Saturday, October 16, 2010


At 3.75, there is a certain way of running on the cratered surface of playground wood chips, with arms bent at the elbows like the upper limbs of a marsupial, tucked in and irrelevant. There is the forward motion -- toddling -- generated by legs swinging without hips to smooth them out, the torso upright and isolated from the movements of the lower half, so unlike the athletic movements of a 6 year old. At 3.75 persist the red apple spots on the cheeks of a boy that are the envy of passing women.

At 3.75, we are bent over, he more comfortably than I, examining what flora can survive the Park District's weekly motorized guillotine: thick blades of something resembling lawn grass, and the flowers of a common clover plant; bottle caps burrowing their way to archaeological posterity, and the locust seedpods that he collects into bundles because they rattle like plastic toys. At 3.75, I show him freshly shucked buckeyes, and he is not moved. Not much later I circle round a tree, harvesting cicada shells, which he drops from his hand as soon as I place them there.

When my son turns 3.75, as his father turns 41.5, our individual chronometers briefly stop, marking an absolute moment in time with two particular values. At that moment, in an empty playground between Lake Shore Drive on one side and a late-season pickup game on the other, we are visited by the daddy dialectic.

The dialectic is better known for its role in cosmic things, revealing its staging of history's greatest events in small and offhand ways, as when Alfred Hitchcock appears in a film of his own direction. For those who happen to be listening, perhaps writing a thesis in philosophy a few floors above, the morning echo of hooves through the streets of a German town, trailing behind the horse that carries Napoleon, announces that the world has changed forever.

The daddy dialectic produces revolutions of a smaller scale. When it visits us several weeks after the cicadas fall silent, it is not the insects but my son who has molted. I can see his transparent shell. It is in the baby swing, with the little rubber baskets for four-legged children. "Daddy, those swings are for babies," he tells me from the big-kids swing a few yards away. Then, realizing that he is now a creature with a past, no longer living in a uniform, timeless present: "I used to be a baby. Do you remember when I was a baby? Were you a baby, too, daddy?"

Yes, you used to be a baby, it was just yesterday and I remember it well. And of course, I used to be a baby too. But I don't remember that.

And so departed the daddy dialectic into the autumn afternoon. In my hands it deposited the worldly recollections of my son's first 3.75 years of life, like the molted cicada shells I had handed to him in August. I hold these moltings as if I had lived in them myself. But to him, they are the only signs of a first experience that will always be alien, reflected back to him by the others and objects he touched but does not remember: family albums, cell cam pics posted to Facebook, preschool artwork, stories we make a point to tell him or the ones we manage, haphazardly, to remember. What is clear and distinct to me in the run of those 3.75 years will be the hazy, enchanted, mythological prelude to his later life.

Of course I, who am interested enough in his childhood that for three years I have written about it on this blog, remember virtually none of my own. Sometimes, in the hallway at preschool, or on ever rarer occasions when I am alone in a cafe, I hear mothers trading stories about the wild animals trapped in their slings, the untrained or tranquilized primates that challenge and bewilder them, as if they had never been such very small children themselves. To hear and join in their chatter, the experience of an other's earliest youth unfolds as fresh and as rough as accounts of the first voyages of discovery, when continents and oceans were opened to Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama.

But the freshness of early childhood and voyages of discovery are only possible after a tremendous forgetting. What Columbus found had been there for some time, and others had come across it well before him. In laughing with and being charmed by small children, I am laughing with and being charmed by what I imagine I used to be, seizing on their image in order to resurrect vestiges of the toddler's neural architecture preserved within the later formations of my cerebrum. I hold in trust the memories of my son's first years, and he restores me to a semblance of my earliest self.

At 3.75, the days of October string out before us like a gallery of paper lanterns twirling slowly on a sagging rope. They filter dry light through draperies of cellulose, to enclose the world in glowing boxes or orange, red, and gold. At the end of this collapsing gallery that arches above our sidewalk waits November and, not far beyond, birthday number 4. For the first time, he knows his birthday is approaching. And he knows that it will be followed by another one with yet another number, the way he now knows that fall is a season that is followed by winter, the way he used to be a baby, and now is not.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Here's to Having Kids!

One of my guilty pleasures is taking about 15-20 minutes each Friday to read Bill Simmons’ column on Written from the perspective of someone who is a passionate fan, a sports addict, and a recreational gambler, Simmons’ column jumbles together sports, cultural touchstones, mildly puerile comedy, and anecdotes from his personal life in a way that I generally find amusing.

This past summer, however, a couple of his comments rubbed me the wrong way.

Bill Simmons has two kids. While his editors want him to avoid talking about them, every once in a while he can’t help it. Over the summer, he wrote a couple of times about things his young son had gotten into – vomiting in the hallway, slinging dog poop around the house. He prefaced these stories with the line, “Here’s another reason not to have children.” Now I know he was trying to be funny, and in other columns he has talked about how much he likes his kids, but whenever I read that line I found myself getting annoyed.

