When I was a boy, my father was either absent or screaming, a lose-lose dialectic that forged my resolve to grow up to become a different kind of man. In the intervening decades, though, struggling to carve out my niche in the world, I rarely thought about fatherhood or children. But then, when I was 34, my son Asher was born, and, in a way, so was I. Unconsciously, I had been preparing for that moment for a lifetime.
That was nine years ago, and Asher (whose name is Hebrew for “blessed” or “fortunate” — he was conceived through in-vitro fertilization) has been joined by triplets: Jared, Hannah and Barak (also in-vitro). They are now 6. The screaming of my childhood has returned, but now it is musical, like the chaos of a rehearsal hall, a head-rattling cacophony of joy, pride, anger, self-expression, frustration and, more often than not, competition for my attention. Sometimes I feel less the dad than the road manager of a heavy-metal band that is in the midst of trashing a hotel.
During a veggie-burger dinner one night, Asher talked over Barak, who was arguing against the implacable Jared-Hannah bloc as I tried desperately to calm everyone down. But they are too stubborn to relent, a genetic flaw I trace to my wife’s side of the family. I counted to three, warned them of the unfolding numerical cataclysm, then counted to three again in a pathetically self-undermining display of inconsistency. Finally, after sprinkling extra warnings around like grated cheese, I started removing privileges. The children ignored me. In a few minutes I began removing privileges that stretch years into the future, canceling bar mitzvahs and college graduations. When you find yourself telling your 6-year-old daughter that she must pay for her own wedding, you know you’ve lost control.
Finally, I lost my temper. My deafening roar washed over them, silencing the room. As the waters of my rage receded, I was flooded by intense guilt, for here was another painful forfeiture of my promise. Yet instead of tears or trembling, the children resumed their squabbling, veering from complex infighting to explosive play to devilishly coordinated attacks: stealing candy, rebooting the computers, confiscating my wallet, keys and cell phone.
My children do not fear me, unless my hiding the remote control counts, an act they remedy by secretly jury-rigging old remotes. But I consider this lack of fear to be an accomplishment, even if it sometimes connotes disrespect. After all, endlessly counting to three is the province of Barney and Elmo, not a middle-aged man who runs a small public-relations business.
There are many reasons why my children do not fear me, but I think it is mostly because we have joyfully spent so much time at home together. Until she lost her job in December, my wife, Ronit Fisher, was a corporate attorney who worked 90-hour weeks. After four weeks of maternity leave, Ronit returned to her hectic workdays, and so I diapered, comforted, stayed up all night and caught vomit in my bare hands with the grace of Willie Mays.
But our role-reversal marriage is not so neat; it is something of a Freudian jigsaw puzzle. Often, I am my mother, patiently indulgent and lavishly encouraging yet too lenient, overprotective and worried, and Ronit is my father, demanding order, obedience and structure but instilling responsibility and self-reliance. We switch roles fluidly, losing our compass points in the anarchy of our long days.
Jewish life has changed radically since my 1960s childhood, particularly the role of the Jewish father. When I warn Ronit that Barak prefers the yellow Power Rangers T-shirt and Jared the black SpongeBob, she glares at me, but mastering the minutiae of my children’s lives is my equivalent of talmudic scholarship.
My appreciation for Judaism has always been more for the spirit than for the letter of law. In my awkward years studying for my bar mitzvah — I was chubby, shy and unmotivated, interested only in pinball and baseball cards — my instincts told me that much of the beauty and passion of Judaism was locked deep within the complexities of the Torah, and my Reform Judaism represented a spiritual and intellectual shallowness. But I feared the harsh, severe obedience deeper learning demanded. I saw a chain of paternalistic irrationality that ran straight down from the remote God of Abraham through my angry, silent father, even though he was completely nonreligious.
I still waver between agnosticism and some vague, quantum-mechanics algorithm of the divine, but the triplets are fascinated by the idea of an all-seeing God — especially Barak, our kooky iconoclast. “God is everywhere,” he announced one day as we crossed a soccer field. Barak abruptly began to zigzag, as if skirting some massive, imaginary object. His crooked smile made clear that he was being careful not to tread on God, even as he commented ironically on this theological conundrum.
At night, I sprawl on the floor of the kids’ bedroom and make up stories, answering an endless barrage of questions, indulging the kids’ passion for defying bedtime: “How come God can see us, but we can’t see God?”; “If the first person on Earth was a baby, how did it get there?” and “How old will we be when you die?”
On the rare occasions when my own father dispensed opinions, my younger brother and I accepted them as gospel. My children, however, dispute my pronouncements, often just for sport. One night I explained that all tigers are cats, but not all cats are tigers. “That’s ridiculous,” Barak said. “Everybody knows more than you.” The children erupted with laughter, pelting me with toys, pillows and jeers.
My mother loved and protected my brother and me extravagantly, and my father’s long absences were a blessing. Thanks to my mom’s emotional DNA and the bristling, contrary example of my dad, my own household is filled with love, warmth, openness and awareness. Like most middle-class Jewish men, my father’s emphasis had been on career, income and upward mobility. He worked his entire life like a dog, but some of that energy was also narcissism, disguised as responsibility.
My father spent his whole life trying to prove himself to the outside world, to strangers. As a writer, I have that same wretched disease. But I spend my energy proving myself to my children. If they would only stop arguing, judging and plotting against one another and listen for a minute, we might get somewhere.
Bruce Stockler, a humorist, runs a boutique media-relations firm. His memoir about fatherhood, marriage and family life, “I Sleep at Red Lights: A True Story of Life After Triplets,” was published this month by St. Martin’s Press.