Dads Behaving DADLY

May 22, 2014

Posted By: Shaunescy

Review by Shane Borrowman

As I finished the abridged review copy of Dads Behaving Dadly , the same idea kept occurring to me:  This is a very readable book.  I’ve been a writer for more than two decades, a teacher of writing nearly as long.  I’ve reviewed scores of books in that time, and my own books have been reviewed.  I know the “review” genre from every angle, and I know that “This is a very readable book” sounds like the worst kind of praise:  generic, bland, uninformative (the literary equivalent of being told that the newest summer blockbuster film is “epic”).

But Dads Behaving Dadly is a very readable book, and that’s a great thing.  Not all books about parenting are well written, but the narratives collected here are consistently strong.  I read them.  All of them.  I wanted to read the ones the abridged copy didn’t include.  That kind of gravitational pull isn’t easy for any book to generate in a world as saturated with distractions as this one is.  I knew I was onto something good, though, when I read through the entire book in a single (extended) sitting, not stopping once to check my email.

Not all books about parenting even include fathers, in my experience, as more than a side character.  That’s a huge generalization, and there are plenty of examples out there of “fatherhood memoirs,” but a combination narrative/how-to of this quality hasn’t ever crossed my radar.  And I’m both a writer and a father, so I’ve done more than a small amount of looking.

Dads Behaving Dadly is not all poetry and roses, however, and readers should be aware of that going in.  There were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments that struck home for me, such as Al Watts’ description of sitting on his “nylon folding chair throne” while holding a never-to-be-read book in his hands (67).  He was keeping an eye on the kids, and no reader can simultaneously engage with a novel and remain vigilant. 

Been there.  Done that.  Still haven’t read most of the books I set out to read while “keeping an eye on the kids.”

In what would be called “the old days” by my kids, the most alarming carnival rides were sometimes labeled “Dark Rides.”  (Memory tells me that John Laroquette’s character had a sign reading this hanging in his office on his post- Night Court program The John Laroquette Show , but I hate to think I remember something like that, from thirty years ago, while simultaneously forgetting today’s date…or even, occasionally, the correct year.)  Dads Behaving Dadly takes some dark rides.

There are stories here of loss, of the death of a child; there are stories of stress-fueled rage, which is followed inevitably with shame and self-loathing; there are stories of divorce, although in some cases it’s clear that the individual father sharing his story is a better parent, ultimately, because of the pain and trauma that are part of a family’s dissolution.  There are stories of fathering in the face of any number of difficulties, from genial ineptitude to serious, degenerative illness.  There are stories of fathering in the face of significant depression…depression that can easily take the turn into suicidal ideation.  Or even suicidal action.

There are, in short, a range of human responses to the activity of fathering, to the state of being a father.  A wide, wide range of responses.

As a writer, teacher, and father, I appreciate that very much.  Fatherhood is complicated.

In his introduction to the collection, Al Watts does a really fine job of orienting modern fatherhood culturally.  Childhood, as we think of it here in the second decade of the 21st century, begins once a kid can toddle and lasts, in many cases, into that individual’s twenties.  ( Time Magazine did a pretty scathing cover story on “The Millennials” just last year, one that never fails to rile my students up when they read it.)  This has nothing to do with biology; it’s simply a cultural reality that, now, many young people don’t step out on their own in significant ways until later in life.  Our nation’s new healthcare laws acknowledge that openly.  Put another way, once young people didn’t have to go to work at age nine in the local mill or mine, it became possible for “childhood” to exist as an abstraction, as a description of a specific period of development.

Watts explains, briefly, how fatherhood is a construct, too.  It has its biological component, of course, but fathering ain’t what it used to be even a generation ago.  My own father mentioned to me not long ago that he doesn’t think he ever met one of my teachers in twelve years of public education (thirteen, if I count Ms. Shields, the kindergarten teacher who once called me a baby for not putting something away right…there’s a useful memory).  The introduction sometimes seems to slip into odd places, though, noting at one point (for example) that “research shows dads are biologically capable of nurturing [and] have a desire to share child care duties with their wives” (23).  This seems so absurdly obvious that it hurts me to think that both research money and researchers’ time were wasted on such a topic.  Such slips are rare, thankfully."

I find the foreword by Lisa Duggan significantly more problematic, and not simply as the English professor in me cringes away from the book’s use (twice) of “forward” in this context.  She writes her own story of motherhood and of the negotiated definition of fatherhood that emerged in her marriage.  I would not dispute the lived truth of her experience, particularly since it so clearly matches parts of my own.  But I’m floored that her husband was ever in a position of “asking” for the opportunity to develop as a parent…and that the solution is for her to leave entirely.  For the weekend (16).

I was unprepared for fatherhood and had never lived my life assuming that I would one day be in that role.  So I had to figure out everything as I went along, relying on the same stereotypes as Duggan.  It never occurred to me—never would occur to me—to ask for permission to do something that is already mine by equal right, though.

Disagreeing or not with the foundation she puts beneath her story, I couldn’t endorse her conclusion more:  “Stories like the ones in this book will help open our minds and hearts to the reality that men can — and do — parent as well as any woman” (18).  Testify.

Dads Behaving Dadly is divided into seven sections, each with two stories (except section seven, which seems to contain only one).  As a reader, I wasn’t drawn in by the several-pages-long song that opens the book, but this is (maybe) only because lyrics are never especially engaging without a song (but thankfully the song is available for download).  My inner editor was sometimes put off by the USE OF ALL CAPITAL letters for emphasis and the use of multiple end-punctuation marks for emphasis!!!

But such things are small and infrequent enough not to bother a normal reader.

I am a father, one with loss in his past.  I am a father who struggles to be a good father and sometimes succeeds.  Dads Behaving Dadly works for me.


With Love, Dad

Shane Borrowman is a native of Anaconda, father of twins, and professor of English at The University of Montana Western.  He has published on a wide range of topics, including the development of boxing in Renaissance England, medieval Arabic philosophy, and American zombie films.  He is editor or co-editor of four writing textbooks and six collections of original scholarship.

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