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Quality Time

Pikul Noorod/Shutterstock

Fatherhood isn’t brain surgery. I say this in defiance of the new conventional wisdom that being a father is breathtakingly difficult, that it creates tough dilemmas and causes enormous stress and that fathers need a strategy, a plan, a vision, for carrying out their duties. I don’t think so. Most men I know have an instinct for fatherhood that was triggered the day their first child was born. They instantly recognized the No. 1 requirement of fatherhood: be there. Woody Allen may be a lousy father, but his rule for life applies to being a father. Yep, 90 percent of fatherhood is just showing up. Of course, millions of fathers don’t show up at all because of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, etc. And the absence of fathers has awful consequences. But that’s a social problem, quite different from the personal crisis fathers supposedly face in their day-to-day interaction with their children.

Forget quality time. You can’t plan magic moments or bonding or epiphanies in dealing with kids. What matters is quantity time. Judging from my own experience--four kids--children crave prolonged attention, preferably undivided. They want whole days and nights of it. Knowing this, I opted for an adventure in quantity time with my son, Freddy, in mid-June. He’s 8. I took him with me for a weekend at The Balsams, an elegant old resort hotel in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire. All I had to do was give a speech Saturday morning (I was a last-minute substitute for David Gergen) to a group of Maine and Vermont bankers and their spouses. The rest of my time was Freddy’s. The only dilemma I faced was figuring out what to do with him while I spoke. He’s about as eager to listen to me hold forth on politics as President Clinton is to hear another question from Brit Hume. Since Freddy refused to participate in the hotel’s program for kids, there was only one solution. I paid him off. I gave him $10 in quarters, hoping that would keep him busy for ninety minutes playing video games. It worked only too well. When I came to get him later, he’d spent the money and was playing pool with an older kid named Zack. “Dad,” he said, “what’d you come so soon for?”

I had no strategy for how we’d spend our time or what we’d talk about. We would play it by ear, by instinct. The hotel is situated beside a lake stocked with trout, so fishing seemed logical. “We’re men, aren’t we?” Freddy said. We got life jackets, a rowboat, oars and two fly rods, and headed for the middle of the lake. I rowed, and Freddy accused me of splashing him as I rowed. Sad to say, my knowledge of fly fishing consisted of having seen the movie A River Runs through It, and that turned out to be insufficient. Fly fishing, like golf, is hard. By the time we’d casted a few times, the boat had floated back to the shore, and I had to stop fishing and row again. This process repeated itself a few times. After a half-hour, Freddy said, “Dad, we’ll never catch a fish.” I told him he was wrong, that if we stuck to it for a while more, we’d catch something. He was right. The fishing episode produced no moments of deep father-son rapport, only a shared sense of relief that the two young women who were fly fishing at the same time didn’t catch anything either.

Basketball was better. Freddy showed me everything he’d learned earlier that week at basketball camp. We pretended to be the Bulls and the Suns. Hiking was better still. When we returned, it was time for dinner. Freddy and I were signed up to attend the bankers’ formal banquet. I was worried that he would be bored and bad. Instead, I experienced two of the blessings of fatherhood (these apply also to motherhood). One is that people are unusually nice when you’re with your children. When Freddy balked at prime rib, the waitress brought him a burger and fries. The other joy is when your kid unexpectedly displays his best behavior in public. Freddy acted like Little Lord Fauntleroy. He sat still, responded to everyone who talked to him, didn’t once call anyone a “butthead,” his favorite epithet. He got restless after roughly an hour. So I gave him $3 to play video games.

During the weekend, I managed to resolve what Time, in its June 28 cover story (“Fatherhood: The guilt, the joy, the fear, the fun ...”), suggests are the two great dilemmas of modern fatherhood. You know, choosing between work and family and deciding whether to be a New Father or an Old Father. This was no big deal. In fact, it’s a false choice, one most fathers don’t really have to make. The weekend itself combined work and family. Nothing extraordinary there. Fathers balance work and family all the time. You go to work, but if your child is doing something eventful, or needs your immediate help, then you take off. (Those, that is, who have the luxury of skipping out of work when they choose.) You never get credit for being there with your kid. But you get blame—and suffer remorse—if you aren’t. Only once have I ever been forced to make a conscious choice between work and family. It occurred when my daughter Grace had a weekday soccer game and her mother was away. I thought: I have so much to do I can’t leave work at 4 p.m. But I did. Grace scored four goals, her best game ever.

As for new fatherhood—more nurturing and soft-edged, less rigid and aloof—you don’t have to embrace it or reject it. You adopt the parts you’re comfortable with and forget the rest. I never believed I’d find it thrilling to be in the delivery room to see my child being born. I was wrong. Time says that “it is still the mother who carries her child’s life around in her head.” Like many fathers, I try to keep track of what my kids are doing every day. But I can’t be a second mother to them. Men, my friends anyway, aren’t good at that. Robert Griswold, in Fatherhood in America, complains that American culture “lacks any coherent and unified vision of what fathers and fatherhood should be.” He’s right, but so what? That’s a problem of our culture and its need to put a theory behind things that work in practice. Fathers get along fine without such a vision.

As the banquet was ending, Freddy returned from the game room, ready for attention. We went outside to reconnoiter the eighteen-hole putting green, where we intended to play the next morning. The sky was amazingly clear, the stars glistening like they never do through the haze over Washington. A couple from Camden, Maine, spent thirty minutes talking to Freddy and me. The wife took Freddy aside and pointed out the Big Dipper to him. He was ecstatic. “I couldn’t see it before,” he said. The husband talked about other wonders in the sky. Freddy was enthralled. As we walked back to our room, he said, “That man really knew a lot.” It was 10 p.m., time for bed. Freddy jumped under the covers and insisted we sleep in the same bed. “Dad, dad, there’s so much I want to tell you,” he said. Before he could remember exactly what, he was fast asleep.