I’d like to recant. Recall with me, if you will, my most recent essay in this series. On one side, there was me and Michael Chabon affirming the choice we’ve made to embrace our dual callings as writers and fathers. Bravely, Chabon and I rejected the zero-sum thinking which pits child-rearing and novel-writing as mutually exclusive enterprises. We bid a resounding, “Both/And!” to the gauntlet and glory of being a writer with not only one but multiple children. Opposing us was my nemesis, the Night King himself, Richard Ford, who maintains that a writer must choose whether to have children or make great art. Chabon and I see the tragic folly in this. We shake our heads. We feel a little sorry for Richard Ford.
Friends, since we last spoke, my second son has turned two months old, his older brother approaches his fourth birthday, and life, as I know it, has derailed. My whole shit is fucked up. The statement, “This is the worst day of my life,” has come out of my mouth twice in this span of time, in two different hotel rooms in two different cities, both times as histrionic overflow which I nevertheless believed at the moment I uttered it, both times with my family—whom I love and adore—as its audience and antecedent.
Mind you, everyone remains healthy—the boys, their mother, me. No catastrophe has struck from any external source, no job loss or hurricane or illness or piano falling from a high window has visited our lives, and in all this, we are wildly fortunate. And another disclaimer too: I speak, here and elsewhere, as a highly educated American male gringo with gainful employment, health insurance, and a spouse who is successful, beautiful, wise, and kind. I have no actual business bemoaning a single thing. This is noted. But between you and me, I am lost. I am Odysseus, bedraggled and forlorn on Calypso’s pretty beach, nostalgic for my old wily self, for how the world looked when I lived by the brash faith that the heart will get soon enough what it wants.
What I’m saying is, Richard Ford was right about some shit—but only in a manner of speaking.
Yesterday, in the blue hush of evening, there came to pass an eight-second string of domestic chaos in which the dog was barking because someone dared to knock at our door, the three-year-old was loosing bloodcurdling screams due to a dead fly on his bookcase, the lawn guy was calling my phone to seek immediate cash payment, the pasta water was about to boil over, and into my arms was deposited the infant by his mother, who had pressing needs of her own. Immediately and in the midst of this din, the baby took one look at me—a poor, unwelcome, milkless sight--and burst into tears. This eight seconds has been my situation for two months: yanked apart from every side, everyone I love and care about seizing at a limb.
This Having-a-Baby is proving harder than I remembered. In part because it is harder the second time around. Because I am not wise, I had expected the opposite to be the case. I had thought, we already have the tools, the knowledge, the expertise. We have been to Troy in our black ships, looted its treasure, burned it to the ground. We know from diaper changes, projectile spit-ups at four A.M., teeth-cutting, growth spurts, high fevers. We know not to leave the stroller on the porch overnight or else it gets that weird green mold. The second baby would slot right into this operation, a seamless addition to the good world we’ve made. This was the second of two errors.
Somewhere back in the sparkle and fizz of early summer, in the weeks before my new son Nico’s birth, I made the first error. I came to believe that I was getting somewhere as an artist and professional and human being. I rejoiced over a long-awaited development on the poetry front, news I still cannot divulge but hold out hope of sharing with you soon. I designed a fresh new group of courses for the fall semester and made my annual resolutions to enhance my teaching and printed out Martín Espada’s jubilant poem “Imagine the Angels of Bread” and pinned it to my office door. Via regular trips to the Rhodes College pool with son Julian, I developed my first deep summer tan in many years. We’re turning a corner, I said, a head full of sunshine and dumb hope. I will finish at last a draft of this novel before my second child is born, I said. That baby will come into this world scion to a novelist father and he will never hang his head in shame when asked, “Who is your dad and what has he done?” And so, a few weeks before my wife gave birth, I finished the first full draft of the novel I’ve been writing for the past four years.
