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Fatherhood: 6 Years In

Let me begin, my daughter thrives (even now) and nothing makes me happier. And while I believe that, today, I don’t have the certainty of that I once had. I am anxious, unsure how much she’s really and truly getting what she needs and how much she is adapting, making due to the great diminishment of circumstances which is living in the state of pandemic… a cultural stress position & liminal space which seems doomed only to get worse in my country till effective vaccination becomes widespread. And even in those moments where I believe she is flourishing, her flourishing (like that of myself and my spouse) can feel so much harder won, more fragile, and more fraught than it was before.

This is the hardest it’s been since she was a baby.

Being a parent now is simply harder. There is less support & aid; and nobody comfortably parents their child without massive amounts of love, aid, and care from their community which is hobbled these days.

My life-ways, Elliott’s life-ways, and the potential for the future has been radically upended by the covid-19 pandemic. Our plans are different, we are different, and the various minute decisions come due in surprising, unfortunate ways. My biggest push is to get Elliott’s social and developmental needs met and I fret I’m not doing enough to accomplish this.

Before, when I would write these semi-occasional soundings into my course through fathering I felt like I was able to write about parenthood as though it were separate from the world. And it never was, everything from my expectations to my capabilities to what I thought was good or bad’ was inevitably prismed through the intersections of my moment, my class, my media bath, et al. But in this state of flux and fear, I am forced to come to terms with the truth that my journey as a parent was never separate from my socio-historic context even as there is something timeless about my journey, something that is the same since there were fathers.

Of course, throughout my life and my life with her there was always the larger stories coming to intersect with our time: the specter of climate change, my worries after cascades of ecosystemic collapse, war and rumors of it. There was all the issues and problems that feel like they don’t belong in the 21st century but dog us still: racism, sexism, and all the myriad ways we are particularly cruel to the most vulnerable members of our society. There was the forever shift, that truth that the only constant is change… the endless dance of transformation. I would notice the shifts around me and they used to give me pause in my parenting, make me wonder what sort of world she would inhabit and if I was doing enough; doing enough to both better the world she would inherit & doing enough to prepare her necessary emotional tools and cognitive weapons to best flourish in a world which would inevitably have moments of indifference, unkindness, and even genuine cruelty.

But that was before, in what already has begun to feel like a different era. Then, the dread was somewhat amorphous, apprehension with a center of gravity somewhere a decade hence from the moment. The algorithmic anxiety had not yet reached its 2020 peak. Now, I am, we are, in the grip what feels like proper handmaiden of the 21st century proper and even as I work to get myself and my people through the now-now (bodies, hearts, and minds intact and healthy if not fully un-scarred) I realize as I never have before my daughter will have such a radically different life than mine in ways I can’t possibly begin to truly appreciate. Ellie will grow up so different than me; although the youth never experience future shock like the old or the middle aged… never experience future-shock as I am beginning to feel it.

And there is doubt, here, or at least the necessity of reassessment/renegotiation. In this months long blursday pinned between a virus-punk farce of a national situation contrasted with the small game wonder of family life which gives nourishment and succor even (or especially) at this moment. Home and hearth are in so many ways air sucked into the lungs of someone who can feel like he’s drowning.

All my old choices, all my old assumptions are brought up to be reexamined, renegotiated. The old boomer lifestyle plays seemed to have so obviously fallen apart even for me & mine even in my early 2000s… there were few if any uncracked heirlooms in that inheritance that I could set aside a safe storage corner in my own life let alone pass on to my kid. Now, even the little plays’ I’ve learned in my time succeed or fail more by luck than by cunning. And I don’t know how to teach/encourage my daughter to develop in the ways that will definitely see her fed or cared for, I don’t know how to prepare her for what’s coming because I don’t know what’s coming in my own life let alone hers. And the keening need to get this right’ now no longer feels like some abstract game, but as necessary part and parcel of living in historic times. I feel my own cognitive ill-preparement for the 21st century; how am I to ready another for it?

Now, I know little of the skills I am certain she will need; besides make friends, get along with people you don’t understand/don’t resemble, claim sovereignty over your time & attention, enter in ecological reciprocity with your people (human and otherwise), keep yourself sane and healthy even in a horrifically antagonistic memetic environment, and grow food.

