When I reached seventh grade, my parents started paying me to mow the lawn. We weren't really lawn people, though. We never fertilized or watered, and I don't think we even knew what an edger was. Of our half-acre lot, about two thirds was supposed to be grass, but if you left out the weeds, and the bare spots where we played WIFFLE ball, there was a lot less. Still, it had to be mowed, so I got the job.
I think our Sears and Roebuck mower was really a recycled gun turret. It weighed more than I did, and every time it rolled over a patch of gravel it sprayed my ankles with machine gun fire. I needed about two hours to finish the entire lawn – three if my grass allergies kicked in. That earned me a grand total of five dollars every week.
I guess the whole thing was supposed to be "character-building." That, and it meant my dad didn't have to mow the lawn. But looking back, I'm not sure what I really got out of it, other than pocket money and the occasional asthma attack. Still, that was my introduction to the world of work and money – my first experience with bringing home the bacon.
Bacon-bringing is the defining role of the traditional father. I learned that at an early age from an irrefutable source: TV sit-coms.
Every day, Ward Cleaver used to straighten his tie, kiss June on the cheek, and go off to work. We never found out what he did – for all we knew, he was a Mafia hit man. But the point is, work was at the heart of his identity. It's what made him a dad.
Of course, nowadays, the roles aren't so clear. Lots of moms have jobs, and lots of dads stay home with the kids. But the old ways are still imprinted on our psyches, and on our DNA.
A few years ago, a patient of mine was injured on the job and ended up on disability. Between his Workmen's Comp and his wife's job, they were still able to make ends meet, but he struggled with the fact that he couldn't work.
"I just sit around the house," he said, "like a piece of furniture. It's like I'm not a man anymore."
For most men, work is more than a paycheck – it's part of who we are. It gives us a sense of purpose, and a way to make an impact on the world. It's also how we protect and provide for our families, and in that way, it's an act of love.
For all these reasons, fathers have an emotional connection to work that can't be quantified. And yet, when we try to measure its worth, we end up counting dollars and cents. We pay our kids for mowing the lawn, or for cleaning their rooms, because we want to teach them the value of work. Instead, we end up teaching them the value of money.
Don't get me wrong – kids need to know about money, too. The sportswriter Tony Kornheiser spoke for fathers everywhere when he said his children see him as "an ATM with nose hair." Kids need to learn how to manage money and spend it wisely. They should learn how to earn it and how to save it. But they should also learn that money can't make them happy, or feed their souls. Money can't – but sometimes, work can.
A couple of years ago, on the first warm day of spring, I decided to clean up our garden and our disheveled yard. My younger daughter wandered out to see what I was doing.
"I'm bored," she said.
"Good," I said. "You can help me out here."
"How much will you pay me?" she asked.
"Same as I get. Zilch."
She went back inside, and I assumed that was the last I'd see of her. But a few minutes later she returned, wearing a pair of old sneakers and some oversized work gloves.
"Okay," she said. "What do I do?"
We worked all afternoon, stopping only once or twice for a gulp of water from the garden hose. We cleaned out the flower beds, trimmed back the bushes, and filled the compost bin until it groaned. As we scraped away the layers of matted leaves, we peeled off our own layers until we got down to T-shirts. The warmth of the sun felt strange and wonderful on our winter-pale arms.
When the work was done, we leaned on our rakes in the late, slanting light, and our giant shadows stretched across our tidy little yard.
"That was fun," she said. "Can we do it again some time?"
"You bet," I said. "Any time you want."
Jeff Lee refuses to edge his lawn in Seattle, Wash.