Abe Beame will never be bad and that’s good.
Five years ago, I wrote a somewhat weepy personal essay for this website about aging, music and the birth of my newborn son, who started kindergarten in September and turns five years old this month. In an original draft, there was an anecdote I ultimately cut about a moment when my wife was very pregnant with him in our third trimester. As an inexperienced and woefully unprepared soon to be dad, people would often give me unsolicited advice, things they’d learned from their adventures in parenting. One of the platitudes I’d heard most often is that your wife’s temperament while she is pregnant will affect your child’s temperament. A chill, happy pregnancy makes for a chill, happy person.
This has always struck me as an incredibly fucked up thing to say to a pregnant couple. My wife, who is five feet tall, was carrying heavy with a child in her womb in New York City in August, flooded with hormones and weird cravings, in a constant state of agitation. I am a stereotypical New York Jew and my wife is a stereotypical Palestinian Muslim. I wouldn’t say certain generalities people apply to Jews and Arabs are true of all Jews and Arabs, but several crucial ones are very applicable to my wife and I. We are both quick to anger, we are talmudic in our arguments and even our casual, collegial debates can sound like that Wu-Tang sketch at the end of “Dog Shit” where that guy starts screaming that someone’s shirt looks like a dishrag and a curtain.
So for us, it was particularly difficult but for a while we attempted to walk on eggshells around each other because we wanted to save my son from our somewhat challenging personalities. On The Throne song “New Day”, Kanye more or less expresses my wishes when he relates his hopes and dreams for his own son: “See, I just want him to have an easy life, not like Yeezy life/Just want him to be someone people like/Don’t want him to be hated, all the time judged/Don’t be like your daddy that would never budge.”
Of course, one night it all fell apart and we succumbed to a knock down, drag out fight. The fight stopped abruptly when I realized what we were doing. And when I realized that, I fell to my knees, wrapped my arms around my son in my wife’s swollen stomach and started sobbing. It was the first time I had actually cried physical tears in over a decade and I was relatively stunned by my own response.
What I’d soon learn is there’s some mystical physical stimulus fatherhood has had on me, and now weird, random beats in movies, car insurance commercials and writing weepy personal essays about my son make me cry all the time. It’s also a story that has gained importance in my memory because I now think of it as the first of many times I failed my son.
In that moment, I realized my wife and I couldn’t stop being who we are, that he would most likely inherit many of the things I don’t like about myself, and this entire cycle of sadness, failure and disappointment was starting again, although worse because this time it wasn’t happening to me. It would be happening to a person I hadn’t met yet, but loved so much it was hard for me to understand or comprehend that love.
In that aforementioned essay, I discussed music as a potential bond between my son and I, something I could pass down to him and we could share. Perhaps that will happen someday, but for now he doesn’t have much interest in music, or really anything with one exception. What we spend most of our time doing is watching movies. I try to keep my son away from phones and iPads, but I was a kid who grew up watching a lot of movies and television, so some parents reading this may be appalled but my son does too. Mostly in our apartment, but once a month I’ll take him out of school early and we’ll go to a theater. Sitting in the dark with popcorn, transfixed by a film, is the happiest I ever get to see him. We are alike in this way. A love of film is a gift for people like us. It’s something you can enjoy fully alone.
One of our favorite movies is Wreck It Ralph, a film about a video game villain coming to grips with his humanity and place in the world. In the climactic scene, Ralph heroically sacrifices himself to save his daughter figure. There’s an affirmation we hear early in the film at a bad guy support group that Ralph repeats as he plunges to what he believes will be his doom: “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be, than me.” It makes me cry every time.
Every child is born with unlimited potential. The joy, and the tragedy of the experience is watching humanity take hold and begin to set realistic parameters around your expectations as a child’s strengths and weaknesses emerge and their personalities form. It’s a process of constant reassessment. My son started walking late. He started talking late. He was born in late November which means, in New York City, where holding him back would sacrifice his services, he’s always been the youngest and smallest kid in his pre-school classes, at a constant additional disadvantage he doesn’t need.
