Doing a mother’s and a father’s work

By Wickham Boyle

There is a scene in the television series “The West Wing” where the White House staff encounter Joe Public. High-level White House workers have been stranded in Iowa on a campaign swing when they meet up with a fellow traveler, a man who had taken his daughter to visit colleges, specifically Notre Dame, the alma mater of the TV president.

This everyman, named Mac, bellies up to the bar while his daughter is up in the room buzzing from the excitement of seeing the school of her dreams. Mac sits at the bar because he is despondent over the looming bill to support four years at such a splendid university. The two White House staffers at the bar are involved in ponderous theoretical discussions about policy, taxation and direction when they are shaken by this man’s actual, real life concerns.

Mac, the father, says, “Putting your daughter through college that’s a man’s job, a man’s accomplishment. It should be hard; but it shouldn’t be this hard.” He’s right on both counts which is what makes it such poignant drama. The character goes on to detail the loss of his stock portfolio, which he believed was conservatively invested in a mutual fund, but instead, it is now bottomed out and down the drain. He says he and his wife both work, and mentions their salaries. It is clear this man is the everyman of middle America.

I sympathize; I share his struggle. I too put some little money aside and was riding a very high, fast wave of investor ebullience only to lose the lion’s share to the bursting bubble, so this character’s speech touched many chords in me. I am the mother of two children that I had with a man who would not marry me, but who lived with me and the kids for nearly ten years. When he finally left I did sue him for child support thinking in my madness that the court system might be able to get him to step up get and keep a job and offer financial solace to his family in a way that I never could. I was wrong.

This man would not offer that support when he lived with us and time and distance have not made him any more ripe for kindness or motivation. Instead my current husband, not the biological father of the children, but the spiritual, emotional and financial father of these fine kids, stepped up and had paid for the bulk of our household and educational expenses while I was given the gift to pursue a writing life.

As I watched this TV show with my husband, one of the shows we lovingly call “our shows,” I realized that my husband, a tall lanky African-American man, has assumed the raising of these two kids. Their biological father, an Ivy League educated WASP whose parentage dates back to the Mayflower, refuses to contribute to college to do as the show says, “a man’s job, a man’s accomplishment.”

It leads me to wonder why some of us are so emboldened by doing the right thing, by standing up and taking care of what we perceive as our duties and then as if by alchemy actually turning those duties into joys. The ability to do just this on a daily, monthly, annual and life long basis is the real secret to life.

Especially in difficult times, desperate times of terror, gross uncertainty, the notion that doing what we are pre-ordained to do is comforting. Being a parent, getting up in the gray dawn and preparing breakfast, getting permission slips, lunch, musical instruments, homework all together in one backpack is a life’s work. Having the ear to listen to music that is not to your liking is a gift to that child. Opening your heart to hear the wrenching stories of adolescence, of phone calls unreturned, of boys or girls lusted after is as important as any job on earth. Sending packages off to camp, writing notes that proffer love, humor and unabashed pride in young life is heroic stuff.

I love it when I see the threads of life celebrated on television, in literature, drama, music, anywhere. For all the things I see, the marvels I have witnessed, the unimaginable geographic places I have trekked, there is nothing that touches me like basic, deep human effort and commitment to just exist in a kind, caring way. There is nothing that touches me more deeply than the undiluted commitment to family and to the unconditional love that ties it together.

This is for all the families who do men’s and women’s work of taking care so carefully.


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