And now the second son is born and the campus pool is closed and the semester is up and running and still that novel sits, duly read and marked up by a trusted reader, now gathering digital dust on my hard drive, growing more alien and forbidding to me with each day that passes in which I do not open up the manuscript file. Every day for the past two months my fear has grown that it—this wild dream I spent years breathing life into—will somehow expire or slip into a vegetative state from neglect. That I’ll never regain the momentum and mad determination I had in drafting it. Most irrationally of all, given how outlandish and absurd my book is, that some other writer out there will beat me to the punch and publish a novel exactly like it. This paranoia runs deep. I awake some nights having seen in my visions the New York Times review of my novel’s doppelgänger, written by another debut novelist, one bolder and more industrious than me, whose singular vision is heralded as truly singular indeed.
The longer this work stoppage continues, of course, the harder it becomes to reverse. I know precisely what I want to revise in this draft, and more or less how I want to do it. But I cannot, given the person I have been in these two months, bring myself to undertake that labor. The book is too sprawling, too wired, too extra, and my new baby has made me, among other things, sleep deprived, overly anxious, overtaxed and preoccupied by my daily (non-writing) workload, and generally a bit dumb. Before I am tweeted at, let me say that I am aware that other writers have written better books than mine under far worse conditions. Homer was blind, after all, while I am only legally impaired without my contact lenses. This realization doesn’t, however, help me very much beyond making me rue my own stagnation and lack of willpower.
There are other, less punitive psychological motivations I would like to exploit. That’s why I’m on the hunt for a new, non-negotiable deadline by which I must finish my novel revisions. The draft deadline in early summer was the first one I’ve ever successfully kept over the whole lifetime of this project. It worked because it was non-negotiable and utterly out of my control: finish book before wife goes into labor. No way to bullshit around that one. No way to blow past the deadline and immediately award myself another six months. But now, I look around in vain for a similarly objective externality to get me moving. (And no, we will not be having a third child.) I still haven’t found it, and I still haven’t revised a single word. I am so close to home, but there is more work to be done, and necessity is a hard thing to manufacture.
Once, in the midst of his journey home, Odysseus had Ithaca in sight. After ten years at war and another one spent escaping the Lotus-Eaters and the Cyclops and the maritime wrath of Poseidon, he called at a friendly port at the floating island of Aeolus, where the good king gifted him a bag full of wind and sent him on his way at a speedy clip. Ten days later, his native shores were in sight, so tantalizingly near he could see the men tending fires on the beach. Perhaps feeling overwhelmed by the realization that his long, hard ordeal was finally at an end, Odysseus laid down to get some rest. While he slept, his idiot crew grew suspicious of the contents of that mysterious bag and decided that a quick peek inside wouldn’t hurt. When they opened it up, all the winds came rushing out at once and blew their ship far out to sea. Odysseus awoke, screaming in rage, more lost and farther from home than ever. Nine more years of wandering would follow. Their next stop would be an island of cannibals.
Until something goes seriously awry, I often forget that everything we do goes into the writing. Only belatedly, I realized that since the new baby came and took up residence in our bedroom, I stopped reading fiction at night—abruptly ceasing a lifelong ritual of reading in bed until I fall asleep—and that this was a) something in my power to change and b) a critical part of my nourishment as a writer. But not everything has so simple a fix. In these early days of Nico’s infancy, his mother and I barely see each other. I miss that woman. She glides around according to her own sacrosanct protocol, baby tucked in arm, hair flowing, remote and lovely like the heroine of a novel I read in a summer long past. Feeling nostalgic for our younger, pre-parental days one afternoon, I went back and looked through my entire photo library and drank in all the bright color and joy of our life together. She is the most interesting person and best companion I could ever have, and the new baby has sailed away with her, the two of them on their own essential voyage.
Until his baby brother came, our hilarious and unruly three-year-old, Julian, was the responsibility of two entire people. That meant doing his wake-ups every other morning, trading preschool pick-up and drop-off duty, tapping out with each other to preside over his play sessions and tantrums and art projects and bedtime bathroom monologues, whoever had the freshest supply of patience and resolve subbing in to go those rounds. And now, it is all me. Now listen. There is no one on earth I love more than my son Julian. But three-year-olds are little drunk people. I know drunk people. I used to be one, and so were all my friends. I know there is no reasoning with a drunk person, and the best thing you can do is tolerate their madness and endorse their delusions until they’re safely passed out in a bed-like area. Three-year-olds, however, are the type of drunk person who somehow manages to never go to bed.
