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FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS

Life as a Soccer Dad

by ken auletta



In 1997, Ken wrote this piece for the magazine of the Nightingale-Bamford School in Manhattan, where his daughter was a student at the time.

I’ve never been called a “soccer mom,” but I qualify. Unlike my dad, who left the house early each morning and returned expecting dinner on the table, I neither go to an office nor stray far from my refrigerator. As a writer I fit into another category: Work-at-home dad. Which is not so different from “soccer mom.”

Since I cook, I’m the one who nags my daughter Kate in the morning about what she’d like for dinner, the one who hears from Mrs. Gouge if Kate is sick, the “mom” other moms usually get on the phone when they call our home, the “mom” who retreats with the family to the country each July and August and waits at the train station on Fridays for the arrival of “dad,” who is really mom. Usually, I’m the first person Kate sees when she arrives home from Nightingale, the one who gets the first report on the day or gets to answer, “What’s to snack on?”

Not surprisingly, Kate has a somewhat different take. She writes: It annoys me that my father talks about food and what to eat incessantly. I wake up in the morning and the first words I hear from my dad are, “Good morning. What do you want for breakfast?” After a brief pause he asks, “What should I defrost for dinner? “Sometimes I think he’s auditioning to be a waiter in a restaurant! On the other hand, I love the comfort of knowing he’s home, of knowing there’s someone to talk to about my day at school. I talk about almost everything with my dad. And when I’ve had a bad day, he’s right there telling me that everything will be fine.

For the ten years Kate has been at Nightingale, I’ve enjoyed many of the traditional joys — and frustrations — of motherhood. I get the early “buzz” about music, get to taste the new Frappucino from Starbuck’s, and re¬ceive those I-can’t-believe-you’re-asking-such-a-dumb-question looks I’d prefer that mom would get. I wish Gloria Steinem represented me on those occasions when my family blithely assumes I can pick something up at the store because I’m home, presumably just pigging out on chips and tv.

Dads are no different from moms in that we get the same monosyllabic “fine” when we ask how the day went, the same “Do we really have to talk about dinner when I just ate breakfast?” But the rewards of being a work-at-home dad are immense. I know my daughter in ways I never expected. How many dads get to “gossip” with “the girls” who come over on play-dates?

Just as moms carve out special activities with daughters, so do dads. A favorite has been going to Knick games at the Garden. The one time we let mom (who believes basketball died in the seventies when Walt “Clyde” Frazier retired) in on the action was last season when I had two tickets for the Knicks vs. the Chicago Bulls. I didn’t want to give up being a “soccer dad,” but I had to fly to Seattle on Sunday afternoon to report a story. Mom agreed to take my place, but did she moan. As you may recall, the Knicks pulled a huge upset. The next morning, when I phoned from the west coast, both women in my house chorused that it was “the greatest game ever!” I was miserable.

Each summer I plan my writing schedule so that Kate and I can spend time together at the beach. I write early, then ferry Kate to an activity, then write some more; we bicycle together to the farmstand for a melon, sway in the hammock with a book we read together, go to a movie and out for pizza, jump in the pool, barbecue chicken and vegetables, watch the sun slip below the horizon. More than once, mom has threatened to quit work because she thought she was missing out on the fun. She was.

Kate and I have developed a playful relationship. Once when I spoke at a school assembly about the 1996 presidential campaign, Kate pleaded beforehand: “Please don’t mention me.” Then, presumably because teenagers assume that fathers are thick, she added, “Don’t you dare embarrass me by singling me out.” I kept my word, sort of. I began by saying, “My daughter Kate asked my not to talk about her. And I won’t!” People laughed — even Kate.

Kate, naturally, gets the last word on this subject: He isn ’t the only one who plays tricks. My dad hates mice. He may be six feet tall and with muscles, but at the sight of a mouse he does what moms do: jumps up on a chair! Each April Fools Day, my mom and I put a plastic mouse that moves on the floor and shriek and jump up on chairs, expecting, like every year, that he will jump on a chair. He does.

You don’t have to be a stay-at-home dad to learn from your daughter. Once, when Kate was in the fifth grade and jogging with her class around the reservoir, a group of teenage girls am¬bushed her alone on the track, demanding that she give them her Swatch watch. She at first refused. She then wisely thought better and gave it to them. She was scared. But she was also determined. Instead of retreating, she agreed to go out in a squad car to look for the perpetrators. Her reaction was neither that of knee-jerk liberal nor a reactionary conservative. Unlike many liberals, she hoped to see them caught and punished. Unlike many conservatives, she wasn’t vengeful. She agreed with Ms. Heller, who told the police officers, “If these girls get help now maybe they won’t rob anymore.” Some parents wanted Nightingale to stop using “unsafe” Central Park. Kate argued that her class had as much right to the park as muggers. Her classmates were magnificent in their defiance of fear, as was Nightingale.

Being a “soccer dad” is a microcosm of the shifting roles played by males and females. A majority of women now work. Schools teach more that the three Rs. At Nightingale, tentative Lower School girls like Kate are transformed into self-assured young women, liberated to understand that women no longer Just say yes. Women, as well as men, now wear pants. Men have learned from women (and, no doubt, from psychotherapy) to be less afraid to show emotion, to be less fearful of revealing their “feminine” side. So much has changed.

But one thing doesn’t change for parents, male or female. As daughters enter high school, parents have to learn something as well. We have to leam to let go a bit, to grant daughters more freedom, more space. This is probably, I confess, a little harder for a work-at-home dad.




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