She was making noises that reminded me of the shouting goats. Bleats and moans. Language had receded entirely. When your child behaves badly, your spine stiffens and you lay down the law, at first. But when the behavior persists over days you become numb, stunned, cast into a parallel life in which your child is now a little monster.
Such was the case with me and my daughter a week after we arrived in New York.
I thought about why this might be happening. A brief list of possible causes:
1. We had made our summer migration from New Orleans to New York and transitions are hard.
2. We were now in an interval of time, after school but before camp, where she had nothing much to do besides go to the playground (where she didn’t know anyone) and loll around at home watching TV or Netflix.
3. She was still more or less without her father as a playmate because I had been working hard on a project for the last few months. It started with my missing some dinners. Then it graduated to missing a few weekend mornings. Then I was hardly ever around for dinner or putting the kids to bed, and I was gone most of the weekends. This abated somewhat during the transition between cities, but now in New York it was back in full force. It had gone to a new level.
4. In New York, for the first time, I was working at home.
The project involved a series of deadlines, and so the work was not merely immersive but tinged with panic. In the past my working meant my absence – the process was mostly out of sight. Now I was in the apartment, sitting in a chair in a room facing a computer, eyes wide, back straight — because that is how you sit when you are terrified — fixated on the computer. Now and then my fingers would erupt in spasmodic movements over the keyboard. On the table were many books, opened, bristling with post-it notes, and an increasingly dense matting of pages that the printer had disgorged, on which there were all kinds of markings. A cozy little manger of literary production? Or the collected detritus of a crazy person? The scene could be described either way, but the correct description was the latter, as far as I was concerned.
The NBA playoffs were taking place and I was aware of the bitter irony that a team that wins by a point is seen to have done everything right, whereas the one that loses by a point has its coach fired, its nucleus traded, and is generally subjected to second guessing on everything it had done for the past three years. That is how I felt. And that’s why, when my children appeared by my side and wanted my attention and time, I could hardly avert my eyes. My wife and my mother were sensitive to the force field of tension and shooed away the children when they lingered too long.
The apex of this whole strange period of time, which lasted about a week, was when my little boy, age two, arrived in the doorway to the room and stood there, holding me in his level gaze. He was in the pajames with the blue and red trains. His feet were bare. He let his hand rest on the doorknob while his bare feet balanced on the wooden threshold.
He was clearly there for the purposes of observation, not interaction. He wasn’t going to make any demands. I glanced up at him, mouthed the word hello, and went back to my work. He slowly began to pull the door closed. I looked up just before it shut, and our eyes met. The little boy’s big eyes were trained directly on mine. It was unclear if this gesture was one of shutting me out, or if he was being solicitous, and closing the door in the spirit of his mother and grandmother — Daddy needs to work. Either way, it was somehow devastating. I absorbed this feeling for about two seconds and then I went back to work.
There was none of this ambiguity with my daughter. She yelled, screamed, acted out. When my mother, who served as a playmate, left for a trip, it got worse.
Then the deadline arrived, my freak-out reached it’s apex, and finally it was over. I have never passed a kidney stone or anything like that, but this is the image that comes to mind. I would call it a birth but that would be too flattering to what came out.
One of the curious things about this stretch of when Daddy was there but not there — as opposed to the more familiar not-there of working parents, when they are literally not in the house — was that being there seemed to make things worse. And even in the first few days after my deadline passed, when I was there and present in family life, things did not improve. My wife even commented that I seemed to make more chaos, just by being around. I think my daughter wasn’t just bored and annoyed at my absence. She absorbed the terror I felt while I tried make this large ungainly project cohere into a one point win instead of a one point loss.
Then one morning when the storm had passed my daughter came into the study and got in my lap and she composed a story in the manner that was once familiar— she dictated and I typed. I would make some editorial suggestions and she, possessed of much more authorial fortitude than her father at this point, told me to get lost, it was her story. When we were done we printed it out, corrected it, and then printed out a clean copy. Then she suggested we take a bike ride. The wife and baby — who is not a baby anymore, but that is another matter — were still asleep. Also, it was the first day of her tennis camp. I hesitated, then said yes. It was a glorious morning. We talked while we rode, but when we went down the long hill to the river we were silent.
The Hudson was smooth and flat with boats bobbing at the Marina. When the path narrowed I gave her a big talk about the importance of staying in her lane. There are crazy cyclists speeding along at this hour wearing latex. It was no joke. I went in front, she followed behind. Then she asked to switch.
We were, at this point, under the highway, a wonderful dramatic stretch. At the halfway point we came to our planned destination, a big old locomotive.
“We have to turn around here,” I said.
“No Daddy! Let’s go further!”
Her tone veers so quickly into the realm of whining, it drives me crazy. But I kept my annoyance in check. We talked about it for another ten seconds and then I said to myself, “Fine, what the hell, we’ll go down to the end of the elevated highway.” Which we did. There was a park space there. One of the many incredibly gorgeous bits of landscaping the parks department has created. It was full of blooming flowers and their fragrance filled the air. I sat on the bike, breathing it in, extolling the flowers in that way that has absolutely no effect on my daughter, who has disdain for this kind of talk, just as I used to have disdain for my mother saying exactly the same things about beautiful days and flowers and so forth.
My daughter, meanwhile, was delighted at the distance she traveled. She surveyed the scene, looking out at the river. She was happier and more content than I had seen her in weeks. She wanted to keep going South. I said we had to turn around. A little argument started to well up, but then she said, “Ok. Fine. Let’s go.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “I want to just look at all this for a second. I can’t get over how beautiful these flowers are!”
“Daddy!” she said, impatient. Then her tone softened. “Daddy, look over there, I see a butterfly!”
I looked. There was, of course, no butterfly. I looked back at her.
“Ok you’re over it,” she said. “Let’s go.”