When it comes to parenthood, first and foremost let me say my daughter thrives and nothing makes me happier.
I recently reread my earlier essays ‘Fatherhood: 7 Months In’ and ‘A Letter to my Unborn Daughter’ and –much like looking at earlier pictures of her- they plugged me back into who she was, who I was those months ago which had somewhat though not quite been overwritten by who she is, who I am. I am beginning to experience that unique lifelong schizophrenia of the various versions of her playing almost parallel in my mind, running together and overlapping one another. The ‘What you can’t have a date for prom, you were just learning to walk.’ The struggle to stay present, to fully plug into now faces unique challenges in rearing a child.
So here’s what’s now; Elliott is walking-climbing-running-tantrumming-cuddling-crying-laughing-joking-exploring-fighting-sharing-thanking-loving-living-breathing-being. She has smashed past every expected developmental milestone we’ve cared to track, early and eagerly. That, plus her height, leads most parents to assume she’s older than she is. Her ‘earliness’ leads at times to grimaces from parents who worry after their child’s ‘failure’ to reach this or that benchmark and I’m always so sad that they choose to fret in this way, I’m so sorry they choose to play the comparison game which so often has nothing to do with discerning areas of genuine concern, areas where their child could legitimately be served by extra care, extra assistance and instead is all about meeting arbitrary ‘standards’ (the averages of entirely healthy spectrums) and finding that next book to read, edutainment video series to buy, next parenting strategy to implement to assuage their existential doubt that they’re not doing ‘enough’ for their child.
I think that’s one of the biggest differences between the father I was 7 months in and the one I am now at 22 months, my vision has pulled back to encompass more of the setting Ellie is in, the world, her ‘peers’ (and their parents). She needs to be outside like never before, with two solid outings to parks or other excursions every day. She needs newness: new people, new learning, new _ like she didn’t before when she was still overwhelmed by the wonders of our two bedroom apartment.
I think about her developing from grub to cub to kid; when she was new she couldn’t even do basic mammal functions until she could until she started exceeding those, playing with language and plugging into what she wants, what is disallowed and running never-ending experiments to test what actions-reactions she could or can coax out of the world in general and Lauren & I in particular.
What is becoming clear is the fact that her peers, her environment will begin to matter more than we, her parents, do. We can certainly screw things up, and certainly she will look to as examples, confidants, problem solvers… but the world at large is ultimately a more important teacher; in a few years if not today. Which can be a hard thing to accept.
I watch other parents more, now. Watch most essentially for a simple but vital ‘tell.’ To illustrate, I remember speaking with a friend and recent father who was stressed about all the Christmas preparations we was doing. When I asked him about why they were all so necessary, he mentioned that he wanted his child to have a ‘magical’ experience. And all I could think was, Christmas was already magical for a kid. If we as parents divert time/attention away from trying to match/outdo our neighbors, we get to plug into out lives which is where all the wonder, where all the ‘magic’ really is.
Because of the socioeconomic strata we live in, I’d be hard pressed to identify any parent that was actively neglectful or abusive (at least in such a way that I would notice from the outside); more or less all the parents I regularly associate with want the best for their children and are willing to devote incredible amounts of time, money, and emotional energy in pursuit of that goal. No, what I watch for is if they parents are playing with/engaging with their children or if they are preforming ‘for’ them. This is a subtle distinction I think, but even though behavior of one framework can closely resemble that of the other having different intentions transforms the acts. If I live for my daughter, perform for her based on all the parental ‘shoulds’ being shouted at me from every screen then I risk resentment and self-righteous martyrdom and ultimately I risk being hollowed out. If I choose to live and grow with Ellie, then I have the capacity of tend to an active, thriving joy. Not never-ending pleasure or facile, ephemeral happiness, but a deep root-stock of satisfactions that is born of truly plugging into my life as it is now and in the ongoing now that unfolds moment by moment from the present as it slips into becoming the past.
But look at me, with my two dollar words and my regurgitated mindfulness exercises. Let me speak to my frustrations, my struggles of Fatherhood now as my baby races towards her second birthday lest I paint a false picture of my life and myself as parent-saint.
Ellis is throwing tantrums; fifteen minute gasping affairs as she shreds her vocal chords, descending from ear drum rupturing shrieks into desperate, mewling sobs. To deny her –anything- risks such a freak-out. I work tremendously hard to avoid being terrified of such displays of horrendous distress.
Tantrums are powered by two things I think. One is simply her learning to use whatever tools she has available to get what she wants. We’re busily trying to teach her that politeness, patience words are more effective social tools but all the times we’ve rushed to comfort her when she was hurt have shown her that crying gets a reaction FAST. She is adorable and utterly ruthless, nearly amoral in the pursuit of what she wants, though this is tempered somewhat by her empathy; but she literally doesn’t know how she’s supposed to act until we demonstrate\correct enough for it to sink in.
Of course, even if a tantrum begins as a calculated move, it will inevitably transform into the other kind of tantrum; the tantrum where she is upset and overwhelmed by her upsetness. For those kind of tantrums (and all tantrums become that sort because cry-creaming ultimately freaks her out even when she loses sight of what made her initially unhappy) the only solution is to comfort and try and reduce stimulation.
Because she tantrums, because she grabs at unattended objects (knives, pins, shelves full of brick-a-brac heavy enough to crack her skill) it is easy and oh so tempting to banish ourselves from the world at large, retreat to specially prepared child ‘proofed’ (or at least child resistant) spaces where we’re less likely to perceive that we’re being stared at while she cries, places where we don’t have to pull her hand back –over and over again- from that thing that could hurt her, that thing she could break. This temptation must be resisted for as long as we have the strength (bearing in mind that our emotional reserves are limited, that we must pick our battles). Because, Ellie will not get better at moving safely through the world by being kept out of it, she will not be properly socialized by being isolated, now.
All the work we do now to teach her how to be safe, how to talk to people, how to resolve disputes; we’re trying to work thrice as hard at this now so we don’t have to work quite so hard *then.*
I’ve begun to think more about my daughter’s path as a biological female (whatever gender expression ends up being right for her), her path as a person of color… two things I’ll never be. As I write these words, there has been some recent media spectacles that –once again- makes abundantly clear that because of her race & sex Ellie will inhabit a world that is physically and emotionally dangerous for her in ways that it never has been for me, in ways I perhaps can never fully appreciate. With luck as more and more of her cognition comes online society will be just a little less wedded to binary choice… a little less insistent that she settle once and for all time which side of the either/or she falls on, a little more accepting\encouraging of the much more humane, much more honest approach to the this AND that of identity in all its flavors.
The hyper-vigilant gendering out culture seeks to impose on us all started before she was born (in all the colors & styles of clothes and proto-toys that were marketed to us on her behalf) and it continues to grow in its vehemence. As she learns to speak, so many parts of our language prune thought in one direction over another… and having to think about how I want to encourage her to think while using the linguistic tools I gift is a never-ending project. Already, we do subtle ‘counter-intuitive’ (read, counter-dominant cultural) things like call boys pretty and insist that when chasing-tickling ‘no’ or ‘all done’ mean it’s time to stop, even in the middle of play she’s clearly enjoying. Moreover, she never has to hug or touch anyone, ever; not even that relative who traveled hundreds of miles who she may only see three times in her life. I think it’s a testament to the people we choose to associate with that these standards seems sensible whereas for society at large they may well seem ridiculous to the extreme.
The compressed track that collapses good preschool-good kindergarten-good school-good high school-good college-good job-good life is already on my peers’ minds and I wonder at times if I am already failing her by simply assuming that we’ll attend whatever is close\convenient. That –rather than trying to set her up to ‘win’ academics- we’ll instead rely on not confusing her schooling for her education, encourage her to move beyond the ‘special’ programs that trap & isolate the ‘gifted’ in so many more hours of of specialized, age-segregated, sterilized curriculum in favor of encouraging her to engage in the world at large where people of all ages are already living\striving\making.
I think these thoughts, while she is not yet two.
And none of these thoughts schemes or worries are my experience of her; the glow of her smiles, the bubble-soap loam smell of her skin, the purity of her rage and frustration and delight. None of these things are the hilariousness of her booty-shaking toddler dances, her emphatic all-caps ‘HI!!!’ that explodes from her mouth when she meets someone (or at least when she meets someone and she’s in a good mood).
The regular material care she requires (feeding, diaper changing, dressing) has become more rote, easier. The occasional instances of momentous mess: filling the back seat of the car with a gravy-sheet of her vomit, removing her diaper off and shitting someplace untoward, topping something she previously didn’t have access to are shocking and frustrating. The peaks of the emotional care she requires (the endless corrections, how she fights and flails when we’re only trying to provide the aforementioned material care, the occasional, exceptional moments when she’ll scream in negating defiance of everything) can be maddening, can make it feel like we’re trapped in this circuit of miscommunication where each simply can’t get the other to understand or –more frustrating still- all the moments where she does understand –now- but will choose to do the dangerous opposite with a giggle or a scream, all the tantrums which can ratchet up seemingly without ceiling and any time I slip away from my expected parental zen calm can strike at me like I’m a failure as a Dad… yeah, that all sucks. The fact that these outbursts are punctuated by genuine hurts, by innocent tenderness, by the joy of discover and learning and play makes raising my 22 Months old daughter feel manic-depressive, a folie a deux that will morph into some other form right around the time I get a handle on it.
I understand and can appreciate why people use the phrase ‘terrible twos’ but -for me- I want to avoid the stickiness of the label. Sure, different developmental stages will be hard in unique ways and sometimes creating naming conventions for these can help us converse about things but I want to avoid prophesying doom because there’s no surer way to discover it. Better for me to say that my daughter will require whatever care she needs for as long as she needs, which I will give if I’m capable, which I won’t if I’m not. As with all things, all that is required of me is that I do my best day in and day out; and if I stumble, if I fall short of that on Tuesday then I rise to try again on Wednesday. And what a blessing-curse it is to say I will give the best of me everyday.
Ellie is bright and shining and active and fierce and strong and popular in all the places she frequents, with all the people she regularly interacts with. She loves to play and explore and dance and splatter color wherever it does (or does not) belong). Her once near perfect fearlessness has diminished somewhat, it’s like sometimes (rarely) she’s looking for things to feel anxious about; a tangle of shadows cast on the wall, or a bit of mud clinging to her palm, the lips of a goat questing for a quarter’s worth of kibble in her hands.
She loves hugs and cuddles, kisses and fist bumps that end in me mouthing an explosion noise (unless she doesn’t); she’s working on sharing and talking about her feelings and the navigation between what she wants and our sometimes denials; having no concept why this but not that is ok… perhaps occasionally enraged by how capricious and arbitrary all the rules can feel.
I love Elliott Rose Perkins, I love her even in those odd moments where I briefly don’t really like her. But on balance, there is no one –save Lauren- whose company I more enjoy, no one who fills my heart past where I thought it would burst, no one I’m happier to weave into the strands of my life.