On my baby’s second birthday I was 1,600 miles away from him drinking with other writers at a writing workshop in Oregon. Back in February, I had been accepted to a prestigious writing workshop and I leapt at the chance to go discuss what I love to do with some of the best writers in the nation. Technically, I was working. But also, not so technically, I was not. I was enjoying myself. But no matter how you parsed it, I was away from my son on the day that marked his second birthday.
I thought a lot about this decision. On one hand, I hadn’t spent more than three nights away from him in the entire two years of his existence. Plus, would he remember? I mean, really? On the other hand, it was his birthday.
The laws of parenthood dictate that we do not miss our children’s major milestones. As a writer and reader, I know that fiction and memoir are rife with the troubled rememberings of children whose parents abandoned them at crucial moments—choir concerts, theater performances and yes, birthdays.
I discussed this choice with friends and family. Would my son look back on July 15, 2015 as a crucial moment in his childhood, when his mother gallivanted off to the Pacific Northwest, and left him to the cold, comforts of hot dogs, boxed macaroni and his father’s care? Or would he instead, focus on the day a few weeks later, when his mom would make him waffles for dinner and procure a bounce-house for his delayed party? Or would he not remember anything? Instead focusing on some other unloved moment? Some other missed opportunity that I would unknowningly bestow up on him?
“You are fine,” my friend Mel reassured me. “You are home with him every day of his life, missing a week is not going to traumatize him.”
Another acquaintance was less comforting. “Well,” she said as kindly as she could, “I wouldn’t do it. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.”
I went anyway. I felt guilty anyway. If I had stayed I would have wished I had gone. I went and wished I had stayed.
We have decided somehow as a culture what a good mother does and does not do and as caring parents we closely follow these dictums as best we can: Kiss the wounds, soothe the heartbreak, cheer the sports games, celebrate the first steps and the birthdays. We hope that by following this checklist everything will turn out okay. But what if it doesn’t?
What if I screw up everything and my son comes out okay regardless? What if I screw up nothing and he becomes a mass murderer? I am not sure what is in my control and what isn’t.
It’s the easy lie of culture that we can blame the parents. It’s our go-to judgement because sometimes the line from troubled serial killer to sad child is easy to trace. Other times, it’s less clear. Sometimes the killer had happy devoted parents. Sometimes the president grew up in a troubled home. But we still blame the parents because it is easy. Because it forces a narrative on our lives that follows the path of childhood to adulthood in one easy-to-understand arc of cause and effect.
But life isn’t always so easy. Devoted parents can fail. Cold parents have their moments of warmth.
The day before his birthday, I sat in a lecture where Dorothy Allison, the famed novelist and poet told a story of her son being beaten up by the son of an agent at a literary party. “See,” she said. “We all fail, even when we are right there.”
Her story comforted me to some extent. But also terrified me. She had been right there. She had brought her son with her to the event. She had still missed a crucial moment. One that he liked to tell and retell to the embarrassment of his mother. I suppose that no matter who we are or what we accomplish, we are little more than the memories of our children. It’s no wonder there are people who don’t have them.
When you don’t have children there are fewer people to fail, to disappoint, or lose in the ever-present battle between the things you need and the things you want.
I don’t have sure answers. Right now my baby is so little. He was happy to see me when I came home. And I was happy to see him. And we had a big party a few days later with a bounce house and lots of cake. Perhaps this moment is one that will be lost forever to our mutual history. Perhaps it won’t. All I know is that searching for surety, it’s more about me than them.