Do you really lose a book for every child?
The hidden curriculum of the Academy
In a scene from The West Wing, a series I’ve watched with my wife at least three times through, Toby Ziegler worries that he doesn’t have the stuff for fatherhood, and his boss, Leo McGarry, tries to reassure him.
Leo: “Of course you’re gonna be a great father. Of course you’re gonna love your kids the way you’re supposed to, the way other fathers do.”
Toby: “My God, Leo, we look around. We see that’s just not true. It’s not automatic.”
Leo: “I’m not talking about everybody. I’m talking about you. And I’m telling you, it’s a mortal lock. It’s guaranteed.”
Toby’s fear was one of the reasons I swore for years that I’d never have kids. I came up with all kinds of other reasons. I have bad teeth! No kid should spend that many hours squinting at the dentist’s ceiling through tears! What if I pass on my smelly feet? (As I seem to have, lamentably.)
But the real reasons were these. I feared that I’d become my own father, parroting the hectoring and shaming that defined much of my childhood. And I didn’t really like kids. Never had the urge to hold someone else’s baby. Never saw someone with a toddler and thought, How cute! I’m missing out. Like Toby, I worried that the moment would come – the miracle of birth that everyone raved about – and I’d feel nothing. Or not enough. I didn’t even cry when my dog died while I was away at college, for God’s sake. What if I just didn’t have the stuff?
Let me say right here that fatherhood has been one of the unexpected joys of my life. As Toby says in the unforgettable scene where he finally meets his twins, Molly and Huck, “Leo was right.”
It saddens me to recall how resolute I was. How sure that fatherhood just wasn’t for me. I can’t know how universal a feeling that is, but I have a few ideas about how I got there.
I decided to become a father while watching Netflix. It seems crass to say it like that, but it’s true. My wife claims that we spent the previous year, leading up to our wedding, talking about starting a family. I have no recollection of anything other than my usual equivocations. When the topic came up, I balked. I went through my reasons.
But that night my wife pointed out that we weren’t the type to go out clubbing. We went to work and came home and typically ate in before retiring to the couch for an hour or two. We went to bed by nine, and the alarm went off at five. Wasn’t our life pretty much set up for having a baby? How much would actually need to change? I thought about this for a beat or two and found that my reasons offered a flimsy leg to stand on at best. And so it was decided.
Years later I thought of that moment while reading Kao Kalia Yang’s excellent memoir The Latehomecomer. She opens with a traditional Hmong story that tells how babies live in the clouds, where they have a godlike view of human lives. The parents do not choose the child; the child chooses them. A baby sees two people it claims as parents and comes down to them. Yang explains that Hmong elders “teach us that we have chosen our lives. That the people who we would become we had inside of us from the beginning, and the people whose worlds we share, whose memories we hold strong inside of us, we have always known.”
The Western view of parenthood is nearly the reverse: people expect that they’ll decide when or if they’ll start a family. Choice is good. I am pro-choice. And I am mindful of many exceptions, when pregnancies are unplanned or hopeful parents suffer losses or discover that they cannot conceive. But I wonder how much of my own aversion to fatherhood was about power and control? Mistakes I might avoid, flaws I could prevent from being passed on.
Now I see my own will as awash in a sea of other wills. My wife and I have two daughters and a son who also live in the world as granddaughter and grandson, niece and nephew and cousin. Part of being a father means giving those relationships a chance to deepen, which often means standing back, getting out of the way, unlearning a great deal of what I was taught.
Like many Americans, I was raised on two contradictory principles: Family First and Be All You Can Be. Most of us have to pick one. I traveled to the other side of the country to attend college and then took a job at another college almost exactly 1,500 miles from the place I was born.
Why was studying literature worth such extreme sacrifice? It may have been that my father regarded reading as a form of sloth and often sent me out to do garden chores when he found me lying about the house. That forbidden fruit became my profession, and the solitary nature of reading translated to other forms of isolation that I came to embrace.
The purpose of completing a PhD is to become an expert, and building that expertise requires long hours alone. I spent years actively shutting out the world so I could explain why American authors portrayed doctors as villains in the nineteenth century and as heroes in the early twentieth century. (It’s not terribly complicated. Vaccines helped. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poems and essays may have helped more.) My hermitic ways translated to a ruthless efficiency in passing comprehensive exams, knocking out dissertation chapters, and publishing. But finishing graduate school was like walking through a series of doors that locked behind me. The walls narrowed with each passage, and by the time I began to wonder when I might run out of air, it seemed there was no other way but forward through the next door.
The more I sacrificed, the less I identified with others, and the more remote a concept like fatherhood seemed. I saw the price of parenthood for my graduate school peers. Those with small children took longer to graduate, won fewer awards, published less. This still is the hidden curriculum of the Academy.
Writers can be just as selfish. When Michael Chabon was just beginning his career as a novelist, a famous writer warned him not to have children. You lose one book, the man said, for every child you have. Chabon’s response in his memoir Pops is worth quoting in full:
“If I had followed the great man’s advice and never burdened myself with the gift of my children, or if I had never written any novels at all, in the long run the result would have been the same as the result will be for me here, having made the choice I made: I will die; and the world in its violence and serenity will roll on, through the endless indifference of space; and it will take only one hundred of its circuits around the sun to turn the six of us, who loved each other, to dust, and consign to oblivion all but a scant few of the thousands upon thousands of novels and short stories written and published during our lifetimes. If none of my books turns out to be among that bright remnant because I allowed my children to steal my time, narrow my compass, and curtail my freedom, I’m all right with that.”
Toby Ziegler missed the chance to see his twins come into the world in that West Wing episode, but I was there for each of our three births. There’s no way to prepare for it. A father spends nine months trying to feel connected to a mysterious process that nature holds at arm’s length from him until the moment a baby’s face appears and all the worrying falls away as if it never existed and time stands still. Many adoptive parents describe a similar experience after meeting their child – the visceral connection, when the what ifs become the mortal lock.
It takes effort to recall my life before kids. That’s a good thing. If it were not for my children, I’d still be walking that long corridor with the doors locking shut behind me. I like the thought that I did not choose them, but that they looked down from the clouds and saw me, maybe even took pity on me, and claimed me as their own. I’ll be forever grateful that they did. There is no number of books that I would trade for them.