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Published: Sunday, 4/2/2006

A man's strategy for life in the feminine household

A colleague of mine just added a daughter, his second, to his family, and I called to congratulate him on his good luck, because little Jenna, all 7 pounds 13 ounces of her, is healthy and, I am quite sure, so truly beautiful, even in her very first days. But what I really wanted to say is something maybe best said in private, and here I am telling him in public what is almost surely going to get me in trouble and is going to flood my e-mail account with angry denunciations.

But I believe that the addition of Jenna to his family does more than make the family breakfast hour absolute chaos. Deny it as he might, fight it as he may, he now lives in a family with a specific gender. I know this as someone who bears his challenge, his burden, his mystery and, ultimately, his joy. Jenna has assured that he will live the remainder of his days in a feminine family.

My theory is that there are masculine families (I grew up in one) and there are feminine families (I live in one now), and the choice is made not by the parents but by the kids, which is further evidence of just who is in charge of things. Male families are raucous and move at great speed. Female families are more sedate and hardly move at all, except of course when there is a chance that the stores might be closing.

All stereotypes are wrong, including these, but this is my theory and I'm sticking to it. It is more than just the fact that, in a feminine family, it is impossible for the male parent (please do not refer to him as the head-of-family, not because the term is antiquated but because it is inaccurate) to get into the bathroom. In my next career I will form a company to sell such fathers Port-a-Pottys for their backyards. It is more than the fact that, in a feminine family, a snack includes teeny cut-up batons of celery and carrots, not fists bursting with Doritos (even the ones with the Cool Ranch flavor).

When my girls grow up, I will tell them there are millions to be made in pre-packaged family treats (think the refrigerated section of your supermarket) with new, imaginative groupings of food for feminine families like ours, like a big tub of hummus (for the majority of the family) combined with a half rack of ribs, slathered in hickory-flavored barbecue sauce (for the rest of us).

At the airport, feminine families occupy the time between flights by stepping into the Body Shop, not the place that sells baseball hats from around the country (could there be any store more beguiling?). At the mall, feminine families repair to little boutiques that sell flimsy pieces of cloth that they insist are apparel but that are no more substantial than a handkerchief. The last time I was in one of these, dispatched to return one handkerchief for another piece of alleged apparel in an even smaller size, I tried like mad to avert my eyes from the young saleswoman. (I almost typed "saleslady," but I was taught in my youth that no one who looked like that could be a lady.) This employee was costumed as if she were at the beach in the south of France, and, sensing my immense discomfort, tried to convince me that the store was a family establishment. Paris Hilton's family, maybe.

I know you will think that this distinction is sexist, but mine is a theory that is heartily endorsed (and it is the only theory of mine to receive such a reception) in my feminine family, which is also a feminist family (not all are). Some houses in the country bear poetic, evocative names. I have given our house a name. It is Feminist Nation.

Here in FemNat, my girls have vowed to keep their own names if they should succumb to the folly of marriage, and in a recent dinner-table conversation they vowed to banish any suitor who wouldn't do the household chores and who couldn't make a respectable dinner. (In a feminine family, the biggest cheers on these matters sometimes come from dad, a confirmed traitor to his own sex.)

But I want to assure you that FemNat is a feminine family. Our youngest daughter and my wife were both out there in the streets the night the Steelers won the Super Bowl, whooping it up and waving their Terrible Towels. But they came home to a house where there is tofu in the refrigerator and all sorts of stuff I cannot identify on the bathroom vanities.

I shared this feminine-family theory recently with my friend Greg Moore, who is the editor of the Denver Post and is (everyone who knows this man will share this description) the very definition of the (now I date myself) man's man. He is a terrific father, and is building his second family with a second wife. When the second daughter arrived I welcomed him to the ranks of men who lived in feminine families. He told me I was full of it, only when he said that the last word had two extra letters.

I indulged him in his folly. Then, when the Steelers were to play the Broncos in Denver for the AFC Championship this January, I called to ask this man - who, when he was visiting me in Pittsburgh last year, could hardly bear to take his eyes off ESPN - whether he was going to the big game, right there in his hometown. No, he said, and I could sense his unease. He was taking his daughter to a weekend language lesson. Presumably there was no ballet in Denver that day.

So I warn my colleague with the new daughter that he is living in potentially hostile territory, where every dumb move he makes is vulnerable to being transformed into a typical male fault, and where typical male faults are a lot more prevalent than he used to believe. But I also predict that he will cherish these years, these feminine years, like none he has ever had before, even if he has never heard of Maurice Chevalier, for his little girls will grow up in the most delightful way.

And I'll add one piece of advice. There is only one strategy for a father living in a feminine family: Face up to it like a man. Go to the bathroom at work.



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