On July 30th my daughter -Elliott Rose Perkins- turned three. On September 12th, she attended her first day of pre-school. Milestones like these mark the passage of time and serve as worthy reminders to write one of these semi-regular check-ins about what Fatherhood feels like for me, how I conceive of the role-relationship, and how I fit into this position of Papa.
I should begin by noting that my daughter thrives, flourishes. It is cliché to mention that that is the key, the critical center of my concerns & efforts; that by word and deed and act I help co-create space and conditions for my daughter to live well. This is my prime responsibility not only for her but also towards myself and everyone else I care about, it’s just that with Ellie this work is the most pressing and the less my responsibilities are diffused or otherwise obscured. But even with her and all the ways she’s vulnerable and dependent at three years of age, I can’t make her thrive: it’s something she simple does -more or less naturally- as long as I can help build a supportive home, acquire the proper resources (so few of which are monetary), and generally get out of the way (while making sure she doesn’t get injured and has a sufficient sense coupled of the polite rules of society which are expected of her).
Because Lauren is with her days while I’m at the office, I can sometimes feel vaguely distant from my daughter. Which isn’t true, but this is a bit of a specter that haunts me at times. What is true however, is that if I ‘blink,’ I miss ‘it;’ some new development, some new everyday superpower she’s come up with: drawing a figure that actually looks like the thing in question (a balloon), recognizing 10 or so letters, or climbing upside down and backwards being some recent examples. It’s a good reminder to stay as engaged as much as I can, cherish and be with her even as I remind myself not to clutch at moments the way a miser clutches at coins since, trying to hold back the passage of time is a good way to miss what’s actually happening right in front of you.
In this season, her mother and I transition from providing for her direct physical needs to trying to provide for her social, intellectual, and behavioral needs (the particularly human things rather than her purely mammalian ones). She taxes us less in terms of sheer physical endurance -the late night wakeups, the forever carrying her and her things- and more intellectually, socially, emotionally. She’s curious and inquisitive and wants to play more or less always, and we have a pair of twenty first century lives to live which both are both nigh consumed by her while also transcending her. ‘Why’ is becoming a favored word, and she develops in part by learning how to press our buttons, how to get various reactions from us like ‘Oh, that’s the angry button,’ ‘Oh, that’s the sad button,’ and the ‘oh, that’s Mama’s giggle button.’
The influence of friends, peers and others is waxing, even as our own import betrays -perhaps- its first inkling of a wane. I’ve heard it said that one of the most important (if not the most important) decisions you make for your child is simply choosing where you live and who you associate with as this will influence who winds up as their peer group which will end up being their prime determinant of their assumptions about how life works. I seem to have spotted the first glimpse of the veracity of that sentiment.
Money and time and love; these are things children eat (leafy greens… not so much). And while the love and the time I think we have enough of the securing adequate monies can ever feel like a particular deficiency in our lives. Many of our peers are going into debt to get their children into preschool (which seemingly can almost equivocate the cost of full time employment). We aren’t there, but we aren’t that distant from that reality. I don’t think children ‘need’ preschool as such; but they do need peers, she does need to spend more time learning from people who aren’t her mother and I (just as we need time and activities/work wherein we aren’t completely defined by our relationship with our child). The fact is that most of Ellie’s age group (at least given our socioeconomic status) are safely cloistered in their homes or in a walled off classrooms filled with art supplies and a private jungle gym and goldfish crackers somewhere. The public playgrounds are increasingly barren of her age group save for after-school and weekends; we’re lucky to have three other three year olds on our block in who cycle through each others’ houses and company but otherwise there is no semi-feral pack of mixed age neighborhood children with whom she can go get somewhat lost and I doubt such a thing will exist as she grows, since society-wide quietly suffocating ‘safety at all cost’ parenting is something I have no hope of seeing improve.
