Coming Home

Returning to parenting after 16 months on the campaign trail.

"Back home. Reading The Hobbit."
The author: “Back home. Reading The Hobbit.”

Courtesy John Dickerson/Instagram.

During the presidential campaign I kept a list of questions for the candidates. “Are you wearing underwear?” was not on it. But this was the question I yelled into the street as my 8-year-old daughter vaulted into the car before the drive to school. The election was over and I was on assignment. As part of Slate’s Reader Takeover, I asked readers which of the things that I’d neglected during my 16 months on the campaign trail I should return to, and write about. Slate readers, wise creatures, told me to reconnect with my children.

Of course, I was planning to do this anyway. My wife carried the load while I was out on the trail and I wanted to rebalance things. But I thought there might be advantages to making a formal assignment out of it. A campaign gives you focus. You wake up to a different hotel alarm clock every day, but you know your mission. When the campaign ends and you are home, the alarm clock is the same, but you don’t know where to start after it goes off: expense reports, new stories, the crusted paint cans that have to go to the hazardous-waste disposal site, the wiper blade on the Honda that has gone droopy. You lose yourself in the to-do list and never tackle those big things you promised you would when the campaign came to an end. 

And so I returned to my kids with new focus. The campaign shrinks the physical time you spend with your family and limits its depth. If you’re in town, you’re at the office. If you are in the house you’ve interrupted dinner to talk to a source. You huddle as a family in dashes. (We once had a group hug in a US Airways lounge when we were in the same airport between flights.) When you block out longer time with your family between trips it’s like you’re on shore leave. Everyone is having candy without eating their vegetables and the shoes are always untied.

Now we’re back to regular order and Why are you standing on the living room couch, and I’m not going to write this assignment for you, and Don’t leave your shoes in the middle of the room and No, I don’t know where your shoes are. While I’m trying to find the new normal with my kids, I’m also disciplining and pushing them or letting them struggle through the necessary failures that help them develop into functioning humans. I can’t escape back into work and they can’t wait me out. This puts noise and chaos into the project. 

Before we had kids, I would notice the time that had passed during a campaign in little ways. “Let’s have the Alberts over for dinner,” I’d suggest. We had such a nice time with them that night before I left for the Iowa straw poll. (You make resolutions during campaigns the way you do during long vacations. We’re going to entertain more! I’m going to read more poetry. I love poetry!) Then I’d learn that the Alberts have divorced, Mr. Albert has remarried and he has taken to wearing a fedora. Oh. After one campaign, I went to the market to buy orange juice and discovered 86 new varieties. After this election, my children had undergone a similar change—but without the helpful labeling. Now with more attitude. Fortified with introspection!

One way to measure the length of my recent absence is in underwear time. When I left, the regular wearing of it was an issue. Now my 10-year-old son wears his jeans low in order to show his underwear. A stiff wind could de-pants him.

My daughter’s superpower is reading, so I measure her changes in the size and number of the little towers of books that mark her reading outposts in the house. Library books return with crumbs in the pages because she doesn’t let her afternoon snack interrupt her. If it were possible to read another book between the sentences of the one she’s reading she would find a way. The vocabulary I return to is too big for her age. She says the impossibly arch things sitcom writers have children say. I ask, “Where did you learn that expression? “I read books, Dad.”

Formerly my son wore only Under Armour clothing. Now he apparently goes to dances, so he wants me to pick out a tie that matches his shirt. This is the new baseline interaction in our life. I tie the ties, or dash out to buy a glue gun. I do a lot of home IT. Dad, the Wi-Fi isn’t working. When the kids were young, they just wanted to be around us. We were units of comfort and support. As they get older, we work the turnstile, helping the exasperated customer pass whatever temporary obstacle is keeping them from their next exciting thing. Now we’re the ones who just like having them in the room.

During my absence, I left express instructions that my son was not to approach puberty, but as I tie his tie I am met by his deodorant. He’s wearing something called Axe. They use it to repel rioting crowds, I believe. Once this gets up your nose, it’s like having a Billy Joel song stuck in your head. You can’t get it out. Working too hard can give you a heart-attack-ack-ack-ack.

My son also now has a “walk,” the careful way the preadolescent boy carries himself to look like he doesn’t give a damn. His variation is somewhere between shuffling to arraignment and the bob you see from middle-aged men grooving to Billy Joel while stopped at a traffic light. 

These are the stylistic changes that signal important activity going on in the deep shale. My son is trying to figure out who he is, shaping his identity for the first time. I remember the urgency and confusion of this period. Most of it he’ll have to figure out for himself, but we can help him do that the right way or at least be there to catch him when he stumbles. And hopefully he and his sister will have lots of stumbles because I want them to be braver than I was.

But you’ve got to get into position to play this role, which means catching up to these new people I’ve come home to discover. There is no fast way to do this. You can’t sit the kids down for an interview. (I tried; the Romney campaign was more talkative.) The kids can’t tell you what you’ve missed because they were just living their lives. “Dad, today I realized that I’ve started using sarcasm to help me handle failure.” Kids don’t talk like this.

The kids are getting more interesting and less talkative. This is irritating for a reporter, but not unfamiliar to anyone who has had a source take a job at the White House. They simultaneously get newsy and mute.

I know the special irritation of being interrogated by a parent just off the campaign trail. I am also the son of a campaign reporter, the late Nancy Dickerson. In efforts to close the distance of her absence, my mom would overreact to one of my games or some project I was involved in. I should know how to avoid this, right? Nope. Before my daughter showed me a story she’d written she said, “Don’t be too excitable about it or you’ll freak me out.” 