And so many decisions I have made can feel ill-considered especially where it effects my daughter. The big mistake it seems is to have remained in the country of my/our birth; a prior emigration to anywhere else in the first world, rather than this weird 3rd world schizophrenic falling empire seems much more attractive. I sometimes feel like I should have seen the writing on the wall before I began to put down roots, here. Then there is the decision to only have one child, which I can’t say was a mistake certainly but is cast in a different light. And then there’s the decision to remain renting in an expensive city, in a particularly hip, eminently walk-able neighborhood with parks and bars and good schools (which all are mostly closed, now) rather than getting more space in the suburbs or exurbs… all seem like bad bets now.

Who can say how these decisions will feel in 6 months let alone 6 more years?

The decision to have a child at all however, like the decision to be married (even with the ways that this moment has challenged my understanding of my marriage) are not ones that I ever think are mistakes. Just, I am newly aware of my failings and the ways I made ill-considered bets predicated on the idea that things wouldn’t change much and things wouldn’t get surprisingly, unexpectedly, weirdly worse. The indefinite optimism of coming of age in the 90s has seemed incongruous and ill-adaptive for a while, especially so now.

But so much of parenthood, as so much of my life, isn’t something I can think through. So often the end game of thought (for me at least) is to put myself mentally in the unwinnable chess game with myself, all the while pretend-insisting that I’m losing anywhere other than in my own imagination. A better path with more opportunity for flourishing is to act, to feel, to love my way through & in this moment, especially this moment with my child.

And when I’m not playing a self-referential game of apocalyptic go with a forgone conclusion, there is so much here that is growing, is flourishing, is worthy of being greeted with an open heart and with delight.

It has been a good time to teach Ellie how to swim, how to bike, and how to garden… even when we weren’t deliberately trying to teach’ these things. We now have a tradition where I sing to her for a few minutes before bed each night; I wish I had paid more mind to the songs my grandparents sang to me, or the songs of my parents. I know so many more ad jingles than songs of the ancestors; I feel weird sometimes about having to learn (or perhaps merely to refresh my memory) about my own inheritance (or her grander inheritance) from youtube. Though I suspect one needs the full spectrum of integrated ages in a tribal ecology to keep up the skills/care from infant-hood to caring for infants in kind.

We went to city nursery the other day, a jewel a farm in the middle of San Diego; and I saw the incredible wealth that is an antique card-catalog full of heirloom seeds in the center of an acre or two(?) of fledgling plants and animals. Even for all my digital connections, even for all that I pay for our roof and food by manipulating data and patching creaking supply chains and conduct bureaucracy that I (at best) half understand; I feel closer these days to my grandparents; to the mindset of the depression. I miss dearly the handicrafts and the agency to secure my own life-ways. And I know I wish, urgently, to give the options of these to Ellie, not in an abstract wouldn’t it be nice if we lived closer to the land’ but with being in a moment that reminds me what’s actually important leavened with some paranoia.

I miss parks, the ease of go run around and play.’ We compensate with minecraft, with handicrafts, with the tablet, with cartoons, with hikes, and increasingly with camping.

I can’t get away from her really and she can’t get away from me. She is perhaps the most extroverted person I know and I worry myself, her mother, and our pod (with all 2 of its other children) aren’t enough. She has keen instincts to lead, and she misses the ready deference of smaller, younger, or otherwise less confident children that she could inevitably find before. I let her lead, decide, teach whenever I can but I struggle to receive notes (often incredibly ignorant and sometimes flat out wrong notes) from a 6 year old.

Weirdly, I’m not worried about the virus damaging my family. Though I do worry about carrying forth the pathogen in a way that harms others.

I worry about her learning that the world is inherently dirty, or that people are. When everything is said and done I want her to see this planet and all its living things as, fundamentally, the playground and generous life support system for all of our kith and kin (though not without teeth and stingers which require their own acknowledgment and good enough practices). But right now, she must be perennially reminded that there is a novel danger stalking the streets and we can’t live as we did before because we can’t… Because coronavirus.

It still breaks my heart to see roped off playgrounds. I wonder if this will revitalize or choke off public spaces; certainly this will be terrible for public transportation.

I miss babysitting; feel incredibly privileged that I’ve been able to enjoy others caring for my daughter a few times since this began… but I miss my wife as more and more of our life is eaten by caring for our daughter in addition to being forced to adapt and re-adapt again and again as best practices and threat modeling keeps shifting.

Reminding her keep 6 feet’ when she runs into children makes me ache.

I miss the library, I miss museums, I miss the zoo, I miss restaurants, I miss friends: and as much as I miss these things for myself I miss them more for her.

