Validating D.J. Jay

_MG_3762Recently our car battery died.  This created a number of hassles, the least of which was that I had to reprogram our radio buttons.  Jay was with me in the car as I did this.  I set #1 to NPR.  #2 to classical. #6 to Ann Arbor’s 107.1.  He asked me what I was doing, and I explained that we program the buttons in order to make it easier to find songs that we like to listen to.

Jay got the idea—kind of.  A few days later we were driving to the grocery store when a track by Kat Edmonson came on the radio.  “I like this song, so push the button,” Jay said from the backseat.  I started to tell him that I’d already set a button for this station, but Jay repeated his request, and he wasn’t satisfied until I did push the button, and he heard it go beep.

Ever since then, not a car ride passes in which Jay doesn’t say, “I like this song, so push the button,” and now I comply.  For the most part his taste aligns with mine, which isn’t surprising since I’m the one who’s arranged the menu of radio stations.

But his curatorial skills aren’t perfect.  Sometimes he’ll hear a commercial and ask me to push the button.  That makes me laugh, because we’ve all, at one time or another, misheard a jingle for a car dealership as a hot new single.  But I usually push the button for him anyway.

The only time I correct Jay is when he asks me to push the button twice in the same song.  The other day—perhaps wary of making that mistake again—Jay asked me if this was still the song about “flying.” I hadn’t been paying attention to the lyrics, but then the chorus came back up and indeed it was still the song about flying.  I told Jay we’d already pushed the button for this one, and he went quiet.

Jay’s interest in the radio has reminded me of the first time I picked out my own music.  I was in sixth grade, choosing CDs from BMG, the mail-order music company.  They were running a promotion—something like 10 CDs for $10—and I remember spending a whole week trying to figure out my choices.  It felt important to get them just right, as if I were bringing myself into being through the choices I made.   My heart breaks a little when I picture my 12-year-old self, sitting on a beanbag chair in his room, filling in the code for Helmet’s newest album.

And my heart breaks a little bit, too, every time Jay speaks up from the backseat.  It’s a long process by which we figure out who we are and what we like, and Jay is only at the very beginning of that.  His mistaken understanding of how the radio works seems nicely reflective of all the false starts and abandoned choices he’ll make between now and whomever he ends up becoming.

My inclination is to want to take a very active hand in that process—to tell him upfront what’s good and what’s not.  But lately I’ve been thinking the more important thing will be helping Jay feel confident determining his own standards of value.  And so, when he says he likes that song and asks me to push the button, I do.

Marriage as the greater challenge

Last weekend I went to New Hampshire to visit my sister and meet her new son.  My brother was there, too, and spouses, (but not Caroline, who was home with the boys and her mom in Ann Arbor), and on Saturday night, after-dinner brownie sundaes spilled into a freewheeling conversation that lasted late into the night.

We started off topical but eventually grew more personal.  Around midnight we arrived at marriage and kids, and their places in a good and fulfilling life.  We talked about our parents’ divorces, and how divorce in general affects how kids grow up.  I said that when it comes down to it, I expect my success in life to hinge less on how well I do as a father, and more on how I do as a husband.

Caroline and I love each other very much.  Our priorities and values are well-aligned, we enjoy the day-to-day work of building a family, and we have fun in the moments when we are alone together.  All of this is true, but none of it is meant to say that our marriage happens automatically, or that even the very strongest parts of it can be taken for granted.

So I expect my happiness in life to hinge more on how well I fare as a husband than how I fare as father.  And I say that because I think marriage is both more consequential to long-term happiness than parenthood, and because it’s the harder relationship to do well in.

Raising kids is tiring and consuming but it’s a relatively simple relationship: Provide for Jay and Wally materially, teach them what I know about what’s important in life, love them unconditionally.  And it’s this last part that’s the easiest.  My love for Jay and Wally flows freely and abundantly and there’s nothing they can do to turn it off; when you have that, the other parts of a relationship fall into place.

Caroline and I love each other fully, but the kind of love we share is different from the kind of love that we have for our kids.  Caroline and I need to work for our love.  We need to earn it and renew it and cultivate it, and on the days and weeks when we don’t do quite as good a job at that, the rest of our relationship doesn’t work as well.

There are moments, too, where the differences between parental love and spousal love really come through.  Just this morning at breakfast, Wally was sitting on my lap, eating eggs, and Caroline was sitting across the table, staring at him. We both find our kids magnetic; we can’t look away.  But those kinds of moments don’t come as automatically between a husband and a wife; it’s easy to go days without looking at each other with the same intensity that we look at Jay and Wally all the time.  But when Caroline and I do have those moments together, they’re uniquely fulfilling- in the way that anything you have to really earn, is fulfilling.

