by Scott F. Parker
A friend says to me, “Here’s how you know. The doctor calculated the conception as having occurred on a Tuesday, so when was the last time you two . . .?”
I’d wondered about this before. “I think it was Sunday.”
“So it’s a girl. The boys zip right up there, the girls take their time.”
Not entirely convinced by the argument and dispositionally cautious around good news, I concealed the relief I’d been offered. If my friend’s analysis proved unsound, I didn’t want my disappointment to be public. It would be hard enough for me to raise a boy without him finding out I’d wished he were a girl.
A month before, I’d come home from work to find Sandy seated on the couch, two pregnancy tests on the counter. Two should have told me everything I needed to know. But as I read the first one I confusedly thought that two pink lines meant negative and attributed the second test to Sandy’s attention to detail.
In the five years we’d been married we’d never decided whether or not we wanted to one day be parents. The question came up periodically, but never with much urgency. Sandy was working toward her doctorate, and between my own bouts of grad school I was busy passing the better part of a decade sitting in cafés trying to unlock the mysteries of literature. We were happy and happy to put off having a child—maybe indefinitely.
Then, all of a sudden, we were in our mid-thirties living in Bozeman, Montana, where we’d come for Sandy to finish up her graduate training, and I, somehow, for the first time, landed a job with health insurance. Our lives, that is, had suddenly taken on a distinctly adult aspect. Maybe if we were ever going to be parents, this was the time.
One of the first warm days of spring, we took a walk around our neighborhood: sun shining, snow melting. It was one of those mornings you feel swept along in the reanimation of the planet. By the time we got home we’d agreed that we wouldn’t necessarily try to have a baby but that we would no longer try not to. Our bodies and the vagaries of reproduction could decide for us.
It didn’t take them long.
I looked up from the second pregnancy test and noticed how closely Sandy was studying me. I matched the two pink stripes to the key. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Does this? Are you?”
“I think so,” she said.
Naturally, I was in a café still plugging away at the same old mysteries when my phone rang. It was Sandy. A nurse, she said, had called and told her the baby’s sex, which had been revealed incidentally during a genetic screening. Even as I was still hearing these words, my attention was already constricting to a point inside space. The hubbub around me ceased. The baristas and the other patrons vanished. All that remained were silence and a vague sense of suspended time. Sandy’s pause stretched out like an acid trip as I convinced myself that her voice had already confirmed that it was a girl. But when she finally spoke, I heard, “It’s a boy.”
A boy. A male human. My son. I was terrified.
Whenever I had imagined myself as a father I’d imagined two daughters. Our family would be happy and close like in some sitcom; I’d happily play the doofusy dad to daughters. Sandy and I would be open and loving and supportive, our girls would flourish, and we wouldn’t have any of the weird destructive energy of boys. And most importantly for me, I would be spared a second dance with the mutual hostility of a father-son relationship.
I was probably eleven when my father told me for the first time why he’d wanted kids and why one day I should too. The idea was simple. Each generation evolves a little from the one that came before. Carry this out long enough and humans will evolve into something higher, eventually something divine. Our role as individuals is to participate in that process of evolution. It is our deepest responsibility. “Having children,” he said, “is what gives life meaning. Without them there would be no purpose to existence.”
I was too young and too impressionable to notice this wasn’t the scientific view it was presented as (an idea my father could argue rationally and from analogy, with footnotes) but a religious one. Be a faithful servant of evolution and you will be rewarded not with happiness in this life but the satisfaction of knowing you helped bring about the next one. It doesn’t take a logician to see that the question of meaning gets begged. If life takes its meaning from the future, from where does the future take its meaning? We might work toward a social utopia but not, one supposes—I suppose—a metaphysical one.
But at eleven I wasn’t looking for weaknesses in the argument, I was receiving a rare compliment. If I understood my father right, he was telling me that I was (or would grow to be) more evolved than he and, therefore, in a meaningful sense better than him. That felt like something I could hold on to. That was a teleology that rewarded my faith.
As much as being more evolved than my father was something I could hold over him (and what “more” meant I’d find out in time; it was, after all, fated), I couldn’t ignore the deeper and more obvious fact that he didn’t actually want to be a father.
These ideas may be abstract. My childhood was not. My childhood was silent dinners and silent car rides, no noise, no messes, no going in this room or that one, no bothering, no weakness, no emotion, take care of yourself, entertain yourself, protect yourself. It was rules, violations, and consequences. It was keep your guard up. It was stay vigilant.
When Sandy picked me up at work to go to dinner one night during her pregnancy, I saw her in the driver’s seat and imagined our baby strapped into the car seat. I felt an urge to get in the backseat and poke him in the belly and be silly and talk to him in a cooing voice and show him how happy I was to see him.
Inevitably, I asked myself what if I had been in the backseat. In a good mood, my dad would have been kind to me. But it is beyond my capacity of imagination to produce an image of him happy to see me. Or happy at all.
If tolerance is a virtue, it’s a lesser one. My father tolerated his family for the sake of the divine beings his—our—descendants would eventually become. But tolerance necessarily runs counter impulse. We should live in a tolerant society only because it’s better than living in an intolerant one. Better still to live in a society that welcomes or indeed loves than in one that merely tolerates. How much more a family.