By employing this kind of light-hearted complaining about kids in a column aimed at 15 to 40 year old men, Simmons is doing fathers a disservice. The line “here’s another reason not to have children” draws upon and perpetuates for his audience a larger discourse of fatherhood that positions ‘dear old dad’ as a largely disengaged parent for whom the kids are mostly a nuisance imposed upon him by his wife. This is the same ‘dad’ who in Hallmark’s humorous Father’s Day cards spends his non-work hours playing golf, mowing the yard, or taking a nap (sans kids). While this is certainly not the only discourse of fatherhood out there, the prevalence and widespread acceptance of this particular trope makes it more difficult for me to be taken seriously when I speak in genuine and caring ways about my children.

Since this summer, I’ve been trying to imagine a counterpoint to Simmons’ “reasons not to have kids.” The statement I had in mind is not about why my kids are great per se, but more about why I like having kids in general. Articulating this general thought has been trickier than I first expected.

The reasons not to have/like kids are pretty easy to capture. They boil down to two logical categories:

1) Kids require you to do things you don’t want to do (e.g. clean up excrement, negotiate over petty things like how many spoonfuls of vegetables to eat, forego sleep)

2) Having kids requires you to give up things you want to do (e.g. lazily reading the newspaper on Sunday morning, taking a spur of the moment trip, sleep again)

The likes are much harder to parse into simple groups. I find the times when I am most aware of how much I love my children come in unpredictable and irrational bursts. Sometimes it’s when they are wandering around drowsily after first waking up from a nap. Other times it’s when I watch them happily work on something together. I also really enjoy hearing them laugh uncontrollably and seeing the pride they feel when they are suddenly able to do something new.

In fashioning a reason to like having kids, it was tempting to group these moments under a label like ‘innocence’ or ‘purity’ or ‘simplicity’ and to pose them against the exhaustion, stress, cynicism, manipulation, and jealousy of adulthood. But this opposition is fanciful and unfair to both children and adults. My children are not na├»ve actors in the world. They have their demands. They have their desires. They have their strategies to pursue them. In this, they are not pure, innocent, or simple. Similarly, as an adult I don’t find my life to be defined in world-weary terms. Adulthood is so much more complicated and interesting than that.

I’ve found that a more honest assessment of what I really like about having kids has to do with the quality of newness with which their world is flooded. For my kids, so much of what they encounter in the world is new and unknown. This makes the smallest things become a cause for great excitement and investigation. For example, I gave Pip a pair of scissors yesterday, and he spent a solid two hours patiently cutting large pieces of scrap paper into tiny bits. Similarly, Polly spent much of this morning shining a flashlight into various rooms, against different walls, and inside a range of containers to see how the color of the reflected light changed from spot to spot. It’s fun to be taken in by this kind of fine-grained curiosity and experimentation. It reminds me of how intricately textured the world is and how satisfying such mundane things as the click of scissors in your hand can be.

This quality of newness also points towards what I think is the fundamental reason I enjoy having kids. A friend and I were talking recently about the current iteration of the do-it-yourself movement. He was describing to me how enjoyable he found it to create something from scratch that he could have just gone to a store and bought off the shelf. For him, this joy comes from a combination of two factors: 1) learning how something like butter or a radio actually comes to exist, and 2) feeling an inordinate pride at having made them with his tools. Somehow, the butter tastes sweeter and the radio sounds clearer when the labor of production comes directly from his own hands.

As my friend talked, I realized that the feelings he was describing were very close to how I feel about having children. First, I get to experience how a person is made. I have watched as my own children learned to crawl then stand then walk. I have listened as they moved from babbling to words to sentences. I have seen them develop particular interests and the infinite idiosyncrasies that sculpt a human into a person. I have even had the chance to tinker with these processes by introducing Pip and Polly to a whole variety of words, ideas, and activities.

And then, when things go well, I get that intense feeling of pride. Everything Pip and Polly accomplish was achieved better or quicker or smarter than anyone else’s child could have done. It’s a bit silly, but after investing such large amounts of time and energy in something or someone it’s hard not to become overly emotional about their successes (and failures). I understand now why professional athletes cry at the end of championship games.

And so, here is my counterpoint to Bill Simmons and his reasons not to have kids: Raising children is the most intense and personal DIY project you can ever imagine. Each child is different, and you have to figure out a tremendous amount of stuff to make your parenting work. But, in the process, you can develop a relationship with this person unlike any other. You can also come to understand much more clearly why people are who they are and how they come to do the things that they do.

And if all goes well, there is no feeling sweeter than parental pride (whether it’s deserved or not).

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