OK, one carton of orange juice at a time.

I’m resigned for a while to a new distance with my son. In my memory he is pre-computer, consumed with books, baseball, and building forts. He couldn’t walk past the piano without playing it. That’s the old him. Now he lives for the short bursts of screen time we allow him. (As I type this, he’s watching a movie on the iPad and playing a video game; the screen-time loophole being that it doesn’t prohibit multiple screens.) Now, it’s not just my time and attention that’s shredded. At the end of the day his backpack disgorges spiral notebooks and folders and forms that need signing. Managing that pile occupies him right up until bedtime. 

He is receding. He is still sweet, clever, and kind, but that impossibly large body I stand over while he sleeps is a different busier kid. This is natural of course, but in my reaction to it, I’m flirting with becoming that tiresome guy you meet at weddings. He’s the guy that goes on about how quickly children grow up. No couple with kids is safe from his instruction: Cherish every moment with your children.

This lament is natural, but not helpful because, unless you are a total brute, the sense of loss is inevitable, no matter what kind of parent you are. If you neglect your kids, you look up and they have grown and you’ve missed it. If you are fully present in their lives, then when they’ve grown you lament the hole they’ve left in your life. Either way, you’ve done your job and now they’re off backpacking out of cellphone range or making girls with unruly hair laugh in coffee shops.

The answer has to be avoiding the lament and focusing on the product. Try to give your kids the benefit of your experience, love, and discipline—so that they can leave you strong. This also means giving them the example of what it looks like to enjoy your job so much that sometimes it takes you away from them. You hope they’ll have a job like that one day too. There’s got to be a way for the guy at the weddings to say something more like this to new parents. It would be more helpful. Still: I’m pretty much that guy.

While my son is becoming more independent, his younger sister is drawing closer. With my son, I am a mix between 1950s dad—demanding, strict and prideful—and the more modern one. We talk about feelings and motivations in a way that would force some men to talk about football and power tools just to cleanse the palate. With my daughter, there was once too much of the 1950s father-daughter relationship. I was adored but held at a distance. She turned to her mother first. But now, because I have been gone, I am fresh audience at the end of the night. She’s been having a hard time adjusting to her new school. She misses her old friends. Recess is hell. At bedtime, I stand at the rail of her bunk bed under the stars on her ceiling made by her nightlight. We go over the hill and through the dale talking about fear and taking risks and doing what you love and not what other people want you to do and what makes people happy.

Her mother used to be the shoehorn into new experiences, but the long talks have changed my role. So despite the fact that my wife is a much better skater, I take my daughter out onto the ice for the first time. I try to link it to one of those conversations about trying new things. “I think this is a metaphor,” she cracks. Once we get going, she’s irritated that she’s not immediately awesome. She falls a lot and gets frustrated, but she powers through. In the end, she’s looping the rink, thrilled. She wants to go again tomorrow. She wants to take lessons. She’s making plans and drawing conclusions. “It’s easier to learn if you haven’t learned before,” she says.

Wise, grasshopper. It’s true of parenting too. So I’m trying to be alive to the child of the moment and not bound by my previous view of who they were. I discover, for example, that my son has learned to banter, a key life skill. During a conversation in which I’m trying to gently put a name to the pompous behavior of a person we both know, he gets it immediately. “Nice to meet you,” he says holding out his hand. “I’m very fascinating.” At work I get a text: “Hi Dad. I got the text to work. I made an ID and am testing to see if it works.” Me: “How did you get around the age requirement?” Him: “It’s me, from 1988.” Me: “I’ve lost you to the dark side.” Him: “I’m an old man now.”

Sometimes both the old and new show up at the same time which is what happens when my son insists that we stop at the same burger place we do every Christmas break. It’s just the two of us—and a couple of red mesh plastic baskets—behaving like Bart Simpson. He tries to steal the change in a way he knows will get him caught. He hides my drink. We play rock-paper-scissors to pick who has to get up and get some napkins. (When he loses he wants to play two out of three.) There was no great weight in our lunch except that unrestrained 10-year-old joy and laughter is so pure it’s amazing they didn’t make cave paintings about it. For a minute I’m 10 again too and I have the coolest walk.

Re-entry mostly teaches you what you already knew about parenting but forget every day because you’re greedy. Connecting with kids is like trying to connect with the Wi-Fi on the Amtrak train. The signal is mostly a trickle. Sometimes it doesn’t even exist. You’d like to fix it, but it’s not in your control. Their lives are moving along and you’re just a passenger. The best you can hope for is to enjoy the scenery and be ready when the signal gets strong. Then, you can get a pretty good download for a little while until the train moves to a new place.

Two weeks after the election I joined my daughter for a 5K race. I hadn’t run for two years. My feet don’t like it one bit. I also hadn’t worked out in the previous six weeks. I figured my lack of preparation was OK though because I’d seen my daughter run last summer. This was going to be a casual jog and probably some walking. The bell went off and we were clotted behind a bobbing and stationary pack. I looked down to tell her that things would clear up but she was already gone. She’d run off the road and was passing people on the grass. I sprinted to catch up. She never let up this pace. At the finish line I was red faced and regretting every cigarette I’d smoked in college. I asked her if she wanted to hold my hand as we crossed the finish line. She smiled, said no, and sprinted ahead of me. I think this is a metaphor.