Shake well before use

Hands-on or hands-off?Something changes irreversibly in men when they become parents. They start asking for directions. They start saying “I don’t know”. They start including words like ‘how’ in their vocabulary. Yes, the same men who were from Mars, the same men who read maps, the same men who would rather drive into another state/country than ask where they were, the same men you married despite the idiocies of their gender.

Around the time that words like ‘parenting’ evolved, another treacherous term made its appearance to vindicate all those men who did a little more than donating sperm in the bringing up of a child. It was called “hands-on fatherhood”–  a term many men would like to add to their resume, but don’t quite know how.

Rather conveniently, a whole species of women also evolved who christened their men with the aforementioned term even if they so much as changed diapers for one week (under supervision) or dropped the child to school once in a while or walked the baby in a pram, with the entourage of maid, driver and whoever else they could get their hands on.

Perhaps I have high benchmarks because of the way I was raised. My father cooked, got us ready for school (even if he sometimes stapled a shirt together to camouflage a missing button), combed our hair (very badly), quizzed our geography from time to time, taught us chess and badminton and tennis and cricket, and waded through chest deep water with us on his shoulders whenever our building got flooded, although he often bungled up in public about how old we were. He didn’t know then that he was hands-on. Good for my mother, who didn’t know either.

In my book, a hands-on daddy is someone who knows what to do with child and how and when to do it without being issued instructions in triplicate.  Someone who wouldn’t ask, “What should I feed the child?”  or “What do I wipe his nose with?” or “Where are his undies?” would be a start.  Also, I can’t deal with the fact that answering the phone while changing a child is enough to give some men a nervous breakdown.

So I set some rules to keep it simple. I decided to award the hands-on certification on the basis of:

  1. The number of hours of instructionless child-management (I wouldn’t go as far as calling it parenting) that have been logged in on any given day (adding up of stray minutes over a few months to say 22 hours doesn’t count)
  2. The extent of resorting to packaged substances that are blasphemous in my culinary dictionary, namely ice-cream, biscuits, chocolate, strange coloured liquids masquerading as juices to appease the said child.
  3. The ability to know when said child needs to be changed, cleaned, washed, scrubbed.

You have one of those? I can be nice to you. Or mean, if you flaunt it too much. Or send you muffins once in a while. I like hands-on daddyhood. It makes the men look good, it makes raising a child feel more collaborative, it makes me feel less full of myself when I write on parenting and other ‘grim’ issues that cannot be trivialised.

The other parental unit displays handson-ness under duress (my mother is in hospital, the cat has to be taken to the vet, I have a doctor’s appointment to catch or some such) and usually resorts to objectionable means (most of which involve clutching a remote or staring at a moronic screen) to sustain the hours. But recently there was a twist in my tale. The child, on his own, started demanding hands-on daddyness. “Dadda will get me ready for school,” he declared, one fine day. There began an ordeal of choices. “What would you like to wear today?”  or “What would you like to watch with your breakfast?” and the resulting chaos. My smooth morning routine of getting the child to school in under an hour fell to pieces.  I have never had as much grief as the time since the joint venture. Some days I miss the OPU’s “I am so dead to the world, that I really don’t give a shit about how much trouble you are having” days.

I have come to realise that I prefer hands-off to hands-on any day. There are also days when I wish I were a praying mantis who has her male for dinner the day she gives birth.  I am not for sexual cannibalism but sometimes, it seems the only way to keep the men away from stuff they know practically nothing about.  It’s just simpler. You are the only boss, the child can never play good cop against bad cop, and it’s just less confusing. Also, once the men remotely show the inclination to be hands-on, you do the one thing you shouldn’t. You raise the bar.

 (This post appeared as my column yesterday in the Sunday Eye of the Indian Express)

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