I just returned from a trip to the Midwest with my daughter to visit my mother. This is the second year in a row we've been gone over Father's Day, but the timing is best since my husband is gone-fishing (working) at this time of year anyway.
To say we were in the Midwest isn’t accurate, actually, because where we really visited was the North Shore of Chicago, which is a dreamland alternate universe of opportunity, privilege, and wealth. I was happy to be there, though, in a little bit of heat and sun, some time by Lake Michigan, and the chance to see my childhood haunts, which are more lush and lovely than I remember in my mind. I showed my daughter some of the places I used to go: former houses and schools, the little downtown area to which we kids would ride our bikes, and the parking lot on which my dad taught me to drive. I felt a profound gratitude for the privileges I had growing up, particularly when it came to the public schools I attended. My parents struggled to make ends meet in that school district just to give their children a chance for a good education and I am very thankful.
But going to the nearby parks with my daughter was an altogether weird experience. Here, in a place where people have the American Dream at their fingertips, no one talked to anyone but their own. I’m used to my very small coastal town, where strangers do meet and greet, and especially the kids, join in with one another and play instant games of follow-the-leader, which usually then requires some parental intervention, which initiates more introductions and some real conversation. But on the North Shore, I sensed people’s, even the kids,’ suspicion of those they don’t know. I interacted with my daughter and kept to myself, but my daughter was pretty sick of me and my mom, and she wanted to socialize with people her own age. My daughter’s natural tendency is to simply walk up to other kids she’s never met and tell them “okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” so I’d been practicing with her recently about introducing herself. So, here we were in this weird universe and she’d go up to these new kids, and with her sweet little voice and say, “Hi, my name is ____, what’s yours?” I’d even taught her to spell her name because it’s unusual enough that people in the U.S. haven’t heard of it, and so the next question people ask upon hearing it is, How do you spell that? But on the North Shore, the kids would screw up their eyebrows before she was even done introducing herself and they’d walk away. My daughter would look at me with confusion and sadness rising in her eyes. How do you explain to your child that some people don’t trust other people?
Then, one day, we were in a park near the beach and there was a girl there, apparently with her father, who was talking to an old man, ostensibly his father. This girl was about three year old. She wore a dress and a very full diaper, which drooped from her butt like an overripe fruit, and she was very verbal like my daughter. I was sort of fixated on the diaper because it looked about to burst, but in any case, she started talking to my daughter, and played follow-the-leader up and down the slide, and my daughter was giggling and laughing and so happy to be playing with a kid. I looked over to the father several times, as a way to acknowledge that we were interacting with his daughter, and even at one point I had to touch his daughter to help her down from a precarious attempt at climbing some monkey bars, but he really never looked over at his kid. I thought his lack of noticing us was weird, because I don’t generally touch other people’s kids without permission and if I do where I live, parents generally notice. But the dad was deep in conversation with the old man and I decided they had some old business to take care of.
By this point, the new girl was in the sandpit sharing her shovels with my daughter and my daughter was in bliss. Until the girl swung her arm and flung sand into my daughter’s face. Wet sand, with big grains that hurt. My daughter started crying, smearing more sand and dirt into her eyes, then cried more and I glanced over to that father with a look of “a little help over here?” Nothing. The girl who flung the sand seemed sort of surprised my daughter was crying, and I had to do the parenting thing about how throwing sand is not okay, but even I could sort of gather that this girl didn’t quite know right from wrong. The young boy whose shovels the girl had actually “shared” came over to claim his stuff and I realized this verbal diapered girl had twisted the truth about whose shovels they were. At that point, I did talk to an adult, the nanny of the boy, the only person of color in the park, and she was willing to have a bit of adult conversation. The girl went off to play and by the time we left, I never did see her father interact with her even once.
What’s my point of this story?
Well, then my daughter and I traveled back to the Pacific Northwest. To a rain-cleaned sunny and warm, sparkling-through-the-trees kind of day. Before we drove another hour and a half over the coast range, I decided to run out a little energy with her at a park. The park was full of people my daughter’s age and she practiced introducing her little-self left and right. We got to know some folk – the two year old girl who climbed on top of every structure, even the teeter-totter, whose mother said she was “crazy adventurous,” the father of a eleven month old with another kid on the way, the twin girls in summer dressed who shared their “cheesy” snacks, and another cute three year old boy, who took my daughter up and down the big slide as I had a wonderfully commiserating conversation with his mom about the difficulty of the “adjustment period” we have with our sometimes home husbands’ – as hers was a pilot, away a lot, like my fisherman husband. I was so enjoying the sense of community and the mix of kid-play and adult conversation.
I then met a friendly dad, the antithesis of the North Shore diapered girl’s dad, who played with his son and interacted with him as he drove on the car play-structure. My daughter and this boy shared the wheel and took turns in the passenger seat. The father and I talked a bit; I found out he was a journalist, and we discussed some writing things. I got his name, because I like to meet new, local writers and read their stuff. And then when it was time to go, (even I didn’t want to leave) my daughter miraculously didn’t throw a fit, but actually ran to the car to get in. I was so happy to be home, I felt kind of elated, actually.
When we arrived at our house that afternoon, I went about unpacking and taking care of old business. My daughter, away from her own stuff for two weeks, played with her dolls and puzzles and forgotten toys for a long, long time. I’d put away all our stuff, called some people for my husband’s business who needed calls returned, checked my unchecked-for-days email, peered into the living room to see my daughter still occupied, and so decided to Google that cool father-writer from the park before I forgot his name. Apparently he’s quite a successful journalist and has written some stuff I’d be interested in reading. That is, until I found his home page, where his Twitter feed showed that he’d tweeted exactly this: “Surrounded at the park by conversation of Cesarean births. Must e & e (evade and escape).” My elation deflated.
My first thoughts were, “How did I miss that conversation??!!! I was at that park and I can usually sniff out a conversation about any kind of birth!” But then I felt mad. I thought, meanly and snidely, “It must be so nice to have the privilege to evade and escape conversations about birth.” The words “male entitlement” crept into my head.
My better self (who came out a bit later) reasoned that perhaps this father-writer-man witnessed his own wife have an unwanted Cesarean and the memory caused him pain, like conversations about difficult births would remind my own husband of the hardships he saw me go through. I remembered the instant where my own husband had to call my mother to tell her we were transferring to the hospital, and though I’d been in labor for over 36 hours and pretty much was entirely self-focused, my husband started to cry – sob, actually, blubbering out the words “hospital transfer,” – and I realized that the hard, long labor wasn’t only affecting me. I felt terrible for my husband, the father to be of our sweet girl.
I hope the scenario I described above is the case for the writer-dad at the park, because otherwise, his tweet is a dealbreaker for me in terms of wanting to read a word more of his writing. Even if the latter is the case – his wife suffered and perhaps is still sad – throwing out that kind of comment on a Twitter-feed strikes me as callus at best and careless at worse. I mean, what if his wife reads it? I’m sure my husband has wanted to evade many a conversation I had with him about the Cesarean birth of our daughter, but would he say it out loud? No.
So, since I never answered the question about what’s the point of my story, it’s possible I don’t actually have one, only some vague ideas about privilege and parenting, opportunities and education, fatherhood and motherhood, places, people, and parks. I'm perhaps too travel-weary to flesh all these ideas out. I guess we all just do the best we can.