A kindergarten classroom full of Wallys

For the third time this week I’m up early working.  I think it’s the combination of the very early sunrise and the fact that since Wally was born it’s been hard to find an extended period of time to concentrate during the day that have spurred me awake.  Those first few steps out of bed are a little painful, but once I’m up I feel good.  At the end of the day recently my brain has been feeling like a jumble of a thousand pieces—chores to do, emails to return, work projects to keep up with, summertime logistics to figure out.  In the morning, though, with the kids still asleep and the sun not yet up, I feel reconstituted.  (I doubt I’ll ever cease to be amazed at the restorative power of a night’s sleep.)

It won’t be long before Jay starts calling my name from his crib, but before he does I wanted to say a quick something about naming. Yesterday afternoon in the park a mother came up to me and Caroline, drawn by the sight of Wally’s not yet two-week-old feet dangling out of the Baby Bjorn. She asked us his name, and when we told her, she got excited and said that her favorite nephew is named Wally.  Caroline and I smiled and pretended to be excited, too, but we weren’t thrilled.  It’s delusional, of course, to think that our sweet little son would be the only Wally in the world, but still, it’s a delusion we would have been happy to maintain.

Then the news got worse.  The mom told us that when her nephew had entered kindergarten he’d been one of four Wally’s in his class.  “But he lives in New York City,” she added, as if that would make it better.  Next to me I could feel Caroline’s spirits plummet.

We chose Wally after months of deliberation because we liked that it was neither entirely made up (most people, I think, have known a Wally or two) nor particularly popular.  We thought it would help our son be traditional and distinctive at the same time.

And now, maybe, it seems that we were not alone in that thought process.  If Wally matriculates into kindergarten five years from now and finds the room so jammed with kids who share his name that he has to go by “Wally H.,” I’ll take it as more evidence of how embedded we all are in the same cultural trends.  We have a friend who learned this lesson recently while the ink was still drying on his daughter’s birth certificate.  He and his wife had named her “Ella” because they thought it was a beautiful name and because twenty-five years ago when they’d been in elementary school they hadn’t known a single one.  So, they were more than a little crushed when Caroline called up the Social Security Administration rankings of the most popular baby names and showed them that Ella is now the #13 most popular girl’s name in America.

I’m always stunned by how predictable individual actions become when they’re studied at the population level.  On his blog Family Inequality UNC sociologist Phil Cohen recently posted about the falling popularity of the name “Mary.”

In 1961 it was the #1 girl’s name but by 2009 it had fallen out of the top-100.  Cohen found that Mary has been declining in popularity by about 8% a year and based on that he predicted there would be 2,848 Marys born in 2010.  It turned out he was wrong. But only by 22!  The actual number was 2,826.

So, if Wally’s name won’t be what makes him distinctive, maybe we’ll have to start giving him inventive hair cuts.

When it comes to parenting advice, the more humility the better

Early this morning as Jay began to stir in his crib and Caroline and Wally lay asleep in bed, I read the provocative cover story in the current issue of The Atlantic.  It’s called “How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids” by the psychologist-author Lori Gottlieb, who made her first big splash a year ago with the similarly provocative best-selling book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. Now she’s back, arguing that an epidemic of overindulgent, ego-stroking parenting is ruining a generation of American children.  “By trying so hard to provide the perfectly happy childhood,” she writes, “we’re just making it harder for our kids to actually grow up.”

My first reaction: This is hardly a new story.  Gottlieb says that today’s parents are so obsessed with protecting their children’s self-esteem that they’ll do anything to prevent their egos from ever getting hurt.  She cites a Washington, DC youth soccer league where even the clumsiest kids get trophies at the end of the season.  I’m pretty sure my parents were making this exact same complaint twenty five years ago when I first started kicking a ball around.

But beyond that, this should have been a story I liked.  Caroline and I are not particularly coddling as parents.  Jay doesn’t have a lot of toys. He’s never taken music or swim or yoga classes. When he bites his tongue and tears well in his eyes I sometimes remark, “Bummer. You should probably be more careful next time.”  And in general I like rules and standards and I enjoy making Jay do things just because I say he has to.

So, I should have been applauding as I read the article.  But I wasn’t.  For one, the anecdotes Gottlieb cites as evidence of this plague of “wussy” parenting don’t ring true—or at least they don’t seem representative of most parents I know.  She tells one story, for example, about a mom who had a fit when her toddler son had a prized truck stolen away by another kid.  She also calls out parents who, when their kids fall in the park, “swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying” rather than letting their kids learn about pain and failure on their own.

