Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Gen X Parenting Primer

One of the advantages of being born into what was once called Generation X is that we were shorn of many of our illusions early on. Many of these shattered illusions involved the fallibility of pop music, it’s true—I mean Nirvana was basically just a stopgap gap between hair metal and boy bands in the grand scheme of it all—but the more meaningful wake up calls involved marriage; its tenuous nature, its unreliability, but also its central importance to the development of children that come from such unions.

Like many of my friends, and probably more than a few of you reading, my parents divorced. They separated when I was 11, and the legal documents were finally finished when I was 17, but that’s technical talk. The marriage was rent asunder when my dad left home for good when I was 11. I remember the night well. Particularly I remember him taking a small-bore rifle out from one of the closets in the master bedroom to take to his new home. Whoa! How did I miss that? Like any kid I’d been a true busybody when it came to my parent’s wardrobe, looking at all those sport coats, and thinking, I’m going to be like that some day, a man dressed for business. When I was much, much younger I also tried to walk in my mother’s gold high heels, but that’s perhaps best left to another, more alternative blog. One I will not write.

But let’s get back to the issue at hand, divorce. Divorce is legal talk, it’s the separation that is so hurtful to the kids. I didn’t love one parent more than another. I adored them both. I would run to greet my father when he came home from work when I was young, and he’d lift me high in the air. He would tell me bedtime stories that were so damn good, I had no idea he was completely making them up until I already was not such a little kid anymore. But I didn’t care, I wanted him to tell them to me anyway.

I remember that so well. It probably is what started my nascent story-telling impulse, one I still indulge. (Ha!) He would tell me about some wacky, Rabelaisian adventure my various stuffed animals were on—I had 14 of them that I slept with most nights, god I was a tenderhearted kid—and then there would be a critical juncture in the story. Something BIG was about to happen, a new character would emerge and make it all congeal into a logical ending. I just didn’t know who! My dad would look me right in the eye and ask: “Who do you think showed up?”

I would wrack my brain. I didn’t know! I would finally throw out a name of one, or another, of my favorite recurring bedtime story characters.

“Jake the snake?”

My dad was always amazed.

“How did you know?” he ask, his eyes wide.

I didn't! Just lucky, I guess!

Of course later I finally figured out, through such interludes, that the stories were, in fact, all cobbled together on the spot. Because every character I ever called out was the right one. Even I, with my limitless capacity to hear a good story, got wise. But I didn’t care, I kept on asking daddy to tell them to me.

Other fond memories of Dad at home include sitting with him while he watched the news, on our old, extremely uncomfortable couch. Where other families had big, plush couches you could sink into ours was kind of small, and covered in a red, black and yellow checked pattern. The sofa itself was covered in what felt like burlap. Match this with our wall-to-wall tomato red carpeting and you’ve got yourself one swinging '70s allergy pit.

Still, I loved being next to my father while he watched the news, or read. My face would get hot, I would even sweat from the closeness, but I didn’t care.

My mother, of course, was just, to me, the epitome of kindness, and unquestioning love. We were tight from the moment I was born, and still are today, and this will never change. I hope many of you feel the same way about your mothers. I am lucky to feel this way about mine.

Clearly, I didn’t want either parent to leave. I mean, yeah, it was horrible when they fought, and it terrified me, the way mortals quiver when angry gods clash. And, due to business, my father had to go away on longer and longer business trips. Still, which child wants his world torn asunder?

When the split was final I only cried for some time, as it wasn’t so terribly different from day to day life before. My father would travel a lot, as already noted, so on an average day him not being home was not such a surprise. But over time the missed days began to accumulate, as did the gaps in my knowledge of what it means to be a man, boyfriend, husband and, eventually, father. How could it not? It wasn’t in my memory. I, like my dad, was improvising, but the stakes were a little higher. I created my whole identity from what I could pull from the ether, and the good examples around me that I could cling to. I hoped it was enough. But I will say this: it took me a long time to get it right.

I won’t get into what deficiencies these gaps may or may not have given me. It’s not to say here. I love my parents, and it’s not fair to blog their parenting ups or downs to the world. I am sure I will have noteworthy parenting faults of my own.

