The scene of Robert Crawley on the carpet felt more like something from 2014 than 1924—or even 1974, when I was a kid. Because at that time, certainly among my father and his friends, caring about your kids in the micro, day-to-day way we do now simply wasn’t done.
© ITV Picture
I’m sure some of it was because the women’s movement hadn’t fully kicked in, or reached the exurbs where we lived. (The name of “the problem that has no name” just might have been your husband, who does sweet fuck-all for the family other than disappearing daily to draw a paycheck.) But I’m also certain that some of the dad-remove at the time could be chalked up to babies having babies. There are pictures of my dad, at 22, looking much like a 22-year-old man of today: It’s late in the morning, he’s still in his undershirt-and-boxers version of pajamas, he’s likely hung over, and his face is covered with acne.
What makes the photo not so much like a 22-year-old today? He’s snuggling his baby daughter, my oldest sister. Honestly, at that age, he shouldn’t have been trusted to care for an egg or a bag or a flower or any of those other baby proxies that junior high health teachers use to scare kids away from teenage procreation.
My father is now 71, and he has never in his life boiled a pot of water. As the father to four daughters and five granddaughters, he has never once changed a single diaper. My mom tells a story (and not bitterly, by the way) about coming home from a few hours of shopping to find me padding around in a onesie, soaked up to my armpits in my own urine, because my dad did not change diapers. Of course, since there’s a spectrum for everything, that was still preferable to the time when my mom hosted Bunco and one of her friends got called home by her husband because their kid was crying and he didn’t feel like dealing. (Important distinction: It’s not that he didn’t know how to soothe the kid; he wouldn’t even deign to try.)
My most vivid childhood memories of my father are from the times he took me and my three sisters to the nearby Fairgrounds, which he treated as a driving range: He’d tee up golf balls, let them fly—and then, once he’d hit through his supply, send us racing across the sun-scarred grass to retrieve them. On Sunday nights, while he enjoyed 60 Minutes, we rotated in for turns of either massaging his feet or scratching his head (he played to our fear of the embarrassment of having a bald father, assuring us that such pampering would stimulate hair growth).
In his life, my father has also never read a book to a child. Which I find heartbreaking on so many different levels. (Dear technogogy, please figure out how to capture, bottle, and preserve for future visitation the dreamy, musky scent of the top of my daughter’s head as she leans against me while I read The Long Winter. Thanks.) And yet—despite my ability to identify this as one of parenthood’s most pure and simple pleasures—I’m ashamed to admit that when we’re at my parents’ and my husband, Jamie, is reading to our daughter (as he always does, first thing in the morning), I’m haunted by a version of Lord Grantham’s question, “What will my dad think when he sees you doing this?”
I also consider this whenever we’re at my parents’ and Jamie interacts with our daughter on the most basic level (i.e., getting something down for her from a cabinet she cannot reach). And almost always, I imagine that my dad would think that Jamie’s balls had been chopped off and mistakenly stashed away with the glitter, poster paint, and fluffy acrylic yarn we use to make God’s eyes.
This is, as strange as it might sound, my cowardly way of wanting to protect Jamie from my dad’s totally retrograde judgment. And Jamie, God bless him, knows what’s up: Just as we strenuously avoid discussing politics or watching the news with my NeoCon dad, we have an unspoken agreement that Jamie can swing toward the Don Draper end of the fatherhood spectrum when we’re with my parents. (Once, on our way to their house for a long weekend, I looked on wordlessly as Jamie tried to wrestle both a baby stroller and a hulking golf bag into the trunk of an overstuffed Subaru … and then decided to leave the baby carriage behind.)
Of course, generationally, many dads today can’t just turn it off. And even when Jamie’s invoking the Don Draper clause at my parents’, he is still plenty involved with our daughter. He wakes up early with her, short-order cooks her breakfast, walks her down to the beach to explore the rocks at low tide. The question I should be asking myself, other than the one posed by Robert Crawley, is: What would my mother think? And trust me, my mom thinks Jamie’s a frickin’ hero.