More so perhaps I miss the easier benchmarks and norms to tell me if I’m doing a good enough’ job or not; doing good at school’ has been replaced by the need to become more deeply in tune with who she is and how she’s feeling… which was probably always the better path but in this moment (in parenthood as in so many things) there is no railing’ with which to comfort myself because the ordinary milestones of development and cultural attainment within my clade have all become occulted where they haven’t been wholly dissolved.

I wonder about the changing norms: fashion, creativity, connection, community, work in a way I just didn’t before. It was easier, before, to imagine the future I was preparing Elliott for, to imagine her life as just my own context just a bit more-so. Now, as my context quakes below my feet I can only imagine how to prepare her for what’s next… what will be needed.

Pandemic is a lot of her life by ratio (something like 10% when it’s done I suspect), much less than it is my life (maybe 2%). I don’t know if she’ll remember a lot of the pre-pandemic world, as I think future historians will cite this as in inflection point when they’re tying up narrative into a neat bow where currents can be traced back to just one thing (mostly) for the sake of creating tests & basic cultural narratives.

I think her hands and feet are hungry (I know mine are): hungry for dirt, for grit, for texture, hungry for the world in all its analogue hyper-thickness. She’s lost some confidence in climbing and exploring; before this I wanted her to extend her navigational range from the corner store to a few blocks around us to (maybe hopefully) getting herself back and forth to the school that sits half a mile away in the coming months. I wanted her to have range, confidence to explore and way-find and seek out the experiences and things she wanted. All of that has withered, now there is almost no time where she is not directly within the sight of myself or my spouse.

She seems to get bored easier. It was always an occupational hazard of living in the 21st century when high gloss entertainment of whatever flavor she prefers was available, commercial free, in sufficient supply to last a thousand lifetimes. But as we’ve gone out less and stayed in more, the pace and tempo of the world outside (as contrasted by the ever smiling high rpm kaleidoscope cartoon people who still get to cuddle their friends, go to restaurants, or even attend school) seems slow and ponderous. My heart broke when she discovered Ryan’s World’ YouTube series since I believe part of its appeal was simply watching a child enjoy so many of the pieces of her life before; playing at the park, going to a museum or what have you.

Her bike was stolen (I forgot to lock it one night) which was a good lesson in resiliency but also a lesson in global weirdening of purchases and purchasing: most the stores were out of bikes her size & shape. Some things can’t be replaced as easily as they could some weeks ago, and I think a volatility of availability is a necessary lesson to learn to see ourselves through a more often disrupted future.

We’ve been revitalizing our domestic space, both within our walls and directly outside them. Elliott named our household, and it makes me smile every time I say her name. There is, again and with renewed vigor, an old temptation made more sinister by our relative lack of emotional resources to absolve her from a need to contribute. Chores go faster, usually, when she isn’t helping.’ And while we’re fortunate to have such a bright, eager-to-please daughter, sometimes she resists the headache and hassle of having to care for our home. And yet, it’s important that she be involved, it’s important that she does as she can to support this two room space ship (and accompanying imprint of relational energy) that is seeing us through this moment. She can’t just please herself, she must develop her own rhythm of chores and relaxation, labor and leisure, tension and release. Without it, the days haze into vertiginous disorientation and her eyes glaze over. Everyone needs to be cared for by others and needs to be charged with the care of others, she is no exception and hasn’t been since she grew out of infancy & toddler-hood.

She gets inspired now and again by things she sees, inspired to make, inspired to sing, inspired to share something she thought was particularly funny/cool. I want to make more time to receive what she wants to share.

Overall, her behavior and attitude have been good, exceptional really given the circumstances, though that doesn’t mean we haven’t avoided getting right under each others skin plenty of times. We are ever mindful about the edge of whining & snapping (from any household member) that would curdle all our home life. But most of our norms around politeness have held, and we seem to still genuinely love & like each other.

It is massively disruptive to our plans to no longer have the option (indefinitely) of sending her to school (though less so than it otherwise could be as my spouse can’t resume her job as preschool teacher). The remote learning’ solution (offered to a 1st grader) feels like a bad joke (perhaps I’ll change my mind here when we are enmeshed in the system), as the one thing she doesn’t need more of is staring at a screen at people she can’t touch & smell & play with.

I struggle with discerning which relationships to maintain for her, struggle to find the energy to help her maintain her relationships (as I struggle to find the energy to maintain my own). Cousins, grandparents, friends who can only be safely seen in a zoom window; who is worth how much effort? I am weary many days of trying to maintain anything outside of our four walls.

