Summer of Sons

By  |  August 1, 2019

The funniest epigraph I’ve ever seen was by a novelist—I can’t remember the writer or the book—who dedicated his novel to “my beloved children, without whom this book would’ve been finished several years ago.” There is so much of Template Father in that joke: the winking-through-resignation, the faux-heroic mood, the grand expression of love (this entire book is for you, beloveds!) couched in a knowing scold (you little Time thieves!) So much do I love this epigraph that if I were a lesser human being, less determined to set a good and moral example for my children, I would steal it for my own novel.        

My first child, Julian, was born on November 30, 2015. He was loud, blue-eyed, and perfect, and with him came a radical redesign of how I live my life, and what it feels like to live it. With far less time to waste came a better work ethic and the sense of professional desperation I needed to get serious about my projects. Before he was born, I produced lots of poems, some stories, but nothing that was ever ready enough to put a cover around. In the three years since, I have ghostwritten a nonfiction book, finished a collection of poetry, and completed a long novel. I have also changed jobs, moved cities, and learned how to conduct my life, work, and marriage as one of two caregivers to a small, rambunctious, exceedingly dramatic, utterly delightful little boy. My partner, meanwhile, has published two books, also changed jobs, also changed cities, also overhauled what it means to be an adult in her life. The money from our books has all flowed to the daycares and preschools and babysitters that have allowed us to be writers in the first place and to continue writing more, but that is, in this country at least, the cost of doing business in our business. Around here something is always undone or overdue—a deadline missed, a stack of papers ungraded, a messy kitchen, a delinquent bill—but so far, somehow, it has all worked out. No one was forced to give up their dreams. We are a lucky, happy family. So we decided to up the ante.

On Friday, July 5, 2019, our second child, Nico, was born. This means that, as I write this, one son is at his summer day camp and the other is next to me in his bassinet, swaddled, gurgling, soon to be hungry again, still not two weeks out of the womb. In these first days of his little life he’s slept better during daylight hours than at night. (Between feedings, diaper changes, and soothing sessions, I’m not sure we’ve slept at all at night.) This is a very temporary stage, my wife and I remind each other as we wander bleary-eyed through the mornings, though we know now that no matter the developmental stage they happen to be in, babies stay good at converting writing time into parental nap time. One of the deadlines I’ve already missed twice is for the essay you are reading.

Is bringing another child into the family to be thought of as an addition (more cost, more worry, more time snatched away) or a deepening (more meaning, more love, more light)? Does this question have a different answer for writers? Should writers even have children at all? So much ink has spilled already over this question, and owing to the logic of patriarchy, more of it from women than men. Writing in the Atlantic in 2013, Lauren Sandler raised a tempest when she cited Alice Walker counseling to have them, yes, “but only one,” for which Zadie Smith, mother of two, author of nine, second to none at prose argument, took them both to task. Granted, my research into being a parent of multiple children only captures twelve days of data thus far, but nevertheless, I present these findings with the usual level of confidence (high and unfounded): Of course a writer should have children, assuming they want them. Go literally for broke and have more than one. More than one is where the plot thickens. Was there such a thing as theater until Aeschylus had that second actor step out of the chorus and argue with whatever the first actor had been droning on about? No, until then, there was mere monologue.

With child number two, harrowing complexities arise. (Can barely afford daycare for one? Double it, and see what surprises lay in store!) Roles reverse. The tender, gentle firstborn you have spent years nurturing and guarding from all dangers becomes, among other things, a walking romping inadvertent threat to the new baby. (“Don’t squeeze his head!” “No, we must not pour apple juice in baby’s mouth!” “Watch your elbows!”) And in those small precious moments when there is harmony, it is counterpoint—the holy mathematics of Bach. Reading to them both for the first time, the toddler son tucks his head on my shoulder, says, “Papa, you’re a good papa,” while the newborn son, tucked in the crook of my arm, scowls charmingly, and takes a swipe at me with his claw-like hand. This is writer’s bullion. You can’t learn this stuff in an MFA program.

