Authors: Michael Lewis
The Big Short
The Blind Side
The New New Thing
The Money Culture
An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood
W. W. Norton & Company
New York â¢ London
Copyright Â© 2009 by Michael Lewis
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.,
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Lewis, Michael (Michael M.)
Home game: an accidental guide to fatherhood / Michael Lewis; photographs by Tabitha Soren.â1st ed.
1. Lewis, Michael (Michael M.) 2. FathersâUnited Statesâ
Biography. 3. FatherhoodâUnited States. I. Title.
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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FOR QUINN & DIXIE & WALKER
If you don't want to see it in print, don't do it.
I INHERITED FROM
my father a peculiar form of indolenceânot outright laziness so much as a gift for avoiding unpleasant chores without attracting public notice. My father took it almost as a matter of principle that most problems, if ignored, simply went away. And that his children were, more or less, among those problems. “I didn't even
to you until you went away to college,” he once said to me, as he watched me attempt to dress a six-month-old. “Your mother did all the dirty work.”
This wasn't entirely true, but it'd pass cleanly through any polygraph. For the tedious and messy bits of my childhood my father was, like most fathers of his generation, absent. (News of my birth he received by telegram.) In theory, his tendency to appear only when we didn't really need him should have left a lingering emotional distance; he should have paid some terrible psychological price for his refusal to suffer. But the stone cold fact is his children still love him, just as much as they love their mother. They don't hold it against him that he never addressed their diaper rash, or fixed their lunches, or rehearsed the lyrics to “I'm a Jolly Old Snowman.” They don't even remember! My mother did all the dirty work, and without receiving an ounce of extra emotional credit for it. Small children are ungrateful; to do one a favor is, from a business point of view, about as shrewd as making a subprime mortgage loan.
When I became a father I really had only one role model: my own father. He bequeathed to me an attitude to the job. But the job had changed. I was equipped to observe, with detached amusement and good cheer, my children being raised. But a capacity for detached amusement was no longer a job qualification. The glory days were over.
This book is a snapshot of what I assume will one day be looked back upon as a kind of Dark Age of Fatherhood. Obviously, we're in the midst of some long unhappy transition between the model of fatherhood as practiced by my father and some ideal model, approved by all, to be practiced with ease by the perfect fathers of the future. But for now there's an unsettling absence of universal, or even local, standards of behavior. Within a few miles of my house I can find perfectly sane men and women who regard me as a Neanderthal who should do more to help my poor wife with the kids, and just shut up about it. But I can also find other perfectly sane men and women who view me as a Truly Modern Man and marvel aloud at my ability to be both breadwinner and domestic dervishâdoer of an approximately 31.5 percent of all parenting. The absence of standards is the social equivalent of the absence of an acknowledged fair price for a good in a marketplace. At best, it leads to haggling; at worst, to market failure.
A brief thought experiment: Two couplesâBob and Carol, Ted and Aliceâget together for dinner. They haven't known each other for long, and will discover during this dinner that they have cut slightly different parenting deals with their spouse. Carol and Bob split their parenting duties 60/40; Alice and Ted's split is more like 80/20. Bob and Carol think children shouldn't watch the Disney Channel; Ted and Alice think the Disney Channel, properly used, can be an excellent babysitter. After an otherwise delightful dinner they:
a. Go home and leave unmentioned how differently the other couple parents and divides the parenting chores.
b. Acknowledge their differences but agree, privately, to disagree. Parenting chores aren't chores at all: they're a joy! Plus, there's more than one way to skin a cat, or raise children.
c. Go home and haggle. Not right away, of course. Alice gets home and stews and promises herself she won't say anything. But at some point she fails to suppress the soundtrack in her head. “I really like the idea of reducing the influence Disney has on our family,” she says. Or: “It's nice the way Bob drives the kids to school and frees up Carol in the mornings.” Meanwhile, down the block, Bob is wondering why the hell he has to drive the kids to school
morning. Just before they agree that they won't be having sex anytime soon, he says, “Alice really is a great mom, isn't she?” And a funny thing happens: These two couples never see each other again. They had agreed to get together for dinner but somehow it never happens. Ted's busy; Carol can't make it.
If you answered (a) or (b) you can skip the next two paragraphs.
Here's the question: Why should social interaction with couples who parent even slightly differently so quickly lead to internal strife? How can putatively important and deeply considered decisionsâhow to parent, and what role the father should playâbe so easily undermined by casual contact with a different approach? Why should even fictional representations of different parenting styles be an invitation to argue about who should do what?
One answer: In these putatively private matters people constantly reference public standards. They can live with their own parenting mistakes so long as everyone else is making the same ones. They don't care if they're getting a raw deal so long as everyone is getting the same deal. But there are no standards and it's possible there never again will be. We're all just groping, then lying about it afterward. As a result, the primary relationships in American family life have acquired the flavor of a Moroccan souk.
I began keeping a journal of my experience of fatherhood seven months after the birth of our first child. The reader will quickly see that I didn't set out to write about new fatherhood. I set out to write about Paris, but Paris was overshadowed by a seven-month-old baby. Most of what follows was written in the hazy, sleepless, and generally unpleasant first year after the birth of each of my three children. Most of it was also written within a few days after the incident reported. I found pretty quickly that any thoughts or feelings or even dramatic episodes I didn't get down on paper immediately I forgot entirelyâwhich was the first reason I began to write stuff down. Memory loss is the key to human reproduction. If you remembered what new parenthood was actually like you wouldn't go around lying to people about how wonderful it is, and you certainly wouldn't ever do it twice.