Preschool and early child development (and to a lesser extent a lot of people’s assumptions about early moral education) also tends to be explicitly Christian. Preschools are often subsidized or otherwise built in the shadow of some denomination (Elliott’s school is one such). I feel conflicted about this; while I do not in any way practice a Christian faith it is the creed under which I was raised and -at least for the less judgmental universalist-Methodist strains- I find mostly inoffensive. Still, when asked about instructing the children about the diversity of human religious expression (or lack thereof) being told that the school definitely keeps that in mind by teaching things like ‘how Christmas is celebrated around the world’ doesn’t exactly engender confidence that we’re speaking the same language.
Elliott in general, and her preschool in particular, reminds me to be aware of moving in circles where the scene can easily be comprised, exclusively, of white people. One of my privileges as a white man is I don’t necessarily need to notice when in a room of just white people, and I try to train myself first simply to notice and in noticing try to think about what factors led to this _ I’m participating in being so ill-representative of my community. The next thing to try and be mindful of is to view these factors most fundamentally as failures to dismantle racism and promote equal opportunity to which I am complicit and (most probably) a beneficiary. It is only by choosing to live in a diverse community, participate in truly representative institutions and groups that Elliott will have the opportunity to develop and explore all facets of her identity, regardless of how she conceives and develops it throughout her life. On a grander sense, it’s also the only way I know that has a chance of building a kind of future I want to inhabit, or that I want my descendants to inhabit.
With schooling also comes the invitation to play the ‘diminishing marginal utility’ game at its most viciously competitive: the preschool is good, but is it good enough? The school is good, but is it good enough? Ellie seems to be on the right track to live a rich life, but are we doing enough -now- to help her develop for a world and life we don’t actually see? And always, the demon of judgement-fear lurking just out of the corner of my eye. ‘Good enough’ is an important invocation to sanity & balance in the life of anyone, parents especially.
Something I perhaps didn’t expect is that preschool is not only scholastic training wheels for Elliott but also for us; there is the toddler version of parent-teacher conference and PTA. As usual, each group which calls for participation is something that can consume your life more or less wholly and -as usual- the trick is to find the kind and level of participation that adds to your life and allows you to give and receive value while not being motivated by guilt.
We need parents in our lives; to compare notes and barter babysitting if nothing else (though, I personally prefer and try to practice gifting of childcare even as I am particularly allergic to parents making their children someone else’s problem without asking). We also need to not have our identities eaten by our role as parent but, in my experience, parents are usually the people in my life who are most stuck repeating a script of what they’re supposed to say-want-do (and the odious cultural message tends to be that we should live our lives as living sacrifices for our children, doubly so for women). It can sometimes take extra work to get to any conversation beyond benchmark comparison of our respective kinder models and the endlessly permutable litany that ‘we’re tired.’ While that latter is inevitably true (and the former can be unavoidable) there’s more going on in all of our lives, and I’d like to talk about it and make sharing as much of the fullness of our being the foundation of our relationship as opposed to basing our association upon the mere trivia that we all had unprotected sex or underwent in vitro fertilization within a few years of each other.
Which is all to say that having a three year old embroils me in larger conversations, larger currents of society: race and school and religion and more. The secret trouble with having a ‘whying’ toddler, the secret trouble of making decisions about things like pre-k is that it forces you to learn what you truly think, what you truly value as opposed to relying upon the vague, half-considered rhetorical gestures with which we tend to gloss over our failures of understanding.
But these larger dialogues are not my prime experience of my daughter; that is my life together with her and with Lauren and with her and Lauren.
