THE MEN AND THE BOYS
By 10.45am Gretchen was opening the door to her first guest. It was young Jake and his mum, Simone, who could always be relied upon to arrive inconveniently early to any party. In her more paranoid moments, Gretchen wondered uncharitably whether Simone was trying to destroy her illusion of organization and perfect-hostess calm. After all there must be some reason she was dubbed Sinister Simone or SS? Less than an hour later, Gretchen was welcoming the last arrivals into the bedlam of her lounge room where the party was now kicking off at maximum volume. There were 20 kids under six, their mums - most of whom Gretchen had met at post-natal group four years earlier - and, being Saturday, a decent smattering of dads. The loudest sound came not from one of the kids but from Dave, father of Tyrone, who was locked with his son in a loud argument for play rights to the best Lego Mini figure.
"You'd think he was in a duel for his manhood," whispered her best buddy, Tina, as she sidled past.
Tina wasn't far off the mark as usual. As she observed the deteriorating scene, Gretchen reflected that it was probably a good idea if the transition to adulthood had been more or less successfully achieved before embarking upon parenthood. Dave got his way in the end causing Tyrone to pull his ace card, a massive tantrum, followed by the intervention of Sharlene with an eye-rolling huff for Dave and an indulgent smile for her boy. Win-win, smirked Tyrone, as he dropped to the floor in a pathetic heap and allowed the tears to flow freely. Bit of work needed there, thought Gretchen, as Dave skulked off into the corner toward the other dads.
It was well known around town that Dave's own father was a mean old bugger and his mother was on and off the booze throughout his childhood. How the hell was he supposed to know what to do with his own child? Without someone to help him, he'd likely end up like so many parents either modeling his own experience of the 'kids come last' approach, or re-actively swinging to the opposite extreme turning Tye into a spoilt brat surrounded by expensive stuff but with nothing of any value. Value being, in Gretchen's view, an endless supply of unconditional loving attention from parents, which was all any kid ever wanted or needed. Come to think of it, I could do with a bit of that myself, Gretchen thought wistfully. Since becoming a mum herself, it had become even more obvious to Gretchen that her relationship with her own parents was far from ideal.
Gretchen's eyes followed Dave to the two other men in the room, huddled in a mostly blokes-only zone with her own hubby Darren. There was Andrew, a Fly-In Fly-Out dad who always looked like he'd just stepped off the cover of Men's Health Magazine. He was a good man making the most of his time at home. He only saw his two kids, baby Wanda and toddler Christie, one week in five, being unfortunate enough to have the kind of swing that made him barely visible in the family home. He needs to quit, Gretchen thought, but would the marriage survive it? His partner, Naomi, confessed to problems and that she quite liked the time alone. She sometimes talked about Andrew as though he was some kind of cash cow, which made Gretchen wince, hoping for Andrew's sake that somehow he didn't pick up on it. Gretchen wasn't surprised that Andrew had developed into a reasonably heavy drinker as a means of coping with the all work, no play kind of hand he seemed to have been dealt. Gretchen figured he had to get his fun somehow, what else was there for the poor guy, working 12-hour days and then being loaded up with unrealistic expectations to be the perfect dad when he came home. Their situation was fertile ground for an extra-marital affair, thought Gretchen, but quickly pushed the idea away and prayed it wouldn't happen to her two friends. She felt only compassion for Andrew. How he managed to keep his impressive six-pack with all that drinking was a complete mystery. Maybe she could ask him for some tips, she pondered, as she looked down to her own post-pregnancy belly.
If Andrew was good quality wool, and Dave was rough cotton, then Julie's new man, Barry, was surely greasy rayon. Barry sat planted on the couch with his arm around Julie in what could only be described as an octopus-style grip. He spoke decibels louder than anyone else in the room and spilled mini-pavlova crumbs all over her rug with an annoying air of entitlement. "He's such a caring dad," Julie had gushed, having been with him for a total of three months. In fact, Barry was a creep; a serial womanizer with a preference for beautiful single mums with low self-esteem. Even worse, he was the controlling type who tried to exert the right to be daddy straight up without gaining any of the children's respect. Julie's youngest, Annabel, two, somehow having the higher self-regard of the two children, was totally onto the truth of the man. Gretchen heard that Annabel had simply bit Barry hard the first time they met. Jaxon, aged five, having already experienced a parade of partners, had decided it was in his best interests to play the adults' game. Jaxon realized that if he pretended mum's current boyfriend was his new daddy for keeps and a great guy, his mum would be nicer to him.
Jaxon knew that the latest man in the house would always come first. It was just how things were. It was his own fault, Jaxon had concluded. It was because of the bad blood in him. His mum was always telling Jaxon how he was just like his useless dad who had nicked off well before Jaxon's first birthday. Gretchen's heart went out to the little boy with his hardened face. He was the canvas on which Jules projected all of her own bitter discontent of Jaxon's father and most of the shortcomings of men in general, starting with her own father, whom she never knew, and more recently those men who had come and gone from her life since she had become a mother.
"Barry has left all his own kids and has no contact with them," Gretchen had bravely pointed out to Jules a few weeks back. "What makes you think he won't do the same with you?" But Jules refused to take off the blinkers of her fantasy that Bazza was the one.
So different to Darren, Gretchen mused, turning her attention quizzically to her hubby. He was soft-woven flannel, warm and reassuring. He was also often the most frustrating man on earth with his unmasculine urges to have total control of the kids' wardrobes, for example. In the early days, Gretchen had naively assumed that the kids' socks and undies drawers would surely be her domain and the more he rearranged and labeled the more indignant she became. This quirky habit was like so many of his other traits. Yes he was an odd mix of a man, for sure, but look at that butt she noted with appreciation as he bent forward to liberate a plate of gingerbreads from the two-year-olds and dig into them himself.