Over the last two years I’ve spend hundreds of hours (maybe even over a thousand) with Jay in parks and playgrounds around Center City Philadelphia.  We live in just the kind of well-to-do urban neighborhood where the indulgent parenting Gottlieb talks of is supposed to be rampant but I haven’t seen it (at least not in epidemic proportions).  Sure, there was one mom who told me as her daughter ripped a bubble wand away from Jay that “my daughter doesn’t share.”  But far more typical is the dad who bends over backwards to make his toddler share.  When two kids go after the same toy in the park it’s almost a contest between the parents to see whose child is capable of greater self-abnegation.

As for the skinned knees, I guess some parents sometimes treat a trip-and-fall like their kid just stepped on an IED.  But on a weekday afternoon in the park most parents I see are too exhausted to devote an exaggerated amount of attention to a bruise.  And most toddlers I see are back up and running before their parents could even get close enough to “swoop in.”

My larger problem with Gottlieb’s article, however, is that it replaces one kind of parenting dogma with another. I agree with her that kids who aren’t given the room to experience disappointment and unhappiness as children will have a harder time dealing with those emotions when they confront them in adulthood.  But in her mind the problem with that parenting approach is its content.  In my mind it’s the attitude underlying it—that there is a certain, knowable, specific way to raise a child—and on that score Gottlieb is just as guilty as the parents she takes aim at.

Throughout the article she approvingly quotes experts who say things like “A kid needs to feel normal anxiety to be resilient” and she writes herself, “Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle” (emphasis mine).  Alarms go off whenever I see a parenting expert saying that kids need any one particular thing.  Sure, kids need vegetables and they need a bedtime and they need to learn right from wrong.  But what they need most of all are parents who recognize that there is no one surefire way to approach raising a child.

To put this in concrete terms, when Jay skins his knee in the park what he needs from me in response varies from day to day.  Some days he gets back up without a second thought.  Some days he’s tired and fragile and needs a hug and a pat on the back.  And other days he’s whiny or clingy and I decide to give him some space to figure out that dad can’t solve all his problems.  The point is that apart from love, food, and sleep, kids don’t need any one thing all the time.

I call this attitude “pragmatic parenting.”  It recognizes that kids, parenting, and life in general are all extremely complicated and that in the face of such complexity a good dose of humility is in order.  Who knows what alchemy of experiences produces a happy adult?  The biggest problem with Gottlieb’s article is that she thinks she does.

“I miss life as a family of three”

Last night Caroline stepped out of the shower and said something that we’d both been thinking: “I miss life as a family of three.”

This isn’t at all a commentary on Wally, who just turned a week-old.  Knock on wood, he’s been about as easy as could be so far.  He knows his days from his nights, he’s been a breastfeeding pro since day one, and he tolerates his older brother’s clumsy attempts to hold him. He shows every sign of fitting in just fine.

But our lives in the months leading up to Wally’s birth were awfully close to perfect.  As we lay in bed during the final months of her pregnancy, Caroline and I would sometimes talk about how odd it was that we’d chosen deliberately to upend a life we were so completely happy with.  For much of Jay’s first year we had felt overstretched, but by the time he had turned 18-months-old our life as a family of three had settled nicely into place: Jay was sleeping through the night and spending his mornings in daycare which gave me and Caroline enough time for work; we were going out on the weekends with our friends again; Jay was talking a lot and had become legitimately fun to hang out with; and Caroline and I had gotten through our early hiccups as a parenting team.  On the eve of Wally’s birth I might have said there was nothing about our lives I really wanted to change.

Reflecting on how happy we were at the time of Wally’s birth, it struck me that we’d decided to have a second child for very different reasons than we’d decided to have a first.  Three years ago Caroline and I first entertained the notion of becoming parents because we were dissatisfied with our lives.  We were both 27.  Since graduating from college we’d been free to do just about whatever we’d wanted, but after five years in which we’d bounced between cities and backpacked around the world, all that freedom had started to feel empty.  We wanted more weight in our lives and a child seemed like just the way to provide it.

When I observed to Caroline that the circumstances surrounding Jay and Wally’s respective arrivals were very different, she pointed me towards a study by Duke sociologist Phil Morgan called “Why Have Children in the 21st Century?” which argues that couples have a first child for different reasons than they have a second (and a third and a fourth, etc.).  Morgan found that couples plunge into parenthood initially to fill an immediate need in their lives like wanting “a child to love and care for” or in order to have “more fun around the house.”  By contrast, he found that couples have a second child for more long-term strategic reasons, like wanting to “provide companionship for siblings” or out of a desire to achieve a certain sex balance, like a boy and a girl.* That certainly captures why we decided to have Wally when we did.  We wanted Jay to have a sibling and we wanted them to be close enough in age that they could grow up together as friends (at least theoretically).

