By Jeremy Adam Smith
Im thinking about writing a series for my Mothering blog, I told my wife, Olli.
Cool, she said. Do you have a title?
"'Fifty Ways Dads Can Change the World,' I said. Or maybe twenty five. Fifty is a lot. Anyway, itll be about the personal and political ways dads can make a difference in their communities.
I was thinking the first item should advise dads to attend every doctors appointment.
Really? said my wife, as her eyebrows rose and an amused little smile creased her face. Do you remember that Liko has a doctors appointment tomorrow at one?
I stared at her. Um, no. Really?
She had told me weeks before; I had completely forgotten.
Shit, I said. I scheduled a meeting tomorrow.
Its a sorry fact: Over the years my wife has become the one most responsible for managing our sons relationship to the medical industry, from buying cough drops to making appointments, and I do a so-so job of keeping up with her.
Shes not alone. I see way more moms in doctors offices than I do dads, says one San Francisco pediatrician, who asked that I not use her name. And way more moms ask questions and do the follow-up work.
Its tempting, as always, to blame this disparity on the innate perfidy of men and the long-suffering, overcompensating virtue of women, but I wager that the roots of this division of domestic labor lie elsewhere.
Men in general dont go to the doctor nearly as often as womenI didnt go to the doctor for almost nine years, until a violent mugging drove me into Kaiser for treatment of a concussion. In other words, as is the case with many guys, it takes a near-death experience to get me to set foot in a doctors office. My wife, meanwhile, voluntarily, proactively goes several times a year for various check-ups and tests.
Perhaps the reproductive division of labor also plays a role: for nine months, a child is a part of a biological mothers body, and so it makes a certain amount of sense that moms would more carefully track the vagaries of their childrens bodies.
Whatever the reason, guys as a group avoid doctors offices even more than they avoid unpleasant domestic tasks like cleaning the toilet. Even so, the pediatrician says, over twelve years of practice shes seen a steady uptick in the number of dads who come through her office: Moms outnumber dads by about two to one in my office, but that number used to be four to one.
This has to do with rising expectations. In my grandfathers day, dads-to-be smoked cigars at the bar across the street, a shot of whiskey in hand, while their wives gave birth. My father, a baby boomer, was present at my birth, largely as a bystander.
Today, the dads of Generation X and Y are expected to play a part in the corporeal life of the child, from prenatal appointments to the day of birth to regular check-ups, and families and researchers alike have discovered that it can make a huge difference for their families, both mother and child.
One 2001 study by Columbia University researcher Julian Tietler, for example, discovered that father involvement in prenatal care has a positive effect on the moms health during pregnancyand several other studies have suggested that father involvement might even improve birth outcomes, though results are not conclusive.
Beyond birth, a truly huge number of studies have definitively found that a fathers presence in the doctors office predicts better health and educational outcomes for the childand helps form bonds that keep families intact over the long run.
The bonding starts long before birth. I remember our first sonogram, sitting there is a white, otherwordly room watching the technician ultrasonically surf the inside of my wifes womb.
Its healthy, said the technician, a young guy with close-cropped hair and a vulture-like nose. And its a boy.
The floor seemed to tilt under my feet, as the categorical hypothesis that was my child acquired, for the first time, some degree of individuality. How do you know?
You see the penis? he said.
I looked and looked, searching for a penis as I never had before. So did my wife. The technician insisted that our boy was hung like John Holmes, but all we saw was an androgynous sea monkey floating at the bottom of a pixilated, black-and-white pond.
Ill just take your word for it, I finally said, feeling as if I had let my son down.
He printed out the sonographic image of our son. I framed it and brought it to work that very day, and hung the picture up to the right of my computer. Its something I do to this day, two jobs later, though now the image is fading with age. Every time I look at that picture, I feel a kind of vertigobut the vertigo I feel today if very different from the one I experienced that day back in 2004.
When I first saw that little sea monkey, I felt as if I was staring from the top of a lonely cliff, down into a murky future, and I felt myself about to jump; today, after having experienced the astonishing accretion of loving acts and frustrations and challenges that come with the package of parenthood, the perspective has reversed itself: now I am swimming at the bottom of an ocean with my family looking up at a blurry, half-remembered past life, one that was far more isolated than the life I now enjoy.
On the day I told my wife about this series and discovered that I had forgotten about Likos doctors appointment, I cancelled the meeting I had the next day (much to the annoyance of my colleagues, it must be said) and went to the appointment instead. Did this small action help make the world a better place? The research says it does; dads in the doctors office contribute to the health of both moms and kids.
But did my son even notice? He probably didnt notice anything different; the fact is, though I dont always do a good job of keeping track of appointments, Ive attended almost every one. He takes my presence in the doctors office for granted, as he should. It doesnt matter to me if he doesnt consciously appreciate it: its just one more step in a journey that were taking together, one filled with as many moments of boredom and annoyance as those of joy and tenderness.
Where are we going? Who knows? The important thing is that were taking the journey together.
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Alphabetical Article List
First Way for Dads to Change the World: Attend every prenatal class and doctors appointment
By Jeremy Adam Smith
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