A Good Loss Of (Parental) Self

The parenting life suffers from many disadvantages: reduced hours of sleep, a severely compromised household budget, loss of intimacy with one’s partner, anxiety, the destruction of professional ambitions and drive, the list goes on (and on.) Still, parenting does offer one huge, off-setting benefit: a shitty day can be redeemed by your child’s good day. Or, in other words: on any given day, you can afford to fuck up, so long as your child does well.

The way this works is a familiar trope for most parents; you spend time with your child, engaged with him or her in one of many activities, physical or mental, each with their own learning curve, each possessed of their own particular developmental significance; you notice that during each enterprise, minor and major roadblocks occur, each threatening to derail your child’s onward and upward triumphal march toward greater maturity and accomplishment; you become accustomed to a kind of anxious holding of your breath as your child undertakes each activity; and then, as each is successfully surmounted, you figuratively exhale. In relief. And pride.  Perhaps it’s walking, perhaps it’s talking, perhaps it’s reading or riding a bike; no matter the task, the parent becomes invested, to varying degrees, in the successful ‘completion’ of each, in the successful attainment of each benchmark, real or imaginary.

And so it comes to be. Just as you revise–in response to your child’s presence in your life–your ‘table of values’ pertaining to intellectual and romantic and professional satisfaction and achievement in your lifetime, your notion of ‘a good life,’ a ‘life well lived,’ so do you revise–in response to your child’s onward progress in their life–your micro-and-daily sense of a ‘good day.’ Speaking for myself, a ‘useless’ academic day–which consists of little or no ‘heavy’ or ‘serious’ reading, few words written or drafted–can now be redeemed by the discovery that my daughter has read or written a humble word or two; those ‘minor’ increments seem far more significant than my usual pursuit of an ever-receding, ever-inaccessible intellectual ideal. A day on which I’m possessed of the usual middle-aged anxiety about physical performance or ability is quite easily salvaged by finding out that my ‘little girl’ has accomplished a physical task that seemed intractable until only recently. (For instance, this afternoon, my daughter succeeded in climbing a couple of routes that had thus far proven too difficult for her in our local climbing gym; the elation I experienced on witnessing her wave at me from the top of the climbing wall was a salutary antidote to my sense of physical disrepair following a couple of days of dietary disasters. My mood is still ebullient and will likely remain thus till tomorrow.)

These experiences speak to an ‘alarming’ loss of parental self, of course; but the idea of a wholly autonomous self is already risible for most parents; we are used to welcoming the collapse and implosion of many boundaries formerly held to be sacrosanct. Some losses are good ones.

 

On Being In A Quandary On Quandary Peak

On July 19th, my wife, my daughter (aged four and a half years), and I set off to hike Quandary Peak in Colorado–one of the state’s fifty-three fourteeners. We awoke at four a.m., left at five a.m. and after a longer-than-expected drive, were on the trail at 7:50AM. By Colorado standards this was a tad bit late for hiking a 14’er; the truly wise depart the trailhead a little after six so that they can be safely off the mountain in case of an afternoon thunderstorm–a very common occurrence in the Rockies. The hike up to Quandary’s summit is considered an ‘easy’ one by 14’er standards; there are no scrambles, no technical climbing is required, just a hike up to the top.

But that hike still requires you to gain some three thousand feet of elevation in a little over three miles, which can be a reasonably sized task if you are: a) not used to the altitude; b) a young human being with short legs. Both these conditions were true of my daughter, so our progress up the trail, and especially on Quandary’s East Ridge which offers a rocky path over talus, was markedly slower than the other folks heading on up. On several occasions, as my daughter complained of tiredness, and as I glanced up at the imposing East Ridge, I wondered if our plan to hike the mountain was truly practical. At about noon or so, we ran into some acquaintances heading down after having reached the summit. We stopped to chat; their closing remarks were, “You’ve got glorious weather today even if you’re a bit late!”

Famous last words.

