At some point in the last few decades, the American male sat down at the negotiating table with the American female and—let us be frank—got fleeced. The agreement he signed foisted all sorts of new paternal responsibilities on him and gave him nothing of what he might have expected in return. Not the greater love of his wife, who now was encouraged to view him as an unreliable employee. Not the special love from his child, who, no matter how many times he fed and changed and wiped and walked her, would always prefer her mother in a pinch. Not even the admiration of the body politic, who pushed him into signing the deal. Women may smile at a man pushing a baby stroller, but it is with the gentle condescension of a high officer of an army of a village that surrendered without a fight. Men just look away in shame. And so the American father now finds himself in roughly the same position as Gorbachev after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Having shocked the world by doing the decent thing and ceding power without bloodshed for the sake of principle, he is viewed mainly with disdain. The world looks at him schlepping and fetching and sagging and moaning beneath his new burdens and thinks: OH … YOU … POOR … BASTARD.
But I digress.
One evening last week, I came home, relieved the baby sitter, and found that Tallulah had three bright red spots on her forehead and, for the first time in her life, a fever. The domestic policy handbook clearly states that when anything goes seriously wrong with our child, I am to holler for her mother and then take my place at her elbow and await further instructions. As I say, the American father of a baby is really just a second-string mother. But the first string was nowhere to be found. For the first time our child badly needed help, which, it appeared, only I could provide. On the heels of that realization followed another: After a year of watching Talullah claw toward her mother whenever she became upset, I now could prove my own qualifications for the job.
A single phone call to a miraculous service called SOS Medicin fetched up a nattily clad French doctor to our doorstep inside five minutes. He arrived in a little white truck with a cross on the side that looked a bit like an old World War I ambulance. He was easily the most reassuring doctor I have ever met; there was not a hint of self-doubt about the man. Treating a sick baby is more like treating a sick dog than a sick person, as the baby can’t tell you where it hurts. To our new French doctor this proved no obstacle at all. He marched into the house, spotted Tallulah giggling on the couch, smiled knowingly, and said, “Varicelle.”
Chicken pox. Having diagnosed the disease from a distance of 15 feet, he then examined the howling patient for another three minutes. On top of the chicken pox, he found ear and throat infections, plus the fever I already knew about, plus a couple of unrelated, smaller defects. He was so efficient at finding diseases that I thought he would find she had the plague or something, but his work was so quick and self-assured that it was impossible to question any of it. Afterward, he sat down at our kitchen table and wrote out two long pages of prescriptions, all of them illegible, and said that he was certain she’d feel better once she’d taken a few of them. From start to finish, his visit took about 15 minutes and cost less than 40 bucks. Vive la France!
I trundled the prescriptions together with Tallulah across the street to the pharmacy—everything in Paris you might want to buy always seems to be just across the street—and came away with a huge plastic sack of cures. Then, with a truly fantastic display of heretofore unrevealed parental competence, I actually persuaded my child to swallow several of them.
All this was perfectly thrilling, and not simply because there is an obvious pleasure in curing one’s child. Power was in the air. It was a rare fatherhood Al Haig moment: I was in charge here.
Then Tabitha walked into the house.
“What’s going on?”
I told her everything that had happened, and as I did, tears welled in her eyes. Mistaking their meaning, I could not have been more pleased with myself. I assumed she was moved by my performance. At this difficult moment in our child’s life, when she would naturally look to her mother for comfort, her mother was away and unreachable. Plucked from the end of the bench and sent into the game with just seconds on the clock, I’d been told to take the final shot. I’d hit nothing but net.
I waited for what I was certain would be a curtain call. Instead, there was only silence. I could see from her face that she wasn’t merely upset; she was irritated. She walked over to the sink and banged around some dirty dishes. With whom was she irritated? I wondered, neglecting the important truth, corollary to the rule about the fool at the poker table, that if you don’t know who your wife is pissed off at, it’s you.
“Why are you so upset?” I asked. “The worst is over—it’s all taken care of.”
“I just wish I had been … here.”
“If I was here I could have asked the questions.”
All of a sudden, my questions weren’t good enough. How would she know? She banged the dishes around a bit more, and then said, “Did you ask the doctor why he was sure all these medicines were the right ones?”
“Uh, no.” Of course I hadn’t. He was the doctor.
“Did you ask him why, if it is chicken pox, she’s had these red spots before?”
“Did you ask why they are only on her face?”
Upon review of the videotape, my three-point shot was nullified, the team went down in defeat, and I was sent back to the end of the bench. I was unable to answer even one of the questions that a genuinely caring parent would have thought to ask. “The doctor said that the spots would spread to the rest of her body by tomorrow,” I said, answering one that hadn’t.
“I think we ought to call another doctor,” she said, then swept her child up in her arms and took her away to whatever place mothers take their children when they don’t want their husbands to follow. Once they’d left, I quickly, and for the first time, read the instructions on the medicine. The first two bottles I selected said, chillingly, “NOT FOR CHILDREN UNDER 6 YEARS OF AGE.” The bottle I believed to contain a chicken pox ointment proved, on close inspection, to be a sore-throat spray. The gunk I’d been told to apply to the pox itself was not a spray, as the $40 home-delivery French doctor had told me it would be, but a strangely dry powder that was impossible to apply to anything, unless you happened to have crazy glue. Left alone with her father, our child stood no chance of survival.
The next day came, and the red spots refused to spread, and the fever subsided. The day after that, the fever had gone altogether, and the spots had faded to nothing. To me this was a very good sign: Tallulah was cured. No, I had cured Tallulah. The doctor had said that there were rare light cases of chicken pox, in which the spots didn’t spread: Here was one. To my wife it was a sign that the doctor had queered the diagnosis and that our child must be ailing from some other heretofore undiagnosed disease. “I want to take her to the hospital,” she said.
The language of parenthood is encoded. When a mother says to a father, “I want to take her to the hospital,” she is really saying “WE are ALL going to the hospital, and if you whisper even a word of complaint, you will have proved yourself for all time a man incapable of love.” Maternal concern is one of those forces of nature not worth fighting.
Off we went to find a taxi, and then to find a hospital. Once we did so, we were seated in a small waiting room jammed with toys in which Tallulah showed little interest, clinging, as she was, to her mother. Twenty minutes later, we were greeted by another nattily clad doctor, who was, if anything, even more self-assured than the first. He took one look at Tallulah, laughed loudly, and said, “Not chicken pox.”
Tabitha looked pleased. “Then what are these?” I asked, pointing to the faded spots on Tallulah’s forehead.
“Insect bites,” he said.
I handed him the spray and asked why the doctor had instructed me to apply it to chicken pox.
“I don’t know. This is sore-throat spray. Who told you your daughter had chicken pox?”
I gave him the whole story and handed him the two pages of prescriptions, which, as it happened, had the name of the doctor who had written them on top. This provoked only more laughter. “Dr D___,” he said, “he doesn’t know anything about children’s medicine.”
“You know him?”
“He’s my golfing partner.” He was still laughing; this was the best joke he’d heard all day.
“Is he a good golfer?”
“Very! He spends very little time working as a doctor.”
On the way home in the car, the family spirits could not have been higher. Tallulah was cured—or as good as cured—and well, nestling up against her mother. I was back on the end of the bench. And there, with my incompetence in dealing with matters critical to my child’s survival fully exposed, I was once again well-loved. Some sort of natural order had been restored.