Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

To the Sandbox Set, I'm 'Generic Dad'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

To the Sandbox Set, I'm 'Generic Dad'

Article excerpt

I suspect it's the nondescript gray business suit, the shabby brown briefcase, and the loosened tie that account for the confusion. But I prefer to think that there is something intrinsically paternal about me that leads the neighborhood kids - the toddlers mostly - to shout "Daddy!" whenever they see me walking home from the train.

Every afternoon as I pass the playground, some little voice imprisoned in a stroller or strapped to a swing calls after me with the hysterical, slightly plaintive enthusiasm that only preschoolers can evoke. I turn and wave, and then invariably some discerning older child whispers, "That's not our daddy, that's David and Juliana's daddy," and the excited child falls silent, wrapped in wonder: To think that creatures stalk the earth so similar in appearance to my daddy.

If I wasn't in such a hurry to get home to my own three kids, and if I thought the baffled child might understand, I would enter the playground, sit cross-legged in the sand, and explain that such confusion is natural enough. I am your basic bespectacled dad, the kind whose suits and ties contain traces of his children's most recent meals; whose pockets are filled with the scraps of colored paper they recently gave him as presents; and whose hair always has the slightly tousled look of someone who just carried a child on his head. I am, in other words, a generic dad, inexpensively labeled, easy to confuse with a lot of other workaday dads. Not long ago, however, I discovered there was more to this trick of mistaken identity than just my protean appearance. It became evident when the two-year-old across the street burst from his house shouting "Daddy!" when he saw me watering the lawn. That he did so even with his own father in view suggested a far deeper dimension to all this seeming bewilderment than I had at first realized. My neighbor insisted his son's behavior was actually a thinly veiled condemnation of his father's frequent absences. The man's endless hours at the office, trips abroad, and weekends on the job were a constant source of complaint. What I took to be an isolated problem turned out to be something of a universal grievance in my neighborhood. Whenever a child mistook me for his father, I made a point of asking if his dad worked long hours. Invariably he did. (And often, so did his mother.) In fact, nearly half the fathers in my neighborhood, I discovered, leave home before dawn and don't return until after their children are in bed. The poor kids are so starved for a glimpse of their peripatetic dads that they routinely fasten on the first remotely familiar father figure walking home from the train and give voice to their fondest wish: "Daddy!" As it turns out, I'm perfectly happy playing the generic dad since I enjoy the sorts of activities that generic toddlers enjoy: digging in the sand, flying kites, feeding ducks, chasing fireflies, and hiding under pianos. …

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