Raising Children Requires Outsourcing

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FATHERLAND APRIL 3, 2013

Raising Children Requires Outsourcing All parents do it, whether they realize it or not

All parents outsource something. Even the most attached of parents, neurotically determined to be their children's omnipresent everything, outsource their children's education, unless they home-school. Although I know way too many parents who think getting a babysitter for one night a month is an unacceptable loss of control, they usually relent, eventually (or divorce). One friend of mine, who does not enjoy the water, lets his parents take his daughter to the pool one afternoon a week, where she is learning to swim with Grandma and Grandpa. I know one couple, not exactly the most demonstrative or affectionate people, who happen to employ a very warm, nurturing nanny. Without noticing, I suspect, they have outsourced loving their baby.

Me? I outsource sports fandom.

I like playing sports, but I don't follow sports, and if you asked me to name a pro baseball or basketball player I wouldn't be confident that whoever I named hadn't retired yet (is Derek Jeter still playing? Kobe Bryant?). I know the name of one boxer, Chad Dawson, because he is from New Haven, where we are mighty proud of him. I never followed hockey, which for some reason always struck me as an inappropriate sport for a Jewish boy to follow (I can't say exactly why this is so). Yet my eldest daughter, Rebekah, who is six, really wants to be a sports fan.

It's hard to say exactly what that fandom means at Rebekah's age. She does not memorize baseball players' names with the avidity of her schoolmate Leo, just one year older, who knows the Red Sox lineup as intimately as a young Theo Epstein (that's the son of the novelist, right?). I'm not even sure Rebekah knows the rules to any sport except soccer, which she played for two moderately enthusiastic seasons before deciding not to play this spring. But if I'm flipping through the television stations on a weekend afternoon, she will make me stop on any channel showing men or women doing something competing with balls. She was very excited when our family was invited to a Super Bowl party. She covets the two soccer jerseys she owns, gifts from her uncle Jonathan and our friend Sean, respectively.

She thinks of herself as a sports lover, and she may grow into that identity. So, faced with a child whose interest in sports seems poised to outstrip her parents' ability to meet that interest—my wife knows tennis, circa Pete Sampras, and takes an interest in figure skating during Winter Olympic years—I realized that measures would have to be taken. I would need a sports surrogate.

I did not have to look far to find one. Our friend and neighbor Sean, a devout follower of the teams of his alma mater, the University of Oregon, decided about five years ago to make converts of all the neighborhood children. He began returning home from trips to Oregon with all sorts of yellow and green paraphernalia in toddlers' and children's sizes, shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with the Oregon duck. As he handed out this Division I haberdashery, he would instruct the neighborhood children in the finer points of Duck fandom, which apparently include a lot of quacking.

And two football seasons ago, when Rebekah was nearing the age of five, Sean invited her to his house, three doors down, to watch Oregon's football team. I don't think she went more than once or twice, and she didn't last the whole three hours, or even a half, but the chance to eat popcorn and watch football with Uncle Sean made her feel grown up. It gave her an hour or two away from her younger sisters, whom she loves more than anything but who sometimes demand more attention than she feels able to give. She's the kind of kid who is responsible and eager to please and proud of her adult capabilities: She can make our family's salad for dinner, carrot-peeling and tomato-chopping and all. But sometimes she puts too much pressure on herself. When my wife told her that maybe someday we'd have a fourth child, she said, "Mommy, I'm just not sure I can raise another!"

So a break from all her responsibilities, a respite watching football with Sean, did her good. She now expects—as do her parents—that Sean will come through with some seasonal sports diversion. And he delivers. Last year, he and his wife, Susan, hosted a Kentucky Derby party for all their friends in the neighborhood; our friend Jessica provided hot browns, and her husband Tim brought his guitar and led us in "My Old Kentucky Home." The past two Januarys, the Super Bowl party was at Sean and Susan's house. And although the Oregon Ducks weren't playing, indeed could never play, Rebekah wore her jersey.

 

It wasn't so hard to outsource the sports fandom. But I am sometimes overwhelmed by how much else I will have to outsource. Parenting has made me painfully aware of all the skills I don't have, all that I won't be able to pass on to my children. Before the children arrived, the future was full of possibilities for the dad I would be: the one who would teach them to play guitar, to garden, to turn table legs with a lathe. All I had to do was learn how to play guitar, to garden, and to turn table legs with a lathe. Also to chant Torah, change the oil, and throw a football with a perfect spiral. And there was plenty of time for all of that.

But then the girls arrived, in short order, all three of them. I found skills I never knew I had, like holding an infant on my forearm, her head in my palm. I once changed a cloth diaper so deftly that my friend Derek was startled to realize it was cloth. "You did that just like a regular diaper!" he said. That was one of my proudest moments. I've been known to take all three girls—ages two, four, and six—to the supermarket together, pilfering only one banana and one plastic carton of blackberries to keep them in line. (Shamed by the empty carton and the empty peel, I paid up.) But for all the skills I never expected I'd have, there are more that I know I'll never acquire.

I'm not full of regrets, but I have a few. Last winter and spring, Rebekah decided she was interested in woodworking, and she persuaded us to let her take a hammer and a box of nails and a few pieces of discarded cabinetry down to my study in the basement. I never use the study—I should write "study"—because even after we finished our basement, carving off one room as a quiet workspace for my books and me, I found it was lonely down there, late at night during my writing time, with the girls asleep two floors above me, and even the dogs one floor away. So I continued to write at the kitchen table. The study became Rebekah's. She would bang away with nails, sometimes finishing her elaborate wood creations with rubber bands stretched between the nails and colorful construction paper glued on.

This wasn't supposed to be a permanent arrangement. For the two or three months that her woodworking passion burned hot, she asked if in the summer I would get her a workbench, which we would put out in the garage, and would I build things with her too? I always said yes. One day I even went out to the dark garage to see if there were any electrical outlets, where maybe we could plug in the lamps we would need, when the time came.

The time never came. By May, she had moved on, as five-year-olds do. She didn't ask for the workbench any more, and I didn't think much about the promises I had made. I think I avoided the topic, even in my own mind, because I knew I didn't know how to build anything. What would we do when she aspired to do more than nail one piece of wood to another? What if she wanted to saw something or sand something? I was afraid I would be of no use.

I know, of course, that I can still learn a thing or two. I'm 38: not dead yet. It's possible I could learn to be handy at the workbench; after all, my grandfather was a carpenter, and when I was young, he used to make things with me, at the workbench in his basement. We once made a jewelry box for my grandmother—the grandmother Rebekah is named for.

I wouldn't want to outsource everything, but a good dad should outsource some things. I am not the man to teach them Hebrew, which I did not learn until my twenties. Yet they've already started Hebrew, with an amazing 20-year-old college student named Josef who is the eldest of seven children and has big hair that reminds me of Robert Smith, from the Cure, a band Josef is too young to have heard of. My daughters' foreign-language skills will surpass mine by the time they're twelve years old. I'll have to get better just to keep their respect.

I hereby advertise for someone to appropriately nurture my daughters' love of camping, should they, for whatever reason, incline that way.

And science fairs. I didn't do science fairs when I was their age, and I don't do science fairs now. (I am not sure how my wife feels about them.)

Chess, I have covered.

And college sports is taken, too. But not by me. By Uncle Sean. My daughters are Ducks fans.

Quack.

Mark Oppenheimer is the author of three books, including a memoir of high school debate and a travelogue about crashing bar mitzvahs. He writes a religion column for The New York Times and is on Twitter @markopp1.

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