As I think about the family circumstances into which Wally was born I keep coming back to a hiking analogy.  Six years ago, before Caroline and I had any children at all, we took a three week hike around the Annapurna mountain range in Nepal.  One afternoon we stopped in this picturesque little village to rest and drink some water.  The village was perched halfway up a steep hill overlooking a rocky Himalayan river.  We’d been walking for five hours and the setting was so beautiful that once we sat down, it was hard to fathom why we wouldn’t just settle down where we were.  But the place we’d planned to spend the night was eight miles farther up the trail.  So after lingering for a few minutes, we stretched our legs, shouldered our packs, and started off again.

Wally’s arrival has felt a little like that afternoon in Nepal.  Before he arrived we were happy where we were, but we also were not yet the family we wanted to become.  So we said let’s go, and took to the trail again.

*Morgan also found that couples who have more than 3 children generally do so for economic reasons, like wanting help around the family farm.  The fact that there are so few family farms in the US anymore is one reason why very big families are rarer than they used to be.






Maybe I don’t want to be a big brother

After waking up and drinking his milk this morning, Jay rushed straight into the other room and slam dunked a basketball into Wally’s* bassinet as if he’d been up all night long planning his ambush.  “If Mom and Dad won’t do something about it then I will,” I imagined him thinking.  Wally, thankfully, was in bed with Caroline at the time.  When Jay realized his plot had failed he slumped to the carpet and began shuffling around his blocks.

Many people have asked me how Jay’s taking the arrival of his baby brother.  My first answer, which is probably the most accurate one I can give, is that I don’t know: Jay is two-years-old and a bundle of tumult all his own.  Even before Wally was born Jay would collapse to the floor sobbing if I took off his socks rather than let him take them off himself.  So it’s hard to disentangle his pre-existing emotional craziness from whatever shock he’s experiencing from having a new child brought into our home.

Plus, Jay isn’t very good at telling us how he’s feeling.  He can tell us when he’s hurt (on the short walk to school this morning he told me that his foot, shoulder, and back hurt though I’m fairly certain none had so much as an itch wrong with them) and he lets us know when he’s scared, as in, “Snuffy uh scare me,” which he said recently when watching a Sesame Street song on YouTube.

But that’s about it as far as self-awareness goes.  His first inkling of a bowel movement occurs only seconds before he needs to go to the bathroom.  I’d put it at fifteen years before he’ll be capable of expressing what he’s probably really been feeling since Wally came home on Monday: “I’m emotionally conflicted about my little brother’s presence in my life, and unsure of how I fit into our family now that he’s here.”

There have been some tender moments, though. On Tuesday Jay asked to hold Wally for the first time.  We sat Jay on the couch and then placed Wally on his lap. Caroline chaperoned the meeting and she only had to restrain Jay twice: Once when he pinched Wally’s nose a little too hard and again when he tried to play the conga drums on Wally’s head.  But besides that their first real interaction as brothers was a success. Jay bent Wally’s head up to his lips and gave him a kiss and he gave Wally gentle pats on the tummy, just as we’d taught him to do with dogs in the park.  Caroline suggested that Wally might like it if Jay sang him a song; Jay responded by repeating Wally’s name over and over to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

I don’t remember how I felt when my siblings arrived but I do have strong memories of another period of family upheaval when I was young.  I was nine-years-old the summer my parents divorced.  As my parents divided their lives and my sister, brother and I began to shuttle between their two houses, I felt a lot of things, but what I remember most is that whatever I felt, I felt it strongly.   When I felt scared it was the most scared I’d ever been.  When I felt elated it was nearly to the point of mania.  When I felt angry, I felt so massively angry that I could barely tell I existed anymore.

I thought about this yesterday evening when Caroline, Jay, Wally and I came home from the park.  Jay had spent the last hour digging in the dirt.  His hands were filthy and he tried to wriggle away when I propped him up against the sink to wash.  I begged him to comply.  I told him about all the fun things he could do as soon as his hands were clean. I reminded him how big boys always wash their hands.  I even told him about germ theory.  None of it worked.  Finally, with the water running and Jay pinned between my body and the sink, I washed his hands myself.  I pried apart his clenched fingers and pressed liquid soap into his palms.  I scrubbed his hands with my fingers as his body went rigid and his face turned red and he screamed and screamed and screamed.  By the time it was over he was so hysterical he couldn’t stand up and my heart was racing nearly as fast as his.