Which brings me to the main reason I kept writing things down: this persistent and disturbing gap between what I was meant to feel and what I actually felt. Expected to feel overcome with joyâ“It's a boy! You must be so happy!”âI often felt puzzled. (I shouldn't be just as happy if it was a girl?) Expected to feel outraged, I often felt secretly pleased; expected to feel worried, I often felt indifferent. (“It's just a little blood.”) For a while I went around feeling a tiny bit guilty all the time, but then I realized that all around me fathers were pretending to do one thing, and feel one way, when in fact they were doing and feeling all sorts of things, and then engaging afterward in what amounted to an extended cover-up. As this book is largely a collection of stories, I'll use one that didn't make it in to illustrate the point. Cut to the journalâ¦
We're at a fancy hotel in Bermuda. Like fancy hotels everywhere, the place is paying new attention to the whims of small children. The baby pool is vastânearly as big as the pool for the grown-ups, to which it is connected by a slender canal. In the middle of the baby pool is a hot tub, just for little kids. My two daughters, now ages six and three, leap from the hot tub into the baby pool and back again. The pleasure they take in this could not be more innocent or pure.
Then, out of nowhere, come four older boys. Ten, maybe eleven years old. As anyone who has only girls knows, boys add nothing to any social situation but trouble. These four are set on proving the point. Seeing my little girls, they grab the pool noodlesâintended to keep three-year-olds afloatâand wield them as weapons. They descend upon Quinn, my six-year-old, whacking the water on either side of her, until she is almost in tears. I'm hovering in the canal between baby pool and grown-up pool, wondering if I should intervene. Dixie beats me to it. She jumps out in front of her older sister and thrusts out her three-year-old chest.
!” she hollers, so loudly that grown-ups around the pool peer over their Danielle Steel novels. Even the boys are taken aback. Dixie, now on stage, raises her voice a notch:
YOU JUST SHUT UP YOU STUPID MOTHERFUCKING ASSHOLE
To the extent that all hell can break loose around a baby pool in a Bermuda resort, it does. A John Grisham novel is lowered; several of Danielle Steel's vanish into beach bags. I remain hovering in the shallows of the grown-up pool where it enters the baby pool, with my entire head above water. My first thought:
My second thought:
No one knows I'm her father.
I sink lower, like a crocodile, so that just my eyes and forehead are above the waterline; but in my heart a new feeling rises: pride. Behind me a lady on a beach chair shouts, “Kevin! Kevin! Get over here!”
Kevin appears to be one of the noodle-wielding eleven-year-old boys. “But Mooooooommm!” he says.
The little monster skulks over to his mother's side while his fellow Orcs await the higher judgment. I'm close enough to hear her ream him out. It's delicious. “Kevin, did you teach that little girl those words?” she asks.
“Then where did she learn them?”
As it happens, I know the answer to that one: carpool. Months ago! I was driving them home from school, my two girls, plus two other kidsâa seven-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl. They were crammed in the back seat of the Volkswagen Passat, jabbering away; I was alone in the front seat, not especially listening. But then the ten-year-old said, “Deena said a bad word today.”
“Which one?” asked Quinn.
“The S-word,” said the ten-year-old.
“Ooooooooo,” they all said.
“What's the S-word?” I asked.
“We can't say it without getting in trouble,” said the ten-year-old knowingly.
“You're safe here,” I said.
She thought it over for a second, then said, “Stupid.”
“Ah,” I said, smiling.
“Wally said the D-word!” said Quinn.
“What's the D-word?” I asked.
“Dumb!” she shouted, and they all giggled at the sheer illicit pleasure of it. Then the seven-year-old boy chimed in. “I know a bad word, too! I know a bad word, too!” he said.
“What's the bad word?” I asked brightly. I didn't see why he should be left out.
I swerved off the road, stopped the car, and hit the emergency lights. I began to deliver a lecture on the difference between bad words and seriously bad words, but the audience was fully consumed with laughter. Dixie, especially, wanted to know the secret of making Daddy stop the car.
“Shutupmotherstupid fuck,” she said.
“Dixie!” I said.
“Daddy,” said Quinn thoughtfully, “how come you say a bad word when we spill something and when you spill something you just say, âOops'?”
“Stupidfuck!” screamed Dixie, and they all laughed.
She stopped. They all did. For the rest of the drive they whispered.
So here we are, months later, in this Bermuda pool, Dixie with her chest thrust out in defiance, me floating like a crocodile and feeling very much different than I should. I should be embarrassed and concerned. I should be sweeping her out of the pool and washing her mouth out with soap. I don't feel that way. Actually, I'm impressed. More than impressed: awed. It's just incredibly heroic, taking out after this rat pack of boys. Plus she's sticking up for her big sister, which isn't something you see every day. I don't want to get in her way. I just want to see what happens next.
Behind me Kevin has just finished being torn what appears to be a new asshole by his mother, and is relaunching himself into the baby pool with a real malice. He's as indignant as a serial killer who got put away on a speeding ticket: He's guilty of many things but not of teaching a three-year-old girl the art of cursing. Now he intends to get even. Gathering his fellow Orcs in the hot tub, he and his companions once again threaten Quinn. Dixie, once again, leaps into the fray.
!” she shouts. Now she has the attention of an entire Bermuda resort.
YOU WATCH OUT TEASING BOYS
BECAUSE I PEED IN THIS POOL TWO TIMES
ONCE IN THE HOT POOL AND ONCE IN THE COLD POOL
The teasing boys flee, grossed out and defeated. Various grown-ups say various things to each other, but no one seeks to remove Dixie from the baby pool. Dixie returns to playing with her sisterâwho appears far less grateful than she should be. And the crocodile drops below the waterline, swivels, and vanishes into the depths of the grown-up pool. But he makes a mental note to buy that little girl an ice-cream cone. Even if her mother disapproves.