Friday, November 09, 2007

Real Men Say, "Ask Your Mother” by Michael Turpin

I was having one of those moments the other night with my son. We were watching a Yankee game on Friday night. He was draped across my lap like a warm comforter. “Dad,” he asked. I waited like a proud father for his profound question - - perhaps about the meaning of life or whether we can do more to stop global warming. “What’s Playgirl magazine? “

“What” I asked lurching up in my chair and vaulting him across the settee. “This kid in my class says he models for Playgirl magazine.” I hesitated. The air was thick with pregnant anticipation. While I was pretty sure no sixth grader in Saxe was doing extra curricular model work for Larry Flynt Enterprises, I decided to hedge my bets. It was the end of a long week. I was tired. “Better ask your mother….”

Like adroit wingbacks in a rugby match, husbands have for generations been skirting their duty to answer the tough questions for fear of losing their status as “the popular” parent. Moms get the grunt work - - the bitching, the cajoling, the punishments, the consequences - - they are the wardens of domesticity. Dads often act like the Red Cross coming in and meeting with the prisoners, asking how they are doing and if they need anything. They inadvertently undermine policy and morale. Dads get home later in the evening during “the witching hour” and are appalled by the suggestion that they should help after the hard day they have endured at the office or having to share a three seater on the Metro North. They are thinking, “where are the slippers, pipe and shaken martini?”

As I was speaking to a friend on the phone the other evening, I could hear some yelling in the background. I could just make out a high pitched teenaged voice…” Dad ….was fine but …ruin everything….life. You…….my life…. prevent …….going out….night”

I asked my friend what the commotion was all about. “ I told my daughter it was ok to go to town tomorrow before I checked with the boss. I think I stepped in it. She’s in arguing with her Mom”. He realized too late, there is zero upside to saying “yes” to anything. My theory is this need to make domestic decisions without consultation stems from being in control all day at the office and wanting to bring that control home at night. “I have a lot of people reporting to me at work” complains one executive. “but the way they react to my judgment at home, it’s as if they are amazed that I can find the office or get dressed each morning”.

Dad’s want rapid popularity and the kind of loyalty you get when you give someone a bonus at work. This explains agreeing to a sleep over, unaware or not paying attention to the fact that the boy has had two consecutive sleepovers, fell asleep in his mashed potatoes at dinner and was grounded less than two hours ago for going on to the computer using his sister’s email address. It could all have been avoided by just saying, “ better ask your mother “. Instead, Mom will override this uninformed intrusion, resulting in an irrational child and Mom being pegged as the bad guy. Dad’s response? “ What’d I do ?”

It is the same, day in and day out, each house a region overtaken by juvenile Taliban and Al Kidda - - irrational adolescent militants who believe in a theology of sugar, electronics and lack of accountability. Martial law seems to work best in these regions of dissent and the absence of authority creates chaos.

It has always been this way. On the battlefield of life, my Mom was the master sergeant and my father, the clueless second lieutenant right out of West Point. It was my mother who knew how to talk to the troops. She understood what they worried about and had a sixth sense about any slight change in behavior. If a kid was too quiet at dinner, something was weighing on them. She could lull anyone into a confession where you would share your deepest fears.

Doctor Ruth, as we called her, was the female incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Mrs. Freud – Sigmund’s mother. The Case of Wetted Wood is a Turpin holiday favorite recounted every year as we relive the adventures and interventions of Dr Ruth. In this particularly confounding case, the feminine sleuth could not locate the wafting odor of ammonia emanating from one of her young son’s bedrooms. The mystery was further complicated when aged shag rugs were removed in each boy’s room to be replaced with wooden floors. A rotted hole in the wood was discovered behind a bedroom door. The workers deduced that a leak from the adjacent bathroom shower was the culprit. Dr Ruth was not convinced.

Something was not right. The occupant of the room seemed too cooperative that week and very circumspect. Upon interrogation, the suspect cracked and confessed that for the last six months he had been urinating behind the door because he was too scared to walk to the toilet at night. This explained the ammonia smell, the rotten wood and the constant presence of the housecat in the boy’s room at night. Dr Ruth saved the family thousands of dollars and even went so far as to protect the identity of child - - the penalty for such an egregious act would have entailed more lashes than a conscripted sailor on a British Man Of War.

