Books for prospective parents become huge sellers partly because they offer practical advice along with a certain type of fear-based reassurance. Like tip sheets at the racetrack, these books are less concerned with craft than with the utility of their contents.
In entering this crowded field, Clyde Edgerton—Durham native, Guggenheim Fellow, professor of creative of writing at UNC-Wilmington and author of celebrated novels—is not going for the hard sell of the self-help expert with Papadaddy's Book for New Fathers. Still, this is not exactly his bailiwick. Being a father and writing novels require vastly different skills. Would you read a book by Stephen King or Carl Hiaasen on parenting? (Maybe you would? Then read on!)
What Edgerton has to offer is his own deeply observed experience of being a dad at two distinct phases of life. As the 68-year-old father of a now-30-year-old daughter and three grammar school-age kids, Edgerton is qualified to speak to the large and growing societal segment he dubs "considerably older dads," having grown into that role himself.
He offers counsel not only on fatherhood but also on husbandhood: that you have to give of yourself and keep giving, that you have to suck it up sometimes, that you should rub your wife's feet. He says it's never too early to read to a child, and stresses the importance of getting on the floor and really playing with your kid.
He's also very funny. He jokes about death far more frequently than the usual parental-advice author. He tells you that cribs are overpriced and that a Coleman cooler serves just as well—and at a fraction of the cost—for the first three months or so. When he dwells at length on the futility of installing a car seat, he doesn't offer general tidbits for getting the job done—he just assures you that it's a diabolical nightmare. And he's right.
More theoretically, Edgerton endorses ideas promulgated in recent big sellers, such as the re-creation womb conditions for newborns and praising children based on effort rather than results. He also addresses discipline, advocates the Ferber method of sleep training and warns against over-equivocating with your child. But it's a slim volume. He does not get into contingencies, complications, schedules, opposing research and other staples of books like this.
Likewise, he alludes to, but doesn't really discuss, issues relevant for that odiously named, steadily growing population of "stay-at-home dads," surely a key audience for this book. Men in their 40s and 50s (and beyond) who find themselves caring for young children while their wives are at work would no doubt benefit from insight into how to contend with this new and unfamiliar role. Yet Edgerton never mentions the mind-numbing tedium that can set in after a day spent at home with toddlers, nor does he confront the feeling of not doing a man's job.
I understand: This is a book of advice, not a guidebook. As such, it is allowed a certain glib surety in its pronouncements. But being that it shifts from poignant passages (the author's letters to his children at various points in their lives) through comic shtick, anecdotes, notes to aging dads and homespun kids' games, it sometimes feels like an uneasy mix. There's too much practical advice for a rumination on fatherhood, yet it's comic and anecdotal like a quickie airport bestseller. There are also passages that strike me as a little tone-deaf:
"If your wife does most of the work around the house, consider [consider!] picking up some, or most, or all objects that are out of place in the baby's room (and/or other rooms) and putting them in their proper place. ... If you're the one who stays home in the daytime, be sure you sit down and talk to your wife about how she might best help when she comes home in the afternoon."
When my wife went back to work six months after having twins, I sure wasn't going to sit her down and tell her what I needed her to do to help me when she got home, which was not in the afternoon but at night.
Still, Edgerton is clear at the beginning, telling readers to take what feels right and leave the rest. In some respects, Papadaddy's Book for New Fathers is to fatherhood what Harvey Penick's Little Red Book is to golf. Someone new to golf would not rely solely on Penick's book; he'd read it to gain a broad perspective on a complicated subject from a wise man.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Life lessons."