Chris Huntington and I met through a book. A couple months ago he sent me an email saying that, like me, he was a big fan of The Brothers Karamazov. Over the next few weeks we sent several more emails back and forth and discovered that we both like to talk about fatherhood, too.
Chris’ path to parenthood was different than he’d imagined it. He and his wife Shasta tried for several years to have a baby “the old-fashioned way,” as he puts it. When that didn’t work they tried for years after that to adopt- first from China and then, ultimately, from Ethiopia. In 2008 he and Shasta flew from Indianapolis to Addis Ababa. They came home with a little boy named Dagim, who at the time was 14-months-old.
In the following interview I talk with Chris about the “bright and dark” moments of parenthood, and about how raising a young child brings out the best and worst parts of who we are. We also talk about his daily life in Xiamen, China, where in 2010 his family moved so he could take a job teaching at an international school, and about what it might really mean to be a good father.
Chris is the author of the novel Mike Tyson Slept Here, which is based on his time teaching GED classes in an Indiana prison. He has also written several moving essays on parenting including “The Last Book I Ever Loved” and “One in 1.3 Billion.” It has been an extraordinary pleasure for me to get to know him over the last couple months and I feel honored to be able to share his thoughts on fatherhood with the Growing Sideways community today.
To some extent, our life in China is a dream. I teach at a small international school; my son is lucky enough to attend there for free (pre-K this year). My wife teaches on-line, so she stays home and does yoga and pursues her organic, vegetarian vision of the world.
Compared to the previous 10 years of my life, when I was teaching high school drop-outs in American prisons, my teaching job is genuinely fun most days. I liked working in the prisons, too, of course, or else I wouldn’t have done it so long –but the fact is that my adult students were almost universally unhappy and most of them were lifelong failures at school and had great experience resisting authority. So that was work.
Here in China, my students are comparatively guileless. I’m teased for the way I lock my classroom door every time I get a drink of water. A couple months ago, I was in the cafeteria doing my lunch duty, watching teenagers sit with their friends, and I realized I had moved to where I could watch the microwaves –because in the back of my mind, I was thinking thatif any trouble broke out, it would be near the microwaves, where someone would boil a bowl of water and throw it in someone’s face. When I realized how I was thinking, I felt like maybe prison life had ruined me forever.
My son and I get up, eat breakfast, ride the school bus in. I teach all day, but sometimes I see Dagim in the cafeteria or on the playground and he raises his fist and says, “AMANDLA!” which smashes my heart. I’m so proud of him. I see him onto the bus home at 3:30 and his mother meets him at the bus stop. I get home between five and five-thirty and we do noisy family stuff until around 7:30 to 8:00, when Dag is finally in bed. Shasta and I each have a few remaining hours of consciousness when we read or work on our projects. The next day, we start again. It’s easy, and not really what I think of as Chinese. It’s not like I’m wearing a revolutionary army jacket and bicycling to work with a goose under my arm.
2. You wrote a very beautiful essay that included these sentences: “My wife and I adopted a little boy from Ethiopia. He has been a great joy for us, but all that joy begins with the tragedy of his birth parents. Everything in our lives is a mixture of bright and dark.” Could you explain that?
Well, let’s just start with adopting Dagim, which on one hand is the best, most unqualified good and happy thing I’ve ever been a part of. Dagim has affirmed everything I believe is best in this world –that love is not a question of biology—love is about filling your heart with the world itself, with all the birds and trees and people who DON’T necessarily look and act like you. I love Dagim. And there is no reason to, it’s completely illogical and unpredictable given that we were born forty years and two continents apart but now I can’t imagine being without him in my life, and that’s good.
On the other hand, you can take this act –my wife and myself flying to Africa and taking this child from an orphanageand see it as a symptom of everything that’s wrong in the world: gross consumerism, the rich American way of taking whatever they want from people who have less, the abuse of poor countries by rich ones on every level. And what can I say? Some of that stuff is true. So right there, the most selfless and good thing in my life is also the most riddled with tragedy and abuse.
3. Are there any specific bright moments and dark moments you’ve had as a parent?
I think the brightest things are obvious ones. One time, when Dagim was two, my wife left town for the weekend to attend a friend’s wedding. Dag and I were “home alone,” so to speak, and I remember carrying him out to the car as the sun was going down and the air was bright, all these champagne-colored clouds, and he and I had just finished some black beans and rice and he was clinging to me like I was everything. And I felt as if, you know; maybe this kid is right. Maybe I am Hercules. Maybe I’m okay after all.
The dark stuff is weirder. It’s when he gets loud and starts crying about some ridiculous (to me) thing, like he wants cookies for breakfast or he won’t pick his coat up off the floor or something, and I hear myself getting LOUD or I find a toy in my hand because I’ve jerked it away from him. I’ll be louder than the angry 4-year-old! I want to be a slender Buddha for my little boy, and my fear is that I’m going to be this crazy Mel Gibson figure –charming and self-mocking one minute and then full of breathless, vituperative rage the next.
Before we had a child, I pretty much thought I had my $@#$ figured out. I was cool. I could have some rapist or child molester giving me shit and I’d just joke him back into his seat, no yelling, nothing personal.
