Fatherhood - 4 and a Half Years In
It is an extreme pleasure to start this essay, as I been able to start all these fatherhood essays, that my daughter thrives. That is enough, honestly; enough for a whole life. That I am thriving, that my wife is thriving, and that my child is thriving. And for those times when the thriving has been hard, or we feared it might be absent we’ve always had this: we’ve always possessed all the tools to thrive.
Fatherhood now is a groove, a rhythm, but thankfully not a rut. Although like any practice that acquires the anti-glamour of familiarity, it threatens, it risks becoming rote and hence slipping into unconscious habit that I can’t perceive. Much of fatherhood is a pattern, repeated: wake at 3am to coax her back to sleep, wake in earnest at 7am to get her cereal and cartoons, cook breakfast for the family, play a bit before work, work, come home, play, dinner, bath and shortly thereafter sleep… a dayindayout broken on the weekends usually where I try and loop in some adventure or outing. Or if not some travel, then at least socializing. My daughter is much like me: highly extraverted and keen to engineer as much sociality into her life as possible, currently entranced by the magic of the calendar and the ability to request and add things to this wonderous paper that seems to bring together loved ones in predictable ways.
As with all my relationships, my relating to my daughter risks that moment where I stop seeing what’s in front of me for the sake of the well-worn story in my head. My daughter (and my journey through parenthood) is bigger, more elaborate and richer than anything I can actually conceive of. In these paragraphs, I’m thinking my way through but in my life I generally dance my way through… complete with kinesthetic and emotional knowing to complement the intellectual.
4 Years old is a fun age, at least for me. Elliott is bright, funny, fun, engaged and engaging. She continues to ask hard questions, questions that reveal just how much my ‘understanding’ of the world(s) I inhabit is largely papered over ignorance; how many places in my life I’ve accepted an impoverishment of my curiosity for the sake of adult efficacy. I do my best to tell her the truth as I understand it, avoiding glossing over salient details or retreating to euphemism or the ever-ready ‘you’ll understand/I’ll tell you when you’re older.’
Everyday, she uncovers a new way to play and more often than not she wants to share what she’s found with me to invite me to join a game eternal or new. And, insodoing, everyday co-creates more of herself and more of us as a family.
She’s still very much in the ‘wonder’ phase, though boredom (specifically her claiming that ‘I’m bored’) creeps around the edges of her experience; most recently on our walk through the eucalyptus grove. I worry sometimes about the pace of the modern media environment (as I’m sure my parents worried about mine when I was a child). But there are facts of her existence that feel utterly alien to me, draw attention to how my life has changed in my 35 years: I’ve written before that Elliott doesn’t know what a commercial is (to be fair, I don’t think little children ever really understood). Or, more exactly, she’s surrounded and immersed in commercials all the time, as so much of kids programming is a bid to sell toys. There is an entire spectrum of kids programming, ranging from terrible (ie, the average quality I was raised with) to the sublime (specifically the show ‘Daniel Tiger’ the spinoff & spiritual successor to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood has a level of emotional maturity that leaves me feeling called out by that damn cartoon at times). She has more hours of whatever subgenre of entertainment catches her interest to watch than she has hours of life (magical teen mermaids is a current favorite); and she has access to it more or less anytime, anywhere.
As I mentioned, my daughter thrives with high sociality, much like me. But whereas I had a brother growing up (from 18 months old on) she has no siblings; instead she has an entire sequence of constellations from her (former) classmates, to her cousins, to the family friends. Her everymorning question ‘what are we going to do today?’
She starts kindergarten (for 6.5 hours a day, five days a week) in August which is the largest milestone since her birth. Obviously the rate of her development from infant to 1, from 1 to 2 and so forth is more extreme than at any other point in her life. But kindergarten remains the extreme pivot (at least from my perspective more looking forward than back) because it will free us of the need to provide full time childcare for our daughter. This is the great impoverishment that all parents must face and figure out their own way to navigate (and perhaps the cruelest aspect of our society’s enshrinement of the nuclear family as the ideal to which all should aspire, the atomization of parents at a time when they most need support and community). The way we parse childcare, the way in which the cruelty and default assumptions of 21st century capital is especially impossible for parents of my clade is a current pushing in the direction of less kids and worse parents; this is but one of many tides that must be swum against in a quest to live a balanced life as a parent. We did preschool until it’s unaffordability for a family of three on a single income became unescapable; this period of my life forced me to have a financial realism & budgetary discipline that I utterly lacked before.
I suspect (most) every parent of young children is in a similar economic state, joining together a disjointed cobble of jobs-debt-paid childcare-and hustle to make sure their kid gets cared for and their books balance or -failing that- that they don’t unbalance catastrophically. I doubt many parents believe in their bones that they’re doing ‘great’ at this. There has never been a time in my life that I have been so impoverished; even in my days of being a starving student I had the luxury of time to work, the luxury of having next to no responsibilities. This moment sees my finances, my capacity to earn and provide most taxed. Kindergarten is the cavalry riding in to relieve the pressure and turn us back into a dual income household (which is more or less the prerequisite to fully participate as we commonly understand techno-capitalism).
