The other night, I was having drinks with J.P. when the subject of kids came up. He has one from a marriage, which imploded a few years back, no need for details or assignment of blame, shit happened. The good thing about J.P. is he doesn’t sugar-coat or sentimentalize being a father, which I guess is a prerequisite of divorced parenthood: I gather you spend a lot of time hoping you haven’t screwed up your kid by being divorced, which doesn’t leave much wiggle room for self aggrandizement.
My take on kids is much like my take on the world. I look at the people in my life. Some have kids, some don’t. Some are married, some aren’t. Some are divorced. Some are married for years now. I look at all their lives and recognize there is no greater wisdom to be learned from marriage and kids – just a different set of experiences that will contain their own particular kind of wisdom.
What bothers me is when I meet people who have that attitude about (their) marriage and children, and they’re often the most tiresome assholes on earth. It’s often mildly insulting, too, although I’m willing to bet that’s not the intention of these people gushing about the wisdom and beauty of parenthood. I know when I’m being sold a false bill of goods, and that has to be one of the bigger ones of adulthood. Because if you’re being honest and not trying to bolster your self esteem, you’re looking at marriage and parenthood and seeing a mixed bag of choices that have positive and negative implications … like any other choices in life.
J.P. made a point that I often think about myself. We come from a generation, post WW II and being kids in the 70s, where our parents reproduced like rabbits. In my extended family alone: my parents had four kids, one uncle had five, another had five, another had three, and an aunt had two. Our childhoods were extended maps of cousins and visiting relatives, an endless sea of potato salad, cramped sleeping arrangements and weird conversations (“Dude, I can’t believe you guys like Pink Floyd and play Monopoly in New Jersey, too, this is so cool.”).
Our house in Pennsylvania, since it contained my grandmother, the surviving matriarch of the family, was ground zero for constant visits from her children and their families in the summer. As Charlton Heston said in Planet of the Apes, it was a madhouse. I look at that house now and can’t believe that seven people normally lived in it. (It would be comfortable for two parents and two kids.) When relatives visited, you’d sometimes be talking 12-15 people in the house, half of them hyper-active, bored kids.
That zoo-like sense of families and childhood, the countless running-around kids … not sure where it all went. My whole neighborhood was like that – scores of kids in the 70s. But in the 80s, that number started to dwindle, to the point now where I go back there, I hardly see any kids, which can partially be attributed to lower birth rates, but also kids having different social habits (i.e., the advent of video games and computers).
J.P.’s point being, what’s going to happen when we get old? He has one kid, with no apparent plans to have more. His sister has none. I know very few people who have more than two, and a lot of who have one or none. I wouldn’t put it as bluntly as “who’s going to take care of us when we get old” as “who’s going to be in our lives when we get old.” I can see my mother has a support network of us kids – we keep her focused in some sense and feeling alive. But last trip I was home, Mom said something to me that I can sense is the downside of getting old: “I can tell you now, son, getting old can be lonely sometimes. All the people you knew for years disappear.”
And that’s a sentiment the young are incapable of grasping – I’m only starting to grasp it myself now. In that beautiful Flaming Lips song Wayne Coyne wrote about his father passing, “Do You Realize?” he has that jarring line: “Everyone you know/One day/Will die.” Just like Wayne after the passing of my father, I understand this as oncoming reality as opposed to a vaguely frightening concept you’ve yet to experience. Thinking about it is one thing. Experiencing it for the first time with an immediate family member, another. And living long enough to see everyone you once knew pass away is it.
You don’t have kids, you get to be in your 40s, you see this could be a detriment down the road, simply in terms of having quality people who care about you in your life. Then again, this is running on the assumption that all goes well between parent and child, and they’d want to be in each other’s lives decades down the road. I’ve seen many instances where this is not the case, and given the shoddy nature of parenting I often see, it’s a given that you’re going to have a lot of splintered family trees.
Often on Saturdays, I’ll see a woman in my local laundromat who looks a lot like Will and Grace star Debra Messing: a real looker. Maybe 20 lbs. heavier: the version of Messing if she wasn’t on a thousand-calorie-per-day diet. The first few times I saw her a few years ago, my eyes were falling out of my head, and she was flirty in return. Sometimes people just look at each other and think, “O.K.” After a few visits, the hammer came down: I started seeing her in there with two kids, a boy around eight and a girl around 10. And it seemed clear from her previous flirtiness that no man was around. I saw that she lived in the next apartment building up from the laundromat, alone with her kids, not sure what she was doing for money, if she had an ex, or was a widower, was on public assistance, etc.