Here is what I know: becoming a parent made me a better writer; being a better writer made me a better parent. Now, as the number of children in my household doubles, I expect this positive relationship between the life-crafts of parenting and writing to extend and increase proportionally over time. I also expect severe financial stress. Lastly, I expect it’ll probably all work out somehow. Having one child while being a writer often feels impossible, and you can’t double the feeling of impossibility. I am, like most writers I know, paranoid, but fundamentally optimistic.

A word about bad writer-fathers. There are lots of them. Maybe most? Bellow, Cheever, Styron, Malamud, Joyce, Faulkner, Hemingway, Thomas Mann: a very many famously good writers and atrocious fathers. I won’t put us through a deconstruction of the artist-monster trope, or the hideously sexist double-standards with which that trope has been promulgated in the discourse. I will pause only briefly to acknowledge this list’s overemphasis on white Modernist writers and its overlap with writers who were also alcoholics. Surely there aren’t more bad writer-fathers than there are bad lawyer-fathers, or bad pilot-fathers, or bad retail sales associate-fathers. Nothing about being an artist induces one to be a poor parent, and no art no matter how great can redeem a man for his cruelty or the neglect of his kids. Let us never speak of this trope again, for it is in the realm of politics, not art, that we should locate the nemesis of children.                              

Raising children in the United States of America—where daycare costs more than our parents paid for their college tuition, where students of all ages are gunned down in their classrooms, where the president is a racist imbecile and sexual predator, where kids are poisoned by the water they drink, or denied lunch due to unpaid cafeteria bills, or driven into sleep deprivation and anxiety by endless standardized testing—is hard. But it’s hard for everyone. If anything, I’ve found that the practices and values that sustain me as an artist are the same ones I desire to cultivate most as a parent: patience, empathy, creativity, bravery in the face of real fear, some serious motherfucking endurance.

The pantheon of good writer-fathers is shorter, and inevitably more subjective. Denis Johnson. Kurt Vonnegut. JG Ballard. Michael Chabon, father of four, and like me married to a writer. Brian Evenson, whose near daily Facebook posts about his son Max are a reason not to quit the platform forever. As their former student, I can testify firsthand that George Saunders and poet Brooks Haxton are model fathers as well as model teachers, artists, and human beings. In his classes at the Syracuse MFA, George would often remind us of his origin story as a literary superhero (our word, not his)—rising before dawn and before his young daughters to work a few honest minutes on CivilWarLand in Bad Decline at the breakfast table, snow falling in heaps, bills stacking higher, before getting the girls to school and clocking in at the geo-engineering firm which would, of course, supply much of the inspiration for his fictional worlds in books to come. Those gritty years didn’t last forever, but they had to be endured, and if endured—so goes the optimistic assumption—your cape and Booker Award await. It can be done, despite what Richard Ford allegedly said.

Yes, it was almost certainly the childless Richard Ford who cornered the young and then-unpublished Michael Chabon at a cocktail party many years ago and said unto him, “Do not have children. That’s it. Do not. That is the whole of the law.” This edict he backed up with at least one piece of evidence that, I admit, is pretty good: while the pantheon of bad writer-fathers is filled with literary excellence and human misery, the pantheon of great childless writers (like himself, and Chekhov) is virtually endless. This checks out. The unnamed writer (Richard Ford) continued: “You can write great books, or you can have kids. It's up to you.” And so young Chabon faced a binary choice. And he chose: both. Being a gentleman, Chabon detailed this encounter last year in a remarkable essay in GQ without naming Ford, but he dropped just enough clues in his account to make it obvious that the man who once physically spit on Colson Whitehead over a negative review was the same man who dispensed this unsolicited oracular bullshit. Chabon’s ultimate reply, all these years, books, and babies later, fit into a single lovely sentence:

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 100 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.

I do not know Michael Chabon and, I confess, I haven’t read his novels, but this sentence has turned me into an unabashed Michael Chabon Person. If writers had jerseys, I would go out and cop his forthwith. In part, I’m impressed that he resisted the easy dunk on Ford, which I, for my part, will not do: The secret to success is picking one spot and staying there always, says the man left stranded on a deserted island; or perhaps, How fortunate we are that you are convinced of the truth of this, even as it’s wrong, because otherwise, a person with your human characteristics may have actually reproduced. Chabon instead gives us his best Marcus Aurelius—a perfect antidote to Boomer narcissism—I will die, my kids will die, you (Richard Ford) will die, even our most gorgeous sentences and the books they live in are almost certainly bound for dust. Let’s remember who and what we are, and be glad in it. What the Stoics and their unlikely disciple Michael Chabon gives us is the necessary corrective of perspective. And is that not the signature move of any parent when faced with the petulant despair of a child, whose fears, booboos, heartbreaks, and outrages seem to them the only real thing in all creation?