Three-year-olds wake up at 5:30 in the pre-dawn singing songs about barges at the top of their lungs and before you can come online enough to ask yourself, Is he talking about literal fucking barges? they are shrieking with animal rage because they forgot the second verse, or because the dog gave them a friendly lick, or because one of the fifty-nine stickers they have adhered to their belly, the bathroom mirror, and the floor has unaccountably ripped. Three-year-olds say bizarre and adorable things like, “Hope you have good luck!” when you tell them you’re going into the kitchen to make coffee, but while you’re gone, hide your mobile phone and car keys in a place you’ll never find them. Then they forget where that place was. Three-year-olds, at bedtime, are an awe-inspiring dervish of characters in extremis: Stanley from Streetcar, the lead soprano from any Italian opera’s third act, the Joker.
The division of our parental jurisdictions is stark enough that it begins to reinforce itself after a while. Imagine you’ve spent the last half hour arguing with a drunk person as to why they shouldn’t take all the dishes out of the dishwasher and use them to build a fort. Then, at the emotional height of the argument, right when it’s turned personal, someone enters the room and puts an infant in your arms. What you’re bound to experience then is a certain amount of gear stripping, of using an insufficiently tender tone of voice, of feeling like you’re running the wrong software. In such moments, I sometimes look down, readjusting the baby in my arms, and say things to him like, “Can you fucking believe this shit?”
Before we first became parents, I had read that some fathers don’t bond with their babies right away. How sad, I thought then, that some men are such monsters. Such cold, heartless, irredeemable, toxically masculine ogres. I bonded with Julian right there in the delivery room, proving once and for all that I was better, much better, than these men. Then with Nico, just as naturally, there was no bonding. It simply failed to happen. In the delivery room, my mind was half tuned on mother-and-infant and half on Julian, who was back at home with his grandparents. What time would be best for him to come visit? How should we stage manage the introduction to his new brother? What in this hospital room is a possible weapon or hazard that needs to be removed or hidden before he gets here? Are the grandparents abiding by all strictures of the routine? This lack of sustained focus on the child at hand has only continued, and, if anything, grown more pronounced. Because of the rhythms of our parenting collaboration, I often hold the baby when he’s ravenous with hunger and gnawing on my inner arm, pecking at my breast-less chest like a woodpecker, while my mind is on whatever is not being done to guide Julian through his day according to that all-important routine of which I am sole captain.
Soon, I know, these rhythms will change. Small joys will proliferate. Just in the last few days, Nico has started to smile—enormous, radiant, meaningful smiles—and it’s incredible how much that one new channel of communication can open up. Now, it’s possible for me to sing him “Deep in the Heart of Texas” and do the boom-boom-boom-booms with his tiny feet and cause him to light up like Westheimer on a Saturday night.
My wife is on maternity leave for the fall semester—yet another way in which we are more fortunate than many. Here in Memphis, I’ve learned, mighty FedEx gives mothers all of two weeks. But here’s a secret, one that women have known forever and men were either ignorant of or else conspired with one another to pretend ignorance: For the non-nursing parent, going to work can be the easy way out. Work is an escape hatch. Work, for most of us, is a place where no babies cry. A place where adults gather and make off-color jokes and appreciate puns and references to Game of Thrones. Work, under the best of circumstances, can be mentally stimulating, or failing that, serenely boring. Going to work is a goddamn gift. My wife is home all day with the baby, which is basically house arrest. I yearn not for a leave of my own.
But work, as we’ve seen, is its own problem. Julian is in preschool, and preschool in this crumbling empire ends at three o’clock, that hour of the day when no adult could possibly be busy. This means I have to leave work at 2:45 P.M., assured that no matter what I’ve done all day, I have failed to do enough to be ready for tomorrow. I’m sure there are some people who wish their regular workday ended prematurely a couple hours after lunch, but I am not among them. My brain, at 2:45 P.M., is nowhere near ready to switch over to its domestic-parenting settings. Granted, all this has been the case ever since Julian started preschool well over a year ago, but now, with the home turned into Fortress Nico, it’s more important than ever that I get all my work done while actually at work. That is, all the writing, reading, editing, class prep, grading, and teaching, completed in full by 2:45 P.M.
