One of the inspirations behind my anthology When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood was feeling that there was a dearth of literary authors tackling the subject. There was great writing online, and, increasingly, in magazines, but when I thought of male novelists I still thought of the Twentieth Century titans — Hemingway, Faulkner, Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Philip Roth, etc. — guys who we don’t associate with parenting, even though Old Papa Hem had kids.
When I was a young man, I imagined the life of a writer was one of extreme passion and dedication, the many parties and booze-fueled nights in bars counterpointed by long hours toiling over sentences and paragraphs. This lifestyle seemed both romantic and hard-boiled, but one thing it was was solitary. There might be affairs and lovers, but no longterm relationships, and, as novelist Richard Ford made clear, certainly no kids, not if you expect to be a good, serious writer. A family would impinge on both the socializing fun and the silence and space necessary to perfect your craft.
Of course, this was never the truth. The majority of writers have kids, it’s just that historically, aside from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s diaries about homeschooling his kids, they haven’t plumbed that material for memoirs or essays, while the wayward geniuses have made a point of discussing, celebrating, and exaggerating their nonconformist ways.
I’m happy to see that this is changing, that there are men who are living vibrant, interesting lives pursuing their art AND having kids and being great dads. The most recent example is Ben Tanzer’s excellent collection Lost in Space: A Father’s Journey There and Back Again. Tanzer is a novelist and short story who lives in Chicago with his wife and two boys. In each essay in his collection, Tanzer recounts with eloquence and sensitivity some of his experiences as a dad, and with his dad, whose death he addresses from the beginning.
In “The Champ,” Tanzer describes how he never saw his dad cry until his dad was on his deathbed. “He wasn’t comfortable being around tears,” he writes, “and not necessarily because they were a sign of weakness, though this was what I assumed when I was a child, but because they were so raw, and so painful, and I’m not sure he could bear to be around that kind of pain.” Tanzer, however, cries both alone and in front of his kids, such as when his sons caught him weeping during the Pixar movie Up, during the sequence about Ellie’s death. (I can’t help but cry at this point either. It’s such a beautiful little moment.) He calls himself a “self-hating crier,” and wonders what his father might have been like if he allowed himself to cry more during his life.
“Would he have been at greater peace with himself? Would he have known himself better? Would he have felt less trapped?
We cannot answer those questions, but I can ask myself whether those same questions apply to me, or the boys, who are both so open to crying at ages that I was not; and I can wonder whether they will be better versions of me and my father?”
Later, in “Sound Like Sleep,” Tanzer explores how his father struggled with insomnia, and so does he, and so does his oldest son. “The real curse is anxiety,” Tanzer writes, “Sleep merely a symptom of having too many voices in our heads, too many fears, and too much failure as artists, men, fathers, husbands, and sons.”
Here is the dark side of the macho, masculine myth, the secret of the dad who provides and sacrifices for his family: he has feelings too, among them worry, fear that others will see the feet of clay the support his stoney, stoic edifice. Even if he doesn’t share this with anyone, it might keep him up at night, or drive him to drink, or to long hours puttering around the garden, or cause him to pull away, withdrawing into chilly solitude.
In “Sound Like Sleep,” Tanzer goes on to describe how, when his son is at a sleepover, Tanzer stays up with him on the phone, talking with him about movies and books until the line goes silent, and the boy finally nods off. In other essays, Tanzer tells about how after his dad died and before his first son was born he needed to run off to Italy and live an adventure for a week or two. He writes about fears when a child is sick, and the frustration of dealing with a baby with colic, and the subtle differences between son number one and number two, and the complicated emotions of watching a child get his first haircut. Through it all, Tanzer brings forth his innermost voices, he lays out those anxieties that keep him up at night on the page, and we see our own fears and worries, hopes and dreams reflected in his. Fatherhood is, in Tanzer’s hands, a vast and amazing emotional terrain, as challenging and rewarding as any endeavor a man might bring himself to undertake. Take that, Richard Ford!
This is certainly different, it seems, from the quiet life that Tanzer’s father lived, one where his feelings remained locked inside him. You feel the elder Tanzer’s sharp shadow over every page in the book, and it seems to me that the author is bringing light to this darkness by giving language to subjects that his father never would have felt comfortable talking about. To return to Tanzer’s earlier question, will that make his sons better for it? They will have their own issues, for sure, as we all do, some of which Tanzer address in his book. But yes, I believe that they will be emotionally more at ease, or at least more comfortable with being uneasy. As will any parent who reads Tanzer’s lovely volume of essays, and find a fellow traveler on this stranger journey of living a life with kids.