To speak only of myself, I was tolerated as a boy, except when I wasn’t: when I got frustrated; when I wasn’t fully potty-trained by two-and-a-half; when I left a light on in the kitchen; when I walked too loudly across the floor; when I wanted to play a game of catch in the backyard; when I did anything, it seemed to me, that fell short of perfect self-reliance. And then there were times—when I wandered the neighborhood dribbling my basketball, when I watched TV in the basement, when I studied chess alone in my bedroom—that I was tolerated absolutely.
Of all people, it was my dad who introduced me to Taoism. In his inscription to the copy of the Tao Te Ching he gave me in high school he wrote that he considered Taoism the most profound of the world’s wisdom traditions.
I have read that inscription many times since he gave it to me, wondering frequently what it meant to him to write. We tend not to call profound ideas that come naturally to us, nor those that baffle us, nor those that run counter to our attitudes, rather we call profound those ideas that are just beyond our comprehension or those that in moments of inspiration or concentration we can grasp but that fade with the moment. Taoism must be like this for my father: a worldview that he aspires to because it is adjacent to his default. It is profound to him because it seems right as it eludes him—as it always eludes him.
No one I’ve known is more rigid than the man who gets angry at his wife when dinner is served at 6:10, not 6:00, the man who gets angry at the city he has lived most of his life in for having changed since he was a boy, the man who gets angry at anyone who isn’t perfectly considerate of his every desire, the man who is angry at his son for not being a mere extension of the man, the man who is perpetually angry at himself for not being already divine.
What of the wisdom of the Tao? To find strength in flexibility. To live in one’s circumstances and no others. To be as one is. To give no thought to control or dominance. To be at peace with one’s surroundings. To live spontaneously. To respond appropriately to the moment. To let God take care of God. To laugh at the hubris of ideas as big and self-serving as teleology.
Do my disappointments in my father stem entirely from my expectations? Is love too much for a boy to assume? Is its absence enough for a man to mourn? Not every tree taps the same water. Flourishing is a relative concept. Should I be, if not more loving toward my father, more accepting?
He is no more his own cause than is the tree by the river or the motion of the billiard ball. At no moment, from no position, did he ever choose his particular inclinations or sensitivities. In a different world, he might have been a different father. Regardless, the Tao flows through him as he is, finding its own peculiar way.
In the same Tao Te Ching inscription, my father wrote, “I hope that this is a book you can take with you in life to help in finding your unique Way.” I hope so too. And I hope the way is toward peace.
I remember the first dream I had about the baby. He was born, he was tiny, he was all swaddled up, and I loved him utterly. Sandy was holding him, and as I walked over she extended her arms and put him in mine. That’s all that happened. It was plenty.
Intellectually, I had known for a long time that I didn’t have to be like my father. I could learn to love people more than ideas and treat a child as more than means to some virtuous end. And that all seemed easier with a girl. Tenderness and affection felt more accessible with a daughter than with a son. The prospect of her was less threatening than was the prospect of him. I felt like I had permission to love her. I knew that my son meant me no harm, but I knew it—again—intellectually, and I have only ever lived part of my life intellectually. Emotionally, it was harder. Love is still a word with the power to paralyze me. What finally allowed me to open up to my son was reflecting on the sensitive boy I had been. The boy who wanted a father who would play catch in the backyard, a father who would seek out time with his son, a father who would ask his son questions, a father who would reveal his own authentic self, a father who was capable of love.
When I felt like I was seeing myself clearly I saw that I was in a position now to give the very things I would have wanted as a boy. My relationship with my son didn’t have to repeat my relationship with my father. It could be as beautiful as he and I had it in us to make it. And I knew I had a lot in me to give. Maybe I would have to be brave, but bravery was in me too.
I took it on assumption that Sandy and I would deliver upon our son a particular and original combination of “issues,” but the feeling of being unloved, I was certain, would not be among them.
Over the fall Sandy’s pregnancy began to show. By the winter she had fully transformed into a head and four limbs bound to a beach-ball belly. Wherever Sandy went she took the unavoidable fact of our baby’s presence with her. It was impossible not to take him into account.
I continued adjusting to how things were rather than how I wished they were. When Sandy placed my hand so I could feel our son’s kicks, I was awed. I felt like I belonged for the first time to the history of our species. We might not be destined for Godhead, but we didn’t come from nowhere. I was adding a sentence to a very long and very old story.
In the delivery room, when the doctor placed our son in my arms a few seconds after his birth so I could be the one to put him on Sandy’s chest I cried the biggest most ego-flattening tears I’ve ever cried. I hadn’t anticipated them. But they arrived suddenly and unapologetically like life does. I was a part of this thing, but I was not in control of it. I was so scared. I had no idea how to take care of him and give him what he needed. But I loved him so much I knew in a way I hadn’t known anything before that I had it in me to try and to learn and for his sake to keep growing.
He’s three now and no part of me can relate to the reluctance I once felt at the prospect of being the father to a son. By some great miracle, it turns out that I have the very kid I would have wished for. And if he ever finds out that I once wished he were a girl I’ll tell him it was because I was scared and that growing up is for fathers as well as for sons. And that by the time he was born his father wanted only him.
Scott F. Parker is the author of A Way Home: Oregon Essays and Being on the Oregon Coast. He is the editor of several books, including Conversations with Joan Didion and Conversations with Ken Kesey. Scott’s essay “Off Experience” was published previously in Watershed Review. Find him online at scottfparker.com.