Keith Gessen’s Adventures in Parenting

Keith Gessen’s Adventures in Parenting

Bad Dada

Keith Gessen’s adventures in parenting.

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I’ve been following Keith Gessen for my entire adult life. The magazine he cofounded, n+1, debuted in 2004, the year after I graduated from college, when I had just entered New York’s creative underclass and was filled with a fire to do what the guys at n+1 did, writing about politics and culture in the nightmare that was George W. Bush’s America. In 2008, Gessen published a novel called All the Sad Young Literary Men, its title describing my twentysomething self to a tee. Then came his years of fruitful productivity: a critic’s gig with New York magazine, articles for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, a translation of Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl into English, and the publication in 2018 of a second novel, A Terrible Country, set in Russia, where he was born. He has recently been reporting on the war in Ukraine, cementing the impression that for every political era and life cycle, Gessen would always be there for young Gen Xers and old millennials, offering a ticking indicator of time’s passage.

I am now a father in my 40s, so naturally Gessen has written a book, Raising Raffi, about being a father in his 40s. The parenting memoir is possibly the most polarizing genre of book, since it concerns a subject that is fascinating to parents and pretty much no one else. It can alienate parents, too, for that matter, because the foibles of one’s children are about as interesting to other people as the details of one’s dreams. Social media is a sad testament to this truth, littered with parental anecdotes in which the gap between the author’s delight and the audience’s indifference could not be starker.

So it’s not a knock against Gessen to point out that Raising Raffi is not for everyone. Nor is it a dig at parenting memoirs in general to acknowledge that the likely reason this book is being reviewed here, in a section devoted to the arts and the life of the mind, is that it was written by a person who helped inaugurate a column in n+1 called “The Intellectual Situation.” It is instead to say that if this book has a broader significance—beyond, of course, the significance of child-rearing, a timeless and necessary human pursuit—it lies in what it says about “us,” the cohort of New York Xennials whose careers and marriages and first forays into parenting have taken place against the backdrop of the Iraq War, Occupy Wall Street, the Trump presidency, and now the pandemic.

If Adam Gopnik’s witless parenting memoir Through the Children’s Gate inadvertently revealed the vapidity of the post-9/11 upper middle class of the Upper East Side, then Raising Raffi is a tour of the anxieties of semi-gentrified Brooklyn in the 2020s. This New York is not Gopnik’s fantasy of merry, well-to-do Manhattanites, where children and parents alike frolic on “Paul Desmond saxophone mornings,” as he hilariously put it. In Gessen’s New York, the apartments are too small and the income for creative types too precarious. It is a city where the future of racial integration seems to rest on the decision of which preschool to send your child to and where white parents are proud that their toddlers yell “Black lives matter!” out the window. It is a faithful and perceptive depiction, though I’m not sure anybody will really like what they see.

Raising Raffi is ominously subtitled “The First Five Years,” as if this child’s life is some sort of literary experiment that will be conducted in quinquennial installments. Most parents are infatuated with their children, but Gessen takes his infatuation to typically overachieving heights: Not only has he written a book about his eldest boy; he has also seemingly read every guide to parenting on the market. “A little of this and a little of that, I thought as I read, and you could create the perfect kid,” he writes. This is, to be clear, a joke, but like all good jokes it contains a kernel of truth. Gessen may not want to hammer his child into an instrument for blowing away Ivy League admissions officers, but he does obsess over his child’s development in a way that other parents might find bewildering. In a nod to Amy Chua’s Chinese “Tiger Mom,” Gessen’s wife, Emily Gould, dubs him a Russian “Bear Dad” (which she admits makes him sound like a “cute hairy gay guy”). At one point Gessen describes parent-teacher conferences as “major” events in his life, which earned one of the numerous question marks that line the margins of my copy of this book.