Because he started speaking late we had him evaluated by a pediatric psychologist at CPSE and it was determined he needed Speech Therapy, because he has underdeveloped language skills and a stutter he needs Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy because he is uncoordinated and has below average levels of muscle tone. Several days a week in pre-school he had a Special Education Itinerant Teacher come to work with him one on one and now he’s in an ICT class with a shared para because he’s impulsive, has issues taking instruction and has a difficult time playing in groups with other kids. These are literally all the services offered to a special needs child in the New York City public school system. We’ve been told he’s bright but has something called a processing delay which is a distinction I’ve had explained to me several times and still don’t really understand. He hasn’t been officially diagnosed with Aspergers or autism, but the lack of a diagnosis isn’t exactly comforting for his mother and I.
In retrospect, I think regardless of the child it would be difficult for a person like me to raise a son. My daughter is my best friend, and through my experience as her father I actually understand the uncomplicated, joyful process I’d always heard other people gush about when discussing how much they love being a parent. My daughter, who is the product of the exact same parents and grew up in the same apartment, in the same room, under the same circumstances, is only three but on pace with normal development, beloved by her classmates and teachers and it’s not hard to understand why. She’s a spirited, beautiful, bright and charming young woman. It’s different with my son and I. I was a shitty kid, I gave my parents a hard time, I gave everyone a hard time, and my childhood was a pretty miserable purgatory as I waited impatiently to grow up.
Now, watching my son, it can be difficult for me to separate my experiences from his, to not project my own shortcomings onto him, to want him to be better than I was. It is challenging, it has taken every ounce of my patience, my understanding, my very humanity, or lack thereof. If you buy the argument that love is sacrifice and commitment, in just five years, he has demanded and received more love from me than anyone I’ve ever met in my life. And yet, it’s still not enough and probably never will be. I know my baggage is incredibly unfair and definitely seriously damaging him on some level it will take years to understand and unpack, and most of the time I’m able to maintain that level of perspective and compartmentalize my feelings. To take a step back and try not to be too angry or impatient with him, but I also fail.
We’ll go to birthday parties in Prospect Park. All the kids will be engaging in one silly activity or another. It’s hard for my son to play with other kids on their terms. He will try to interrupt the game and make it about him. When he can’t, he gets confused and frustrated, he might take the ball everyone is playing with and run away with it, or push a little girl who has been nice and patient with him. He does this because he’s desperate for attention and can’t differentiate or isn’t interested in differentiating good attention from bad attention. I see the looks the other kids share. The look awkward and annoying kids have been getting since the beginning of time. I’ll intervene when I can but at a certain point there’s only so much you can do with a group of four and five year olds.
More often than not, he ends up sitting off on the side, alone, dejected and numb, staring off into the middle distance. It’s a heartbreaking thing to watch. It’s usually my cue to sweep in and find something else to engage him in but I think about what happens when my wife or I can’t be there to sweep in. I don’t think he fully understands what is happening beyond some gut level sense of alienation and I’m conflicted as to whether that’s a good or bad thing. Maybe if he understood he wouldn’t behave the way he does. Maybe he can’t help the way he behaves and knowing would just make him feel worse about himself. Maybe it’s better to not understand because it doesn’t hurt as much. Maybe it’s just a matter of time before he does understand that he’s different, that he’s going to have trouble making friends and fitting in and life will probably be difficult for him. Maybe this is all my fault.
One of our favorite movies is Back to the Future II. The inciting conflict in the film has to do with Marty McFly’s son, who has made a bad decision in the future that Doc and Marty have to fix with the DeLorean. The idea is that if Marty can stop his son from making a single pivotal decision, he will be able to spare him from a life marked by failure and disappointment. That fathers can save their sons from failure and disappointment. Many time travel movies don’t operate by Back to the Future logic. They assert that our lives, our histories and futures are predetermined. We are shackled to our fates, to ourselves, and have little choice but to bare witness as a slow moving train rolls towards us. Doc and Marty’s mission is a success. Marty is able to change the future and save his son. It makes me cry every time.
I’m a bartender in a neighborhood dive and I have this regular, a nice, good looking young man who always comes by after work alone. He’s very kind and warm and genuine but he’s also very awkward and probably has dealt with some of the same issues my son has. He has trouble making conversation and whenever we talk, on an admittedly pleasant, shallow level, he has this slightly glazed, searching look in his eyes as he attempts to make a connection, as if he’s doing his best not to drown in a storm. I always make a point to take a moment to check in on him and shoot the shit no matter how busy I am. He doesn’t drink much but when he wants I’ll crack him a beer or pour him a Sprite with extra ice (he always wants extra ice) on the house.