When we first became parents, we learned to live and thrive by our routines, and we grew to need and love them. The second baby, innocent nugget of sweetness and light, has obliterated them all. The bills, the laundry, the cleaning, the poor walk-deprived dog—all formerly under our routinized control and now in disarray. We don’t even know how to get to the grocery store anymore, much less go out to eat or cook a decent dinner that doesn’t consist of frozen fish sticks with French fries and ketchup borrowed from the neighbor. New routines will eventually grow up organically around this chaos, I’m sure, but they haven’t yet. There is just disorder and improvisation, our little ship constantly blown off course, headed to some new strange place where monsters no doubt roam.
The temptation is to want it all to speed up. For this stage to get over with so the next one—which we imagine will be better—gets here and relieves us of our worries. “Things would be a whole lot easier,” I tell Nico as I rock his stroller with a foot, “if you could just hold your head up already.” “Hold my head up?” he says. “I literally just got out of a womb.” He’s right. Pining for the next stage is wishing something away that can never be gotten back—namely, the present moment—the baby that is here, in the stroller, head propped, being perfectly himself. And now we’re at the heart of the heart of the matter, because this all really comes down to accepting the present on its own terms.
I am at work on a provisional list: That sleep-deprived adults are nearly as on-drugs as three-year-olds, and need some other adult to check their impulses, keep them balanced, talk out their doom-laden thoughts. That babies do wreck your life, but over time build it back better and deeper than it was before. As corollary, that the first few months of parenthood result in an atrophy of certain important parts of the self, but most or all of these parts do “grow back” eventually, albeit modified, such that all parents are at least partially bionic versions of their younger selves. That in the narrowest sense, Richard Ford was right: it is not possible for me to write a great book at the same time as a new baby enters into our lives. But also that babies eventually grow up into toddlers who go to daycare, and therefore Chabon and I will prove right in the long run.
That remembering all the blessings and, in my case, tremendous privileges of one’s lot in life is a surefire way to let some of the histrionic self-centered bullshit recede and slide away. That anxiety and dread over work-stoppage is not desirable but neither is it a capital offense against the self. That nothing about making art guarantees that the next stage of a project’s development will be easier or more swiftly completed than the last one. In my specific case, that successfully drafting this big thing under the deadline does not automatically mean that the revisions will also come in under their deadline, and so on for the next series of steps along the way to getting it, finally, in your hands, all bound up and beautiful for $29.95. And finally, that any amount of derailment, chaos, and pain is worth the beauty of these boys.
Julian loves to hold his baby brother. We sit him down and lay the baby across a pillow on his lap and help him support the head, make sure the baby doesn’t go for a roll. He kisses Nico’s nose and laughs out of sheer delight. In the mornings, he drags his little chairs from the dining room down the hall and posts them outside our bedroom and pronounces himself the guardian of his brother and, once settled, sings the song he wrote. “Baby Nico, don’t be afraid / your big brudder is here / for you.” (Hours of dubbed Korean cartoons have instilled in him the belief that lyrics have no need of rhyme.) All told, he has adjusted to this far better than I have. My little firstborn Telemachus—he grows into his new important role more and more each day, at an astonishing rate becoming himself, claiming his right to move through the wide world. Whatever our family ends up being and feeling and living like, now that we are four, I know that will not be some creation of my own imagining alone, or of my wife’s, but Julian too will help us come to know ourselves again.
To return home, Odysseus had to go in disguise. That is, he had to lose, strip away, or otherwise change everything about himself except for what mattered most—what he loved. All was in disarray when he got back there, of course, so upside down, so much harder to set right than he’d planned. But that, after all, is why he was needed. That’s why all the miles journeyed over, all the mornings met by nothing but smoke and sea.
“Serious Work” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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