What do you do?
In april, I open my bill.
In may, I sing night and day.
In june, I change my tune.
In july, far, far I fly…
In august, away!
I must…
Cuckoo, Cuckoo…

—Benjamin Britten, “Songs From Friday Afternoons, Op. 7: Cuckoo!”

Irrelationship starts as reversed caretaking, often developing because parental resources — time, money and emotional availability — are stretched thin. Irrelationship is opportunistic, shoring up family systems with thin resources, as in cases such as single parent households, families suffering emotional disturbance and/or those dealing with chronic or severe medical conditions (to name but a few). However, regardless of conditions, irrelationship is less likely to develop if parents are being taken care of: if they’re taking care of each other, they’re better able to be empathetic, intimate with each other and to share parental and other responsibilities. In that spirit, to celebrate Father’s Day, the following is offered: a story from the life of a father who’s in a mutually caring relationship and takes on the role Direct-Care Dad. In reading about irrelationship, specifically, the blog entry that discusses early intervention for irrelationship, the direct-care-dad wrote to us, worried about how he was doing.  Here’s what he said:

A kindly-looking, grandmotherly woman was sitting in front of me on a plane full of weary, irritable passengers on their way from Los Angels to New York at the end of the holidays. Occasionally she turned around to smile and wiggle her fingers at my eight-month-old daughter, who was doing her “good baby act” on her mother’s lap. All was pretty peaceful until my wife got up to use the restroom, leaving me with a suddenly screaming baby, a four-year-old, and a tray table on which milk and juice tottered precariously. Suddenly, the nice lady in front of me turned around, having morphed suddenly into an intrusive child-care expert, offering unsolicited advice.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said. “Perhaps if you’d just blah blah blah blah…” I, of course, wasn’t quite able in that exact moment to hear her uninvited advice in the spirit in which I suppose it was offered. What I heard (between my infant’s blood-curdling screams) was, “You SUCK, Daddy-O!”

There I was, holding a frantic infant in one arm, trying unsuccessfully to prevent her sister — screeching “Mommy!” — from taking off down the aisle. And now, from what I could make out between the baby’s howls, the woman in front of me was making sure I knew her opinion of my parenting skills. Well, I was already painfully aware that I wasn’t Mommy, so I didn’t need a stranger to confirm it. In the three minutes my wife was out of her seat, my kids spun out of control in rapid fire, and I panicked. Then I ”lost it” myself and invited the lady in front of me and her husband to mind their own business. Unfortunately, I wasn’t through yet: I then proceeded to get into an ugly verbal battle with all the passengers sitting near us — until the flight crew intervened and let me know that if I didn’t chill out right now I was going to be in some big trouble. Well, I chilled out.

Fortunately (ugh!) we were only halfway home, so after having nearly started a riot in the back of the plane, I still had three hours to ponder my performance as a father and caregiver. “Is this what it’s come to? Is this why I work double shifts on Mondays and Wednesdays so I can take half days on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to be with my kids — unlike my own absentee father growing up? Is this the payback for spending every minute I can with my girls every weekend of the year? This is what I get for taking my wife and kids with me every time I had to travel for work — even to other countries? Did all those trips to visit grandparents in Las Vegas, California and Asia — get me nothing but this ride of shame with a planeload of strangers who want to kill me?”

As my anger and embarrassment cooled, I was able to step back and see that, no, those things were not the totality of the return on my investment. Then I began remembering — and laughing — about how grateful I’ve sometimes felt, after a particularly trying afternoon with the girls — grateful especially for the safety bars on our 9th floor windows, which protected my daughters and, perhaps, protected me from jumping to the street below!

So even though I still sometimes torture myself for not being the perfect parent, I haven’t given up. I’m pretty clear that just showing up for the work of being a daddy, whether the day is a glorious success or dismal failure — has completely and unequivocally transformed me. I know at the very core of my being what it is to love another person unreservedly. And, amazingly enough, when the second daughter came, it began to happen all over again!

Of course, when a male undertakes a parenting role (whether determined by how much time he spends in the role or the caregiving activities he performs) for better or worse, he’s is in the “Mommy Role.” But anyone who’s ever had the experience knows that’s really not the right term. I’m not sure if that’s because of things that we don’t have that mommies do (breasts, certain smells, the familiarity that comes with having lived inside you) or characteristics of our own (different plumbing, different frustration thresholds, the yearning for an elusive closeness to our children so easily obtained by their mothers, or a less tolerance for certain infant traits, perhaps leftover from when an infant’s screaming was an invitation to a saber-toothed tiger)? What I’ve learned over and over again is this: Daddies Are Not Mommies. Accepting that means accepting a specific reciprocity between my children and me. Yes, I give care. But their accepting my care is more precious to me than I can begin to explain. Honestly, that’s what’s has changed me — changes me — more than anything else. And amazingly, it just keeps getting better.

Still, having made the unconditional decision to allow myself and my life to be changed by my being a parent — especially in the role of daddy — has pulled me in and changed my whole mind and heart in ways I don’t think would have happened if I’d allowed my parenting style to be determined by stereotype, custom, or tradition, and especially by my own father’s example. And the payoff has been the excitement I feel every single day from my commitment to those two little girls who accept and depend on me.

“Irrelationship is less likely if parents are being taken care of—if they are taking care of each other, are able to be empathetic, intimate with each other and to share parental responsibilities. ”Mark

OK. So — daddies are not mommies. But from what we read above, they don’t need to be. Of course direct-care-dads are not a Twenty-First Century innovation: they’ve always been around. But they seem now more deliberately to make themselves known and visible in ways scarcely known two generations ago. As this trend continues, we may well be on the cusp of the articulation of a new, richer vision of what a male parent is and can be.

Psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell said that the last thing he did prior to ending treatment with a patient, or when they returned, was to ask, “What was most helpful in yourtherapy?” The responses he got were not about his intelligence, useful insightful or brilliant interpretations; most often they expressed gratitude for his communicating how much he cared about them — especially his willingness to slog through the hard times, empathize with the intolerable, invest emotionally during times of hopelessness and to persevere when things went awry. These are qualities easily recognizable as the antithesis of irrelationship. In the same way, commitment to being a direct-care-dad is a set-up for refusing to cave to irrelationship’s deceptive “easier way.”

“Effort,” said Dr. Mitchell, “is what my patients found most helpful.”

Making a decision to take in and accept what others — especially our families, partners and children — have to offer is perhaps the most powerful way to defend against irrelationship. And so we say it loud and clear to the direct-care daddy above: Congratulations for setting the foundation both for and with your children for real relationship.

Happy Father’s Day.

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