I love being a dad. It’s the most rewarding job I’ll ever have. I love my kids. (That’s a photo of them, on the morning after a gorgeous cold front came in, having decided that when the weather gets cool, the cool pretend to be homeless.)
That’s the proclamation (minus the parentheses). And it may be obvious, but because this kind of thing is rarely said by me or by the parents in my social group I proclaim it now. My experience of fatherhood has been incredible, though I’m not in the habit of thinking about how good it really is. But something happened over the weekend that got me thinking about why some parents, like myself, would undersell the experience of parenthood.
I saw a story called “Parenthood Got You Down?”, answered, “Yes, sometimes,” and read the article. The author states, “It’s really hard, being a parent. At times, it’s crushing. But you’re never allowed to say this.” I read on and, recognizing such sentiments as exhaustion and frustration, figured I’d post a link on Facebook, adding my own comment, “At some level we all know that parenthood is not all roses, but it’s always good to hear it from someone else.”
Soon thereafter a friend did something that flies in the face of Facebook protocol: she offered a different point of view. And it was a welcome one. She said that she didn’t like the tone of the article, that it should be evident that parenthood is driving her crazy, and that she chooses to focus on the love and magic that her kids have added to her life. Her words didn’t make an immediate impact, but I thought about them all day and have ever since.
In the broad culture of parenthood there is one contingency that exerts a pressure on parents not to speak of their hardships, but there is another group that exerts an inverse pressure not to speak of their joys. The NPR reporter seems to be coming from the first world, the realm governed by what Betty Friedan might have called the Parental Mystique, that nagging feeling of empty isolation that parents feel as they strive to show others that all they want is to be great parents and that making baby food and attending play-dates are sufficiently fulfilling activities for an adult. This world would be the one in which a parent may feel that he’s not allowed to speak of the dark side of parenting.
But I inhabit the other realm, in which an ironic, wry detachment characterizes the way we show the world that we’re a different kind of parent. I consort mostly with folks who come from a fine or liberal arts background. We are a classically liberal-minded lot, eager to live in way that demonstrates our immersion in forms of culture that the American middle class in general doesn’t encounter. We attend art openings; we’ve seen A Doll’s House; we’ve heard of Proust. We are therefore loathe to be seen as conventional, and nothing is more conventional than becoming a parent. We mammals are expected to do just two things between birth and death: we have sex and have babies. We artist-types can get away with the former, but then to go and procreate just as we are expected to? How bourgeois! What’s next? St. John’s Bay, Dockers, and your cell phone on a belt clip?
(Btw, that video is the best thing ever made by an evangelical Oklahoma mega-church.) So, to speak for myself, I have erred on the side of appearing not to care one way or another that I’m a parent, as if it’s just one of my several responsibilities in life that I take in stride. I hang around with a lot of artists, most of whom have no kids, and I’ve made every effort to blend in by downplaying the enormous amount of love that fatherhood has added to my life. But, as an artist, my domains are Truth and Beauty. T & B don’t distinguish between what is good or bad, but simply what is and isn’t, so if I don’t acknowledge the broad reality of parenthood as both difficult and magical then I am falling short of my duty as an artist. Parenthood is the world’s biggest half-full, half-empty glass: the potential for despair or elation is as great as life has to offer, and a glass this huge, even if only half-full, offers more than a lifetime’s worth of rejuvenating waters.
I call on parents to speak openly about the best and the worst, and everything between, of their experiences. It’s okay to feel wretched or euphoric about being a mom or a dad. The pressures we feel to appear to be a certain kind of parent are the product of internal forces, not external ones. Under- or over-selling parenthood does the noble vocation a disservice. Maybe, if more artist-parents were honest with childless artists about how magical parenthood is, more artists would have kids and it would be easier for me to find such people to hang out with! Not that the world needs more kids; but it could always use more love.
Here I lounge, 45 minutes from our house in Garland, just down the road from the preschool where JPS is at this moment attending his first day as a student in a classroom. He has been absolutely stoked about the coming of this day. Since this time last year, when he had to endure sending his sister off to 2nd grade while he remained buckled in his seat, and when he walked the halls of her elementary school holding my hand and watching kids who were just a little bigger than he is walking in lines, carrying backpacks and lunchboxes, he’s been ready for his first day of school.