But Dagim has taught me that my anger is a very real thing and I’m not as mature as I thought. That’s dark, isn’t it? That all those qualities I was so proud of (a sense of humor, generosity, etc.) can evaporate when a little kid is banging on my dinner plate with an action figure? Forty years of work to become a decent $@#$@ human being and I find myself arguing like a four-year-old with a four year old.
4. I wrote a post shortly after Wally was born called “No one ever told me it takes time before you love a child.” It was about how my feelings for both my boys have developed over time. I don’t know if this resonates for you but if it does, any thoughts on how your emotions towards Dag have changed/evolved over time?
When Shasta and I were first left alone with Dagim, he was already 14 months old. He was shocked to be alone with us and we were, honestly, scared of him –or, rather, the huge opportunity for failure that lay ahead. I’m sure every parent feels this pressure, but I think it’s even greater if you come to parenting through infertility –this failure at an essential human act.
Let me just add, too, in terms of how our love developed, that since we adopted, we didn’t go through all that pregnancy stuff people are always talking about. The week before we got Dagim my wife and I were still driving around Indianapolis in our skinny jeans and I was walking my pit bull mutt around the block. When we came back from Addis Ababa with a toddler, it was a major adjustment. We’d painted a room, we’d thought about it for years, but it was a major adjustment.
We loved him from the start. But I guess to bring it back to some of the feelings you described, I can say the love was completely intentional –some part arising from our circumstances and the awesome cuteness of this little boy, a tenderness connected to how helpless he was, but at the same time, it’s kind of like when you’re dating. How much can you love someone who doesn’t love you back? I think quite a lot. But it certainly feels different when this person calls you by name and you have a history together and you have a suspicion that this person loves you, too.
When I was in my twenties I loved to wander around strange cities and sit on curbs and watch people. Any given day spent like that was divided into an infinite number of moments. Since I’ve become a parent, the days have taken on a mass-produced quality. They don’t break off into snowflake/breathless instants like they did before.
Each day bears a strong resemblance to the ones before and after. I believe with all my heart that children need routines and security. Dagim doesn’t need to suffer through my lingering Jack Kerouac hangover –but still, sometimes I look at my school bus schedule and think: Why am I not reading a Penguin classic on the cold steps of Sacre-Coeur or some other Paris monument? Why am I not warming my hands on a fire made of driftwood?
6. You’re taking a new teaching job in Singapore this summer. Over the long run, do you see yourself raising Dag in the US or abroad?
Here I am talking about routine, and you point out that we moved from Indiana to China 19 months ago, and we’re planning to move to Singapore four months from now. I guess I’m kind of an idiot. But still, it does seem as if breakfast to bedtime, the days are pretty similar.
Anyway, as far as living abroad goes, our biggest reason to move back to the United States would be family. My folks are in their early seventies and I want them to be a part of Dag’s life. Shasta’s only surviving family is her grandmother, who is in her eighties. Shasta and I are both only children. Dag is not going to have any cousins because he doesn’t have any aunts. Our friends Jim and Steven are his only uncles. We can’t give Dag any brothers or sisters. Sometimes I feel selfish for moving us so far away from what (very small) extended family we have.
But on the other hand, I love my job now. I’m making good money, which is crazy for a schoolteacher, and that’s not even considering the fact that in Singapore, Dag will get free tuition at, literally, one of the best K-12 schools on the planet. And our alternative is to move back to the States where I would have trouble getting hired in the Indiana public schools (because closed budget school systems don’t like to hire people with master’s degrees and 20 years experience). And we’d have to go back to two car payments, possibly a mortgage, and definitely no travel of the kind I’d like. And Dagim will have to deal with race and multiculturalism in the very difficult context of the American tradition.
7. Last question. In that same essay you wrote, “I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a good father.” What ideas do you play around with? What conclusions have you come to?
I’d like to keep it simple, like the medical thing, “First, do no harm.” But even that seems like too much to handle sometimes! With all the possible crimes of omission & commission, I feel quite confident that half the good things I do, I undo later. I do think that part of being a good father must be to be a good husband, but that’s maybe too big a topic for the “last question.”
I was talking before about how proud I was to be low-key and even-tempered, but the fact is that after ten years in the prison system, I can also be a real son of a bitch. I mean, I went into that job as a bit of a people pleaser, but I couldn’t stay in that job without learning to say no. I learned how to look people in the eye and think: “I hear you, I know what you want, and I’m not going to help you,” which can make me a little nasty sometimes if my wife and I are fighting.
I don’t want to teach Dag that this is how a marriage works or how we talk to people. I think it’s important to remember that being a good father doesn’t just include the time when you’re talking to your son. It includes every conversation you have in front of him. Well, every conversation, period. Because I think our children can sense the energy that other people bring to us –they can tell if people trust us or like us or respect us.
I think my proudest moments these days are when Dag and my high school students trade hellos. My two worlds collide for just a moment, but it feels like everyone is happy. Somehow I’ve made everyone happy! It’s a great feeling, and over too quickly, but I feel as if maybe I’m doing something right.
And then, of course, Dagim will do something like touch my glasses with a stick, and I ruin the moment. But I’ll take what I can get.
Additional posts from the “Parent Interview” series: