Last Saturday night, somebody stole our cellphone. It was a petty crime. There was no damage or injuries. Due to a change in our regular routine and some distracted carelessness on my part, the thief had an easy grab and walk away situation.
That afternoon I had taken the kids with me to pick up Ava from the airport. After confirming that she was waiting for us in the pick-up area, I put our cellphone down in a cupholder on the center console of the car. We picked Ava up and made our way home. During this time, some new neighbors were moving into the apartment above us. When we got home, their moving van was blocking the driveway. So, I parked on the street. Then, when I got the kids out of the car, Polly started heading for the truck. I hurried over to keep her from getting in the way and, in the process, failed to lock the doors on the car.
The next morning when we went looking for the phone, it was gone. At first we thought it was just lost. But after calling the phone and having it send us straight to voice mail – an indication that the phone had been turned off by someone – we understood what had really happened. During the night, someone saw the phone sitting there in the unlocked car and took the opportunity to snatch it.
After this realization set in, I spent the next couple of hours drifting around the house in a pool of impotence and frustration. While it was not my fault per se that someone stole our phone, my actions were the ones that had created the possibility. Now, all I could do about that was to file a police report and try to get over it. There was no other action to take; no way to save the day or repair the damage. I had to just sit there, chew up my mistake, swallow my ire, and push all the frustration of the morning out through the other end.
This digestion was not easy to take. But in the process, I did have two experiences that gave me a bit more insight into the dynamics that shape families in crisis.
The first showed me how easy it is for kids to become victims in this kind of situation. The second made me wonder about what trials may lie ahead for full-time fathers as our numbers continue to increase.
Pip is a curious and inquisitive four-year-old. He wants to be included in everything his parents are doing and wants to understand everything we are talking about. His pursuit of this understanding is persistent and determined. He will ask questions and ask questions and then ask some more. Then he will return to the same questions again to see if the answers are different the second, third, or fourth time he asks them. From a distance it is a very impressive operation. When you are in the middle of it, it can be overwhelming.
So, as I was stewing over the stolen phone, Pip was plugging away with questions. Ava provided some buffer for a while, but eventually Pip made it over to me. His questions were the ones you would expect a four-year-old ask:
What happened to our phone? Why? What are you going to do? Where is the phone now? Are we going to get the phone back? Why are you filing a police report? What will the police do? Why did someone take our phone? What are they going to do with it?
They were the basic questions of a child trying to make sense of something that had never happened before. And yet, in my state of frustration, each question felt like a small accusation. After a while all I could hear was: Why did you not lock the door, Daddy? Why did you forget to lock the door, Daddy? How come the door was not locked, Daddy? It was like a mosquito biting me over and over, and I had to fight with myself not to lash out at him.
A couple of times I could feel my patience cracking. In those moments all I wanted to do was angrily hiss “Leave me alone.” This little outburst would have stopped him in a hurry and more than likely brought on a few tears. It would have sent him off to his mother or the couch or some other safe place until I was ready to deal with him.
While this is not the parent I want to be nor the model of what I want Pip to do in a similar situation, in that moment of frustration and anger, there was something very satisfying about playing through such a scenario. It would have demonstrated (to whom? I don’t know) that I still had power over something, that I was not helpless in the face of the world’s randomness. It would have given me a chance to regain some feeling of control over everything that was going on around me. It would have eased my pain by spreading it around to others.
It also would have been wrong. In thinking about that rush of feelings later in the evening, I began to recognize in a more substantial way how truly vulnerable kids are when the crises of life hit their families. Given their position as dependents in the family structure, kids become ready targets when the adults who are supposed to care for them are feeling powerless and out of control. In many respects it doesn’t matter what the kids do or don’t do. In the moment of abuse, it’s a question of relationships and the desire by the abuser to re-activate a hierarchy of power. It’s why people who abuse animals are also more likely than others to abuse their children and their spouses. The actual being suffering the abuse doesn’t matter. Its all about where they reside in the hierarchy.
What amazes me is that while I know all of this, the boundaries between the person I want to be and the person I abhor are shockingly thin. When the emotions generated by someone stealing our lousy cellphone can send me hurtling into a position where I had to struggle mightily to remain civil with Pip, it makes me wonder. Is this flimsy restraint all that separates me from the abusers of the world, the kickers of dogs, the beaters of women and children? I scares me some to think that such may be the case.
The other understanding that came to mind as I worked through my frustration and disposed of my anger has to do with some of the undermentioned vulnerabilities that come with being a full-time father.
As I said above, while having the cellphone stolen was not really my fault, my actions were the ones that made it possible. The financial loss involved is not horrendous – about $200 – but it hurts nonetheless. This is particularly true right now as we are coming to terms with the fact that we are going to take a $30,000 - $50,000 bath on a house we bought for $150,000 five years ago. In light of this, even the waste of a dollar on something we could have gotten cheaper elsewhere brings a certain amount of anguish.
For me, this anguish is intensified because I do not bring in any income to our family coffers. In a previous life, I could make the claim that I would pay for the phone myself, thereby taking – at least in my mind - the financial hit fully on my shoulders. Then I could go to work and earn more money to pay for a new one. Now, I have to find other ways to expiate my sin. This usually means being extra conscientious about taking care of things around the house. These are things that I would be doing anyway, but in the wake of this kind of mistake, I feel the need to do them with an extra bit of hustle and attention. In this way I feel like I am demonstrating to Ava both how sorry I am that I messed up and how useful I am to keep around.
It comes back again to a question of power. In a single income family, there exists an often unstated imbalance of power. Ava has a job. She brings money into our household. I do not have a job. I send money out of our household. In this simple flow diagram, Ava can do without me. I cannot do without her.
Even more critically, if our relationship were to deteriorate to a point where we wound up separating, I would have a very difficult time getting a job. I have been out of the workforce for four years and counting. My credentials are aging and my resume shows no development of job-related skills. My local contacts are mostly other full-time parents. In order to become employable again, I would probably have to go back to school and take whatever part-time or menial job I could get in the meantime.
This all means that I feel a certain extra pressure to make sure my relationship with Ava works. While this pressure is not something that matters on an everyday level, when something goes wrong because of my choices or actions, I want to make sure that Ava knows that I am doing what needs to be done to address the problem. This is something I want to do anyway because its how a good team handles problems, but I also can’t ignore the reality that my financial dependency on Ava exerts a subtle push on my attitude and choices.
This kind of push and the other ramifications of such an imbalance in financial status are a familiar experience for many women. The choice made by many battered women to stay with their abusers is just one example of the power this imbalance exerts. But I’m not sure that men like me who are acting as the primary care-giver in a family are as cognizant of their vulnerabilities. It’s just not something that we have seen before. However, as the number of men becoming full-time fathers increases, should we expect to see the emergence of a population of men who, in the wake of divorce, struggle to maintain the lives they once enjoyed? Or is there something in the current order of things that will make the experiences of these men different from those of full-time mothers who after divorce suffer substantial rates of poverty? I don’t know the answer to this, but I imagine that we are going to eventually find out.