We finally made it to the summit around 1:30 PM. Between 1 and 1:30 dark clouds rolled in as we ascended the final few steps to the summit; I reached first, my wife and daughter followed. My heart sank as we ate a hasty lunch; we were late, and our fortunes had changed for the worse, all too quickly. A storm was brewing, and we needed to get down, off the ridge, down among the trees, quickly. Thunder and lightning were threatening and an exposed ridge was no place to be.

Unfortunately, and entirely expectedly, our descent down the ridge was tediously slow; my daughter was exhausted and spent; her mood had changed for the worse. Getting her down a rocky trail with big steps was hard work; it was made harder by the rain and by a whipping wind that chilled us quickly. Up and around us, thunder rumbled, and lightning flashed. We continued on down, slowly, nervously, trying to keep our daughter’s spirits up as best as we could. She was not shivering, but did complain about the cold; we quickly threw on all the layers we had on her and continued walking. A bearded hiker walking down past us issued a chilling warning; he had noticed my wife’s hair standing up on end, a sign of static electricity in the air, and advised us to throw away our hiking poles if we heard a buzzing sound ‘like bees’–a warning of an impending lightning strike. We hurried on as best as we could through the intermittent sharp rain and wind, casting longing glances at the pine trees and sundry bushes below at treeline.  At 5:30 PM, I started to wonder if we would be able to get to the trailhead before it turned dark; our place was glacial and daylight was not unlimited.

Finally, once we made it to the treeline and as the weather improved, and temperatures rose, our pace quickened, and my daughter’s mood improved. She became receptive to humor again, and we even indulged in some horseplay as we approached the trailhead. We made it to our car at 6:30PM, damp and bedraggled and exhausted. But safe. A hot meal in Frisco restored our mood; my daughter dozed off in the restaurant, and only awoke once we had reached ‘home’ in Louisville.

We made several miscalculations: a) we should have done a ‘warm-up’ hike to ease into the rigors of this ascent, especially because we were hiking with my daughter, who has hiked a bit before but would have still found the learning curve steep on a hike that involved three thousand feet elevation gain; b) we should have found a way to start earlier; c) we should have made a snap decision sometime between 1 and 1:30 PM to have turned back–we were definitely guilty of a little ‘summit fever,’ perhaps understandable for we were very close to the summit when the bad weather did show up.

Still, in the end, like all ‘good’ adventures, the  hard times ended safely, and we had a stock of stories for the future. And my daughter has bragging rights to her first 14’er.

 

Letting Your Childhood Make Your Parenting Easier

To be a good parent, think like a child. Well, that was deep. Let me see if I can unpack that. First, think like the child you were, or imagine and remember yourself as being; in any case, this is the best you can do. Now, think about what your perception of your  parents was like in that time of your life–again, as best as you can remember it. Take as long as you like. (Some of us might need extended therapy sessions to induce such self-knowledge.) Got that? Good. Now, open your eyes, and look around at your parenting world: are you now open to the possibility your child might be perceiving the world–and your place within it–the way you  used to? And if that is the case, do you have any reason to imagine your child needs the  parenting you think it does?

I make these suggestions to reduce some of the parental anxiety that comes from a peculiar sort of overburdening of the child: ascribing to him or her fears, anxieties, needs, beliefs, that exist largely within parental fancies and imaginings.  The best antidote to such anxieties is the thought experiment I describe above. (Standard caveats about neurotic responses to my suggestions apply; neuroses will construct parental memories as feverishly anxious as they need to be in order to sustain present parenting patterns.)