Ellie’s talkative and bright and strong and deeply caring. She loves to play and color, has a singular focus (most especially of media) that reminds me of no one so much as myself. She dresses up frequently and with gusto, and while the magical princess archetype has been popular in her recent past Batman (specifically, Lego Batman) and a dollar store knight are favorites de jour. She has besties which she loves to talk about: Rowan, Grayson, Reef, her mother and I. At the park, she wants to play with us or a known friend rather than meet new child who are often cliqued up; I can’t blame her but I also want to ensure she stretches relationally. One of my particular delights with her, is having her pull board games out of the closet -Settlers of Catan, a deck of cards- and then invent a game on the spot that we can play together. She tries to solve her social problems by kindness and inspiring others to listen to her, tries to solve physical problems by making a strength check; which are both playing to her advantages and generally a workable solution but some nuances still need to be taught. She loves to tickle and wrestle, play drama games, giggle about nonsense, and play hide and go seek even as no power on earth can coax her to alternate her hiding spots.
By three year old standards, she is incredibly cooperative, helpful, loving, hard-working, even-tempered, kind, and a good listener. Which in no way prevents random outburst fights to put on socks or to not run directly towards the illegally off-leash dogs of unknown temperament; of sometimes using every trick to avoid sleeping. By any standards, she is a joy to be around; and while we’re sensitive about not inviting her to explicitly adult spaces people love to babysit her and generally have her around (though, we have to be careful lest certain people only see/know us when we’re fully in parent mode).
Ellie uses the toilet with 99% accuracy, which makes me happy since diapers are expensive and this makes getting childcare easier. As a corollary, I’m now at any given time aware of every bathroom or likely bathroom within a thousand meters; these are now marked for me the way Jason Bourne marks exits. As many people claimed, she more or less potty trained herself when she was ready; though that was after a year of me feeling like she should already know and trying (ineffectually and messily) to get her beyond diapers. A good reminder that ‘should’ is one of the most frustrating words/concepts in my life.
She is a pickier eater, now, than when she was a baby; with a taste for processed food that is the sworn enemy of a balanced diet. I personally think that toddlers (is she still a toddler anymore?) are incredibly sensitive to texture and so best like food that has been ground into a slurry and reconstituted… preferably into the shape of a dinosaur. She attracts nicknames like flowers attract bees: the two most commonly used ones are the cheese goblin (due to the fact that she would subsist on an all cheese diet if we allowed such) and the thunder cub (because, well, if you’ve spent any time with her you know that that moniker is apt).
There are aspects of her childhood that are markedly different from my own; she ‘owns’ and regularly uses a kidified tablet, doesn’t know what a commercial is, get complimented on her ‘summer tan,’ knows (and often repeats) the words ‘vulva’ and ‘penis,’ and lots more differences besides since I don’t really remember myself at three. I realize that she uses pop-culture the same way I do, noticing the kid in the Paw Patrol shirt gives her a way ‘into’ conversation and a notion of what kinds of games can be played where otherwise there is only the gulf of an unknown possibility of common reference/relating.
She cries a lot more than she did a few months back and she will probably cry a lot less some months from now; she has various seasons where she is more or less emotionally volatile or otherwise sensitive (although, as a rule, she is usually cheerful and excited; the heavy tears erupting quickly and then clearing within minutes like a short summer thunderstorm). It can be hard for me to not do the small version of ‘man up,’ it can be difficult to ensure I’m taking her feelings seriously even as she needs to learn disappointment and resiliency in miniature (basically promoting the narrative that no, you can’t eat that candy but yes I can understand how that makes you feel sad and that you may need to cry about it); five minutes later the emotional landscape will almost certainly have shifted again.
I love my daughter Elliott, love her mother Lauren in ways both over a decade old and new as of this morning; and I’m happy the three of us are here together as a family. I mess up as Dad; get tired and distracted by my phone or short or any other myriad sin… so I wake up to the day after and try to do better, try and do my usually expanding, sometimes diminished best. I focus on being honest with her, and teaching her what I know and suspect about existence not via sermon but in play, in the baking of bread and cutting of melon, in every act of every moment of how I move through the world.
I don’t know if Lauren and I will have more children, I personally have punted the decision till after Lauren and I attend our first Burning Man together, but here, now, my family is exactly what it should be.