Excerpted from “Daughter Pressure” by Lev Grossman. Reprinted from When I First Held You: 22 Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood, edited by Brian Gresko. Out now from Berkley.
It wouldn’t literally be true to say that I come from a long line of childless couples, but there’s a grain of truth to it. My ancestors did manage to reproduce, obviously. But breeding has never been a major priority in my family. I would even go so far as to say that it’s frowned upon.
The definitive story on this subject stars my paternal grandfather, who ran a car dealership in St. Paul, Minnesota. Late in his life he developed Alzheimer’s disease, and he forgot that he had a family. My dad would visit him, and they’d have these heart‑to‑heart conversations, and at the end my grandfather would clap my father on the shoulder and say, “You know what I’m really proud of, Al? I’ll tell ya. Never had kids.”
Before they retired, both my parents were English professors: My father taught at Brandeis and Johns Hopkins, my mother at Smith and later UC–Irvine. They were also writers: My mother wrote fiction, my father poetry—he published about a dozen books of it. Above all they were both intellectuals: They lived the life of the mind. What mattered to them was reading and writing and art. In our family Samuel Johnson was considered an excellent role model. Beethoven was too—it was a little like being raised by Schroeder from Peanuts. Johnson and Beethoven were both admirable men in many respects, but neither of them was especially interested in parenthood. As far as I can tell Beethoven never even had sex.
No one talked about having children. In our family what people talked about was your “life plan.” A life plan was, essentially, the stuff you wanted to do before you died, and your success was measured by how closely you managed to stick to it. Music, writing, teaching, politics, travel, money—those were fit subjects for a life plan. Children were not. People who got distracted by children, sidetracked and bogged down and time-sucked by them, had wandered away from their life plans. Therefore they had failed.
My personal hero growing up was James Bond. He was no Samuel Johnson, I’ll grant you, but you can’t deny that he stuck to his life plan. He had plenty of sex, but if Bond ever got close enough to somebody to even consider marrying her, that person would immediately be killed by SPECTRE before anything so uncool as procreation could occur.
Our family was a bit weird, but I can’t help but feel that in some ways we were a reflection of a larger cultural reality. Even as a child I could see that appealing depictions of fatherhood in popular culture were, at least in the 1970s and 1980s, thin on the ground. There didn’t seem to be a cool way to do it: Fathers were schlubby suburbanites who were either pussy-whipped for changing diapers or assholes for not changing diapers. Fathers were most often seen taking out the trash in sitcoms. They were almost never seen composing works of genius, or walking away from buildings in slow motion as those buildings exploded behind them.
(Not that things were any kind of a picnic for mothers either. I got a strong sense, when I was growing up, that my father blamed my mother for the fact that we children existed at all, and now that we were here, it was up to her to make damn sure we stayed out of the way of his life plan.)
The training took. My brother doesn’t have children. Neither does my sister. I never expected to have children either.
Having grown up in a home of, at best, middling happiness, I went on to create a fairly unhappy home of my own. I was married at 30, and by the time I was 35, my first wife and I were already in a downward spiral. In the middle of that spiral, we had a daughter. I wish I could say that having a child was an act of rebellion against my upbringing, but the unflattering truth is that it was more the result of passivity on my part. My wife wanted a child very badly, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it myself, but I wanted her to have what she wanted, so we had Lily.
My parents hadn’t provided me with much of a model for how to be a parent, or for that matter how to be a spouse. My plan for being a father was to act like Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music, all the time.
Lily was born by cesarean section, so the doctors handed her to me first, all wrapped up in a hospital blanket. Up to that moment in my life, I’d had very little contact with children, at least not since I’d been one. I had no younger siblings. I’d never even babysat. With her triangular face and deep violet eyes, Lily looked to me like a tiny alien creature. The most beautiful alien creature I’d ever seen, but still: a visitor from a foreign planet. A planet of which I was now, suddenly, an inhabitant.
I can clearly remember changing my first diaper in the hospital and thinking: That can’t be how you do it. It can’t. There must be some other way. Surely somebody’s cracked this problem. But no. That was how you did it.
One of the first things I discovered about fatherhood was that my father was right: It was hard, and it kicked the shit out of your life plan. I had a full-time job at a magazine, but what I really wanted to do was write novels. That’s what was on my life plan. I’d written and published two already, but I wasn’t satisfied with them, and from what I could see of my Amazon reviews, I had the sense that other people weren’t satisfied with them either. I hadn’t found my voice yet. My second book had sold well, well enough that the publisher was interested in another one, but it had an oddly chilly quality to it that I couldn’t seem to shake. In between the words, there was an awful lot of blank emotional space.
It had been hard to write too—too hard. I’d worked on it for six years, and those years were like breaking rocks. They’d paid off, in the end, but there are books that should take six years to write, and that wasn’t one of them.