Monday, December 18, 2006

Am I an absentee dad? Are you?

But what defines "absentee"? If you see your child once a month, does that make you a nonexistent father? Once a week?
There was an interesting article in this Sunday's WaPo, entitled Dad Redefined, which is one part of their recent series on black men in America. This article focused on absentee black dads--their description, not mine--and it got me to wondering just who we consider absent in a child's life.

Let's calculate my waking hours with 3B in a typical week at Casa Bradstein and compare it with a typical week for Tim Wagoner, the dad profiled in the story:

24 x 7 = 168 hours/week
  • subtract 40 hours for work, plus 45 minutes commuting each day = 124.25
  • subtract eight hours a day for sleep (strange, but true . . . as much as 3B sleeps, it's been getting us to sleep more too) = 68.25
  • subtract half an hour a day for dog walking and typically an hour a night that 3B and Mama are down while I'm cleaning up the kitchen and fruiting around, like now = 57.75
  • subtract at least four hours on each weekend day for 3B's naps = 49.75
That means that I've got just over two waking days every week with 3B, scattered in short bursts throughout the week. That's not much more than Wagoner has, and his comes in a similar fashion--little bits here and there.

Granted, there are some fundamental differences--while 3B sleeps at night, he's with me and Mama. The big similarity is that Wagoner and I spend a large amount of time each week away from the house trying to improve our families' lots in life. My time is at one job and his is at a part-time job and GED classes.

Why is it, then, that an article profiles him as an absentee dad, but not me or someone like me? Is it because he's working part-time and studying for his GED and I have a steady gig, making it more acceptable for me to be gone for most daylight hours during the week? What's the difference between our absences to our two sons, however?

All of this raises the question that is repeated throughout the article:
What does a daddy do?

There is a pause. Wagoner doodles his index finger around his son's hand. Zyhir is tapping it.

"Just be there," Wagoner says, not looking up from Zyhir. "That's the most important thing. You can buy them all the clothes, all the toys, and it don't matter. Most important thing is that he knows my voice, knows me when he sees me."

There are other things, too, of course: Nurture. Shelter. Love. Protect. Those entail a lifetime of decisions and sacrifices; fatherhood isn't a job with a time clock where you punch in, punch out.

I have the same feelings and the same priorities. And those things that Wagoner lists, he is providing and working hard to continue providing, as I am for 3B. For Wagoner, as for me, doing so requires being away from his baby for extended periods of time during the week, but it doesn't mean that he's by any means absent from his child's life, even before Zyhir was born:

He lives about a mile from Children's Hospital, where McDaniel [Zyhir's mom] went for her checkups, and he could walk to the appointments. He was there when Zyhir was born: "He had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck." There's a picture on the mantel in the living room, Wagoner in his white scrubs, holding his son after the birth.

I can't tell you how many times I was the only man in the waiting room when Mama and I went in for prenatal (ante-natal, for you Brits) appointments. Based on that, by the time his son was born, Wagoner was miles ahead of all the dads who were absent from our waiting room in knowledge and experience. So why is he called an absentee dad, but there's no parallel series on middle-class, suburban dads who didn't go in for prenatal visits?

And then there's the elephant in the room: race. Is it OK to call Wagoner an absentee dad because he's black, but it's not OK to call someone like me an absentee dad because I'm white? As far as I'm concerned, that's bullshit, but I suspect that race is behind much of this labeling. I'm not saying that there aren't also working black dads who are out of the house as many hours a week as I am, but I am saying that the assumption that married white dads who live in the same house as their kids and the mother of their kids are fully present in their kids' lives is a dangerously shallow view of the world.

We need to get beyond these monetary measures of achievement and superficial racial separations and get down to determining our success by understanding the true meaning and worth of our lives:

"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product ... if we should judge America by that--counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

"Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."
--Robert F. Kennedy Address, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, March 18, 1968

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  1. Anonymous7:42 PM

    Excellent post. I worry about how much time I spend with LA Toddler. I know she gets more time with mom because they commute to daycare together. And I ocassionally have something going on at night for fimmaking stuff... which means she maybe gets to see me for a half an hour in the morning when she gets dressed.

    But I try to make up for it on weekends. Am I absentee? I know I'm not. It's a label for people that others apply when they don't think someone is doing enough.

    Of course, I've been bad lately - I've been spending time at work blogging so that I have more time at home. Don't tell my boss!

  2. Anonymous1:05 PM

    That's a great post PB. Clearly everything white people do is right, and everything black people do is wrong. That's the gist of the article right?

    We belong to a black church and (sadly) a lot of people think "That's just so great! Good for you!" WTF? We're not 'taking one for the team' or anything. Don't give us props or keep score.

    Sometimes I hate this country. Equality my ass.

  3. A father's role goes beyond just the hours he spends with the kids. Start by saying the hours you spend together are crucial. But there are a thousand ways to give kids the unspoken message, from Day One, that they are part of a family. You can live with Mom and the kids, or, if that's not possible, you can show how you care for and respect Mom with your actions and words.

    We all have times when we can't be there--moms and dads--but how you spend your elective hours speaks volumes. Where do you spend your hours off? Where do you spend your vacations, your holidays? An unemployed father who's around all the time could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on a lot of the same questions.

    Quantity does count, but we would do well to consider not just how often a father is absent but also how he treats the hours when he is present.