By the time I got married, I had already shared a dog for a couple of years with the woman to whom I was promising my future, we’d tied plenty of knots, taken many leaps of faith, and most of them seemed to me a great deal more consequential than anything we could accomplish in the company of a bunch of people I’d never met, or hadn’t seen since before I started shaving, a twice-divorced reverend who kept asking for his money, two flickering candles, and acres of cake. A lot of people probably spend years carrying around these expectations of what it will look like to get married, and worrying about what can go wrong, so call me an optimist: What I was really looking forward to was an excuse to travel to Paris and blow through as many credit cards as we could.
Hence the very first time I needed to refer to her as anything other than my girlfriend, it was probably “ma femme” to some waiter, or concierge, or rental car agent declining our Visa, and it did not hit home until a couple of weeks later, when we were back pedaling, and sorting through bills and boxes of salad ware. Then being called a Husband, or calling anyone my Wife, seemed altogether fusty, and corny, like we were part of a somebody else’s laugh track suddenly and the television was always turned to Everybody Loves Raymond.
I got used to it, of course, if I am still a little uncomfortable participating in the institution as it is popularly depicted, and suppose this also points to my reservations about the significance of marriage in the first place. I mean, I wasn’t going anywhere anyway.
So here I am now, both Husband and Father, and my Wife is a Mother, and we live with a couple of little people we call our Kids; amazing how even that last was hard to get my mouth around when one son became two seven years ago. The word Kids, when I thought of it then, seemed to speak of responsibility, drudgery even, and I think I probably resisted it for a while, referring to them scrupulously by their names, but then, like most things when we get busy, and busier, and more preoccupied with our busy-ness, convictions yielded to convenience. Kids get lumped together, and it’s not just the concept of them either, and it’s not just the kids.
If it is ever our intention to continue to see all of the little variations between our children, and match them with the affections and attentions and entertainments that their different personalities merit, then perhaps we have no less responsibility to also find, and parse, and cherish depictions of who we are, or who we want to be as parents. Too often in stories for children, about children, told from what is nominally a child’s point of view, the parents are represented as ciphers and enablers, so soulless and uncomplicated it’s no wonder they hardly get invited into the plot. Because they’re boring. Nursemaids and nags. Voices of reason. Pressed and prim and pretty. I’m surprised no one has yet invented stick-on Mother and Father facsimiles to save their illustrators the trouble of worrying over facial abnormalities, worry-lines, bellies, how round to make those semi-circles where the breasts are supposed to be.
Here is the part where I tell you about the exceptions to that rule, and sad to say, I think mothers come off worse, blander, and less interesting in their eccentricities: I do wonder why, and am open to suggestion. There’s a pretty savvy mother in Mean Soup who looks like she has seen her share of fretful days. Horace, her grumpy kindergartner, comes home in a pretty bad way (not unjustifiably: Zelda, the classroom vixen, slipped him a love note, and Lulu, the show-and-tell cow, went and stepped on his foot). The solution? Howling into a crock pot, of course. She works, she cooks, she loses it! Just a little. Maybe we worry that we cannot function as families, or a society, when Mommy goes running with scissors.
In Fishing in the Air, by Sharon Creech, a father is also bubbling over with noisy, even wacky emotion as he brings his son with him on a trip through his own childhood memories - and the result (for this father at least) is as real and sympathetic as it is powerfully felt. Because we were kids once ourselves, and we should not forget it, and neither should each of our children.
Then something like the complications of character are often written, or they are implied, in the aftermath of a divorce, as in Two Old Potatoes and Me, about a girl not living with her father, still helping him plant and tend a garden from nearly nothing. Through obstacles that begin with a couple of stinky old tubers in the cupboard and continue through beetles and blight, it’s the hopefulness of this father that feels completely believable and alive. Because that is what happens when you mix a little disappointment with your optimism. You get stories like Allen Say’s The Lost Lake, about a boy and the slightly peevish father with whom he is committed to spending the summer, boy watching television, father working at his desk, each of them getting on each other’s nerves, until a trip (another trip!) to the mountains where the father remembers a lake from many years ago, which they do not immediately find, but keep hunting, one parent’s dreams and unmet expectations every bit the engine as the kid’s.
Odd, isn’t it? That we should sometimes need to be mothers without being wives, and fathers without being husbands in order to become suddenly, subtly interesting. Perhaps this speaks to all of the stuff we’re inclined to discuss In Front of the Children, and the stuff that we’re Not. What’s grown-up, and what isn’t, may be a source of endless sociological study, and perhaps it should not fall to books to connect the two, still I think it’s a wasted opportunity. Because there’s more than enough drama in calling ourselves parents – and dreamers and schemers and screamers and strange - that we cannot afford to occasionally share some with our children.