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One bad motherfather

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Last night I was out to dinner with Brandy, the boys, and my mother-in-law Susie. I love my mother-in-law. When I first met her I had dyed blonde hair and very, very, very tight pants. I'm sure she was thinking, "The bassist of Styx is not the right match for my daughter." When I stayed over their house, I slept on an air mattress outside Susie's bedroom door. I woke up to a Post-it note with a list of chores, which I happily completed (if you've never emptied a septic tank, you are really missing out). Now all these years later, with my commitment to Brandy on display in many shapes and sizes (small ring, small people who kind of look like me, etc.), we have an easy rapport and a mutual respect. I call her Sooz.

Sooz is a great sounding board when it comes to parenting. And not because she's some earth mama shaman spouting off nuggets of child-rearing wisdom. She is simply honest. Sooz raised three children largely as a single mom. Want to know what it's like to have three kids? Don't expect a gooey Hallmark couplet. "When Brandy [the oldest] was a baby, I tended to her every need," she said. "When James [the youngest] was a baby, I just put some Cheerios on the floor." While there's some humorous hyperbole here, the message is true: the first baby gets the overzealous, worried parent; the last baby gets the seasoned, seen-it-all parent. I'd prefer straight, meaty truths to saccharine, empty-calorie platitudes anyday.

That's not to say Sooz is my only parenting resource. In fact, after dinner with Sooz, I got on the phone with my mom. Every other day we chat while I'm commuting through Florida's tropical tundra. We talk about how she dealt with my brother and I, and how Brandy and I deal with our kids. In comparing notes, I notice that everything changes, and everything stays the same.

In a recent study by the National Fatherhood Initiative, 701 fathers were asked which of eight possible sources (spouses, parents, clergymen, colleagues, etc.) do they use the most for advice about being a better father. Eighty-nine percent chose "the child's mother." "My mother" was a more popular choice than "my father." Another interesting stat: 53 percent stated that mothers can adequately substitute for fathers. Basically, we are fathers who use mothers to be fathers.

This is a byproduct of the traditional American family: work-all-day dad and stay-at-home mom. It should be no surprise then that guys discuss sensitive issues with the nurturer, not the provider. But my generation may just shift this dynamic. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 105,000 fathers stayed home to care for their families in 2002. Six years later, that figure jumped 33 percent to 140,000. Of course, that number does not include fathers who work from home either full time or part time. And let's not forget the dads who wish they were home. In 2007, conducted a survey of 1,521 working dads and found that roughly 37 percent said they would leave their job if a spouse or partner made enough money to support their family; 38 percent would take a pay cut to spend more time with their children.

So maybe in a couple decades, dads will be a more sought-after source for parenting advice. Which will give the Soozes of the world more time to empty their own septic tanks.