Homelife: The Benefits to Men
By: Tim Myers
Image By: Jason Nelson
March 3, 2008
"Life is so short that we must move very slowly."
"We know what we are, but not what we may be."
For the last three or four centuries at least, men in our culture have generally spent most of their waking hours outside the home. And for many men, this has become a basic orientation; even in those few hours when they are home, some, as their wives and children would tell you, "aren't really there."
The old habits of the distant, work-horse father die hard. The good news, though, is that there are plenty of reasons for us to spend more time at home and be more fully engaged when we're there.
I learned of one such benefit from the results of a University of Nebraska study on supportive husbands. The researchers looked at over 2,000 married people, concluding, an article reports, that "[h]usbands who are supportive of their wives' careers and share in household chores are happier with their marriages than other men..." Non-supportive males, in contrast, tend to "feel threatened and resist change, which causes more stress in the marriage." It only makes sense, I think, that men who give more to marriage actually get more from it, in that old and sacred paradox whereby in giving we receive.
And another benefit springs immediately to mind: the practical education home life can provide for a male, an antidote to that learned helplessness many men acquire when it comes to this most basic part of living. (Just how bad can we guys get? When I read a draft of this chapter to a small group, one woman sputtered with surprise and burst out "I didn't know any men even knew how helpless you all are!")
Men, I think, should acknowledge their often hidden embarrassment about this and let it guide them to new skills. Our society values the well-rounded individual. But "well-roundedness" should include domestic as well as other abilities. I don't have much interest in learning to sew on buttons, for example—but I do have a typical-male belief that I won't really be well-rounded until I can sail a boat or attempt simple carpentry. Such skills--which I don't possess--strike me as basic abilities everyone should have. In my life, though, there aren't many occasions when I need to cross large bodies of water or build huts. But it's many a recklessly yanked-on button I've seen go flying. Running a house and caring for children are fundamental life skills; how can I justify not knowing anything about them?!
A third general benefit is that time at home allows a man, in Herb Goldberg's phrase, to "step out of harness"--to escape, however long, from the narrowness of the male-achiever role. In the high-pressure world of the working male, emotional expression is often frowned on, achievement at any cost is championed, and a man is sometimes judged solely by his earning power, his social or sexual dominance, and his material wealth, often denying his own genuine frustrations and desires. Wordsworth said it perfectly, I think: "Getting and spending we lay waste our powers."
Time at home is a precious opportunity to do just the opposite. The work-horse can step back, take a breath, begin to savor his life. Many men I've talked to, on hearing that I stay home with my kids, have expressed wistful envy; "Man, what I wouldn't give..." they'll say, looking off into the distance. Perhaps they're naive about the difficulties of full-time fathering; perhaps not. But many would clearly love a break from the type of work-life that stifles some of their humanity. "I kind of like, at this point," a father from New Jersey says, "any occupation that isn't full of politics, stress, white shirt/ties, and joining the good-old-boy network."
Another advantage flows naturally from this pausing to catch your breath: the small magic of just slowing down.
I often use clouds as a gauge of my own life-speed. Sometimes people have to hurry, and hurrying isn't necessarily bad in itself; it can even be enjoyable. But on every side I hear complaints about the frantic pace of modern life. It's clear that many of us, at least, are overdoing it. Clouds aren't like that. They flow across the sky at their own Tao-like pace, steady and rhythmic, usually so unhurried we must consciously slow ourselves even to notice their movement. Sometimes I stop in the middle of a busy day and watch. If slowing myself to their pace, to the pace of the natural world, the rhythm of wind and water and the deep slow life of the land--if doing this frustrates me too much, and I want to break away before I've really seen the perfect motion of the clouds--then I know I'm moving too fast. But not necessarily in terms of physical speed; clouds tell me I'm going too fast on the inside. It's usually our inner velocity, more than our outer, which drives us too hard.
As the Thai proverb has it, "Life is so short that we must move very slowly." An American's first reaction to this statement is likely to be confusion; if life is short, shouldn't we go faster, to experience more? No, Thai wisdom tells us--you must learn instead to fully savor what you do. This aspect of being home with children provides another precious opportunity for men, especially since some of us live in an unnatural fear of idleness, having been taught to be relentless engines of achievement. Time with kids isn't "idleness" by any definition, but it does impose a more organic kind of life-rhythm on a parent. And the child's life-rhythm will do even more to shake you out of a rigid attitude toward time--that is, if you let it.
Life at home will always be challenging in its own way--but there will always be those other times too: My daughter and I lying on our backs in the grass, talking quietly or just drinking in the silence, watching clouds (and for once I don't have to check if I'm patient enough). Me holding her, pressing my face into her fragrant hair with its little-girl smells. And here I am on hands and knees picking up strands of plastic Easter grass, because she had to have her Easter basket from the attic, since Belle from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" carries a basket in some scene...but suddenly she jumps down without a word, leaving her snack at the table, and begins to search the rug carefully, snatching at stray pieces of plastic grass and carrying them to the trash, both of us laughing when she can't get the sticky grass off her fingers. Or she's standing in the backyard at twilight, gazing at the evening star, when the automatic sprinklers suddenly come on, and she screams--the closest sprinkler thirty feet from her--and I come running, pick her up, within seconds she's smiling, wiping tears away and telling me, with big solemn eyes, the story of the startling sprinklers...
