Some day soon, Oliver Lee Bateman will have to raise a family, and even though it’s his choice, he’s still scared.
Here’s what I’m afraid of: becoming a man. And by this I don’t mean that I’m afraid of being bar mitzvahed or standing up to a bully or getting my cherry popped. Of course, judging from the seemingly endless barrage of horndog teen comedies, the latter two activities have assumed a strange transcendence in our culture—which is fascinating, seeing as how they’re usually trivial, fleeting, and eminently forgettable stages on life’s way.
What I’m afraid of can’t be so easily shaken off, though. Becoming a man, in the sense that’s got me quaking in my patented Crocs-brand footwear, entails entering a world of white-knuckle, long-term strategic planning. Twelve years of post-secondary education was valuable in a personal sense, and perhaps even in some vague economic sense (although that’s arguable, given that both the JD and the Ph.D. in history I’ll have earned will do little besides grant me not-so-exclusive membership in two shrinking and troubled fields). Nevertheless, this amounted to an essentially selfish period in my life, one where the stakes were low, the bills were paid, and no one else’s well-being depended on whether or not I finished a particular paper or fellowship application.
Now, however, manhood looms. I’m going to get married in June, and at some point in the future—two years? three?—I’ll establish a family with my future wife. I’ll need a full-time job. Bigger bills will need to be paid, a more capacious living space rented, a second reliable car acquired. Mind you, I’ll be working in tandem, but the onus remains, appropriately or no, on the male partner in a heterosexual relationship to “deliver the goods.”
Then don’t do any of that, you say. Don’t have kids. The planet’s already overpopulated, anyway. How selfish to add a few more carbon footprints! It would be better not to undertake any of these unnecessary rites of passage—in the end, all is vanity. Just hunker down, lead a totally self-absorbed lifestyle in a rat hole apartment, and work with a partner to pinch pennies and await whatever form the apocalypse takes (Zombies? Meteors? Tebow leads a Second Coming comeback drive during the Life on Earth Bowl’s fourth quarter?).
I concede that it’s a bit hypocritical, given that I’m steadfastly opposed to gambling in every form, to consider a riskier arrangement. But I’ve done the same old thing for years, and it’s not so much terrifying as it is terrible. Because if I do just hunker down in said rat hole apartment, my life will end, predictably enough, when I die. And if I don’t, well … the same thing happens. So why even bother? Why not just do a hemlock keg stand and then enjoy the resulting eternal rest?
Brighter people than I have reduced life to some variant of this question, and it’s beyond my limited abilities to compose a coherent answer that will satisfy everyone. For me, it’s a matter of preference, albeit a preference backed by reasons. You could say that I’m foolish and illogical and so forth—and believe me, in graduate school and among the disaffected twenty-somethings of today, the boring life I’m seeking to undertake may represent the minority position—but that won’t change the fact that I intend to raise a few children and possibly even live in a house. My free selection of such an existence doesn’t make it any less unnerving. I might screw up, and, for someone who has always picked whatever path of least resistance also happens to yield the least likelihood of failure, this is a horrifying prospect.
There’s some hope for me, however, and it’s been provided by my mother and father. First, it helps greatly that they were dismal parents: emotionally uninvolved, concerned with their own messy lives, unstable, chronically unhappy, impossible to please, and largely unsupportive until well into my early adulthood. And although this might sound terrible—fodder for one of those Lifetime movies where Angie Harmon overcomes a series of struggles and discovers her inner strength—it’s actually great news. It’s highly probable, even with zero effort exerted on my part, that I’ll be better at parenting than they were.
On top of that, my ancient father, who is old enough to be my grandfather, never made any effort to seem “cool,” “now,” or “with it.” He didn’t care about my hobbies, didn’t ask me to share my inner thoughts, and never once did something as disturbing as make me listen to his favorite Bob Dylan LP with him. And now, with the benefit of 29 years of hindsight, I’m glad he didn’t. The “parent-as-friend” phenomenon is absolutely disgusting.
Recall those horndog teen comedies. As depicted therein, all parents are clueless, even the ones who are supposedly clued-in, so why waste precious time buddying up to some 10-year-old? What could you possibly share with this little person, other than a household and a handful of reciprocal duties? And besides, it’s common sense that any person fighting for the affection of another—particularly a mercurial little preteen—is bound to lose, or at least to wind up sorely disappointed.
Some concerns remain, though. These talking-point accouterments of grown-up existence—McMansions, import cars, overpriced private schooling for children well in advance of college—are something I can spurn now, but will the passage of time make me lust after them? Will an inability to acquire these trappings of success leave my family disappointed in me? In the course of becoming a “provider,” someone who “provides something,” will the bill of goods I’m selling fail to attract any buyers? “Oh Dad, he was just this aloof jerk who sat in the corner reading books about pro wrestling and never took us on annual trips to Europe or sent us to Phillips Exeter or bought us those cool Fila sneakers and Sprite sodas that Grant Hill endorses” coming by way of summary from the mouths of my unborn children is a disheartening thought.
Even taking that into consideration, I’d still rather be a man than whatever I was before. There’s nothing in my past about which to wax nostalgic—no great bully-fighting or cherry-popping anecdotes to hug tight to my breast and never relinquish—and 40 or 50 years of future yet to be survived. After which I can retire and thereafter, uh, you know.
That’s not too shabby.
—Photo Jon Åslund/Flickr