On parenting and belated “thank you”s.

With N, one week old.

After we finished eating dinner, K and I were talking about our parenting strategy. Specifically, that she feels pleased with the way we’re doing it. Personally, I expressed no such pride: one negative consequence of thinking about stuff all the time is that I fail to notice my surroundings. Unless, of course, my surroundings are actively demanding attention, as in this quote from Jenny Offill‘s “Department of Speculation”:

And that phrase–“sleeping like a baby.” Some blonde said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.

Not that parenting is usually like that. Usually the only major difficulty is how syrupy it can be: I try to invent good stories to tell but it can be hard since my audience and I don’t really speak the same language (as in, I speak English. My audience of one can occasionally make hand signs that seem to convey semantic meaning. Like, she can make the sign for “fish,” but in her hands [actually “hand,” singular] it might mean “mobile.” But it’s not as though I can make the protagonist of every story a fish. Or a mobile.), so sometimes I give up and we spend a large block of time just handing a bar of rose-scented soap back and forth to one another while I think.

In some ways that reminds me of a passage from Dorothy Dinnerstein‘s “The Mermaid and The Minotaur,” a charming little book that’s perhaps best exemplified by this disclaimer she included in the beginning:

To reiterate, then: it is not my aim here to help spell out what is intolerable in our gender arrangements. Other writers have for some time been handling that task very well indeed. I shall assume that the reader has assimilated the gist of what they have been saying; I have nothing to add to it.  My aim is to help clarify the reasons why people go on consenting to such arrangements.

Which to me evokes glorious imagery: to set the scene, close your eyes and imagine any film that includes a scene with people arguing around a boardroom table. Maybe there should be some computers, and a projector putting data up onto a screen. Got it? Okay, now our protagonist enters the frame, singlehandedly overturns the table, and says, “Enough! I’ve decided all of this is resolved! From here we will discuss only the details of my position.”

Spraypainting, legally, with my own father.
Spraypainting, legally, with my own father.

Which, yeah, sounds arrogant and brash, but I’m sure most people can think of numerous ideas from either side of the political spectrum that they’d like to see resolved that way. Like a high school principal who calls you into her office and instead of asking, “Did you spraypaint graffiti on the side of the school?” asks, “Why did you spraypaint graffiti on the side of the school?” Which, yes, was asked of me. Even though high school me lacked dreadlocks and facial hair. As far as I knew, I looked like a good kid. And I had not, in fact, done any spraypainting.

But let’s get back to Dinnerstein’s quote, shall we?

Thus if what we mean by “human nature” is the Homo sapiens physique, and the “fundamental pattern . . . [of] social organization” which apparently prevailed when that physique first took shape, then human nature involves the females in a strange bind: Like the male, she is equipped with a large brain, competent hands, and upright posture. She belongs to an intelligent, playful, exploratory species, inhabiting an expanding environment which it makes for itself and then adapts to. She is the only female, so far as we know, capable of thinking up and bringing about a world wider than the one she sees around her (and her subversive tendency to keep trying to use this capacity is recorded, resentfully, in Eve and Pandora myths). She thus seems, of all females, the one least fitted to live in a world narrower than the one she sees around her. And yet, for reasons inherent in her evolutionary history, she has been, of all females, the one most fated to do so. Her young are born less mature than those of related mammals; they require more physical care for a relatively longer time; they have much more to learn before they can function without adult supervision.


The point being that it’s hard for an imaginative creature to have its life circumscribed.  And the pseudo-active nature of parenting can obliterate pure flights of imagination.  I’d previously assumed that the idle moments might evoke imprisonment from Albert Camus’s “The Stranger”:

And the more I thought about it, the more I dug out of my memory things I had overlooked or forgotten.  I realized then that a man who had lived only one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison.  He would have enough memories to keep him from being bored.

Except that actively playing, actively handing that bar of soap back and forth and announcing, “Yes, you have the bar of scented soap.  But, ah, ah, it still isn’t food,” for minutes on end really cuts down on the ability to reminisce.  Maybe it wouldn’t for everyone; maybe I’m just especially bad at remembering, or especially bad at handling soap, and so one of those two tasks (or both) requires more effort on my part than it does for other people.

Not that parenting is that bad.  Like, it makes me happy.  I think it makes most people happy.  It’s just strange that it does.  Because so many of the individual pieces, especially with a child this age (i.e. pre-language), seem to be un-fun.  So why would a baby’s smile bring so much joy?  Maybe I should follow up my toxoplasma essay with another on parasitic mind control.

Anyway, the essay I wanted to write actually didn’t involve typing out a bunch of depressing quotes.  It was to say that, after K and I talked about parenting, I decided that maybe Dinnerstein would be proud of the way we’re trying to arrange our lives.  N has about twelve hours awake each day — I’m primary parent for seven of them, K for five.  And Dinnerstein wrote powerfully about the ways that exclusively maternal childrearing was harming our world, so I said, “I’m going to send her an email!  Tell her thanks for the book, and let her know we’re trying our best!”

I sat down at the computer to look up her email address.  But apparently she is no longer alive.  So now I have to write out a letter longhand and mail it to her grave… awful lot of trouble just to say “thanks.”  But sometime people deserve a bit of gratitude.