Keith Gessen is a novelist, editor and translator, journalist and father of n+1. He is also the father to two small boys and a writer of memoirs. The Sad Young Literary Man is not so young now—or so sad—and he’s gone confessional, with a book about parenting his firstborn, an “adorable, infuriating, mercurial” kid.
The book—Raising Raffi: The First Five Years—is good. Divided into nine essay chapters about birth and babydom, toddler discipline and terrorism, the particular ways in which our children trigger our own issues, yes, but also: what it means to raise a child bilingual as a Russian émigré, what it means to send a kid to school in a “good”Brooklyn district. He describes what it was like to be a parent in a pandemic. It’s a tribute to New York City and how it changed for him as a father. The book also surveys the child development literature to which so many parents turn—some of us with deeper desperation. Parents will empathize with the strategy to look to books when toddler parenting gets tough; parents with toddlers prone to Raffi’s (and my Theo’s) particular brand of “uncivil disobedience”Might, like me, find themselves scribbling I FEEL SEENOn every other page.
Library Journal a rel=”nofollow] noopener” target=”_blank” href=”https://www.libraryjournal.com/review/raising-raffi-the-first-five-years-1789423″>calls Raising Raffi “engaging and better-written than many parenting books on the market.” I disagree. It is well written—snappy, smart, relatable—but the existence of “parenting books” by Rachel Cusk, Louise Erdrich, Anne Enright, Meaghan O’Connell, Anne Lamott, Angela GarbesThis is a lie “better.”With a pang feminist pique, I wonder if a woman writer would ever be asked to help navigate the maze of baby books, from Drs. In such detail, Spock and Sears to Doctor Becky. I wonder if her unique perspective, her microreviews for kids, would matter to a mainstream publishing house.
Yet, I feel seen. Gessen offers both investigative probe and personal confession; he’s both a critic and a dad. This book works because Gessen is a dad who is willing to admit his worst. It also shows the kind of kid for whom the usual techniques will fail, and shows—but doesn’t forgive—a parent’s anger. It is not, despite its being a book of information (and is far better written than say, Raising Your Spirited Child). But it’s one of the most honest accounts of the rageIt is difficult for parents to feel the pain of being victimized by their children. I’ve never seen this reckoned with so candidly before: how you might respond with compassion and kindness (to both your child and yourself) when grappling with the real feelings of fear and betrayal when your slightly violent, very stubborn cherub [punches you in the balls]Or [informs you he’s ripping up your Mother’s Day card out of sheer spite].
A number of of us have executed the analysis, you see. RIE books, The Complete-Mind Little one,1-2-3 Magic, Methods to discuss so youngsters will hear,The Happiest Toddler within the Block, Ames and Ilg. We’ve listened to Janet Lansbury’s podcast Unruffled(and felt each reassured & judged). We’ve heard Dr. BeckyTell us, saleslady pep, that we (and our kids) are still “good inside”Despite our occasional stumbles in “respectful” parenting. “This feels hard because it is hard,”She assures us. I maintain: For some of us, it’s harder. For some of us, there’s no such thing as “no drama,”Our children need to be disciplined and treated with respect.
Gessen opens the book “When your baby is born, you think you are a certain kind of person and are going to be a certain kind of parent. It’s all a fantasy. … You don’t know anything about yourself until the day your adorable little boy looks you in the eye, notices that your face is right up close to him, and punches you in the nose.” (I feel seen.) This is not a universal practice. Not all parenting involves quite so much random violence. All children are entitled to a healthy lifestyle. “test boundaries,” but, as Gessen writes of Raffi’s “testing”:
That didn’t really capture the experience. Your coworker sent emails on weekends to test boundaries. This was your coworker when you picked him up and started to scratch you. You turned him around so that he couldn’t do that, and he reared his head back and headbutted you. He’d start swinging his little feet and sometimes catch you in the balls. There was frustration, but also physical pain. He’d throw his milk bottle at you and it would hit you in the head.
All kids do this stuff. Some kids do it extra, do it more. That’s when “normal” boundary testing starts looking abnormal, like a problem. That’s when other parents, Grandma, Grandpa, the lady in the checkout line, and all the “gentle” experts start to tell you what you’re doing wrong. Even when, at least according to the literature, you’re doing everything right (and still getting regularly maimed). That’s when you learn to call your (“adorable, infuriating, mercurial”) child “spirited” or, as Gessen places it, “sensitive.”
Parents of children (like Raffi, Like Theo) who are unable to provide for their children. “set a very particular tone” will relish Gessen’s bouts of candor (“What the fuck!”). You will see and feel, viscerally, how this kind child is worth every bit, every nosebleed, and every sore spleen. Because they’re every bit as extreme in their less-violent qualities: loving, brilliant, generous, profound.
