The Second Act Of Manhood

The children woke at 6:45 this morning. There was some hand-to-hand combat. I made them hot chocolate, but it boiled over and flooded the stove while I was busy trying to staunch somebody’s screams. A couple of times, I turned bright purple and did my Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver impression on a terrified child. All this happened before 8:00 a.m. Every now and then I got a quiet moment to reflect that most of my neighbors were asleep, unless our screams had woken them (it was a public holiday here in France, where I live). It was a worse morning than usual, but the kind that happens about once a week. One thing keeps me going during moments like this: the hope that my adult life will have a third act of total freedom. I suspect that most modern fathers share this fantasy.

Act One of our adult life was freedom. The second act is fatherhood-plus. This is the phase that sociologists now call “the rush hour of life,” when the typical parent’s career peaks just as his children are small. Our generation of fathers is the most overburdened in history. When I was a child in Britain in the mid-1970s, the average employed British father had a magnificent 15 minutes of contact with his children each day. Last I checked, the figure was two hours.

Of course, most mothers do much more childcare than fathers, but we are probably busier, all told, because we typically spend longer at work. For instance, Canada’s General Social Survey on Time Use for 2005 showed that the average Canadian father did 9.9 hours of paid work and childcare combined each day, half an hour more than the average mother.

During adulthood’s Act Two, I sustain myself with fantasies of an Act Three. By the time I’m in my early 50s, my youngest children will be in their mid-teens and will presumably no longer want any contact with me. That is when I want the third act to begin.The third act of adult life is meant to be Act One minus all those nights wasted trying to meet nice girls. I imagine it as 20 years of doing exactly what I want before I’m completely clapped out. In Act Three, I’ll wake up on weekends and think, “What do I want to do today?” An equally overburdened friend and I have developed a joint fantasy: When we’re 55, we’ll go to New Zealand and spend a northern hemispheric winter watching cricket in the sun. No children allowed. We’ll party until Act Four, when we are clapped out and stuck at home behind the geraniums waiting for the end.But my fear is that I’ll never get Act Three. I look at my parents and their friends, now around 70. At that age, the range of well-being is vast. Some people are clapped out. Some are dead. A few are enjoying a wonderful third act. I’m praying for Act Three, and if I get it, then a morning like today will have been just a passing instant adding variety to a rich life.

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