Message in a Bottle
Don’t Tell Me What To Do

(continued from part two)

Deciding whether or not to have kids seemed like a difficult task at the time, but once the first one showed up, that fell into proper perspective as (ahem) child’s play. The real hard work is actually doing the job of parenting. A baby is like an extremely overbearing boss who communicates loudly but poorly and doesn’t allow you to sleep or even take an unattended bathroom break. And those are just the physical demands. There’s also the higher-level pressure of fretting about doing something subtly wrong that will someday prevent your darling from getting into college. Is there enough DHA in his diet? Is there too much BPA in her sippy cup? And so on. Fortunately, advice on the subject is plentiful. Unfortunately, some of us aren’t always good at taking it.

During her pregnancy, my wife was happy to read through piles of helpful books, although she drew the line at the very popular What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Despite its grandmotherly gingham cover, it’s very detailed and perhaps too clinical at times: Itchy palms and sweating? That could be a symptom of something dire … Well, it might also mean it’s hot out, but thanks for scaring us. She much preferred Penny Simkin’s Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn. After our son was born, she continued browsing the parenting section for every stage of development and would try to share her finds with me, but my vision would glaze after a paragraph or two.

This seemed odd to her, since I generally have no trouble plowing through encyclopedia-length books, but I’ve always had issues with certain kinds of instructional writing. If there’s too much of it and it’s too plainly told, I start thinking, “Yeah, yeah, you’ve made your point,” and stop seeing nuance or novelty. I remember a college class that assigned Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic back to back with Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Both are classics of feminist thought, but one is a straightforward 768-page catalog of 19th-century restraints on women’s expression while the other is 128 pages of sparkling prose that makes its point by dancing the reader along the author’s brilliant mental pathways. Guess which one resonated with me.

I did finally run across something that put me in the right frame of mind, but it wasn’t in the self-help section. In the late Donald Barthelme’s Forty Stories there’s a piece called “The First Thing the Baby Did Wrong” that’s less than two pages long, but I found more in it than in any number of books by experts with PhDs. It features an infant with a jones for destruction and a father figuring out how to cope, but saying more about it would be like dissecting a frog. Besides, the whole thing is available here in all its sardonically funny glory, and it takes about two minutes to read. Go on, I’ll wait.

Maybe I’ve spent too many years with my nose in a book and my mind in a castle in the air, but the oblique approach to advice is the only thing that works on me. If you have a point to make, let it sneak up on me disguised by a joke or whisper it between the lines instead of bludgeoning me with authority. I doubt that Barthelme set out to be a parenting guru when he wrote this story, but when I’m frustrated by my kids and their refusal to do exactly what I think they should, it’s Forty Stories I turn to before Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. I think fatherhood requires a mix of rationality and strong feeling, which is what I get out of his fiction. The humor and confusion keep my brain in gear and trick me into feeling things that a directly sentimental plea fails to elicit. Barthelme’s work can be silly or obscure, but it often has an underlying sweetness and it always has an underlying humanity. When he taught creative writing he was quoted as saying to his students, “We have wacky mode. What must wacky mode do?” After a silence, he answered his own question. “Break their hearts.”  

As a postscript, I ran across a photo book about a year ago called The Word Made Flesh. It’s a gallery of tattoos inspired by literature, many taken from illustrations, but many more of words themselves. The one that caught my eye read “Born Dancin’,” which, if you clicked the link above, you’ll recognize as the name of the baby in Barthelme’s story. Looking at the caption I discovered that the words are inked on the skin of a grownup Kate Barthelme, his daughter. She was born in 1982, and the story first appeared the following year. Its author died in 1989. I guess I’m not the only one who takes this stuff personally.


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