McGlynn’s own father left his family in Texas after divorcing McGlynn’s mother and remarrying in California. The pain of that divorce and separation (the 13-year-old McGlynn will only see his father four weeks a year) is chronicled in the first essay, “Daddy Did It,” which poignantly establishes the raison d´être for the collection: “To grow up longing for a father is to grow up preoccupied with fatherhood itself.” Specifically, McGlynn is interested in what it means to raise boys (he has two), when “the very word, masculine, has taken on such a pejorative aura, conjuring forth images of dick pics circling the Internet and presidents landing on aircraft carriers.” In, say, a book on parenting by Dr. Spock or Dr. Phil, the opening essay would work to establish the author as authority, but McGlynn takes a different tack, showing us the painful portrait of a man still haunted by the divorce of his own parents, a man thrust into fatherhood before he’s ready:
I can’t shake the feeling that I’m still a kid on the lam from class, hiding out beside a pay phone, calling across the miles for someone to make sense of things, to whisper in my ear, Don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay.
The gambit works, setting the stage for exploring a series of parenting dilemmas from when to tell your kids about Santa to when to buy them an iPhone, and even several musings over when and why we push our children to do the things we used to do.
The essay “In the Tank” details sports culture in the United States through the author’s look at his own history with swimming and his questioning of why he wants his son to follow in his footsteps.
Throughout most of college, in fact, I dreaded the water, the constant fatigue I felt in my bones and joints, the twice-daily grind that lasted forever and granted too little reprieve in between, the long streak of races where I had my ass handed to me by everyone I went up against, my pride in my throat like an apple in the mouth of a luau pig. I used to dream of quitting and envied those who had the courage to tell our coach to his face what we all said behind his back.
Despite the fact that he admits hating swimming during his childhood, he nearly weeps with joy at the prospect of his own child entering his first race at the local Y. Later, when his son wins the race, he is beside himself. The son’s stellar time earns him a spot at the regionals. As the boy peels off his goggles and asks if he can go to the meet, McGlynn acknowledges the complicated array of feelings that come as parents sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally, push their children down the same paths they chose, even when they regretted those paths:
I could see my future. I wasn’t ready, and at the same time I was so tingly with pride I could hardly contain myself. The textbook definition of ambivalent […] “Of course,” I said. I set my hand on his wet head. “We wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
That ambivalence is honest, and it’s real. The same pattern occurs in the essay “Ordinary Time” when he indoctrinates his children into an Episcopal religion he doesn’t fully believe in himself.
I could give up the entire hocus-pocus of religion altogether. I could proclaim, like Nietzsche, that God was dead, or like Marx, that he’d never been. But in my most private moments, I still believed in a grand intelligence at the center of the universe.
That being so, he continues to “drag the boys to church on Sundays” even when he knows they’ll resent it as much as he did. It’s the recognition that so much of what we do as parents is confusing at best and downright contradictory at worst. Bottom line, we want to instill in our children those traditions that make us who we are even when we’re not sure it’s good for them.
Even as McGlynn records the many ways in which he is controlled by his own childhood, he is aware enough as a parent to break free of that experience. After spending yet another weekend crisscrossing Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois attending basketball tournaments with his son Galen, he spots the kid’s misery over a burger in “The Q Word,” a smart companion piece to “In the Tank.”
He shoved half his burger into his mouth. “How long till we have to be back?”
I checked my watch. “We don’t play until noon. Plenty of time.”
“The team we’re playing won their last game fifty-six to nineteen. They’re going to cream us.”
“You don’t know that,” I said. Though he did know. I did, too They were going to get creamed.
He stabbed his fry into his pool of ketchup. “I just want to get it over with.”
In order to cheer up the boy, McGlynn kills time between games driving him around town, only for them to stumble on a nearby prison. When Galen asks his father, “What are we doing here?” the literal question needles McGlynn into facing his original ambivalence, and he says the words he’d wanted to say when he was a kid: “Maybe it’s time to quit […] The hell with basketball […] The hell with all of it. It’s obvious it doesn’t make you happy.”
When Galen replies, “But I don’t know what sport to play instead,” we realize the depth of the problem. In American culture, sports have become a substitute for play. Without one, Galen explains, “I’ll be a nobody.” The essay ends with McGlynn buying his son a skateboard and taking him to a nearby parking garage. A moment of unplanned, unscheduled time — one without the competitive push to win. At first, he worries about his son, asking if he should follow in the car, but eventually he learns to let go. He waits, listening to Galen skate around the garage: “He wasn’t talking; he was singing. His boyish voice was amplified by the cavernous space around him, as well as — there was no denying it — by his joy.”