When we officially enrolled him at this school, which specializes in preparing hearing-impaired kids for the specific challenges they’ll face when they start kindergarten in a mainstream classroom, his mom took him on his first school-supply shopping trip, where he picked out the race car backpack above. He has packed and unpacked it, worn it in and out of the house, and requested numerous photo ops since he came into possession of it two weeks ago. This morning, the backpack hangs on a hook in a cubby with his name taped to it.
He has done his best to prepare himself for this day. His favorite game over the last year has been School, which is played on his bedroom floor, with his stuffed animals as classmates. Most days, in addition to pretending that his parent is a teacher and he’s the student, he also pretends to be a Jedi, a Marvel Comics hero, or a friend from Sesame Street, while the parent/teacher follows suit. We’re hoping he’s not too dismayed today when his teacher addresses him by his name.
JPW and I are having a strange moment of togetherness. Our kids are productively occupied elsewhere. This doesn’t happen to us. So, we just ate a morning snack at a diner, and now we’re nestled in a corner of the library around the corner from JPS’s school. Foggy impressions are stirring in my memory of a life I once lived that may have produced in me the calm ease that I am now feeling. Naturally, the need to be productive has brought me to this keyboard; but, the fact that I have not been needed by a small person in the last two hours is such a foreign sensation that I guess I’m at a loss. Soon, I hope to enjoy this serene state of mind without a feeling guilt or unease that I’m neglecting someone. Of course, I’m not; at their ages, the kids are better off in a classroom with peers than they are, sadly, with us all day long. Sadly? What am I saying? Don’t I crave the freedom to move and think without constant interruptions assailing me like the attention-destroying sirens and riveting guns that bombard George Bergeron’s ears in the Vonnegut short story?
Or have I become even more of a love-junkie than I was before parenthood?
A few weeks ago as summer vacation was coming to an end I produced my most recent voluntary public art commission. My niece had returned from a trip to Hawaii with a small tube of smelly green goo–a lot like a fine pesto, really–for making henna tattoos. She had run out of time in Hawaii to have the tattoo done by an experienced henna artist, so, knowing that her artist-uncle was coming to visit her in August, she brought home the means for me to give her the tattoo myself.
Henna tattoos last 2-3 weeks, so their impermanence was reassuring to me, having never pigmented someone’s skin with more than a Sharpee, which would have been back in high school. I did an image search for “henna” to get a grasp on the kinds of decorative motifs common to the practice and made a small test tat on my left ankle to get a feel for it. I accidentally smudged it with my other foot after ten minutes, but the darned thing is still visible down there, three weeks later.
I present the photos above in the order that I made the tattoos. My wife, being the dutiful guinea pig, got the first and most restrained design, and then they got more involved as I gained confidence. It was a relaxing way to spend a beautiful Utah afternoon with my really very wonderful in-laws.
I’m told you can get like $50 a piece for doing these! Maybe a sketch-portrait/henna stand is in order. I always feel like a schmuck when I go long stretches between selling my artwork while other folks are squeezing stinky goo on paying customers all day long. Ah, the artist’s life.
With JPG in 3rd grade and JPS not starting kindergarten for another two years, the Public family is looking at eight more years of involvement with our lovely neighborhood elementary school. Last year was our first year in this community, and my wife and I volunteered throughout the school year and over the summer, assisting with field trips and parties, teaching a few art lessons, making props for the talent show, and, finally, painting five inspirational-type words in the hallways, as you can see above and below.
Kindness, Respect, Attitude, Honesty, Responsibility.
If, during each of the nine total years that we’ll be a part of the school, I spend a day or two adding some painted flourishes to it, I’m hoping it will be an all-out public school spectacle by the time we’ve moved on to middle school.
So, I am finding ways to merge my missions of being an artist and doing something worthwhile in the community. Volunteerism is an excellent way to achieve this goal. And, when one volunteers for her community the effort is never fully given away because, as a member of the community, she receives the benefit of the work along with everyone else. The same goes for making drawings of my neighbors and giving them the original artwork: we both win in that exchange because, as it has been through centuries of human society, the gesture of gift-giving enriches the relationship that is being established.
