Monday, November 30, 2009

No Stopping Sam: or, why very few babies are Hollywood scriptwriters

As baby Sam closes in on four months, I’ve given up on movies. Evening chores mean less time for entertainment. It used to be a question of just rocking, but now there’s bathing, massaging, feeding and burping, and that’s just my wife. By the time Sam’s sleeping, Fitzsimmons and I are too tired to commit to a 90-minute movie. Romances are out, obviously, and comedy disappeared some time ago. Which leaves domestic drama as our preferred genre.

So now instead of watching films, I invent my own. There’s some borrowing from Hollywood, because after all, making up stuff for a living is hard work. Last Thursday, as I walked with Sam on Van Ness Avenue at six in the morning, I thought up a twist on Speed, the 1994 thriller in which a bomb on a bus is primed to blow if the vehicle drops below 50mph. After fifteen blocks of steady metronomic footfalls, Sam had finally fallen asleep in his sling. Then I realised that not only was I a mile from home, but if I stopped moving, he’d wake up.

‘Halt and the baby explodes’ ran through my head as I jiggled uncomfortably while waiting for the Jackson Street traffic lights. I wondered whether a better tagline would include bombs, given the ticking detonator strapped to my chest, but I wasn’t sure I could sneak it past the censors. Americans are notoriously po-faced about combining nitroglycerine with babies. Plus it’d be tough to keep everything PG.

At Vallejo Street, Sam started to wake up and I had to get a move on before he began yelling. Unlike most British cities, San Francisco seems to have no highway regulations for the use of horn or police sirens before 7am, but given Sam’s Richter-like capabilities I’m pretty sure they’d say something. Walking downhill was handy for picking up speed – we were up to about 4mph. It doesn’t sound much compared to Sandra Bullock’s breakneck bus-driving, until you remember the extra fifteen pounds bouncing on my ribcage. For those of you who don’t have children, try to imagine all-you-can-eat pizza followed by a steeplechase.

We caught green lights at both Union and Greenwich, but I knew the real danger lay ahead. Lombard Street. Six lanes of commuter traffic sweeping in from Highway 101. The odds were against us. Even if we were lucky enough to catch the lights and Sam didn’t wake up, the exhaust fumes would probably kill us. It would be like snipping the blue wire only to find out that instead of defusing the bomb, you’ve started the countdown.

The lights were red. I cursed American streets, their rigid blocks and ridiculous jaywalking laws. Sam snuffled. We’d been walking now for nearly forty minutes. My shoulders throbbed. If he woke up, I might have to do the whole thing again. I looked west, towards the green treeline of the Presidio; there were no cars or cops on Lombard Street for three hundred yards. We could still make it. I leapt off the foot-high curb…

Later, after I’d defused the baby and put him to sleep, I wondered whether waking Sam was really what I feared. Crossing Lombard was like parenting, a little leap of faith. Stopping represented doubt, that anxiousness innate in every parent. Are we doing this the right way? Will he ever be this cute again? What comes next? In the tiny thrillers of our own lives, dread drives our blind pursuit of infant development: the first tooth, the first step, the first word. And out beyond our fear of stopping, lies our need for speed.

Simon Hodgson

Friday, November 20, 2009

Four Observations About the Bad Parent "Movement"

I got a call this morning from a journalist asking about the "bad parent" trend, wherein folks like Bad Mother author Ayelet Waldman are proudly revealing their most secret parental failures. That got me to thinking about this topic, and I thought I'd share some random observations:

1) Fathers are pretty much defined as "bad parents," as the term is being popularly used. When we talk about proud "bad parents," most of the time we're really talking about "bad mothers" who are rebelling against the idea that they must be perfect to be good. Ayelet isn't actually a "bad mother," at least as revealed by her book and in her husband's new book, Manhood for Amateurs; Bad Mother is a reaction against the unrealistic, cognitively dissonant standards to which mothers are held. Meanwhile, fathers are not held, and do not hold themselves, to the same standards. When fathers reveal their foibles and failures as parents, they do it, by and large, with a laugh. They are allowed to be human, which, I think, adds more to the pile of evidence that guys remain a privileged class in America and the world.

2) That said, I think the "bad mother" thing is also evidence of the degree to which the genders are measurably converging in attitudes and behaviors. Wide disparities remain; it's just that differences are smaller than they were ten, twenty, fifty years ago. More women expect to have careers, and many do have them; more men expect to do more housework and childcare, and they are doing more at home. Fathers and mothers are both expected to play breadwinning and caregiving roles. That's a big change. When moms like Ayelet shake their fist at "good mother" standards, in many respects they're asking to be judged by a standard that's closer to the twenty-first-century "good father"--someone who is perhaps a slob and is perhaps not always the most empathic person in the world, who perhaps carves out space for a life apart from his family, but who is still a day-to-day presence in the lives of his children and fulfilling whatever role falls to him as parent.

3) That flexibility is key; in a time of profound gender role fragmentation, that's what both mothers and fathers have asked for--the ability to be themselves and to be judged by the circumstances of their lives--as opposed by the standards of fifty years ago or by the standards of people who imagine that their own private circumstances are universal. In a dense, connected, diverse world, tolerance and openness are necessities as well as virtues. And as I think Ayelet's work reveals, acceptance of one's own failures is a pathway to accepting other people's "failures," as we perceive them. Self-compassion leads to compassion for the people in our lives as well as a more generalized social compassion.

