Like many guys, I spend most of the workweek away from my kids, Samantha, 6, and Mia, 4, and it's hard not to feel like I'm missing out. We see each other in the blur of mornings and the circus of afternoons, so when Saturday comes, I commence my mission to make this uninterrupted kid time insanely entertaining. It's the ridiculous stereotype we dads seem to have absorbed into our bones: Moms are nurturing, fathers are fun. And that, I've learned, is when the trouble begins.
At first, my Daddy Days seemed easy enough. They started when Samantha was a newborn, and I, the proud father, headed out with her for a Saturday-morning stroll. The ritual coalesced quickly, and efficiently: Load her into the stroller, pack diapers and wipes, and place her favorite stuffed snake securely under her arm. As she grew, however, so did my self-imposed pressure to make Daddy Day fun. This was my moment to reconnect with Samantha after her five Mommy Days. Most dads I know view themselves as doers, and as absurd as it sounds, it doesn't matter what we do as long as we're doing something. Daddy Day is do day.
Before long, I added trips to the playground and bookstore to our excursions. We took in the zoo, shared pizza, and jumped on the shaky bridge of the neighborhood jungle gym. But no matter how long or full the Daddy Days became, I always had a nagging feeling that I could have done more.
Just as our Saturday options were opening up with Samantha's advancing age and abilities, we had a new member of the team: Mia. As Sue snoozed, my ritual grew more complex and demanding. The light, folding stroller was replaced by a monstrous double jogging device with wheels like a Humvee's. Once outside, in the world of fast cars and narrow bathrooms, I had to switch from the relative ease of man-to-man coverage to zone defense. But I refused to buckle. Let the field trips begin!
I schlepped us to the American Museum of Natural History, and walked for what seemed like miles across the park to the zoo. Nothing could hamper my determination, not even my kids' mounting distress. Samantha would start to complain about wanting to go home. Mia would spit up. But I was armed and ready with lollipops and baby wipes. "Come on," I pleaded desperately as Samantha splayed herself defiantly on the grass, "This is our special day!" As I struggled to peel her from the earth, I could feel that day passing me by.
After a move to the suburbs, Daddy Day began to seem more manageable, and in my mind, the potential for mind-blowing good times increased in turn. I had a station wagon now and, instead of the tiny basket of space under the stroller, a vast interior to stock with toys, dolls, books, video games. We drove to the local breakfast joint to eat mounds of chocolate chip pancakes and whipped cream. We read dozens of books at the children's library. If Mia got tired, I wouldn't drive home --a sure sign of defeat --I'd just park and wait it out.
With my newfound mobility, I overcompensated wildly. I plotted every potential diversion within a 45-minute radius: Amusement park? Check. Science museum? Check. Living-history farm? Absolutely. We could ride rides, pet pets, farm farms. But my ambition, inevitably, soon got the better of me. After a few dozen Saturdays, I was running out of ideas and my sense of worthiness as Fun Dad.
I asked Samantha what, if anything, she would do for her Ultimate Daddy Day. She chewed her lower lip, batted her eyelashes, and said, with a nod, "Chuck E. Cheese." I gulped. As I knew ahead of time, going to Chuck E. Cheese required intense preparation. I needed patience. Caffeine. A Hazmat suit. To make matters worse, Mia had been up late and was in dire need of a nap. But in the name of quality time, I grabbed my bucket of gold tokens and ventured forth.
I quickly paid the price. When a sauce-stained bully refused to relinquish the Barney ride, Mia melted down. The fire spread to Sami, who, because of Mia's tantrum, couldn't get me to play air hockey. The life-size animatronic Chuck E. rat cackled defiantly. Lights flashed. Sirens blared. Skeeballs flew. I took Sami and Mia by the hands, and we left.
The next weekend, as the sun came up, I gathered the girls. "Where are we going?" Sami said, somewhat warily. "Somewhere very special," I said. "The kitchen!" As the girls helped me make M- and S-shaped pancakes, I could see that my decision was just fine with them. For those weekends I had been in overdrive, working too hard to entertain my kids, when the answer, all along, was waiting for me back at my house. Just because I work doesn't mean I have to become the Great American Dad when the clock strikes Saturday. I'm not the only one coming off a long week --the girls are, too. With school done, sometimes their favorite thing to do is just to stay home with me.
The key to genuine fun together, I found, isn't clever things to do. It's really being together.
David Kushner has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Parade, and Wired.