What Chabon elides here is Fear Number One of any parent: that something calamitous will happen to one’s child much sooner than is contemplated in those hundred circuits around the sun. That’s part of this deal, too. And it is just that tension—the Stoic humility in recognizing one’s finitude, combined with the decidedly un-Stoic terror and dread for the wellbeing of one’s children, that feels to me like the proper mindset in which to write fiction. Before my first child was born, it was a state of mind to which I had no access. Now it is my default state. Having children teaches you something about mortality whether you want to learn it or not. Mortality, as we know, is a required course for writers.

One afternoon, when Julian was only six months old, without warning he vomited so hard he stopped breathing, stopped moving, was weightless, limp, and unconscious in my arms. It was just the two of us in the house—his mother was on her way home from work in the Houston rush-hour. I thought, as I held my boy in that state for an unspeakably long minute, then another, then another, that he was dead. He was still unconscious as I screamed into the phone to 9-1-1, and I didn’t become sure he was alive until his mother came up the stairs and, at the sound of her voice, just as he had at the moment of his birth, opened his eyes, and his eyes found her.

I am a cis-gendered hetero American male and even as a poet I struggled in younger years to recognize my own feelings beyond the crude caveman triad of fear, anger, and want. Until Julian. My capacities for sadness, for tenderness, for delight and silliness and love were exponentially expanded more or less the instant he was born. Julian was, for me, what Kafka said books ought to be for everyone: an axe to the frozen sea within. To any parent, it’s surely no surprise that I evolved into a blubbering mess of real and raw emotions at the arrival of my firstborn. The surprise was that I became that way about kids in general. Where before, I had never given much thought or felt connected or paid attention to anyone who couldn’t yet drive a car, hold their end of an argument, curse, drink, vote, or dunk a basketball, after my own was born, I began to instinctively look to children first—on the street, at the grocery store, in movies and television shows, in novels and poems and of course in my own writing; my concern and sense of responsibility for their wellbeing went from zero to max. Now, I need to know, before anything else, that the kids are alright. (Me, rewatching Breaking Bad in 2016, screaming at the screen: “Where is the baby right now, Walter White?!”)

At Nico’s birth, I felt every feeling at once with such force it nearly shattered me. Labor had been fast and frightening—more to me than to his warrior mother who actually, you know, did it—and nothing outside of medical school prepares a person for the bizarre spectacle of actual human birth. He came out in one twirling arc, a gray and spinning object, and I was afraid once more in my ignorance and helplessness that I was seeing a son of mine who was not breathing and not alive, and I had to keep asking the doctor and nurses and technicians if he was okay, because the tidal force that overwhelmed me made it impossible to believe them each time they said “yes.” There is something about feeling like an animal—an ego-less amalgam of muscle and nerves and heat—that gets closer than almost anything to feeling truly human. To fear, in a moment’s storm of instinct, for the life of your child, and then to know just as suddenly that they are safe, is to know something you did not know before about terror, as well as joy. These are conjured spirits of the body, not the mind, despite what my beloved Stoics say, and as such, they obey no correctives of perspective. They are among the only forces on earth more powerful than language.

