remember: In all this world, there is nothing so easily squandered, or once gone, so completely lost as life.

I tell you this because I remember you when you were small,

And because I remember all your infant boasts and lies,

And the way you smiled, and the way you ran and climbed, as no one else quite did, and how you fell and were bruised,

And because there is no other person, anywhere on earth, who remembers these things as clearly as I do now.

It is heartbreaking to realize that there are thousands of fathers with sons or daughters in our armed forces who would say such things if only they dared. But instead, they try to be cheerful and upbeat.

A mother and father might find some comfort in sharing their anxieties. But more often than not, they hide them, trying to protect each other by being casual. And so mothers solace themselves with trivia, such as sending Johnny his favorite cake, while fathers pretend to be unworried. Thus it is that mothers seem crazy while fathers seem unfeeling.

Fortunately, both can confide in God, who understands more profoundly than we can comprehend how it feels to have ungrateful and unheeding children ruin themselves or to see a beloved son suffer and die. That is why we call him "Father."

NOTES:

[1] I have of course idealized by attributing the feelings I have described to all mothers and fathers. They were sometimes absent even a half century ago when I was young. And in these callous times, many young men and women become parents without any serious thought or parental feelings. But hopefully, as their children grow and their needs and struggles become pathetically obvious, such feelings do sprout and develop. Woe to the family wherein they don't, for these feelings are the sinews that hold a family together in hard times.

[2] This is one of the few cases where post-baby-boomer fathers have proved wiser than their predecessors by appreciating and taking advantage of the precious years when their children are still young. Fathers of my generation often awoke one morning to discover that their children were men and women -- and virtual strangers -- and that nothing remained of their childhood years except a handful of fugitive memories. Phyllis McGinley has described this angst in her poems "Ballad of Lost Objects" and "First Lesson."   

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