Friday, November 30, 2012

Already embarrassing

If I remain anonymous for now, it's because I know I'll eventually end up being an embarrassment to my two young daughters (A, now four, and B, now two) in some way, and I think I'll save that for when they're a little older and start bringing boyfriends (or girlfriends; I'm a New Yorker after all) home to meet the folks. And now, when I haul out the photo albums, I can linger over the pre-baby as well as the baby pictures — science triumphs, at least when it comes to making adolescent girls angry.

I became a parent late in life, and had never visited the Lower East Side of New York until my wife and I were searching for a Place To Buy about four years ago, just after A was born. Thanks to my friend from college who eventually became a real estate broker, we ended up in a co-op just south of Delancey Street and just north of Chinatown. It's not the kind of place in which I grew up. I was raised in a suburb of Philadelphia in the 1960s — all mown lawns and ranch houses, quiet streets and nights. And, obviously, mostly white and lukewarm Christian, and everybody spoke English.

Not here. Both A and B were born in St. Vincent's Hospital just before it closed two years ago: they're not only New York kids, but Greenwich Village kids. But the whirlwind of heterogeneity just seems to swirl around them and they're not in the least fazed by it. At their preschool they're in class with kids from Asian and European as well as mixed-race backgrounds; they're learning Hebrew and Spanish; among their friends are children with two mommies, children with one mommy and no daddy — and they're not exceptions but the rule. (Not to mention that many of them are artists: they're among bad role models already. It's disastrous enough that daddy's a writer, but mommy's a musician, and their friends are actresses, actors, painters ... and, bearing in mind the challenges of such careers, I'm now hoping that they find some union job. I'm thinking plumbing.)

I'm 50 now, and playing with my two pre-school daughters makes me wish I was ten years younger, at least. Not because I can't enter imaginatively into their games, but because biology makes the body strong when young, when people usually have their children. I'm aware that Tony Randall fathered a child when he was 78, but you don't see a lot of photos of him giving his kids piggy-back rides. And the path is different too. When I started college my father was only 49. When A and B are on their way to college I'll be nearly 70. And it could be worse — they could be boys. On the other hand I have developed remarkable upper body strength over the past few years, bent over diaper tables and hoisting these kids into the air, some recompense for the onslaught of seemingly thousands of poopy-dipes I've had to change since 2008.

Well, the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak. Sympathetic friends tell me that if I don't have the stamina I used to have, I can at least give my daughters the benefit of the worldly wisdom I've accumulated over the past half-century. When they do tell me this, I nod and chuckle and quickly change the subject. The problem with parenting is that you're never old enough to be a parent, and there's no source of worldly wisdom anywhere: you're on your own, and if you remember what your own parents did to you, you're certainly not going to turn to them for advice on how to raise your children. The bookstores are only worse. When C became pregnant with our first child, I went to a bookstore (one of those things that won't exist when my daughters are a little older, like dial telephones and modesty) and was astonished by the shelves upon shelves of books containing parenting advice. They're all wrong. And the reason I know this is that because if one book was right, that would be the only book anybody would want. So, on the advice of our obstetrician, we decided to play it by ear. It was the only good advice we got.

There aren't many books about fathering, anyway. Michael Lewis published an amusing book a few years ago called Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood, and a little off the beaten track is Man with a Pan, John Donohue's excellent collection of essays about fathers who cook for their families. But advice? Hardly. Comfort, yes — but only because they share the feeling of bemused and anxious confusion that is the lot of all young fathers. And, take it from me, older ones, too.

So Lower East Side Dad will be a chronicle of my own bemused and anxious confusion, which should embarrass my daughters even more, let alone my wife. On the other hand, perhaps we're doing something right. Not long ago, our daughter A looked up from her drawing at the kitchen table and said to us thoughtfully, "You know, it's okay to be shy." She paused, then added: "And different." I think the wisdom's going to come from them to us, rather than the other way around.

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