There’s also a greater margin of error as a parent than as a spouse.  Raising kids is a blunt endeavor:  Jay and Wally can absorb a lot of mistakes.  For that reason, and because of what I just wrote about love, I’m not worried that I’ll fail to deliver Jay and Wally into adulthood with a fighting chance at happiness.

But marriage is a much more complex and precise relationship; success there is less assured.  Moods matter.  Gestures matter.  Even the things you think but don’t say, matter.  And marriages can turn out so many different ways:  They can disastrous; they can be functional but unfulfilling; they can be the richest relationship you ever have.  There’s also more subtlety and nuance to a marriage compared to a relationship with children.  It might be fair to say, following Tolstoy, that we all love our kids in kind of the same way, but that each marriage is unique. And I think this nuance demands a fuller commitment of attention, and more consistent, sustained effort in order for a marriage to thrive.

I could imagine coming to the end of my life, knowing I’ve been a good father, but still feeling like I have not lived well.  And while I don’t think failure in marriage means failure in life, I do think the opposite is true:  If I have loved well as a husband, it’s very likely I will also conclude that I have lived well in life.

The first three months: A new dad reflects

One of my favorite things about Growing Sideways has been the opportunity to share other people’s stories.  There’s the ongoing Parent Interview series, a post from Chris Huntington about taking his son to Hong Kong Disney, and an essay from Jay’s cousin, Mara, called “What means remembering?

Today I’m happy to bring you this essay from Nat Hoopes.  He and his wife, Anika Binnendijk (who went to high school with Caroline), welcomed their first child, a son, Malcolm, just before Christmas.  I asked Nat if he’d be willing to write something reflecting on his first three months as a father.  I’m glad I did.

photo (2)Yesterday our first son Malcolm turned three months old, which feels like an important milestone.

Out in public—in the grocery store line, the office, or our neighborhood coffee shop—becoming a parent has thrust me into a whole new world of spoken and unspoken conversation.  It’s a world that’s full of warm, knowing glances from total strangers, and old, worn-out clichés and questions (some of them contradictory) from friends and colleagues. Below is a sampling of the most frequent comments:

  1. “Are you sleeping yet?  Don’t worry – it will get better.”
  2. “This is really the best time – just strap him in a car-seat and bring him anywhere.  Just wait until he’s a toddler – then you’re really in trouble.”
  3. “Enjoy it – it goes by so fast – we just woke up one day and our daughter was in high school.”
  4. “How’s it feel to be a dad?”

And of course, I do a lot of sharing of my IPhone pictures of Malcolm. My friends have noted with dry humor that I didn’t text photos to them very often before Malcolm’s arrival.  It’s all a part of a constructed narrative that breaks our time into a sort of Christian parenting calendar:  Before Baby., After Baby.,

But inside our little co-op on 17th street near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., the transition from “young married couple” to “young married parents” has felt more seamless. “Nat, Anika and Malcolm” feels just as right, just as natural and comfortable, as “Nat and Anika” ever did.

I maybe expected that Malcolm’s arrival would be exciting and joyful but also constraining. Maybe the years my wife and I spent together before becoming parents has made it easier; although we’re only 32, my wife and I have been together for more than 12 years (dating for 4, engaged for 1, married for 7).  But I’m not so sure that time matters much. I’d be willing to bet that a lot of new dads look at their wives now holding on to newborns and feel that things are alright, that life has somehow always been this way, even though it hasn’t.

But that feeling isn’t an easy thing to articulate in a sentence or two, and it doesn’t solve my parenting conversation problems in the coffee shop.  I want to have something intelligent, creative and wonderful to say to other people about becoming a dad, about my newborn son, my wife who is now a mother, and the lives we’re living together.

In the end, I’ve surprised myself a bit with my parental conversation. Unconsciously, I’ve started saying something that I heard my first cousin say to me a year ago, when his own son was three-months-old.  He was looking like a new dad — wearing an old torn t shirt, he still hadn’t showered at two o’clock in the afternoon, shaggy hair months overdue for a haircut, dark circles under his eyes.  All smiles, he looked at Angus, bounced him on his knee, then turned to me with his eyes glowing and simply said:

“He’s such a good boy.”

I remember thinking at the time: “At three months, how does he know if a child is good or bad!?” But it was the way that my cousin said it that really struck me at the time, and it stuck in my mind.  It was so clear that he wasn’t talking about his son’s behavior, his talent with a bottle, how much he cried at night, or how easy it was to take him out to a restaurant.  And he wasn’t bragging about his cute smiles or his red hair. It was just the way he felt about Angus, a pure expression of a father’s unique love for his son.

So now, when I’m carrying Malcolm on my chest into our coffee shop, and people ask me about becoming a Dad or how it’s all going, I almost always find myself finishing the conversation by looking down at Malcolm, fast asleep, and say the exact same thing: “He’s just such a good boy.”

It’s truly the way I feel. And I hope I always will.