On the Chin

Look at me. Honey, look at me, look at my face. You’re going to be okay.

I have two children. When you have no children at all, you look at the way other people raise their children and you have opinions about it – you long to be the kind of parent that your friends are, or you decide that you will *never* behave the way some other parents do… you create opinions. Then, when you have a kid, you realize that you had no idea what the hell you were talking about.

It’s astonishing, and it might be the only time it happens in your entire life. When someone is at a table doing a puzzle, you can look over their shoulder and say, “well, those pieces right there, those go together…” and if the guy gets up you can sit down and take over and sure enough, they do. With parenting, when you take over, it’s as if your hands reach to touch the puzzle pieces and instantly turn into ingredients to bake a cake. My misunderstanding about what parenting is turned out to be more profound than any other misunderstanding I’ve ever had.

When you have a kid, you quickly assemble the skills that turn you into the parent you’ve decided to be. Attachment, or maybe Time Outs, or an old school spanker, or whatever – you make some decisions, you mold your kid into whatever you’re trying to make them into and you find that each age teaches you new skills for how to deal with each problem. You didn’t realize you were going to be this kind of parent, but a year, two years in and here you are – you’ve got rules, you’ve got skills and you know how to do this.

Then you have a second kid.

You didn’t make any choices with that first kid – that kid trained YOU. Because the second kid HAS NOTHING IN COMMON WITH THE FIRST KID. Everything you try to do doesn’t work, every single trick you think you learned – it only works ON ONE HUMAN BEING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD, YOUR FIRST KID. The second kid forces you to figure out a thousand new things, almost every single second is different. And you can act the same, impose the same rules, train in the same way, but the second kid either thrives or ignores you, almost independent of your actions.

The world of parents is divided into two groups. About 90% of all parents realize that they don’t know a goddam thing about anyone else’s life or anyone else’s kids, all they know how to do is to survive the day with their own and what works for them. If you ask these parents for advice, they’ll start with, “what sometimes works for us is…”, but they’ll be pretty loathe to give you advice without solicitation. The other 10% of parents are the loud assholes talking about how important breast-feeding is, or why spanking *does* work, or how your baby wouldn’t be crying if the mom didn’t eat gluten. All of these people might be right… FOR THEIR OWN KID. In fact, they probably are. But they’re idiots if they think that what works for them is gonna work for you. Or for me.

Is someone gonna be in there? Will there be a teacher in there? What if there’s no teacher in there?

Look at me. Look at my face. You’re gonna be fine.

My kids are beyond my ability to talk about or describe. I’ve been lucky to come of age at a time of supreme personal assholery, where I have a digital record about everything I’ve ever felt, reaching back to the mid-90s. Before our generation, a person might be cleaning off a shelf and unearth a box that contained Letters Never Sent, and he might get to visit himself in his 20s for a moment, and think of the person he loved and the movies he saw that day. I’m lucky enough to have 200k of emails from 1998, where my friend Mac Rogers and I got in a heated fight about the movie Pleasantville. I had a two year relationship in the late 80s with a girl I can barely remember, but my three-date long relationship in November of ’98 is documented in two dozen emails to my friends.

But after my daughter was born, this blog died. I can’t figure out how to talk about them. I’ve put in the requisite ten thousand hours of verbal regurgitation, and I’ve sat down and opened a file to try to capture what’s been happening a hundred times… I just don’t know how to do it.

When Barnaby was born, we decided there would be no TV until he was two. Studies show that television at such a young age can lead to attention problems. We also, as much as we loved his baby talk and his hilarious spoonerisms, never repeated his mispronunciations because that can lead to speech problems. He had modeling clay and baby scissors and paint and paper, we worked on recognizing his letters early and were so proud when he walked at 10 months and began talking not much later. He was obviously very bright.

After a few years, his countless teachers and therapists had us convinced that he had some attention issues. He also desperately needed speech therapy and occupational therapy because his fine motor skills were so behind. He also has tried to convince us that he can’t read and has no interest in learning how.

So we pushed as hard as we knew how, and he, charmingly and without malice, didn’t budge. In the book Knufle Bunny, they describe the little girl “going boneless”, which every parent recognizes. It’s the moment a kid just drops, letting inertia do all the resistance work for them. Barnaby was the same way, but he used his own charm and storytelling to distract us from making him do what we needed. You put a ball of therapy clay in his hands and instead of pulling it and strengthening his fingers, he holds the ball and tells you about the solar system this new planet exists in, and all the creatures that live on it. He just sticks to his story because he’s figured out, if he tells it long enough the grownups start laughing and don’t ask him to do any work.

