Keith Gessen, novelist, editor, translator, journalist, and father of n+1, is also the father of two small boys and, now, a writer of memoir. 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” district in Brooklyn, what it was (for him) to parent in a pandemic. It is a paean to New York City, and how that city changed for him when he became a dad. 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 SEEN on every other page.
Library Journal 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, and Angela Garbes belies the “better.” I wonder, with a pang of feminist pique, whether a woman writer would be commissioned to navigate the mire of baby books, from Drs. Spock and Sears to Dr. Becky, in such detail. I wonder whether her particular perspective, her kid-lit microreviews, would matter to a mainstream publisher.
And yet, I do feel seen. Gessen offers both investigative probe and personal confession; he’s both a critic and a dad. And, as a dad, his willingness to show his worst makes this book work. 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 delving into the advice canon, a book of advice itself (and is much better written than, say, Raising Your Spirited Child). But it’s one of the most honest accounts of the rage a parent can feel when personally victimized by their small children, even as they love those children with stupefying tenderness. 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].
Some of us, you see, have also done the research, read the RIE books, The Whole-Brain Child, 1-2-3 Magic, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, The Happiest Toddler on the Block, Ames and Ilg. We’ve listened to Janet Lansbury’s podcast Unruffled (and felt both reassured and judged). We’ve heard Dr. Becky tell us with saleslady pep that we (and our children) are still “good inside” despite our occasional wobbles 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,” when it comes to discipline or anywhere else our children are concerned.
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 universal. Not all parenting involves quite so much random violence. All children “test boundaries,” but, as Gessen writes of Raffi’s “testing”:
That didn’t really capture the experience. Testing boundaries was your coworker sending emails on the weekend. This was your coworker, when you picked him up, starting 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 involved but also actual 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 puts it, “sensitive.”
Parents of kids (like Raffi, like Theo) who “set a very particular tone” will relish Gessen’s bouts of candor (“What the fuck!”). And understand, viscerally and truly, how this kind of child is worth every bite mark, every nosebleed, 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, calls him “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. Will he get special accolades for writing A Serious Book instead of Just Another Mommy Memoir: For Other Mommies Only? Will the addition of his more novel voice drown all the others out? Have we been seen, or overlooked? Or is he simply free to write the rage because his child is a Raffi/Theo and not one of the more pliable and “chill” children the philosophies and tricks are pitched to? I wonder whether a mother would be free to rage like Gessen, then forgive herself her trespasses. To process on the page as he does. To admit the ugliness of her response, her fury, without the requisite “Mummy needs to work on her big feelings” apologia. To express as much tenderness to herself for being human as she does to her child, who is really, after all, a little person, not a problem to be solved, too little to be difficult on purpose, “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. But then again, parenthood is new and baffling to all of us. Having a kid is the most exceptional, deeply novel experience of a person’s life, and the most banal. Everyone with kids has done 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.” To his credit, he does not pretend to be an expert or above the fray. He’s in the trenches with all the rest of us—somewhere between “hell” and “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 Larkin our kids as our parents Larkined us. We share our ugliness, and we forgive each other. Gessen writes, “I think now that there is no tragedy like the tragedy of parenthood,” and I agree, though not for the same reasons. We yell, we make mistakes, repair. Regardless of our parenting philosophies, we fail. That’s preordained. But once we’ve given up our “highest parenting ideals,” we might just learn to fail a little better.
Gessen writes, “Ultimately it was our kids who determined how we behaved.” Let that be our liberation. If my kid is, like 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,” and it breaks my heart in turn. The tragedy, I think, is that we love our kids so much and want their lives to be easier than lives have any right to be. In turn, they sometimes [clock us with their Duplo cars] or [chase the cat with knives]. Sometimes that makes us mad. (It’s OK to be mad.) I feel better knowing I am not alone in my experience of motherhood. Even if the only writer to do that for me turned out to be a dad.
As Dr. Becky might put it, two things are true: 1. This is the most honest mommy memoir I have ever read. 2. It could only have been written by a man.
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