Parents will also understand the hand-wringing. I’ve struggled with this myself, the guilt, the certainty that my child’s behavioral excesses are somehow all my fault, the product of my own anxieties, or lack of boundaries, or just faulty technique. After all, as any parent versed in “gentle”Parenting advice knows, my child’s every problem stems from their osmotic sense of my ambivalence and insecurity. I know with equal certainty that I am somehow causing my kids damage and I am doing so because I’ve somehow failed to fix my own. To see another writer-parent fess up to their struggles was validating—and so much cheaper than the average 50-minute hour.
Then again, one of the tricky “strengths” of Raising Raffi is the fact that Gessen is a man—gate-crashing a shelf long limited to women. In a recent profile of the couple on the Cut, his wife, the writer Emily Gould, herself an accomplished and honest writer in the confessional mode, callsHe “the Christopher Columbus of mommy blogging.” It’s possible that he’s allowed to express these ugly feelings only and precisely because he is a dad. He will get special praises for his writing. A serious bookInstead of Just Another Mommy Memory: For Other Mommies Only? Is his novel voice going to drown out the rest? Are we not? seenOr did he forget? Or is he just free to write the rage because his kid is a Raffi/Theo, and not one among the more pliable? “chill”Children are the ones who get the tricks and philosophies. I wonder if a mother would allow herself to rage like Gessen and then forgive herself for her sins. To read the words as he does. To acknowledge the ugly response she gave, her fury, without the need for requisite “Mummy needs to work on her big feelings” apologia. To show her child as much tenderness for her humanity as she does for herself. “a good kid having a hard time.”
Here’s another bone to pick: Gould is relegated to sainthood status here. She is uniformly, resolutely “calm and empathetic,” while Gessen makes mistakes, and yells, attempts repairs, but overall gets to be the “Bear Dad” to her beatific grace. I wish there were more here of her uncertainty, her insecurity and ambivalence. Are we to believe that Raffi’s antics never get the better of his mum? If they do, and Gessen doesn’t tell us, that’s a problem, if only because it relegates these two parents to very gendered stock characters and perhaps also because a mother struggling with her own rage might read this book and think: I guess only the fathers are allowed to blow their cool? (Unless, of course, you’re Nightbitch.)
I remain a fan, despite these reservations. There is so much in this book. Perhaps a chapter falters here and there (“Picture Books” is hardly groundbreaking; “A School for Raffi” feels, thematically, a little shoehorned in; and “King Germ” doesn’t go much beyond the usual self-exculpation for letting your kids watch too much TV during lockdown), but that’s parenting for you. And it is Gessen’s first time on this beat; you can’t fault him for being blown away by Goodnight Moon. There’s something charming to his exploration, like an alien visitor’s impressions. Parenthood is a new and mysterious experience for everyone. Having a kid is the most exceptional, deeply novel experience of a person’s life, and the most banal. Every parent has had to do it. We aren’t special, despite our awe of that first vernix’d emergence, despite the terminal specialness of our kids. Parenting is, as Gessen writes, “so simultaneously mundane and significant.”He is not an expert, but he does his best to keep in touch with the fray. He’s in the trenches with all the rest of us—somewhere between “hell” “the greatest thing.”
There is, he writes, a “limit” to what you can “get at when chatting with other parents.” We all so often feel like we are wrangling our respective rabid octopuses in the dark. Maybe the “parenting books”—at least the confessional ones—are part of a solution, how we take the conversation “far enough.” Even if we LarkinOur children as our parents Larkined Us. We can share our ugliness and we can forgive each other. Gessen writes, “I think now that there is no tragedy like the tragedy of parenthood,”I agree with you, though not for all the same reasons. We yell, mistakes are made, repairs are made. No matter what parenting philosophy we use, we fail. That’s preordained. But once we’ve given up our “highest parenting ideals,”We might learn to fail better.
Gessen writes, “Ultimately it was our kids who determined how we behaved.”Let this be our liberation. If my kid is, as Raffi, a little, “more badly behaved,” then so, perhaps, am I. We do our best. I must do better because I’m the grown-up, and I can. He’s just a little boy, coming up against “the heartbreak of life,”It breaks my heart too. I think the tragedy is that our children love us so much and want their life to be easy than it has any right to. Sometimes they can’t help but be a little bit irritable. [clock us with their Duplo cars]Or [chase the cat with knives]. Sometimes it drives us insane. (It’s OK to be mad.) It makes me feel better to know that I am not the only one experiencing motherhood. Even if a dad was the only one to write that for me.
Dr. Becky might suggest that two things are truthful: 1. This is the most honest mommy memoir that I have ever read. 2. It could only have come from a man.
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