The truth is that, at home, such beautiful little miraculous times happen far more often than the maddening disasters do. And this leads to another profound benefit. Being home with a child is a magnificent opportunity for adults to reconnect themselves to a whole set of abilities we seem to leave behind in childhood. Emerson says bluntly that most adults take on a kind of blindness: "To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun." A fundamental ability to look at the world with wonder, to really see what's before us, lies sleeping through many people's lives, a distant memory they've all but forgotten. But this orientation is still available to adults. And what a banquet of "direct experience" being home can set before you! With your child's behavior as a model, you can set about really looking at things, really tasting food, smelling smells, hearing sounds. With the continual example of your child's wonder-driven heart, you can actually re-learn how to be a human animal in the sensual flow of the natural world. You might even discover again how to see the sun.
But not all the benefits of staying home are so philosophical. Being home with children is also a natural way to bring more laughter into your life. For one thing, kids love comedy as much as they love candy, if not more, and any parent who doesn't use it--both to teach and to control--is wasting a precious resource. In addition, the slower, warmer atmosphere of home life naturally allows more laughter. For although humor is essentially a spontaneous phenomenon, it occurs more often in certain environments--and it can be pursued. And those who pursue it are happier than those who don't.
So how to pursue it? You open yourself, you value it, you consider its preciousness, you practice it, you embrace it whenever you can, you consciously look for it in everyday situations.
It's easy to underestimate the power of this approach to life, this instinct for humor in ordinary experience--which constitutes, in fact, a kind of wordless faith in our daily existence. Of course there are things too horrible ever to be laughed about. But in most cases, finding humor is to humans what agility is to cats. People who know how to do it tend to land on their feet. And being home with children is an ideal opportunity to develop this skill.
Besides, kids are funny--sometimes when they try to be, more often just by virtue of who they are. Some examples:
--My daughter has named her index fingers. "Stinkypan" and "Lady-o" are a pair of giraffes who constantly bicker and insult each other, acting out my daughter's negative impulses. The other day they actually attacked her, pulling repeatedly at her braids and calling her ugly names. It was better than pro wrestling.
--When my older son was little, I showed him a map of the Milky Way. "This is our galaxy!" I said, "and this is our sun--one of billions of suns! And somewhere close to the sun is our planet, the Earth!" "Hey, Dad!" he exclaimed, caught up in my excitement. "I can see our house!"
--My wife was explaining delicately to our younger son, in answer to his earnest question, how human flatulence can sometimes help doctors make diagnoses. "You know," she said, plainly embarrassed, "the... frequency, and...uh...odor..." Our little boy looked up at her with big serious eyes. "Does it mean anything if it's...loud?"
--To explain the seasons to the boys when they asked about them, I got out an orange and a ping-pong ball. "This orange is the sun," I told them, "and this ping-pong ball is the Earth. The Earth revolves around the sun"--here I moved my models, delighted to see the boys entranced, their wide eyes fixed on my substitute sun. "Now--can you see how it goes?" I asked proudly, convinced I'd given them the gift of wonder. For a moment they were silent. Then the younger asked brightly, "Dad--can I have that orange?"
And it's not just the outright humor that can lift and re-direct you, but also the sheer zaniness. My daughter's bathtub, for example, is often full of balloons, even during the daytime. She loves balloons (which are among the most commanding passions of the pre-K set), endlessly demands them. I walk past the bathroom and part of me wants to do that parent thing and PUT THOSE TOYS AWAY. I want order. Those balloons are bugging me, huddled up together in there like a little group of escaped cartoon creatures.
But then I stop and think. Balloons! Hell, I love balloons too! It dawns on me that I'm lucky to have a tub full of balloons to walk past each day, a reminder of what the world can be, the strange delights our lives present to us. I'm lucky that someone keeps trying to tell me, in the language of balloons, how to loosen up a little about controlling the house, how to let it be a place where life isn't merely organized but actually happens--how to let delight rise up out of the world even as I impose order from above.
Humor is much more than a moment of relief, a physical release, belly-laugh and then back to the grindstone. Garrison Keillor knows it for what it really is:
"Humor is not a trick, not jokes. Humor is a presence in the world--like grace--and shines on everybody."
Keillor put this truth into words for me--but in fact I'd learned it long before, wordlessly, from my daughter, and from her brothers before her, and from my own parents and siblings before that.
Of all the benefits of spending time at home, though, the next is, I think, the most obvious: It's the only way to really know your kids. No human being, in fact, not even a spouse, can know another as intimately as parent knows child. This will not only make you a much better parent--it'll also make you happier.
And that brings up my final point. What self-serving reason is there for a man truly commit himself to fatherhood?
To find himself.
I'm at the computer, working--I'm a provider, a do-er, an adult, I have plans, I move from point A to point B. Just then my daughter quietly opens the door, having woken from her (always brief) afternoon nap. Then she runs to me, climbs onto my lap, and I hold her--and the suddenness with which she's come into my arms is like the suddenness with which she came into our lives. This child, this human being, having come out of nowhere, out of the depths of space, now here, warm, on my lap, those little-girl smells in her hair--I marvel at her, and passionately thank the powers that brought her to us.
In that moment I'm not anything else but someone who loves her completely. I'm a father, just that, feeling nothing extraneous, nothing shallow or transitory, nothing that isn't true to the depths of my being. There in the midafternoon light, with the computer still on before me (soon to be reluctantly shut down for the day)--with the silence in the house about to be hurled away, with hours of dish-washing, laundry-folding, table-setting, crayon-wielding, block-building, picture-book-reading and storytelling ahead of me--
--with her in my arms, I realize, surprised, that I'm most who I am--my deepest, truest self.
Tim Myers is a writer, songwriter, storyteller, and university lecturer at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley. His children's books have won recognition from the New York Times, NPR, the Smithsonian, Nickelodeon, and many others. He's published over 100 poems, won a prize in a poetry contest judged by John Updike, has a poetry chapbook coming out, won a major prize in science fiction, has been nominated for a Pushcart for an essay, and has published much other fiction and non-fiction for children and adults.
Tim Myers' website