Maybe he reacted this way because of Wally.  Maybe he didn’t.  As I picked him off the bathroom floor I thought about how hard a time this probably was for him, even if he couldn’t have begun to say why.

He was still sobbing as I carried him into his bedroom.  I told him to put his arms around me and to squeeze as hard as he could.  I felt his thin arms press against the back of my neck.  I told him to do it again, and as Jay squeezed me I felt a catharsis, too.  In that moment life felt very real.

With tears drying on his face I brought Jay over to a panel of switches on the wall.  Even as an infant he’d loved playing with them.  Jay flipped the ceiling fan on.  Then off.  Then on. Then off again.  The fan’s momentum kept it spinning even after he’d turned it off for good.  “Fan stopping,” he said, pointing up to the ceiling.

“That’s right,” I said, “The fan is slowing down.”

He took a long, deep breath and ran the back of his hand across his wet nose.  As Wally cried in the other room, Jay and I watched the blades of the ceiling fan ease slowly through the air, and before they came to a complete rest we headed back out to dinner.

*Starting today I’m going to use pseudonyms for the kids’ names: two-year-old Jay and newborn Wally.

The feeling you get when a baby is born

During the last month of my wife’s pregnancy with our second child, she and I began to work our way through a stack of restaurant gift certificates we’d accrued over our five years in Philadelphia.  We knew that once the baby was born we wouldn’t have much time to go out and that by the end of the summer we’d be packing up and moving to Michigan.

The culminating event was a night out at Vetri, sponsored by my brother who’d gifted it to us this past fall for serving as the best man in his wedding.  Vetri enjoys a reputation as quite possibly the best Italian eatery in America: you have to call ahead a month to the minute to have any chance of reserving a table; there is no menu per se—all patrons are served a meal assembled at the chef’s discretion that costs more than we spend on groceries in two months; the food was described by people we knew as profound, the type of experience you’re likely to remember for the rest of your life.

So on a Thursday night two weeks before her due date Caroline and I arranged to have a friend babysit James and we slow-walked down Spruce Street to an awaiting 7:30pm table.  As we approached the entrance to the restaurant we paused; it’s worth stepping lightly into a life-changing experience.

In general I’m not very comfortable with experiences that come loaded with the expectation that you’ll feel any certain way in response to them.  Among the Himalayas, in front of the Taj Mahal, and as I waited for my wife to turn down the aisle on our wedding day I was trailed by the idea that these were some of the greatest experiences that life has to offer.  If the experiences underwhelmed, would it mean that the world is a less magical place than it’s made out to be? Or, maybe more distressingly, would it indicate that for some reason I’m not able to appreciate what magic there is?

When Caroline and I left the restaurant three hours later we were of the same mind about the food: It was certainly very, very good, but maybe there’s no combination of ingredients on earth that can equal the hype and price of Vetri, at least not in our tax bracket and with our taste buds.  We went to bed that night stuffed but not permanently altered, and with our last restaurant gift certificate expended, we settled down to wait for the arrival of our second child.

Two weeks later Caroline went into labor.  Her contractions began mildly just before bedtime; by the time we woke up the next morning (or rather I woke up; she didn’t sleep much that night) they were coming hard and fast and Caroline told me that really, we needed to go to the hospital right now.  We called a friend to come watch James who was still asleep in his crib, we packed an overnight bag, and we headed off on foot to the hospital 12 blocks away.  Every half block Caroline stopped to lean against a light post or a building as she grimaced through a contraction, while passing pedestrians snuck a glance at this clearly anguished woman and wondered if maybe they shouldn’t offer to help or hail a cab.

No experience comes weighted with greater emotional expectations than the birth of your child.  It is the crowning moment of a life.  As Caroline prepared to deliver James two years ago I remember an odd moment of self-consciousness: there were a lot of people in the room—midwives, nurses, in-laws—and I was the dad and what if I didn’t react the way I was supposed to?  It was a silly thought to have at such a moment, but what can I say, it was there.

Her labor with James had taken all day but this one progressed much faster.  We’d been at the hospital for only a few hours when the midwives told Caroline it was time to push.  I stood on Caroline’s left and her mother stood on her right.  A midwife lined up at center and urged her on.  Little by little the head came into view: first as a spot, then as an arc, and then as the unmistakable round of a newborn child straining towards life.  Out he rushed, screaming, wailing, wet and blind.

Together we wept because it was the only thing we could do.