Freaky Fortnight

The Joy of a Really Crummy Zoo
Watch as a husband and wife switch places.
Oct. 12 2009 11:51 AM

Freaky Fortnight

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The joy of a really crummy zoo.

Needless to say, the weekend wasn't relaxing. OK, there were a few relaxing moments—in the morning, when we let our older son watch "TV." I put TV in quotes because Nick only knows television as downloaded shows on iTunes that he watches on a computer. Whenever he's in front of an old-school television playing live, he gets confused and asks me why I can't start the shows at the beginning.

Television is my big parental blind spot. I feel guilty and annoyed at myself when Nick and Will are parked in front of it. Yet how many times in my own life have I bonded with a peer over some beloved show like Thundercats? One of my most beloved childhood rituals was taking an evening shower and then, still in my towel, watching both The Love Boatand Fantasy Island. Thankfully, most of it went over my head, and I entered adulthood a sane person, though one with a preternatural ability to spot a seaplane.

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The gap between my generation's love of the movies and the TV shows we watched as kids and our desire to screen our own children from the screen's supposed ill effects can lead to hilarity. Last Friday, I attended a planning meeting for "movie night" at Nick's school. The trick is to find a movie from the past that our kids will enjoy yet that is inoffensive by today's standards. How about Born Free? Nope, animals get killed. The Goonies? Too many "colorful" scenes. The Secret Garden? Er, the parents die at the beginning. We should just show E.T. every year and be done with it.

When I get too concerned about television overpowering the young minds in my care, I rely on the strange power of an Alice Munro quote that's in my colleague Ann Hulbert's definitive history of 20th-century child-rearing, Raising America:

And, as the saying goes, about this matter of what molds or warps us, if it's not one thing it will be another. At least that was a saying of my elders in those days. Mysterious, uncomforting, unaccusing.

So Nick watched a little TV while Will pushed a truck around, and the two of them continued to be warped by mysterious forces beyond my control.

On Saturday, as the parent who had been with the kids all week, I was looking forward to a little free time. Perhaps an unmolested walk to the bookstore or even a run around the park. But Susan had already invoked the rule of the unskippable family event. Her sister is getting married and was trying on dresses. It was also her mom's birthday. So I took the boys to the zoo.

The Prospect Park Zoo, like all the best places to take kids, is kind of crappy and second-rate. Let the tourists gape at the polar bears in the swank Central Park Zoo. The Prospect Park Zoo has some depressing baboons and kangaroos that hide from you, and one-quarter of the exhibits always seem under construction. But it's also homey, uncrowded, and staffed with friendly volunteers who will tell your sons cool stories about the animals that try to escape. Whenever I go the popular museums and attractions, I come home with a headache. Seek out the crummy places.

The zoo was a success, though in truth I often screw up the weekends. I trundle my kids off on ill-plotted adventures instead of staying home and giving them the chance to amuse themselves. These marathon days lead to exhaustion, which, in turns, leads to unhelpful "magic bullet" thinking. "If we moved to the suburbs and had a backyard, taking care of the kids would be so much easier." Or: "Once Will learns how to walk, everything will be so much easier." Or: "When Nick is back in school, this sibling-rivalry thing will be so much easier." Oh, the mind reels at its own idiocy. When Susan was first pregnant, I told one of my co-workers, who had two kids of his own, that I was going to be happy when Susan had the baby, because then "I wouldn't have to worry about it anymore." He looked at me in a stunned, amused way.

Today, Susan is back at work and I'm looking at another week in the home. We both realize that this switch is mere role playing and that there are a lot of men who are home not by choice but because they have lost their jobs. Jeremy Adam Smith has written a great book about the stay-at-home dad called The Daddy Shift. He explains how the Depression was a time when there was a cultural shift in fatherhood. In the Victorian era, the literature portrayed middle-class men who tried to raise their own children as either "dangerous or degenerate." But with so many men out of work in the 1930s, writes Smith, "books and magazines promoted the idea of a 'new father,' who could be a caregiver and role-model to his children as well as breadwinner."

This era was also the beginning of the real reason men stayed at home more: Women began to enter the workforce, finding jobs that could support a family. It's a trend that continues to our modern co-parenting era, with men choosing to stay at home when the mother has the superior earning power and career prospects. And it's not just artsy-fartsy people such as Susan and me who have the ability and the desire to share parenting duties. Smith writes about studies of low-income families that look at the child care options available for the amount of money they can spend and decide that it would be better if the dad cut back at work and they split child care. As in all things parenting, there are many paths, and most of them lead to less money around the house.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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