Yesterday was the last day of summer vacation. In one hour I will be dragging what I hope will be two very chipper children from their beds, 2 1/2 hours before the time they awoke just yesterday. JPW, my wife, would have preferred that I had started channeling them into the straight and narrow in anticipation of today’s abrupt return to school-year reality, but I opted for the opposite approach, which means that my kids and I languished in bed until after 9am these past few days, and no Saxon math or piano practice occurred.
While this description of summer’s final weekend may reek of sloth, I counter it by sharing with you just how much reading went down over those same two days. JPS, being a few months shy of 4-years-old, doesn’t “read” much yet, though he can sound out many one-syllable, single-vowel words, a fact that makes his parents both proud and eager for the day a few years hence when all four of us can enjoy an afternoon of quiet reading, each with his or her own book. JPG, on the other hand, is reading well ahead of her age level, which is to be expected of any child whose parents’ dirty-hippy tendencies have steered her from the screen to the page. I maintain that if you take 100 3-year-olds, curb their consumption of television and computers, and replace that time with one-on-one reading instruction, while modeling the behavior as an adult who reads for leisure, two years later you will end up with just shy of 100 5-year-olds who read well and often, leaving an allowance for the few kids who will have learning disabilities and will need continued practice and guidance to catch up with their peers.
As the summer heat pounded outside, we didn’t leave the house much this weekend. JPG was content to read her mom’s Archie comics by the dozen, but I needed a way to pass the time that could engage all three of us. She and I had three chapters of Wilson Rawls’s Summer of the Monkeys to finish, so I gathered us in the living room and read aloud, which doubly pleased my daughter, because she not only loves being read to but has also been promised that when I finish reading Summer to her I will begin the long postponed reading of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
The reading was going as well as I could have hoped. JPS brought in his monkey and woobie and lay around with his finger in his mouth, as he has always done when he’s resting or mentally checking out for a bit. He even chimed in with a few pertinent questions, such as, “Is Jay Berry a boy or a girl?” and “Who’s the girl?” before returning his finger to his mouth and rolling his eyes back into snuggle-coma position.
But, good things can’t last forever, and I had anticipated that I would be the weak link in our quiet afternoon of story time. For those of you who haven’t read Summer of the Monkeys, first, I recommend it as a great book for upper elementary age people, and second, I’ll say that it’s a crier. I knew what was coming, having read it when I was about JPG’s age, but as the book built to its climax and even as it coasted through the denouement, I was finally overcome.
I get emotional while I read books aloud to my daughter. Usually we are reading stories that are legitimately tearful at times, but I think there’s something in the act itself of dad-reading-to-daughter that pre-loads my tear ducts and sets my lower lip aquiver. I like to think that this routine display of an adult male’s emotions lends depth and intensity to the reading, but it’s more likely that it’s just irritating for my listener to have to endure so many pauses during key scenes as the reader stabilizes his breathing and tries to force the croaks out of his voice. I suspect that these often lengthy pauses in fact destroy the pace of the story and lead to attention drift in the listener. But yesterday we found a solution.
When the weeping was too distracting and I had to tell my audience, “Sorry: this book makes my cry,” JPG offered to take over and do the reading herself. The poor kid was ready to get this show back on the road. I was grateful, and as I calmed myself with sips of afternoon coffee, I listened to her read several pages. She’s a good little reader, but very fast and not terribly articulate in her delivery, as all little kids are, so I’m looking forward to a new routine of passing future books to her when I reach troublesome waters and need a few minutes to steady myself. I could use the break, and she could use the practice.
Later, before bedtime, I read the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to her, which is my favorite of the series for its sensitive and accurate portrayal of early adolescence. It was the Potter novel that, for me, after J.K. had already upped the stakes with Prisoner of Askaban, made it clear that these books were the real thing, not mere escapism, but a microcosm of human life. And, I’m glad that I can pass over the book to JPG when I need a moment, because just reading Goblet to myself makes me heave and splutter.