But what their divorce gave me, again like many of you out there, probably, is a pathological fear of having my marriage turn out the same way, inflicting the same issues upon my own child.

This makes being a parent a scary, scary thing for us Generation X folks. We were the first real generation to be raised with divorce as a normal, everyday part of life. In the olden days parents stayed together, for better or worse, richer or poorer. For poorer mainly, come to think of it, as no one really had any money in this country—at least not widespread money—until after WWII. So parents stayed together out of necessity, unless someone died.

Affluence, of course, changed that. I see in my parent’s generation a belief, particularly among the men I am sorry to say, of new possibilities, of a newfound respect for the rights of an individual to pursue their own happiness, even if it meant divorce. Many took that option. I can’t know if these men became, in fact, happier, but I know many of their kids were left to wonder what it’s all about, and were much less happy for the wondering.

I guess all this is a long-winded way, sorry, of saying that for me, and for Randi, (her parents divorced, too) we are part of an unlikely vanguard: kids who know how terrible divorce is firsthand, but still are willing to get married and raise a family together. Is it foolishness? Is it an acceptance that things will sometimes be rough, and that’s okay? Is it this idea that even if the odds are not what we’d like they’re good enough?

Maybe it’s all of these things, but it’s also faith. Faith that we won’t make the same mistakes our parents made. We’ll probably make new ones, just the same, but not the same ones. Possibly it’s faith that we know from the pain still in our hearts that while some wounds never heal, we don’t have to pass the pain along. We have choices. This makes marriage joyous, but also scary. We can't say we weren't warned. These things happen. Only we can prevent them.

It’s a scary world, in general, I suppose. Oil tops $130.00 a barrel and you just know it’s going to go higher; if not this year, then next. So much of what is misinterpreted as the “American dream” was built on the shaky back of that viscous liquid. So we can kiss a lot of our collective material dreams goodbye, unless we collectively strike it rich. Randi and I, again, are probably not atypical in thinking that maybe this means we need some new dreams.

Plus, with global warming, soon polar bears might not be the only ones looking for some dry land. I live in a city that’s incredibly susceptible to flooding, despite our amazing lack of beachfront. I love it here, but let’s hope the water level doesn’t get too much higher. Again, Randi and I are probably not atypical in thinking that maybe this means we have to appreciate the nice, temperate days of this spring, but our child will always wear sunscreen.

It’s a scary world when you consider how we are really just one massive terrorism event away from things changing very much, and forever. We both lived through Sept. 11, 2001 in New York. I met Randi, in fact, just a few months later. Whatever that day has become to many Americans—sadly a second Memorial Day for some—it was very real to us. I lost a source who worked in the ‘Towers. We weren’t close, but I knew him. Randi potentially almost lost a lot more, but she chose to not go downtown that morning. Again, we are not so different from many of you who are trying to live and build in the shadow of where the ‘Towers used to be, even if only in your minds. Yet we choose to try.

So that’s the world we Gen X’ers inherited and now are helping to perpetuate, as we now call at least a few shots.

Broken homes, perhaps some bad examples from those broken homes, and a scary macro-picture, this is our reality. Yet, maybe this is our moment, us Gen X’ers, because we were the generation that was supposed to shrug off things, to say well, whatever. Never mind war without end and divorce. We were made for these, perhaps reduced, times. It’s a strangely optimistic feeling, being freed of a malfunctioning American dream. Now let’s get down to what works.


Nora said...

When we were little girls, Randi and I were told through various counselors and television shows that we were likely to pick men like our fathers. I know this is a fear she shared with me...that perhaps every male that entered our world was there to abuse us and create caos.

When I look at Brian, or I hear Randi speak of your relationship and I am in constant awe of how she and I ended up with men who are, in-fact, complete opposites of our father. There is no greater healing for my soul than to see Brian dance with Bethany or comment on how beautiful she is, and I know Randi's heart melts as she sees you loving Stella.

You're right... marriage is tough, but I think we are wiser than our parents were and realize that there is no fairytale... It's about hard work and dedication and a common goal--to love each other and to raise good children. What more does anyone need?

judy skaggs said...

My darling son, Dave. I love your writing soooo much. You are so gifted. I love you too. Mama Judy