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FatherTime

FatherTime:
Stories on the Heart and Soul of Fathering

reviewed by J. Steven Svoboda


FatherTime. By Christopher Scribner, Ph.D. & Chris Frey, M.S.W. St. Louis, Missouri: Insight Output, 2001. 242 pp.

This collection of first-hand stories about fathering contributed by two dads who double as therapists is well worth a look, particularly for any future or current dads interested in comparing notes with a couple eloquent peers who have been there. If FatherTime does not always manage to maintain its course at the dizzying heights it initially suggests it may reach and to which it periodically ascends, it nevertheless provides enough wisdom and satisfaction to amply repay the cost of the trip. Scribner and Frey write engagingly; it is quite easy to do as I did and read the entire book in an afternoon without even intending to do so.

FatherTime starts out fantastically. Scribner frankly discusses his need with the birth of his second child and first son to rediscover his passion. It was not enough that he be a COMPETENT father; Scribner also needed to be a JOYFUL parent. We are reminded that for all the much discussed (and deplored) influence of the various multimedia and cultural distractions of today, fathers remain the most vital influence on children's views of men and masculinity.

Scribner and Frey proceed to set forth a few well-chosen principles of fathering. Be a presence in the lives of your children, be self-aware, find the joy in fathering, provide a safe haven for your children, honor the mother's presence and importance, and model accountability and integrity. The book is beautifully produced with a cover photograph of an infant's hand wrapped around his father's finger.





FatherTime then moves on to provide a series of real-life vignettes extracted from the notebooks of two dads named Chris. Some subtle wisdom is harvested from the simple act of a father hoisting his son to give him the advantage of the father's height. Dad overcomes his fears about dropping him and finds answers to the questions this experience opens up. "Another part of fathering is the child inspiring the father to resume growing." Frey provides a rich vignette of "the day I began to call my dad... my friend." Scribner responds with a more bittersweet tale of learning how much he and his father missed with each other. Later, a loving act of confrontation by Frey's fishing buddy toward a verbally abusive father who is fishing nearby with his sons seems to touch the lives of everyone present.

Dad transforms yardwork into yardplay, proving that "play and work are not opposites." A broken golf club from a borrowed set of clubs provides a wonderful teaching opportunity on accountability. We get to read a charming script of one way to play with a son upset about his mother's departure for work.

The lessons, when we get them, can be as refreshing and unexpected as a lung-numbing breath of chilly air. An ice skating outing provides dad an opportunity to learn to let his child do the work she needs to do (in this case, struggling to skate on her own without Dad) even if it may be uncomfortable for him and other adults to do so. When his presence is wanted, on the other hand, it can be a very fatherly role to provide a child with a felicitous combination of physical security plus encouragement to take a risk. The extent to which Dad is able to tolerate and accept his children's fears mirrors the extent to which he can tolerate his own.

Pacifiers provide a nice duo of stories. In round one, Dad helps his daughter to lay her pacifier to rest by organizing with Mom a highly ceremonious "funeral" for all the relics of her babyhood, which were then retired into a shrine in the basement. Scribner writes that although her daughter was permitted as part of the deal to visit the shrine if she ever felt the need, she never did. "And I only went twice." In the sequel, his son proves much more adaptable to the loss of his pacifier than his father's fears ever conceived. Scribner derived a profitable lesson as a result: "We fathers run the risk of projecting our own worries onto our children to the point that we TEACH them to make a big deal out of things."

Any parent will resonate with the admirably straightforward tale of the hole in the heart of Scribner's daughter Abby. Frey manages to distill a number of truths from a relatively routine hospital visit with his son. And any father will thank Scribner for his thoughtful exploration of the differences in his interactions with his children when his wife is nearby. He notes that nonsense and silliness are prominent features of his fathering, and he is more natural and spontaneous in expressing these and other aspects of his parenting style when his wife is away. To contribute most effectively to the joint venture of parenting, fathers first need to get clear on their identities as dads, which we often must struggle long and hard to define in a healthy way.

The quality and level of insight provided by the segments varies considerably; a number seem dispensable. The individual tales' brevity, with none of them extending beyond four or five pages and many even shorter, also proves a mixed blessing. The book's accessibility may be enhanced by the limited attention span required for each chapter, and yet necessarily we never are allowed too far into whatever process is being described. We get a taste, and some of the tastes are very appealing indeed. Some chapters might have been better left in the father's personal archives, as with Scribner's somewhat smug tale of what a great job he did teaching his daughter how to ride a bicycle.

In the end, this book should probably be read and appreciated for what it DOES offer. Wisdom can come from the most unexpected places, such as the night Frey spent awake with his vomiting daughter, which led him to understand more fully "the difference between loving my children and LOVING MY OPPORTUNITY TO FATHER THEM." He learned that when he is away from his children, "I miss them not so much because we are apart, but because of what we are together." Whether you are a father or not, you can easily get by without the gems intermittently yet regularly shining in this book's pages. But why would you want to?



J. Steven Svoboda is a performance artist, poet, and a human rights lawyer who is Executive Director of Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, which he founded in 1997.

cover
FatherTime:
Stories on the Heart and Soul of Fathering

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