In other words, Gessen worries. A lot. He worries that Raffi’s school history project won’t be as brilliant as those of his peers. He worries that Raffi may not be any good at sports. He worries that Raffi won’t be able to speak Russian. Above all, he worries that Raffi may grow up to be the sort of male we might despise: toxic, a mansplainer, whatever you like. And Gessen does have cause to worry, for Raffi is what we in the parenting community, ever so fond of gentle euphemism, would call “a handful.” He gets kicked out of day care for causing a ruckus during nap time. He punches his friends, who punch him back. His teachers send weekly e-mails to Gessen and Gould with the subject line “Scratch”—as in, scratches on his face. He sometimes takes his younger brother Ilya’s milk bottle and sprays its contents all over their Bed-Stuy apartment. With admirable honesty, Gessen describes Raffi as a “three-year-old terrorist.”

The question becomes: How do you solve a problem like Raffi? Much of the book traffics in the kind of parenting porn that will be recognizable to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the genre: sleepless nights, endless screaming, catastrophic road trips, public meltdowns—one grim, bleary-eyed hardship after another. Sometimes Gessen meets the challenges of an obdurate, occasionally violent child with his own mix of stubborn grit and occasional violence, accidentally slapping Raffi on the head in one instance and purposely slapping him on the wrist in another. These outbursts, which also include admonishing his willful, crazy-making child in a “very scary manner,” are impossible to control, the angry Bear Dad emerging from Gessen like the Hulk tearing through the clothes of Bruce Banner. As so many fathers know from similar experience, such lapses of judgment are instant sources of regret and shame. Raffi tells him, “You’re a bad dada and I’m never going to listen to you again!” Gessen ruefully concedes the point: “I felt he was right. I was not a good dada. But I didn’t know what else to do.”

Lest any parent reading this feel smug right about now, it is worth noting that to the extent that anyone is “good” at parenting, it is almost entirely due to the disposition of the child. I’ve heard stories of parents who thought they had the whole thing figured out, only to be utterly defeated by their difficult second or third child. Boys in particular develop less quickly than girls; at the risk of generalizing from my own experience, I’ll never forget walking into a pre-K class where the girls were seated at their tables, drawing and talking quietly, while the boys were wrestling, yelling, throwing stuff, and basically losing their minds. Gessen gets it in the end, observing that the parents of one of Raffi’s friends “were a lot more chill” because their kid “was a lot more chill.” Ultimately, “it was the kid who set the tone. And Raffi set a very particular tone.”

Still, it’s clear that Gessen doesn’t have much chill either. He plows through scores of parenting books, hoping to solve the riddle of his son’s recalcitrance. Like every parent, he gets up in the middle of the night in a panic to check whether Raffi is still breathing, but unlike other parents, who stop doing this after the first week or two following birth, Gessen continues to check for three more years. He pushes Raffi hard, whether it’s forcing him to learn Russian or how to ice-skate. He swings between wild ambitions for his son (“Was our child a genius?”) and melodramatic guilt over expecting too much (“Did he hate me?”). All of this is told in a tone that, while not quite humorless, doesn’t exactly abound with sweetness and light. Gessen lands on a hard-bitten realism: “It wasn’t over, this battle between us. It would, maybe, never be over. But here we were.”

Gessen’s anxiety finds its oddest expression in his analysis of the beloved children’s book The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. For those of you who have never had the pleasure, the story involves a bunny who wants to run away from his mother; she responds that wherever he might run, she’ll be there. If the bunny wants to transform into a “fish in a trout stream,” the mother will become a “fisherman and I will fish for you”—and so on and so forth, the mother thwarting every possible escape attempt with the calm assertion that the bunny will end up back with her. Gessen says the story was too much for him: “To me the book seemed like an expression of terror and madness: the mother’s terror of losing her child and the madness this caused in her. Emily had that madness, and so did I.” But, sorry, this is quite obviously not what The Runaway Bunny is about. The point, at least of reading it to a young child, is that no matter what flight of fancy might take hold of them, no matter how ungrateful or disobedient they may be, they will always come home—because love is their home.

As it happens, amid the reams of literature about screen time and sleep schedules and diet, the guarantee of unconditional love remains one of the few proven goods that parents can actually provide for their children, giving them a place in the world and a reason for being. Our kids are not geniuses, of course; they are just themselves. That this is more than enough, that this causes our hearts to brim over, is the miracle of having children. They exist! No one else might value them, or find them beautiful or interesting, or perceive the light inside them—but their parents do.