It’s the great paradox that in letting go of being the parent, McGlynn describes his most successful parenting moments. Although, strangely, it’s in his exploration of some of his bigger failures that the book occasionally comes up short. Specifically, in “The D Word,” an essay that recounts how he got drunk at a party and tried to drive his kids home: “When it came time to leave, I could barely walk. I somehow ushered the boys to the car and got them buckled into the back seat. […] A friend came down the driveway and took the keys out of my hand.”
It’s a moment of raw honesty — one of those real failures of parenting that can have tragic consequences. However, instead of exploring the ramifications of what might have happened or the insidious ways in which we model alcohol culture for our children, McGlynn tentatively considers quitting drinking but ultimately concludes:
If adhering to an abstentious code would allow me to ward off trouble before it arrived, to guarantee that the boys would never have a problem with booze, I’d gladly do it. But I wasn’t the only one the boys were watching. They were becoming, more quickly than I’d anticipated, citizens of the world, and I could feel the magnitude of my influence starting to diminish.
Perhaps he wants this to feel like a capitulation to reality, but his reasoning feels too much like an evasion of the deeper levels of honesty required regarding his own role, however small, in determining his children’s future. Similarly, in “Sleep or Die,” an otherwise hilarious piece on the difficulties of getting a toddler down for the night, he begins the essay thinking he’s devised a foolproof formula. The reader rightfully expects him to get his comeuppance, which he does: young Hayden becomes so adept at escaping his crib that McGlynn finally chooses to bar the door with a shower curtain rod to keep him imprisoned. The idea itself is funny. And at first, when he’s questioned about it, it looks like McGlynn might face the fact that this kind of coercion is possibly misguided. But instead of considering other possibilities, he doubles down, ending the essay in John Wayne mode: “I’ll take grit over genius any day,” he writes, choosing to defend his child’s stubbornness and his own, as opposed to coming up with a healthy long-term solution. In a book that so often demonstrates parenting failures as necessary and normal, the reader can’t help but feel a bit cheated in these moments. The good news is that they’re few and far between.
The book ends with the climactic “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” — a powerful and poignant meditation on both male violence and our propensity for violence in general that returns us to the original image of a family in crisis — this time, the author’s own. In a scene any married couple will recognize, what begins as a simple spat over an elbow bump turns into a knock-down, drag-out fight. “The look on Katherine’s face said she was nowhere near backing down. I didn’t want her to. I wanted her fury to match my own so that I could continue to holler.” There’s truth in McGlynn’s acknowledgment that sometimes we want violence and that sometimes it becomes its own end. As the argument continues, we feel the horror at the bigger failure, one so many married couples face — the ways we revisit the pain of our own childhoods on our children. “The argument reached its apogee when Katherine grabbed the car keys and threatened to leave and I punched the bathroom door so hard I felt something crack in my hand.” He goes on:
The boys had retreated to the living room when the fighting started. They tried to drown us out with the television, but as the argument raged on, they’d had to move farther out of the way until they ended up sitting on the stairs together, the lights turned off as if to hide from us.
At that point, the door creaks open, and their son Hayden steps inside, begging them to stop. “I saw the fear I had discovered when I was about his age. The terror of my own parents fighting and the desperation that accrued with each new argument.”
We are left to wonder about the complicated relationship between one generation and the next, how much behavior is genetic, how much is learned, and how slowly we indoctrinate our children into our own patterns of behavior. Thankfully, we do sometimes break with old patterns, as McGlynn does at the end of the book. “Fatherhood, I now understood after years of gnawing on the obligations of the job, was much more about presence than wisdom. Being there versus being right.” The idea is simple yet profound, as are so many of the hard-won conclusions in this engaging and ultimately cathartic collection. There’s so much at stake for a parent. So little room for error, and yet, the author reminds us, we err all the time. What’s most important, McGlynn seems to be saying, is not how many errors we make, but how willing we are to confront them. For our children, that willingness may be the greatest gift of all.
An award-winning novelist, Peter Grandbois has been shortlisted for both the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays. He’s an associate editor at Boulevard magazine and teaches at Denison University in Ohio.