I am drawn to make such claims because–as might be imagined, I revisited an episode of parental anxiety, and was able to mitigate it somewhat by casting my mind back as I described above. When I’m alone at home with my daughter, I often fret about whether she is sufficiently occupied, whether she can be alone by herself while I attend to something else that needs my time. Because I often suffered from loneliness in my teen years (and sometimes even later), my usually melancholic disposition drew me to project these same feelings onto my daughter, causing me untold worry if I were to ever consider stepping away from her; I would imagine her lost and bewildered, wondering what to do, floundering about helplessly in her isolation. But when I thought back to what my reactions were as a toddler when left to my devices by my parents–as far as such memories can be trusted–I realized I had been rather comfortable in those circumstances: I had daydreamed, played with my limited collection of toys, browsed through picture books, or just investigated perfectly ordinary physical objects in my surroundings. Interestingly enough, those times had been rather enjoyable; I wasn’t constantly having instructions pertaining to ‘reality’ thrust in my face, and could just play with the elements of the various fantastic worlds I inhabited. When I see how my daughter occupies herself when she is ‘left alone,’ I sense some of these diversions–or activities like them–occupy considerable time and space for her as well.  If that’s the case, she’ll be perfectly fine while I step away; in fact, she might even welcome it. (As interestingly enough, she has reassured me on occasion when I check in her to find out if it’s OK for me to ‘do my thing.’)

There are many ways in which our childhood is a burden for our parenting; there are others by which it can relieve some of its cares.

Parental Anxiety And Its True Subject

In ‘What The Childless Fathers of Existentialism Teach Real DadsJohn Kaag and Clancy Martin write:

Why do we put limits on our children? Why is a daughter not allowed to climb that tree or jump across a river?…Why are neither daughters nor sons allowed to run away? Father knows best….virtually all fathers think that they are operating in their child’s best interests, but we have been at this long enough to know, if we are honest or authentic, that most of us protect our children, at least in part, because we are avoiding or coming to grips with our own Kierkegaardian anxiety. The more we argue that it is about the kids’ safety, the more obvious it is that it is all about us. [link added.]

Kaag and Martin’s insight here is available to most parents by the briefest of introspections: examine your feelings as your child comes to harm, or even approaches it; pay close attention; what you are averse to is that terror you experienced when you first let the full range of possibilities that awaited your child fully sink in. ‘Don’t ever do that again!’ we say, but sotto voce, we continue, ‘Because I don’t ever want to feel like that again.’

Interestingly enough, I had an inkling of this aspect of parenthood as a child, when I witnessed my mother’s reaction to my brother after he had injured himself at the playground:

My mother’s face blanched as she saw my brother’s face. But she said nothing as she raced to the medicine cabinet and returning with cotton wool swabs, a mug of water, and some antiseptic solution, quickly got to work. She efficiently cleaned and wiped and medicated. And then, one of her swipes revealed that the blood on the face did not conceal a gouged out eye. My brother had not been blinded; he had gotten away with a cut above the eye.

At this point, my mother slapped my brother. It wasn’t a hard blow; but a stinger across the cheek, nonetheless. My brother, quietly undergoing the patchwork till then, stared back at my mother, astonished and hurt….Watching this little drama go down, I wasn’t puzzled at all. My mother must have been petrified when I had brought my brother home late, a bloody mess. She loved us, powerfully, a love that often racked her with deep fears that we might ever be hurt in any way. But she had suppressed every other reaction of hers in favor of immediately providing succor to him. With the most immediate wounds cleaned and shown to be non-threatening, her relief had combined with the anger she had felt at my brother for subjecting her to that terrible anxiety.  That slap followed. I felt sorry for my brother but I felt for my mother too. I knew why she had snapped. And slapped.

Perhaps I’m overstating the knowledge I possessed at the moment, but not by too much. I was about seven or so years old and I had had ample opportunity to study my mother’s  interactions with us. Her anxiety about us was transparent in action and word; as mine about my daughter is to me now.

Broadchurch’s Grieving Mother And Our Reactions To ‘Victims’

Viewers of the BBC’s Broadchurch are subjected to a trial of sorts: we have to watch, in some excruciating detail, the reactions of parents, and in particular, a mother, to the violent death of a beloved child–at the hands of a malevolent, unknown actor. Paying close attention to our reactions to what we see and hear is instructive.

In Broadchurch Beth Latimer’s reactions to the death of her son, Danny, cover a wide range: there is incoherent grief and bewilderment and shock, and then, unsurprisingly, rage and resentment too. (Her husband’s infidelity, disclosed as a result of the homicide investigation adds further insult to injury; it is a miracle that the couple is still together at the end of the second season. This is especially so because we are aware of the grim statistics pertaining to the high likelihood of couples separating after the loss of a child.)