The difference between the 60’s Dad and today’s dad is that the upper case “D’s” felt no social or personal obligation to be helpful. They were the hunters. Everything else as far as they were concerned was gathering. They did not even disguise the fact that they were less engaged and basked in a sort of clueless nirvana on domestic issues. They abdicated everything and were informed on a need to know basis by their spouses. Today’s father is expected to participate more but it’s my theory that some out there secretly long for the era of less accountability and resist the siren’s call of equal duty. This breeds a passive aggressive behavior that is exhibited in eye rolls, partial listening, martyred sighs and incomplete grocery store runs. In the end, gents, we must grudgingly accept it is a new day. When it comes to movie and sports trivia, go ahead and blurt out the answer because you know it. But on all other things personal or domestic, it is the ultimate sign of self awareness to offer one pat response: “better ask your mother”.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Birth Order Myths and Maybe-Truths

Since the days of Cain and Abel, birth order has fascinated us and formed who we are and perhaps what career we choose, as well as our relationships with siblings, our spouse, and with our friends. Along with the genes and personality traits that our parents pass along, the order in which they conceived and popped us out into this world helps to make us who we are.

There are variables, however, to the theories that firstborns are usually more responsible, smarter and strive to please more than second-or-third borns. Or that middle children have less of a clear-cut role in the family, or even that the youngest expects others to make decisions for him and takes on less responsibility. Often the sex of the child as well as the dynamics in blended, single or divorced families throw a wrench into the accepted birth order suppositions.

I am the eldest of two and so as the first-born of course I am smarter and more responsible than my younger brother (good thing he lives in Maryland and never reads this column; I am obviously kidding about being superior). However, according to a Dr. Spock website, the oldest are “typically responsive to the parents’ expectations” and that was certainly a truism growing up. The second-born, or youngest, says the site, is “easygoing… charming and manipulative.” That’s accurate of my brother. While he was rebelling, I felt a strong need to fulfill my mom and dad’s hopes for me as a diversion to his crazy antics of adolescence.

My own four children are a bit all over the map in terms of the birth order traits.

Blake, the first-born, enlisted in the Marines right out of New Canaan High, so clearly he took on a leadership role in life as well as in the family. He was always the peace-keeper and protector growing up and still is. Another website states that the first-born may respond to the birth of the second child by feeling unloved and neglected. I know I certainly felt that way and was constantly taunting my brother as being dropped on the door-step instead of being born to our mother, and I enjoyed trying to figure out ways to “get rid of him” as a child. Blake reacted to Kenny’s birth by chucking a Matchbox car at the baby’s face, resulting in a butterfly stitch to the forehead. There were other such incidents until each reached their teens; they are now the best of friends.

Kenny has the distinction of having been the youngest for eight years until I remarried and had his sister, Janet. Her birth catapulted him to the position of the middle child, a rank that’s often described as discouraged, becoming the “problem child.” Acting out for the middle kid is a way to garner back his or her parents’ attention. Spot on for Kenny. And Janet – who not only shares Kenny’s status as middle child, but also shares Kenny’s birth date – has revealed some of those tendencies as well, though not as strongly as her brother.

Janet, like Kenny, had/has a double place in the hierarchy of my children in that she is the oldest of the Evans’ kids, so she shares many first-born traits, too, which can counteract the characteristics of the typical middle child. Being the only girl throws in a whole different set of actions (and hormonal reactions) to the sibling mix. Her older brothers at first protected and coddled her, then felt she was a royal pain, and now for the most part have reverted back to their original nurturing ways. How we, her parents, deal with her is also a direct correlation to her birth order(s), sex, and personality traits of additionally being a part of a family with two older half-siblings. I spoil her the most by far.

“Baby” Jack really doesn’t exhibit the typical traits of the youngest in the family, but he has experienced the inevitable parental responses to being the last child born. While Blake’s baby book is filled to the brim with duly-noted milestones and dozens of photos, I couldn’t even begin to tell you where Jack’s is located in the attic (or is it the basement?), and it merely notes his size and weight and includes those inked newborn feet the hospital produces. I can recite the time of birth, birth weight and length of Blake, Kenny and Janet, but draw a blank on Jack’s vital newborn statistics. I don’t recall what his first word was and almost always forget to bring my camera to school events or to the field of play! His sibling’s landmarks are memorialized and memorized properly. The birth order experts postulate that the baby of the family usually feels smallest and weakest and is unable to take on responsibilities, but nothing could be farther than the truth for my youngest guy. In fact one quote reveals that: “unburdened by the high expectations that many parents have for their eldest children many youngest experience greater success than their siblings or they will make their mark in life in a very individualistic way.” That’s my baby!

A competitive will, a free spirit, a sense of superiority, a need to be babied, all of these things can – and often are – explained by birth order. So many forces collide to shape our personalities and our approach to life, and it’s spellbinding to watch it all in the faces of our children.

“Location, location, location.” It’s not just a real estate mantra, is it?