Originally, this column was a submission to McSweeney’s to be one of their new regular features, but I am pretty clearly too far on the beaten path. However, this loss is your gain, as my plan is to match the “every couple weeks” schedule that would have been in play for their site.
Unless you don’t like the blog, and then it is also your loss.
Also, go to hell.
Before my son was born, I half-expected that after he arrived, someone would hand me a manual and explain to me that I was now part of a secret, world-wide cabal and thus eligible to learn the truth behind the world’s many mysteries. It’s a ludicrous fantasy that, like the notion that at some point in my life I still have the chance of spontaneously developing a super-power, is hard to let go of.
15 months of fathering now under my belt, I have come to grips with the fact while I get to be part of the global Parent Club, the manual I got upon admission is filled with nothing but blank pages.
All my life, it has always seemed that everyone around me had a pretty good idea as to what was going on. They had career plans, life goals, targeted hobbies, investment portfolios. They were going somewhere specific. This was especially true of parents. These were people in control of a small life. They had managed, sometimes for decades, to not accidentally kill their child. They had it together. They had a plan.
Now that I’m in the Club, though, I know that’s stretching the truth a bit. My parents may have had clear career paths, they may have invested properly in education, but when it came to parenting, it was all freestyle. They had to fake it. Not just my parents. Your parents. All parents. Billions of people all saying, “Uhhh. Sure. This seems like it probably won’t ruin this child’s life forever. Let’s do that.”
I should be terrified by this realization. I have a 15-month old son, and I have no actual blueprint for raising him. Shouldn’t I have Gantt charts and progress meetings and a supervisor? Shouldn’t someone be making sure that I don’t put sunglasses on him and make him dance to Usher songs while telling him to “drop it like it’s hot”? Am I getting in the requisite number of references to classical literature each day to ensure he grows up with an appreciation for the arts? I HAVE NO IDEA.
Thankfully, it’s remarkably easy to keep a baby alive. They do most of the work themselves, really. Just keep putting food in their mouth and try not to let them fall from too high up. As for the rest, they stay loose and covered in a lot of pudge for bumps and bruises and their gag reflex is pretty failsafe. But raising a baby to be a functional member of society? The space between the baby that waves a finger back and forth asking where the water went when I stop the faucet in the bath and the one that will one day vote for someone to be President of this country is staggeringly wide.
And yet, we all get by. With every new generation, society continues to function without crumbling into anarchy. No one has a rulebook for raising the next generation of world citizens and yet they manage to get the job done day after day.
It was hard for a to-do list oriented guy like me, who spends his days running a tech support help desk and his nights trying to make sure a small human doesn’t choke on a magnet he stole off the fridge, to let go of the notion of a rulebook, but I’ve finally managed it.
Before Joshua was born, I read books on parenting. I wrote about my thoughts on impending fatherhood as a way to help myself come to grips with it all. I interviewed other parents to get an idea of what having a child was like for them. I wanted a series of waypoints to measure my progress against. But I was never able to find any.
Joshua is 15 months old. He’s not a baby anymore. We still refer to him as the baby, but he’s a toddler now, on his way to being a little boy. I can interact with him now. It’s possible to track his thought processes and he can express some pretty clear feelings. It’s opened up a new level of understanding for me. It’s hard to get much perspective on your relationship with an infant. They are an entirely different kind of animal and the extent of your understanding as to how you relate with one is likely to stop at “Try to keep him from crying all the time.”
I’ve now found the crux of the parenting issue, the big secret that I wanted to have handed to me in a nice, three-ring binder: I know as much about being Joshua’s Dad at this point as he does about being my son. We have 15 months of accumulated knowledge about one another and that’s where the road ends. I don’t know what he’ll be like in a year. Hell, I don’t even know what hair color or eye color he’ll have by then. So, how can I possibly have a foolproof roadmap for that time?
He’s not going to ever notice that I don’t have a plan, just as I never noticed with my parents, because while I’m learning how to be a parent, he’s learning how to… be. We both need to show one another how to get those jobs done and the way that happens will change every time we change, which means it will be a little different every day.
Do not despair as I did that your parenting manual is blank. If it wasn’t blank, you wouldn’t be able to write in it.