My daughter just turned eighteen years old. Technically that’s not true. That milestone birthday looms on the near horizon as I write this, but as you read this she has crossed the arbitrary threshold separating childhood from maturity. I am planning ahead, in other words–an exercise in which I’ve been engaged for the last twenty years.
Why twenty and not eighteen? Because the newly-minted adult American has an older brother, my son. When I learned that he was the proverbial bun in the oven, I was a full-time college student and a full-time employee of a bank, the latter subsidizing the former. My plan for the future at that time was teaching school and writing books that no one would ever read.
My university referred to me as a non-traditional student, a polite way of saying that I was the sort of fuck-up who was still working on an undergraduate degree as he approached the age of thirty. During the window in which traditional students complete their bachelor degrees, historically ages 18-22, I worked in record stores, attended art school, moved to Los Angeles, worked in more record stores, and stumbled into the film business. I drifted along life’s surface with no plan, no direction.
Choosing to leave that behind and finish college and write books that no one would ever read felt like a compass bearing. My life now had both direction and purpose, all of it bound up in a sort of creative life that I’d always dreamed of but seemed unobtainable. I was raised to believe that art was silly, frivolous. What mattered was a steady job, a solid income, responsibility. Why waste time writing books that no one will read? There’s no money in that.
Rather than recognizing the actors, writers, and directors with whom I worked in the film business as evidence to the contrary, my time working on movies solidified those beliefs. Working freelance meant that I was never sure when or if the next job would materialize. My fear of unemployment bordered on pathological so I hustled constantly, working my network of telephone numbers and friends. I managed to keep the rent paid, but I wasn’t happy.
When I returned to college as a non-traditional student, I found a nice, secure job that would keep the bills paid. It was both a practical choice and one that was encoded in my middle class DNA. I didn’t mind the square job, but I considered it disposable. The end goal remained the fabled Xanadu of a creative life.
Teaching was a square job, too. That was a compromise intended to quiet the doomsday voice in my head, the voice of my father: “You’ll never support yourself as an artist. Be reasonable. Be realistic.” At least with teaching I’d be thinking and talking about literature all day, and then I could go home in the evenings and write books that no one would ever read.
And then a bun appeared in the oven. This is how first acts end, with a complication that promises to reveal something about the protagonist’s character.
My second act began with a complete rewrite. If I loaded my schedule, I could complete my undergraduate degree before the kid arrived. Unfortunately, teaching meant more school–a credential program, a master’s degree or doctorate. I didn’t want to miss my son’s first couple of years. One of my professors tried to change my mind. “What about grad school?” he asked.
“I won’t go,” I said.
“You need your doctorate.”
“I’ll get a square job. I don’t want to be an absentee father.”
“Look, I finished my PhD as a young father,” he said. “You find the time. I studied late at night while holding my sleeping baby. You can do it.”
“If I miss my son’s first years, I’ll never get them back,” I said. He shrugged his shoulders and we were done. I liked that guy, and now I can’t even remember his name.
I completed my coursework twelve days before my son arrived–a new pink, wiggly compass bearing for the puttering skiff named James. Rather than an artistic life mine would be a parental one for the next eighteen years. False binaries: either/or, work or passion, I can’t be this if I am that. But artistic dreams don’t die so easily. I set writing aside and went back to the sketchbooks, carved out time Wednesdays and Saturdays to visit a studio and draw figures. I met a painter there who was making big money. He became a sort of de facto instructor to the handful of hack artists who gathered at the studio twice per week.
“I feel a responsibility to all of you, but especially to you,” he told me one Saturday.
My head swelled. Here finally was validation from an expert that my desire for an artistic life was grounded in every bit as much reality as my square job was. If the millionaire painter saw something in me, then it must be there. I wanted to hear it. I wanted to savor the sweet sounds of validation, so I begged for the compliment. “Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because you have a child and need to make some money,” he said. His comment did not hit the button that he intended. Rather than encouragement, my inner voice translated his sentiment into, “Stop being frivolous. Focus on steady work. Focus on your real job, raising your kid.”
Not too long after that I put away both the sketchbook and the notebook. I’d revisit them now and then, but essentially they no longer mattered. I couldn’t write any better than I could draw anyway.
My daughter came along, and then there were two.
I tried hard to be a good parent. I fucked up often. Sometimes I tried so hard to do the right thing that it turned into the wrong thing. Sometimes I simply didn’t try hard enough. I grew older, they grew older. Depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder grew too prominent to avoid. My relationship with my children’s mother crashed and burned. Through it all, I tried my best to remain a good parent. Most of us do.
When things grew too complicated, I always returned to a simple mission statement. “My job is to get you to eighteen alive,” I’d say, but that little iceberg represented an enormous mass of unspoken anxiety and responsibility: Please let them be healthy, both mentally and physically. Give them the skills they need to avoid toxic things. Encourage them. Expose them to music. Teach them to be good readers. Teach them to be critical thinkers. Food. Shelter. Insurance. Keep them entertained. Teach them responsibility. Be there. Don’t screw up so badly that as adults they vanish. For twenty years, most every decision I made for myself was subservient to my idea of what it meant to get my children to eighteen alive.
I regret so much. I regret every moment that strayed from that holy purpose. I regret every scar and bruise I left on their psyches.
They are adults now, both of them. My children made it to eighteen alive, and now they must navigate their own paths through young adulthood, their own internal voices and batshit craziness compelling them toward this or that. I’m sure that they will be fine.
And what of me? For twenty years I have imagined that when my kids reached maturity I would somehow feel different, but I don’t. I still worry about them. I’m still responsible for their insurance, their room and board, their well being. Eighteen turns out to be an arbitrary number good for nothing more than draft registration. The transition to adulthood takes its own route–through college, gap years, record stores, whatever–rather than magically happening when the sell-by date is reached.
Still, I feel like my second act if not complete is at least winding down. I’ve crossed the “father to minors” finish line and here I stand, sipping water and working the cramps out of my legs and wondering what to do now.
It’s too late for teaching–not technically, of course, but my appetite for that life is gone. I’m not terribly interested in life as a non-traditional non-traditional student, either: the fossilized old fart in the back row who is older than the instructor.
It’s too late for many things. Too late, too late.
This is what middle age represents for parents, I guess. As our children flounder about, looking for their compass bearings toward adulthood, we enter our last acts similarly without direction. For both parent and child this is both exciting and frightening, a blank slate and a minefield. Perhaps those are false binaries, too.
What am I now that I am not a father to minors? I am nothing and I am anything. It’s a brand new day, but a winter one. The sun will set long before I expect it to. I’m free to do anything, but I don’t know what to do with my last act other than write things that no one bothers to read. Maybe that’s enough.