How do I tell you about him? He missed the Gifted and Talented program by a country mile, but he also doesn’t have any serious developmental delays. He isn’t shy, isn’t scared of other people, but that’s largely because he’s not entirely sure he lives in the same world as everyone else. He’s an anthropologist, a visitor, fascinated by things that are probably pretty mundane. He found a cookie that he really liked and couldn’t bring himself to eat it and it’s still in a ziploc bag hanging on our fridge with a magnet… how do I explain that to you, why that makes sense, why we would do that?

And Marlena is his. She is his sister, he has a sister named Marlena, who is his. And he is hers. As different as she is, the one thing they are really good at is adoring each other. She’ll do something crazy, and Barnaby will watch her and laugh and then look at me, like “is this actually happening?” She is as focused as he is distracted, as brave as he is cautious. I don’t tend to raise my voice at my kids, I use my boom-voice the way some people I know use coffee – the deny the use until it’s absolutely necessary in order to triple the effectiveness. When I yell at Barnaby, it scares him, it really does, but when I yell at Marlena… she gets this little smile on her face.

I don’t think I’ve ever been able to scare her. She’s the kind of person you can’t sneak up on. If you grabbed her from behind she wouldn’t jump or squeal, she’d lean back as if to say, “*there* you are. I’ve been waiting for you…”

So today, her first day of school ever, and Barnaby’s first day of first grade, you know which one we were worried about.

When I dropped her off, she said hi to the teacher and made a beeline for the toys. Now look, nobody is one thing and while she’s strong and brave and won’t take shit from anyone, she also loves her people and asks for Barnaby and her mom all day long. I know it’s not perfect, but this is a moment where she’s gonna train us to be the parents she needs. Tomorrow, when we go back, she’ll let us know if she was scared or if she likes going. The first day is always novel, sometimes the second day is as well, but at some point next week it will dawn on her that school is the new normal, and we’ll find out what kind of parents we are.

To her. On that day. That’s all we ever are, we realize, we’re the parents we are today for the kids we have today and their veggies might be organic, their television educational, their straws BPH-free and their homes free of violence but some kids have the opposite of all that and still thrive and our kids can, and very likely might, still fail. Most of the time when my kids are crying they need me to make light of whatever’s making them sad, help them see it in another way, but every so often I make light of their crying and they feel crushed, alone, ashamed. That’s just me, on that day, with that kid, making a giant mistake.

I’m right more often than I’m wrong. Or, rather, my kids are becoming more and more what I always hoped they would be, so I have to assume I’m right more often than I’m wrong.

Barnaby has been talking about the thrill of first grade for months now, but he’s often said he was anxious about it as well. Nervous, he said. This morning he woke up thrilled, loved talking about packing his lunch, talking about the day and was happy on the walk. We got close to the building and we took some pictures along with the parents of the other 1408 students at PS 122Q. It wasn’t until we started getting close to the door that I felt him start to get genuinely scared. Hundreds of kids streaming in, and parents aren’t allowed to go in with them. The color had started draining out of his face.

Will there be teachers in there?

Honey, it’s school! This is where they keep all the teachers! If you’re a teacher, this is where you go!

Will a teacher help me?

Sweetheart, go right to the top of the stairs and a teacher will show you exactly where to go.

And he clutched my hand, and I realized… he was ahead of me. He wasn’t pulling me, but he was moving forward and I was the one dragging, just a hair. He was so scared and he’d always been the guy who figured out how to just… not *do* and see if he could get away with it, but for the last few months it had started changing. The fine motor skills are underdeveloped, but then why has he switched to the regular grownup legos, why is he building homes and cars and spaceships. His speech is delayed, but then why do his camp counselors tell us his rhapsodic stories, his flights of fancy? He’s unfocused… but why is he two steps ahead of me heading to the door when he’s so scared?

We get close, the monitors tell the parents to move back and let the kids through. He stops walking, staring at the door and I bend down to him.

Look at me. Honey, look at me, look at my face.

He does.

You’re gonna be okay.

He looked me dead in the eye and said, “okay, daddy.” He pulled his bag on his back, turned toward the door and started walking. He didn’t look back.