Was watching “This Is Us” the other night with the wife. It’s not a perfect show: I get a little annoyed with the Jackie Robinson of the Pearson family that Randall has to be, the subsuming of all issues to the togetherness of the family. But then again… then again, I’m still a believer in family.
Anyway, Chrissy Metz’s character Kate sings “Landslide,” the old Fleetwood Mac song that I consumed in my adolescence through the weird Smashing Pumpkins B-side tape of my brother’s that I played until I wore it out. And then, a later episode, Randall remarks that he’s ten years old (obviously, in one of the flashbacks that are the show’s great gimmick, and I maintain, the show’s great profundity). And suddenly I remember a time when I turned ten years old, when I realized I was ten years old, and that seemed to be something extraordinary. My consciousness of that moment of self-consciousness, a memory that wasn’t just composed of the photographs that have since grown familiar and replaced my actual memories, struck me by being something completely new, though it was of course 27 years old. I hadn’t thought about thought that I had since I thought it, at ten years old.
The layering of memory in our perception makes our consciousness one place where a certain kind of relativity of time happens.Where we exist in what we consider past, present, and future, all at once.
I’ve been sick today, and anyway, it happened to be a day my daughter’s school had off, so I was planning to take her somewhere fun. Being sick made “somewhere fun” our living room, and sometimes me napping while she worked at a desk next to me, or when we snuck off to Denny’s while still wearing our pajamas. (She kept asking, “is it really okay for us to go out in our pajamas?”) We practiced some magic tricks she’d been wanting to try, ate frozen grapes, watched “Avatar the Last Airbender.”
You should’ve seen the magic show she ended up doing for her mom when she got home. What a show!
I have another soft dissertation deadline I’m not sure I’ll meet. I keep staring at my own worsening “self-care,” or whatever you call it now– bad eating habits, weighing too much, sleeping too little, easy injuries and persistent back pain– and I realize how fully I’ve changed these seven years. These seven years where I’ve completely lost the ability to keep track of myself, try as I might.
The excuses are many, because the changes have been many. Graduate school. Changing jobs. Moving. Mom’s cancer. The election. But really, actually, despite all those changes, nothing has utterly altered my life anywhere close to this: my little girl was born. And I am her father. And not a thing in the world is nearly as important.
I wish I could explain to people how strange this is, and how bad I feel about it. People are really sympathetic to child-raising changing your life, and they will often feel that’s “nice” and “sweet” that a father cares about being a father. But so many things constrain and confine the expectations here, so that I feel unrecognizable, unintelligible to people. First, I’m a man. I’m not supposed to tear up every time I’m away from her, thinking about her, wanting to be home with her. I’m not supposed to have trouble pursuing my career because I just want to teach her things and explore things with her. Read books with her.
Second, we only have one kid. If you’re a busy dad because you have three, well, of course you are! If you have two, it makes sense that just when you feel satisfied serving the one, you’ve still got to service the other, right? Or if you’re either of my grandfathers… TEN children! Forgetaboutit. A father is all you are. But me, I just have the one. That’s simple, right? Just like having a buddy around. Only had to do the diapers thing once, and once you get ’em walking and talking, they can start doing chores and making things easier on you, right?
Third, I’m not a single dad. I’m the OPPOSITE of a single dad. Her mom is an extraordinary mom. Working to sustain our income AND to make a difference in the world in a tough job. Emotionally available and very present at all of her big life events. Involved in taking care of the home, food, physical needs. Mom is still MOM, the one she goes to when she has a rash or a gash, the one she can be herself around the most, the one who teaches her to dance and get creative, the one who plans her trips and camps and parties. My wife is about as good a mother as a man could ever hope for to raise the child he loves with all his heart.
So what’s the holdup? Why am I still having such difficulty moving on, getting my work done, dedicating myself to other things, still so attached to spending so much time hanging around with his kid?
I don’t know. I don’t have a good excuse. By all healthy, socially-endorsed indicators, I should have already figured things out so that I’m prioritizing her future college savings fund (ie my career), my other projects and relationships (ie my aging parents, my many incredible friends), and that oh-so-important self-care (ie eating right and exercising so I’m still around in 30 years for her). But I’m not, I’m too slow to change.
I still feel like I have to be there for every pick up after school. Still want to wake up and eat breakfast with her every morning, make sure she eats at least some of her egg yolk. Still want nothing more than to spend many afternoons with her, lounging around or eating snacks or doing homework or reading out of curiosity. Still want to be there for her in every new step, though I know that soon enough, she’s going to need space and individuation and she’ll tell me she doesn’t want me hanging around all the time. (I teach teenagers and study adolescent development. I know.)
And can I be a little vulnerable and honest for a second? Just as I cried when I first dropped her off at preschool, shattered to pieces, not in the way that was selfishly possessive, but in the way that wanted to take in all the splendor and pain of it all… just in that way, every time I think about how much I need to move on and readjust, it’s terrifying, since being her dad has so eclipsed anything else I do, since she has totally eclipsed everything else in my life.
So for years, even not having heard that song, the layered memory of Billy Corgan or Stevie Nicks singing “Landslide,” singing:
“Well, I’ve been ‘fraid of changing cuz I’ve built my life around you.”
That’s where I am. Afraid.
“But time makes you bolder, even children get older, and I’m getting older too.”
That’s also where I am. Getting older, as she gets older.
“Oh, take my love, take it down/
Oh, climb a mountain and turn around/
and if you see my reflection in the snow-covered hills/
Well the Landslide bring it down.”
It feels like my world tumbling down. And I suppose, that’s what it has to be. I just hope that maybe, even faintly, what was there is not so buried in the fresh snow that it ceases to reflect who I was to her someday, when I’m not there anymore, when all she can see is a fraught season, a mysterious horizon.