 

There is one more benefit of having children I wish to discuss and this one is particularly tailored to the interests of a writer. In the last year and a half, I have written approximately 1,642.5 original short stories, performing them orally at their precise moment of composition—freestyle, if you will—to a merciless audience of one. Julian’s mania for bedtime stories began around age two and shows no sign of let-up, even as his critical standards grow ever more exacting and severe. I used to be envious of my stand-up comedian friend who explained that, in his art form, unlike mine, feedback was instantaneous and ambiguity-free. He tells a joke—the audience either laughs, or they don’t. Sometimes they helpfully boo. I, at last, can relate. When Julian likes a turn a story takes, his eyes light up and he bursts into a smile in that pure, full way only a child can smile. When the story begins to frighten him, his jaw clenches up, his eyes flash, he balls his little fists. When I stick the landing, making the hero prevail with just the right ratio of narrative cleverness and familiarity to his three-year-old world, he jumps out of bed and cheers. Whereas, if a story fails to move, convince, or delight him, he bursts into tears and, after catching his breath, demands “a better story,” and doesn’t stop demanding until I tell him one. It turns out, there are benefits to critical ambiguity, at least to the ego and fatigue-level of the writer, and some of us (Richard Ford) would do well to remember that the next time we are reviewed.

Lest you think this is merely about sharpening the storytelling chops, consider too the essential role of stories in a child’s development. Sometime around his third birthday, we discovered the Little Golden Book series of Star Wars, his first in what I have no doubt will be a lifetime of fictional obsessions. These are only lightly abridged picture book adaptations of the films, complete with tedious exposition, universe-specific technological designations, and Sarlacc monsters waiting to swallow Lando Calrissian whole. He has consumed, memorized, and already begun to remix the plots of all eight canonical episodes, plus the spinoffs, making no bones about mixing universes, the invented with the received. (“Papa, my skeletons will protect you. From the droids.”)

I’d like to take a moment here to speak directly to George Lucas. George, from one writer to another, I thank you for giving me not only the occasion but the tools to engage my three-year-old in discussions about death, the energy that binds all living things, vengeance, planetary annihilation, lava wounds, what a bounty hunter is, why droids specialize in different kinds of labor, what each of Darth Vader’s chest-buttons do, why Sand People merit execution, and of course, exactly how long a parsec is. What could be more instructive to a writer than to participate in a little human’s first encounters with the biggest, scariest notions in life—violence, mystery, guilt, love—almost entirely within the terms of a work of art? Every day he reminds me that our world and all its meaning is made of stories. When we’re driving around in the car and I’m trying to explain some word or phrase I’ve used that he doesn’t understand, he will interrupt my verbose attempts at a dictionary definition to say, simply, “Tell me a story about that.” 

Children are not passive readers—they live out the stories that are important to them. Even back when I was still bothering to skip over the really gruesome parts, the Day-Glo moral logic of Star Wars had begun to operate in Julian's imagination, apart from the text, swimming around in his brain to emerge at unexpected moments. Once, after some bedtime “Stay in your room and go to sleep!”-type discipline, he shouted at me from down the hall: “Papa! I have ANGER and HATE in my HEART.”

“Ok,” I told him. “Just remember where that leads.”

Later that same night, in the bathroom, our heads about a foot apart, we’ll talk about why Anakin Skywalker’s fear and resentment leads him to the Dark Side, and how his last-minute burst of fatherly love for Luke leads him back. The next morning, on the way to preschool, Julian will ask me, “Papa, do I have Good growing in my heart?” (Yes.) “Thousands of good?” (Yes, thousands and thousands.) “Why?” (Because of the love you have for other people, and the love we have for you.) “Oh.” And then, after a beat of silence, as if he could sense I was getting too satisfied with myself, “Why did Yoda DIE?”

The purpose of art, Horace tell us, is to instruct and delight. It can also be used to stall. Julian, coming out of his room for the twelfth time after lights-out, tells me, “Papa, I just got a message. From the workers on the Death Star. Darth Vader wants me to come to the Dark Side.”

“You can go to the Dark Side in the morning,” I tell him. And it’s true. All things are possible in the morning—moral reversals, the release of Episode IX, the beginning of a new book, the first words of a baby brother, and maybe, with some luck and quality affordable daycare, a few more hours’ sleep.


“Serious Work” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By

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Christopher Brunt’s work appears or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Fugue, Poets.org, Meridian, the Cincinnati Review, and other magazines. His fiction has been selected as a Distinguished Story by Best American Short Stories and will soon be featured in the MTA Subway Library in New York City. His poetry has recently been named a finalist for the Marsh Hawk Poetry Prize. He is an Assistant Professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, where he teaches ancient and modern literature and creative writing. His MFA is from Syracuse University and he received a PhD in English from the University of Southern Mississippi.