Beth’s anger–sometimes directed at her husband, sometimes at the pace of the investigation, and therefore, the homicide detectives, sometimes at other residents of their town, and later, at the wife of the murder suspect–is volatile, threatening to immolate those who come within its ambit. The viewer–like those in the show who come into contact with an angry Beth–instinctively shrinks back; this is not a rage to be trifled with. In the second season, in particular, Beth’s rage at DS Ellie Miller becomes particulary pointed, and at one stage, veers into unkindness and ungraciousness. My deployment of these latter adjectives should give some indication of the reaction her rage may provoke in viewers: we start to become impatient with Beth and her grieving.

Indeed; as Beth’s rage continues, we start to lose some sympathy for her; we find ourselves wishing she’d find it within her heart to forgive and forget; to ‘move on,’ even if only for just a bit. The moment we do so, of course, we reprimand ourselves: How dare we tell a grieving mother to get over it? How dare we set up a timeline for an appropriate period of grieving? How could we possibly attempt to circumscribe the nature of how Beth expresses her sense of loss? And so even as we reproach ourselves, we acknowledge the conflicted nature of our reactions to her.

These reactions are illuminative. We feel sympathy and perhaps some empathy for a ‘victim’ but these sentiments are limited; these limits become all too apparent when the ‘victim’ is not a passive recepient of her fate. It would be far easier to tolerate Beth’s reactions if she did not rage so and merely retreated into a grim, brooding silence, though even then, were she to continue to interact with others in a noncommittal, sullen, uncooperative fashion, we might find ourselves tempted, a little too easily, to tell her to ‘snap out of it.’  The uncomfortable truth here is that the ‘victim’ makes us uncomfortable; we are reminded of the ever-present contingency of our lives, of our success in life’s sweepstakes, of the fragility of fortune; ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ is not an easy reminder to take on board; we wish the ‘victim’ would cease and desist, thus pushing away these grim reminders from our awareness.

These considerations are relevant to the reactions often on display in political discourse, in the reactions made to those protesting past wrongs and demanding redressal. Sympathy and empathy are possible, and sometimes even extended, but they are not easy to sustain; the protester bids us face uncomfortable truths we would much rather not deal with. The protests grate; we find faults with their form and content all too easily; too loud, too long, too shrill, the list goes on. Pipe down, move on, get over it; admonitions spring easily to our lips. After all, if we could find reprimands for a grieving mother, when her cause for grief lies so close by in space and time, then what chance do we have when confronting those who are protesting injustices and crimes which began a long time ago? Even if those have continued into the present? Their vintage provenance seems to drag them into the past, and that is all the excuse we need to justify our impatient and irate reaction. Enough already; keep moving; my resources are limited, and I can spare no more for you.

If the personal is political, then we should not be surprised to find, in revealing reactions like these, glimpses of the many subterrenean forces that animate our political stances.

On Hoping For The Miracle Of Precocity

A few days ago, I met some neighbors, out for a walk with their son (who was riding in a stroller.) As we chatted, they turned to their son and asked him a question or two. Answers were not forthcoming. They pressed on, but there was no response. These questions were innocent ones: “What number is that?” or “Where do we live?”  A few seconds later, the young lad’s parents laughed a little nervously and said ‘Well, I guess you’re being a bit shy today, aren’t you?” We all laughed and bade each other goodbye.

Plenty seemed to lurk beneath the surface of that seemingly innocent encounter. As the young lad was prompted by his parents, I tensed, hoping for his parents’ sake that he would respond, eliciting approving chuckles from me and beaming smiles from his parents; I would then be able to able to congratulate him–and his parents–on his precociousness (and their role in nurturing it), his grasp of concepts vital for his continuing maturing as a human; they could bask in his reflected glory. But it was not to be, and the resultant disappointment was almost palpable in all of us.