Sometimes, I think about what it was like being his dad. I’d love to compare notes. I have no idea what his home life is like but if I’m proud of the bar for anything it’s that I like to imagine a few nights a week, on a superficial level, it’s a place where he feels slightly less alone. And I don’t really pray but if I prayed for anything it would be that in 20 years the world will be filled with friendly neighborhood dive bartenders who have patience for nice guys with glazed and searching looks in their eyes.
I realize some of my concern may come off as extreme and alarmist and I recognize that this isn’t necessarily a lifelong affliction for my son, perhaps just a phase he will grow out of, or something he can learn coping mechanisms to manage. Five year olds in supportive, two income homes have overcome far more than he will have to. But that hope and all the anecdotes about kids who simply grow out of their afflictions are as dangerous and painful for me as the idea that it may never happen for him. I believe every parent with a child like mine harbors a desire in their lizard brain and secret heart that one morning you’ll wake up and it will all be over. That he’ll be a happy, “normal” kid and everything will be fine going forward. But believing in those stories and waiting for them to happen is equal parts unfair to your kid as he is today and a very difficult place to live.
I should take a moment to mention that besides some of his awkwardness in group situations he’s generally a loving, warm, sensitive person with a good heart. He is, for instance, a fantastic big brother, much better than I was with my little sister. But my neurosis is yet another way I’ve failed him as a father. As a Jew, too often my love for him manifests itself as anxiety and fear.
We talk about parenting in stark terms. We like posts on social media when parents are lionized for the regular sacrifices they gladly make for their kids. We castigate absentee parents or abusive parents we see on the news. We never really discuss the great mediocre middle of parents, where a majority of us probably live. Parents that aren’t dangerously bad but fight in front of their kids, parents who can be occasionally cruel and unfair because they’re in a bad mood or frustrated or annoyed. I’m one of these parents.
I’m a fundamentally selfish person. Having children didn’t change that. I do the work of parenting but especially when my kids were younger I didn’t enjoy or find meaning in much of it. The diaper changing, the feeding, the monotonous activities, I almost constantly had one ear bud in listening to music or a Yankee game or a podcast. I frankly found much of it boring, and I hate being bored.
I wish I could tell you this was all written with some positive arc and it ends with redemption. That my son is thriving in Kindergarten and I’ve made my peace with him and myself and I’ve kind of found my way as his father but none of those things are true. The objective part of my brain wants to believe that at least behaviorally I’m not responsible for his issues. It’s somehow comforting to imagine I’m merely the infection he caught, that this was all preordained and genetic and I’m doing everything I can for him but I can’t say that for sure, nobody can. Maybe if I had more patience for toddler art classes during crucial periods of development, maybe if we spent more time watching Baby Einstein instead of Back to the Future II. Maybe if we spent more time talking and less time watching things. Maybe if I had fought less with my wife when we were pregnant.
What you realize when you become a Dad is your solitary brokenness no longer belongs to just you, that it’s dangerously infectious to these people you’re responsible for and love very much. Perhaps the measure of a good father is how competently you manage these conflicting impulses, your brokenness and your duty. And though I struggle with guilt and self loathing I can’t say any of it has been enough to motivate me to be much better on a daily basis. I am still, and probably always will be, an impatient parent, prone to fits of anger and at other times detached from parts of the role that aren’t interesting to me. I have inspired moments where I try to rededicate myself, to be more patient and compassionate and engaged, to turn into the skid, but eventually in the routine mundanity and frustration of parenting I seem to always regress to the mean.
The only thing I can 100% promise my son is until the day I die, he’ll always have a friend to go to the movies with.
One of our favorite movies is The Lion King. In it, there’s an early scene where Simba sits perched above the Prideland with Mufasa. Mufasa explains Simba’s inheritance to him, that one day he’ll rule over everything the light touches. It makes me cry every time.
When my son was born, I thought about that scene a lot, as a metaphor with myself as Mufasa and my son as Simba. The Prideland isn’t just a geographic area but a legacy. Mufasa is passing down his wisdom and his love, and armed with that Simba will become a king like his father, the continuation of a great circle of life. But five years later, I look at that scene differently. I am not Mufasa. My son is not Simba. Now I think the Prideland is my son’s past and his future. And I am the light.