4) I won't personally be jumping on the "bad parent" bandwagon. I've rarely felt oppressed by the judgements of others about my fatherhood--but I have been confused about what, exactly, I'm supposed to be doing as a father. For that reason, my book The Daddy Shift is not a bad parent book--it's about good fathers, and what ideals help them to be good. There are individually bad fathers, of course, just as there really are genuinely bad mothers, but fathers as a group are often judged as "bad parents" for not behaving like mothers. That's why we need a good father movement. Moms might indeed need a bad parent movement. But fathers need positive, aspirational images, and tools for negotiating roles that their fathers were never expected to adopt. And I think we need other people, particularly the women in our lives, to understand the kind of fathers we are trying to be.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

My Baby Rides the Short Bus -- a review

I enjoy learning things from a book, those moments when you are stunned at what you just read, or shocked at some statistic, some point, some example. Those are the books I cherish. My Baby Rides the Short Bus was just such an experience.

From reading the introduction and on through the essays, I learned that some parents of special needs kids are radical prior to becoming parents and some become radicalized through parenting. I learned that they struggle, make mistakes, come to realizations about things they did, realizations that cause them pain, that inform choices they will make in the future, that serve as a catalyst for standing up and fighting for change.

I learned that, like parents everywhere, "they learn how their kids function and they make it happen as well as they can." Just like me; just like you.

But I also learned about the complexity of parenting, how it is something we learn to do, how we discover the depth of our militancy, awareness and patience, strengths sometimes we didn’t know we even had. Until we needed them.

I learned that the medical profession and schools and court systems, which can be difficult to navigate in general, can be downright ruthless when dealing with a special needs child and family.

I learned how encounters with these institutions can belittle, can terrify, can cut deeply.

I also learned that encounters with other parents sometimes hurt the most.

I learned a little humility.

I learned new words: neurotypical, authentic activism, and scores of acronyms I never knew existed.

I was reminded how sometimes the simplest things are the most effective, like playing with your child. Down on the ground rolling around.

I was reminded of the intensity of love. How sometimes the best thing to do is pick up your child off the floor and walk away, leave the office, ignore the advice. And yet, sometimes the most difficult act of love is to let go, to trust.

Reading My Baby Rides the Short Bus, I was reminded of the ferocity with which we love, the depths of our feelings, the need for community.

I was reminded of the power of sharing stories.

These are the stories I want to hear. The stories of pain and fear, stories of surprising strength, of learning, and then of doing. As Sharis Ingram writes, “at some point you will give up trying so hard, and come to trust yourself, trust your child, trust what *is.*”

Trust me, and go get the book yourself.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Startled Reflections

In the dark days of Sam’s first month, back when I wondered whether the diaper existed that could contain him, his principal redeeming feature was his infant semaphore. Startle Reflex occurs when babies instinctively raise their hands. Because they don’t yet recognize their own limbs, they’re frightened. I was tickled by his ‘what the...?’ expression as well as the idea of infants scaring themselves with their own arms.

Babies’ startle reflexes are totally natural; just as when the doctor boings your knee with a rubber hammer. For some reason, I always giggle at that too. Maybe I’m the immature one here, not my boy. Back then I used to watch Sam sleeping, occasionally freaking himself out like a stoner watching a looped horror movie. Only later did I recognize that it was me who was crazy, the lunatic adult who sat rapt on the edge of the bed, chuckling quietly as his tiny son raised his arms aloft like a footballer encouraging fans.

In his fourth month, I marvelled at his developing dexterity, his growing strength. Though he quickly became accustomed to his arms and no longer scared himself, the sudden two-handed salutes continued. I wondered what he was thinking, my tiny son venturing into his embryonic imagination – I imagined an event, an arena, and Sam rising intermittently to join a Mexican Wave amid a roaring crowd that only he could hear.

At five months old, he still naps occasionally with both arms raised over his head, as if surrendering to sleep. But he’s graduated from the startle reflex, in which his empty hands appear unexpectedly. Now the problem is what’s in his hands. Although Sam can pick up objects with the grip of a Burmese python, he has yet to master releasing anything. I watched him today, impassively gnawing Zoe the plastic giraffe. He drooled on her little nubbly antlers, wrapped a slimy paw around her nose and bit her foot. Giraffe feet are probably a delicacy somewhere in the world. Pig’s trotters are big in the Deep South, I’m told, so imagine what kind of cachet a giraffe offers for bigger game eaters.

Sam eventually tired of the chewtoy snack and tossed it aside with the casual profligacy of a drunken Mississippi gambler. Only he didn’t. Because his release isn’t perfected, a tightly-gripped giraffe appeared immediately in front of him. He stuck his lower lip out and looked at me desperately. I picked him up and nuzzled him and told him he was a good fellow and that a giraffe in the hand was worth two in the bush. It was the least I could do. After all, where else am I going to find a home entertainment system like this. I can’t wait till he discovers his feet.

Simon Hodgson

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Write for rad dad zine's next issue: December 1st

Winter fast approaches. For my family it’s a time of contradictions. The time of holidays and visiting family. A time to question traditions, yet a time my kids begin compiling lengthy lists of things they want, they must have. Socially, it’s a time of rampant consumerism, of the spectacle of this capitalist culture at its most perverse.

What are we to do as parents, as individuals? What do you do?

For the next issue of rad dad tell us; consider winter in all its glory, in all its potential, the beauty of quietness, of hibernation, in the profound way it sets the stage for the coming rebirth.

Send in stories, polemics, celebrations, recipes, songs sung with you and your people to keep at bay the monsters, lurking, lurking...

With much love and respect,