It is entirely possible I was projecting my own worries and insecurities on my friends. I will confess to worrying–almost incessantly, like many other parents about me–about whether my child is keeping up with the appropriate developmental landmarks in the cognitive and physical domains (and sometimes the moral too.) In this context, the slightest suggestion of precociousness is seized upon as manna from heaven and shown off proudly. The failure of the child to ‘perform on demand’ like a well-trained seal is then cause for considerable disappointment. The benign type remains internalized in the parent; the malign type is directed at the child.

Matters are considerably worse if one lives, as I do, in a place like Brooklyn, Ground Zero for The Overachieving Child and The Overly Anxious Parent. Here, prodigies abound, reared by parents of seemingly unlimited intelligence, achievement, and ambition. They’ve read all the right parenting books; they know where all the city’s best offerings for children are; they seem to know how best to place their child on the Fast Track. You can recite as many mantras about accepting your child for ‘who he or she is’ but those nostrums fight hard to make an appearance when confronted with the worry that your child has to ‘compete’ with sundry geniuses and their superbly switched-on parents. You remain well aware that ‘good schools’ are hard to get into; that the world that awaits your child is not increasing in tolerance or kindness for outliers. Try as you might to take on board the various bits of parental comfort food that are sent your way by those who’ve been lucky enough to see their children flower and blossom into something approximating their parents’ hoped-for vision, the daily reality of dealing with the irregular ‘progress’ of your child continues to provide a steady IV line of incurable anxiety.

And much like the believers of old, we continue to hope for miracles, for displays of the spark of precocity that will reassure us all is well, that we are saved.

 

Standing Back And Letting The World And The Child Do Their Thing

Last summer, I met an old graduate school friend after several years. We chatted and exchanged notes about the intervening years and all the issues that had consumed us in that interim: finding an academic position, the dreaded tenure and promotion process, writing, and of course, bringing up children. Because I came to fatherhood late, we found ourselves talking about very different phases of parenting. At one stage in our conversation, while talking about her teenaged son, she remarked that she had been struck by how–after a certain age, perhaps as early as five or six, her son had, in a manner, grown up on his own with little ‘direct input’ from her; she had watched, in some amazement, as her awkward little boy, thanks to his own peculiar and particular interactions with the world around him, and consumed by his own curiosity and drive, had blossomed into a supremely interesting and ‘switched-on’ young man. She had brought him into this world, but he had built his own relationship with it, found his space within it and partaken of its many offerings, utilizing them in his life as needed, bringing to fruition his own interests and desires. (Forgive me, ‘J,’ if I’m not reproducing your observations with the appropriate fidelity.)

I listened with great interest. I realized that, as part of a thought related to some observations I offered here about parenting, I had often hoped for the world to ‘support’ my parenting; that, exhausted and anxious about whether I was ‘doing it right,’ I had worried that my partner and I were not going to be able to do this bringing-up thing by ourselves; we needed help. What ‘J’ had been experiencing and reporting on to me, was precisely that kind of ‘help.’ For the right place to look for aid with our parenting, for support in our efforts to ‘raise’ our child as best as we could, was at our child herself and the world she encountered: what she would do on her own, in the world she saw and experienced, with her own perspectives and orientations and interests. ‘J’s observations resonated with the kinds of statements I had heard other parents make: they were often amazed and surprised by what their children ‘brought home’ with them, by what they had learned on their own, and indeed, how they had broadened their parents’ horizons in so doing.

It’d be entirely dishonest of me to say I experienced anything other than relief at hearing ‘J’s remarks. Perhaps there was some hope in this parenting business after all; perhaps I didn’t need to be so intimidated and oppressed by the thought that I would transmit my dysfunctionalities and incompetences to my child; perhaps I needed to wait and watch as much as I needed to intervene and guide; perhaps, to let myself be guardedly optimistic as well consumed by my usual despondency, I should prepare myself for the pleasant surprises that await me as a result of the forthcoming interactions between my daughter and the world we’ve brought her into.