Economic constraints that spawn extreme thriftiness have the bonus of turning my attention back to more fruitful areas. I love, and have always loved the library; but there was a long stretch (starting in high school and only really ending in my 30s) where I just didn’t go very much; I bought books off amazon, would go to study but that’s about it. Class snobbery kept me away from one the most incredible institutions of our modern world. Watching Elliott (who is an enthusiastic bibliophibian, her reward for good behavior is reading more books with us at night) enjoy and celebrate the library helped me see it again with new eyes, helped me realize it was a place for me. Weekly pickups of comics, movies, audiobooks and more for me accompany ones for her, and I’ve taken (and will be teaching) classes and enjoyed free art events at the library. This has all mostly been a happy side effect of being a parent, one of many.
It is a cliché for a reason that the child often teaches the parent, I know I learn from Elliott. Same thing with just going out, spending time relaxing in parks, hikes and nature walks, and museums (especially on free days or with a borrowed pass from the library), the realities of being a parent on a budget has helped plug me into how much of existence is freely available and waiting for my participation, I need only exit my apartment and walk in its direction (after doing the traditional parent overpack of change of clothes, food and drink, and all the various ephemera that accompanies me on every trip nowadays).
Another way fatherhood has changed me, another way that I have been taught is with the adoption of a simple tool; when I’m facing a challenge or struggle, I sometimes use the mental construct of Elliott (either now or as an adult) coming to me with the same problem/issue and considering how I would advise her to react. The truth is I’m not always kind to myself… I am not always kind to my daughter either but at least I always wish to be. Learning how to care for this human being has aided me and given me an expanded behavioral vocabulary of compassion & empathy which I’m working to better extend to myself.
But so much of what I’ve written is nothing but the various strands of metastory around my fatherhood; the worry after money, the worry after time, these are simply the latest incarnation of commentary around raising a family that have ever been with us since the concepts were invented. Abstractions and footnotes, plans and intentions and fears and the reactions to fears; this isn’t the heart of the journey, the heart of the reality.
Who is Elliott, and who am I, and how do I feel, what do I see what do I KNOW?
I find fatherhood to be relatively easy when I’m well fed, well rested, and feel happy. Fatherhood feels difficult when I’m stressed, behind my deadlines, when I’m woken in the middle of the night for her to request I sleep on her floor rather than my own bed, or arriving home after the grind of an hourlong commute; boredom that insists on high alert attention punctuated by gouts of rage & terror.
Her pictures now look like things, or (if that’s too much a stretch) look like the icons of things, the agreed upon abstractions of ‘this bundle of lines is a person’ and ‘this bundle of lines is a bunny.’
As I mentioned, Elliott thrives. And nothing brings me more joy. I enjoy her, most times; I enjoy her sense of humor, her hard working artistry, her kindness and generosity. I see (and hear) how the way we talk to her becomes her internal (or oftentimes, externalized) monologue. I note how turns of phrases we’ve used pass by her lips — ‘You got this Ellie, just take your time’ and the like. It’s interesting what sticks and what doesn’t. Occasionally, Elliott acts cruelly or ways that are pointedly transgressive, her burgeoning moral sense dancing with her giddy expanding knowledge of her own power to get reactions from others. Pointedly, she’s fond of ‘playing’ hide and go seek without telling us, simply darting off to tuck herself around some out of the way corner. I’m sure part of the allure is that this behavior results in her getting our full and immediate attention. The good news is she’s not very good at hiding, the bad news is it’s mildly terrifying… so much has media groomed us on worst fear child abduction or loss the losing sight of ones child can immediately tease at that essential groove.
It’s still somewhat surprising how popular Elliott is (but only somewhat). I didn’t think popularity or charisma were a thing at her age, but it very much is. Sometimes, she wields it as exclusionary games and ‘girls only’ type language nibbles at the edges of her play but this is thankfully rare.
Changes appear on the horizon -namely schooling- which bring attention and perspective to what’s happening now. I had an epiphany when Elliott started preschool that one of the biggest shifts would be that she would begin to have (and slowly gain an increasing percentage) of experience that we (her parents) were not part of, that we would not know about unless she (or someone there) told us about. This is such a shift from her babyhood, where we were part and parcel of everything that happened (or didn’t happen) to her.
I struggle to find that thing an essay ‘needs,’ that string to tie all the moments together to have an arc or lesson learned. What I find instead when I think on my daughter and my relationship with her is a selection of beads: moments, joys, failures (snapping at her, having too strong too angry two distracted a reaction to her), and the day in day out chores of providing for the material and emotional well being of a small, inexperienced human being. I guess the string that ties all those pearls together is only my role relationship as father, how it changes over time… with lots of loops back as we repeat behavior I occasionally believed we were past but generally on an upward trend of more independence (and even family interdependence), more intelligence, more agency, and more complicated & elaborate forms of play.
I do not cling or clutch at these pearls (or at least I try not to): the way she misspeaks certain words, the way she’s learning to read and write without us making any extraordinary efforts (just starting with her name and moving outward to her friends names), the way she laughs and tells Ellie-jokes. All of these will change, and I love and appreciate her in this season of innocence and adorable lack of competence even as I understand this is but one season of many.