That every child has this light is why I cannot agree with Gessen’s great thesis that parenthood is a “tragedy.” “There is no other thing you do in life only so that the person you do it for can leave you,” he writes, adding, “You succeed when you make yourself irrelevant, when you erase yourself. Parents who fail to do that have failed. I feel myself failing in exactly this way every day.” It is a poignant sort of failure, to want to remain an integral part of your child’s world, the sun they look up to when you walk down the street hand in hand. But for me, anyway, the inevitable separation is part and parcel of the miracle, the gift of my child’s own self and her own life.

The insane calculus involved in enrolling your child in a public school in New York City—a veritable Rubik’s Cube of logistical, pedagogical, and moral factors—can drive the most even-keeled parent to despair. It seems almost engineered to confound a handwringer like Gessen, who flies at the problem with his customary doggedness, determined to make the choices that will allow the cube to click perfectly into place. The hitch is that this is impossible.

Like much of liberal America, Gessen has read Nikole Hannah-Jones, and so he knows that the New York City public school system is the most segregated in the country, largely because white parents cluster their kids in the better schools, which by and large are in wealthier neighborhoods that can provide more resources. He understandably has no desire to help perpetuate this racist system, which means Raffi must go to a school that is reasonably diverse—but also one that is not crumbling into disrepair and taking its students down with it. Gessen tours the schools in his neighborhood and, like the straight-A student he undoubtedly was, asks the administrators conscientious questions. (“Is there room for parental involvement?”) He performs the uncomfortable calculations necessary to determine a school’s racial makeup: this percentage of Black kids, that percentage of Latinos, this many whites. The options narrow down to three: one that is too white, one that is too decrepit, and one that is just right. The only issue with the third is that Gessen and Gould must move to a different apartment to be in the school’s zone.

If it sounds ludicrous to uproot your life just to send your kid to a decent school that isn’t contributing to the systemic racism of society—well, it is. Nearly every family has to make such calls, further entangling school enrollment in issues of real estate and gentrification. I will submit that these moral calculations are simply too much to expect of average parents who, again, just want to send their kids to school, not fix the problem of racial equality in America while they’re at it (a doubly absurd enterprise because, of course, this is a collective issue that requires collective action). Gessen is far more politically aware than the average dad, and even he ends up being flummoxed, realizing that sending Raffi to the “just right” school means that he probably took the spot from a less-advantaged student who would have benefited more from going there. Gessen is too hard on himself here, making a hair shirt of his “moral vanity” and shortsightedness. In truth, in this messed-up system, every choice is wrong.

At least Gessen tried. I admired, too, his decision to take Raffi to the George Floyd protests that erupted in 2020, and his family’s frank conversations about the issue of police brutality. (When Raffi asks if the police would shoot his Black friend, Gessen quickly responds, “They don’t shoot kids.” “Actually,” Gould chimes in, “sometimes they do.”) Despite bourgeois Brooklyn’s embarrassing reputation for performative politics—this is the land of the “In this house we believe” lawn sign—it all feels sincere and true to life. But if even a scrupulous, driven, well-meaning person like Gessen can’t make a difference, what hope is there? The pandemic only heightened this overarching sense of futility, revealing that families are mostly on their own, islands unto themselves. “The days seemed incredibly long,” Gessen writes. “We felt very isolated. And we were scared.”

The baby boomers deservedly get a bad rap for being a singularly feckless and self-absorbed generation that made the world a worse place for their children and grandchildren. History has yet to pass its judgment on Generation X and the millennials; perhaps it is too soon. But it’s not at all clear that we are doing much better. It certainly feels like we are failing the children we claim to cherish, who will inherit a city that is unaffordable, a country riven by race, an earth in flames. Like many other parents, I could not bring myself to read the details of the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., could not allow myself to imagine the last moments of those poor, frightened kids trapped in a classroom with a killer—and anyway, if you’ve lived long enough in America, it is all so depressingly familiar.

One of the revelations of becoming a parent is that you suddenly understand your own parents so much better, and why they behaved the way they did. How could they have been so selfish? Why didn’t they act when they had the chance? We are starting to find out. N

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