Message in a Bottle
Where Do Babies Come From?

(continued from part one)

In a way, it was a book that led me into parenting in the first place. I’d always been fond of children and had never had that fear of them that some young men seem to have. Will I break it if I hold it? What if it cries? Why is it looking at me? During college and shortly thereafter, I worked on and off in a daycare and a preschool. I was a manny before someone smug coined that word, come to think of it. Despite all this, the idea of having kids of my own seemed no less far-fetched than the idea of my one day becoming Emperor of Gondwanaland. Fatherhood was too life-changing a thing, especially for someone with creative aspirations like someday writing for a bookstore blog.

About ten years ago, though, I read Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik. He’s a staff writer for The New Yorker who spent several years reporting for the magazine from France, and while the collection impressed me with its insightful, humorous take on Parisian culture through expatriate eyes, what struck me most was its depiction of domestic life. Gopnik moved to Paris with his wife and young son, and they’re never far from view. He covers high art, but then, amid the crowd on a holiday shopping excursion, there’s his son in his stroller, swaying to the music like “a cobra in mittens.” Between bites at the brasserie, there’s equal talk of education and national politics, and even bedtime stories—about a phenom preschool pitcher facing off against Ty Cobb at the Polo Grounds, whiffing him with the aid of a doctored “bottle-ball”—get serious consideration. While the family was abroad, they added to their little clan with the birth of a daughter, and the chapter on that experience is one of the highlights of the book.

I’d never read (or didn’t register it if I had) anything that so well integrated intellectual life with private life, and balanced adult concerns with childish ones. Paris to the Moon was the first book, the first experience of any kind that made me think that parenthood was possible for me, maybe even desirable. Until reading it, thinking about having children meant wondering about the compensations for all the diapering and the sleepless nights. Afterward, I realized that evaluating “compensations” is a pretty petty, immature way of trying to tackle this particular decision. I’m still not sure I could explain exactly how that decision should be made, but make it I did—not immediately, mind you. Five years later, I became an expectant father for the first time, and it worked out so well I went through it again. A boy and then a girl, just like in the book. No, I didn’t do it all on my own, if that’s what this sounds like. My wife undoubtedly has her own version of this tale, but she’ll have to write her own post to tell it. 

Now, I might have stumbled onto something else that would have provoked the same kind of epiphany (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa, which I read a few years later, could have done the trick) but I’m not sure that I’d be a dad today without Adam Gopnik’s example. I do know that without him, I wouldn’t have as good a name for how fatherhood feels. During his wife’s second pregnancy, he learns the French expression used when a firstborn son is followed by a daughter, and reading his book taught it to me. It’s le choix du rois—the choice of kings.

(continued)

James

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