But every time I see her now, it’s a mixed bag for me (especially after she befriended one of the bigger douche bags who frequent the laundromat). She’s still very attractive and making eye contact, but on the other hand, I wonder what happened there. And I also suspect the concept of her dating a new guy would go over like dogshit with the kids, who put out a territorial vibe in her presence. I keep a vague distance beyond the friendly hellos and head nods: write it down to male intuition. Not sure if I want to take that thing further – this has been going on for about two years now! The thing is, I can see that she’s raising her kids on her own, and her kids seem unusually well-adjusted and sharp, especially for our neighborhood. Whatever she’s doing, it’s working, which must be a tribute to her parenting skills, as I’ve seen two-parent families raise monsters. If there is a father in the picture, I’m not sure where he is, as the kids appear to be around most of the time with her, including weekends, normal visitation times for fathers without main custody.
Still, it’s oddly comforting for me to know this woman, who I’m guessing is not having the best time financially but somehow getting by, is managing to raise two seemingly well-adjusted, sane kids. On the other hand with parenting, I’m thinking of that recent news story in NYC concerning what looks like the camera-phone film footage of a bunch of loud black girls harassing and eventually beating what appears to be a docile, lone white guy on a late-night subway train ride. (Turns out the guy was a hispanic school teacher, but who’s keeping score.) I gather a lot of people watched that footage in absolute shock. For me, that was like being back in the Bronx, save I never got rode that hard over my skin color, but the dumb, casual bigotry was roughly the same.
The guy was a saint for not fighting back? In my book, he was a wimp. That was a bunch of teenage girls looking to get over on somebody, who were in desperate need of a public smackdown and were comfortable enough doing this (they filmed it, for christ’s sake) that it was clearly a habit. The first thing that occurred to me while watching that clip was the hoop earrings on the main instigator. Because if I’m that guy sitting there minding my own business on the subway (something I consider an inalienable right on the train) and some ass clown like that goes off on me, the first thing I’m doing, before she gets on her rhetorical hobby horse to harass me, is grabbing one or both of the earrings like grenade pins and ripping either part or all of her earlobes off her head, while the resulting chaos making for an easy getaway.
What did I find really shocking? When this camera footage was put out on the web (again, these girls were dumb and brazen enough to think this was “OK” behavior, welcome to New York!) and everyone was eventually identified with resulting criminal charges, the father of that main instigator came forward first. And the statement that guy made was humbling – I’d say it was beautiful. He apologized to the guy on the train, profusely, didn’t make any excuses about his daughter being a raging, uncontrollable asshole, offered to take her down to the station and give her into police custody, and basically apologized to the world in general that he had lost control of raising her and had failed as a parent. It was a humbling statement for any father to make that left me feeling a mix of emotions: astonishment that such a clear-headed honest man could raise such an idiot child, and a mild anger towards him that he could let this happen.
Until that point, I had a typically angry response to the whole scenario, but at that point, the father made it all real, put it in the context of his personal failure to control his kid, and that’s something just about anyone in America can relate to, having seen childhood friends go off the rails, and when you look at their families, recognizing they weren’t being raised much differently from how you were. I guess it’s to my discredit that I wasn’t expecting such an open, clear-headed statement from a parent of a kid like that. I’d have assumed this guy would have been a non-existent and/or abusive father, but it seemed clear from his statement that he was hands on and had simply lost control. And I know from personal experience, some kids just go off the rails like that. You can see working-class families where two kids will put themselves through college and make lives for themselves, one will be a welfare bum the rest of his days, and one will end up in jail for decades. How that works out is often a tangled mix of childhood successes and failures, hurt or valued emotional experiences, the choice of friends and influences, or simply how people choose to live once they reach the age of reason.
I gather from J.P. that his kid is one of the few things that make sense in his life, and luckily neither he nor his ex are playing those silly reindeer games divorced parents often play, using the child as a pawn for their ongoing war of bitterness. From what I’ve seen of kids, the ulterior motive in having them is to increase the size of your world, although I’ve also seen people so zoned in on work and family that everything else falls away, simply due to time constraints. Also, people need things to love. When you’re younger this tends to be romantic relationships (how many people have you known who seem lost without one), but I gather kids fill that role eventually. If I ever do get around to having kids, I’ll be sure to refer back to this passage to see if it holds true. Because I don’t see myself having some magical transformation that makes me any better or worse as a human than I am now, despite the sage Lifetime Network wisdom of some parents. I feel like I’m always trying to make sense of how tribes of cavemen once lived and how a lot of that stuff inexplicably applies to how we live now. Kids surely fall into that elemental category.