We have fun together. We get to spend more time together now that I work from home, and that makes me smile. I would like to get back to that place of ahead of the game’ ease where I can once again go on weekday beach trips and hikes with her & her mother.

My child gives me structure and her needs (in addition to my those of my job) serve as the spine of my days and my sense of myself… so I haven’t spent much time in that bored ennui which I think has plagued so many of my friends; whatever else happened, there was a child to feed and playfully, lovingly engage with… not that I’ve always done a fantastic job of the latter. There’s been times in this moment where I’ve felt depressed, hobbled by anxiety and she deserves as many people who can be on’ with her as she can get right now & most especially other children. But, her social needs can’t be met merely by myself and her mother even as we still need space to be adults. As ever, we’re all doing our best and hoping to expand what that could mean.

I think about tribe a lot, as I’ve been thinking about tribe since her birth. How it is the necessary social nutrient we are missing and insofar as that’s true we’re all suffering from horrible spiritual malnourishment as profound on an intellectual/emotional level as scurvy or pellagra are in the physical realm. And I’m torn, between a deep respect and love for the wisdom of the ancestors (even moreso now that I’m digesting The Secret of Our Success) contrasted with the fear that no ancestral tribe (of which church were the more recent substitution) could have sufficient space for my family. So it is with weariness warring with urgency that we hastily try to assemble tribe… a more fraught process, now. Minimize outside contact and isolate with family makes so much more sense when we’re really engaged with a thriving family rather than the huel version of nuclear family. It’s one thing, perhaps the thing I wish I could more readily give to my daughter.

I understand less what I want for her, I understand less what she wants (or at least what she wants that I could give her).

She paints black lives matter’ signs once a week with her friends, which I much prefer to her making a cardboard sword and shield in case in her words She needed to fight the police.’ She is coming of awareness in the mind numbing complexity of our massively interdependent system of 21st century techno-capital prismed through the warped lens of our screen playing off the well honed simplicity of so many (though not all) of her cartoons; where there is clearly bad guys; streamlined conflicts with a carefully calibrated section of gritty challenge. Compared with living a moral life in the world which can feel at times like wading through mud as somewhere off in the distance you smell the smoke and hear the screams; as there can so often feel like a voice on your shoulder telling you you aren’t moving fast enough or moving enough mud and muck out of the way.

More than any other generation, I wonder if this will be the generation raised by tablet; it’s all The Diamond Age’ without the competence or craft and only the mercenary algorithms which can only optimize for engagement and never for thriving.

In parenthood, as in so much of my life, I worry about my complaining, I worry I’m not doing enough, I worry this is whining that draws attention & care where it most needs to flow. Because I know at least that she has it so much harder with such an impoverished resource set to craft a life. I worry the life we craft for her with dregs and scraps and the moments when we aren’t exhausted or working so hard to clear our backlog of issues simply isn’t good’ enough.

And then, to really enforce the viscous circles I can find myself in, I worry I worry too much. And I worry I’m teaching her to worry.

No one knows truly what they’re doing especially when it comes to parenthood; and for some that’s a blessing to move forward with loving, gentle humility and for some that’s used an absolution for their failings… I hope it can be more of the latter for me. So many of the think piece best practices about how much screen time for kids’ & associated concepts are gone now, at least for urban apartment dwellers like us.

And even though it’s never been clearer that I don’t actually know what I’m doing when I’m lost in contingencies and the minutia of the present day, the spirit of the anxious shallows, I suspect the more true, more lasting, more loving answer burbles up from the spirit of the depths: love her, play with her, feed her, help her understand as best I can… but not teach’ values/norms/skills/what have you so much as live my life (eager and available for her questions) to provide templating for what life is/could be. Trust & care for myself and my relations as best as I can; we’re not alone and all is not lost and while the perfect (parent, safety, education, what have you) is forever denied us we get to be good enough and that will be enough… same as it ever was even when my mountains ring with the echoes of uncertainty.

And here I remind myself to come back to… grace. And deep empathetic understanding for the challenges of this moment and the ways we are all doing our best.

This too shall pass, for both good and ill. There’s worth here, there is growth and learning, and there’s development. There is, in the stoic sense, always the opportunity to practice my virtues.

And with it all, I love my daughter and I love my life; truly. There’s much I miss, much I’m still adapting to; but we’re all healthy, our money still works, we still have community and communion with meaning & love. My fears, even my fears about or around my daughter which I spill in word after word, aren’t truly real, are in fact only shadows when compared to that core of love.

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