“I now think there is no tragedy like the tragedy of parenthood.” So Keith Gessen writes in his sometimes moving, sometimes easy and usually observant memoirs, Raising Raffi. Considering the first five years of his son’s life, he notes,
There is no other thing you do in life just that the person for whom you are doing it can leave you. When they leave, it’s success; when they do something because they want to do it and not because you want them to do it, then you have done your job. You succeed when you make yourself irrelevant, when you lose yourself.
Trying to cultivate a restless, stubborn toddler in a small New York apartment with his wife was challenging in many ways. The couple, who are both writers, also have a younger son. They do not have much money or family nearby that can help, so Gessen does a significant amount of child care. Gessen says he is “part of the first generation of men who, for various reasons, spent more time with their children than previous generations. It seemed striking to me. ” But it does not seem entirely accurate. The hours men spend on childcare have been steadily increasing over the past half century. According to a Pew Research report, “In 2016, fathers reported spending an average of eight hours a week on child care – about three times the time they provided in 1965.”
What is true is that Gessen recently had to live through a pandemic with two small children and probably did more childcare without any help during that time than most parents in history. And it gave him a lot of time to think about what kind of father he wanted to be. He remembers that before fatherhood he did not think much about the matter, but for years “imbib[ing] the heroic male literature of family neglect: Henry James who skipped a family funeral because he was finishing a story…; Philip Roth, who refused to have children; Tolstoy, who had many children and a long marriage, but who at the end of his life still managed to step on them. ” He adds that he “was therefore [his marriage and family] do not interfere with my writing. ”
It is so predictable as charming that his son does not allow it. Not just because Raffi is a difficult child who does not want to sleep or listen to his parents’ instructions, but because Gessen is constantly fascinated and amazed by his son, and actually wants to spend time with him — usually.
As a member of the New York Liberal intelligentsia, however, it is perhaps inevitable that Gessen is concerned about his parenting choices from a political perspective. He reads Nicole Hannah-Jones in the New York Times and says, “I started hating my fellow white parents” for the segregated school system they created. He buys all the nonsense about charter schools destroying the system, etc. In the end, however, he is unwilling to sacrifice his own child’s education on the altar of social justice. And therefore, they did not choose the poorest school that students lost, nor the one with the well-funded PTA, but a school that was in the middle. He feels he did, “if not the right thing, then the right thing … We pursued integration, but in a way that did not bother us.”
Gessen’s most interesting thoughts are those who compare his own upbringing as the child of Soviet emigrants – his family moved here when he was six – with his own method of raising children. His parents were stronger and seemed to know better what they wanted for their children. Although his wife thinks he is too strict, his own family finds him to let go. “One day someone will tell [Raffi] no … and he will not know what to do, ”Gessen’s aunt chastised him. But he also realizes that he cannot recreate the immigrant experience or get his child to understand the kind of trouble and worry that comes from growing up in a family that had to live under difficult circumstances.
In one of the later essays in the book, Gessen describes an interview with his own pediatrician, a Russian immigrant himself, in which she explains her view of American parenting. She tells the story of overzealous parents who encounter a difficult daughter who has left school and “could not really get on her feet.” The doctor explains that her parents did not want their daughter to be afraid of them: “Instead, she is afraid of everything else.”
This lack of resilience he sees in the spoiled children of American middle-class parents – and perhaps in his own son – seems to be directly related in these narratives to a sense that the world is an extremely dangerous place. (This combination of overprotection and doomsday is brilliantly described by Robert Pondiscio in his recent Commentary essay, “The Unbearable Bleakness of American Education.”)
It’s easy to see how Gessen himself becomes involved in a version of this. He cherishes Raffi day in and day out, fails to enforce a bedtime, allows Raffi to sleep in bed with him and his wife, fails to effectively curb his assaults on his classmates and his younger brother. Raffi does not fear his parents at all, but one day in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, Gessen tells his toddler that “the police regularly harassed and even shot black people and poor people.” When the boy expresses concern that the police are going to kill his pre-K friend, Gessen says “They don’t shoot children,” to which his wife adds, “sometimes they do.”
Let us put aside the dangerous myth for a moment that the police regularly go around and shoot people want they are Black or poor, one might wonder about the wisdom of telling a four year old that the police are the enemy. Gessen is an engaged, observant and loving – if ineffective at times – father, but as with so many activities these days, politics will make things much worse – including parenting.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.