Daughter Pressure

Fatherhood ruined my life plan—and made me the writer I am.

Lily and Lev Grossman.
Lev Grossman and his daughter, Lily.

Courtesy of Lev Grossman

Excerpted from “Daughter Pressure” by Lev Grossman. Reprinted from When I First Held You: 22 Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood, edited by Brian Gresko. Out now from Berkley.

It wouldn’t literally be true to say that I come from a long line of childless couples, but there’s a grain of truth to it. My ancestors did manage to reproduce, obviously. But breeding has never been a major priority in my family. I would even go so far as to say that it’s frowned upon.

The definitive story on this subject stars my paternal grandfather, who ran a car dealership in St. Paul, Minnesota. Late in his life he developed Alzheimer’s disease, and he forgot that he had a family. My dad would visit him, and they’d have these heart‑to‑heart conversations, and at the end my grandfather would clap my father on the shoulder and say, “You know what I’m really proud of, Al? I’ll tell ya. Never had kids.

Before they retired, both my parents were English professors: My father taught at Brandeis and Johns Hopkins, my mother at Smith and later UC–Irvine. They were also writers: My mother wrote fiction, my father poetry—he published about a dozen books of it. Above all they were both intellectuals: They lived the life of the mind. What mattered to them was reading and writing and art. In our family Samuel Johnson was considered an excellent role model. Beethoven was too—it was a little like being raised by Schroeder from Peanuts. Johnson and Beethoven were both admirable men in many respects, but neither of them was especially interested in parenthood. As far as I can tell Beethoven never even had sex.

No one talked about having children. In our family what people talked about was your “life plan.” A life plan was, essentially, the stuff you wanted to do before you died, and your success was measured by how closely you managed to stick to it. Music, writing, teaching, politics, travel, money—those were fit subjects for a life plan. Children were not. People who got distracted by children, sidetracked and bogged down and time-sucked by them, had wandered away from their life plans. Therefore they had failed.

My personal hero growing up was James Bond. He was no Samuel Johnson, I’ll grant you, but you can’t deny that he stuck to his life plan. He had plenty of sex, but if Bond ever got close enough to somebody to even consider marrying her, that person would immediately be killed by SPECTRE before anything so uncool as procreation could occur.

Our family was a bit weird, but I can’t help but feel that in some ways we were a reflection of a larger cultural reality. Even as a child I could see that appealing depictions of fatherhood in popular culture were, at least in the 1970s and 1980s, thin on the ground. There didn’t seem to be a cool way to do it: Fathers were schlubby suburbanites who were either pussy-whipped for changing diapers or assholes for not changing diapers. Fathers were most often seen taking out the trash in sitcoms. They were almost never seen composing works of genius, or walking away from buildings in slow motion as those buildings exploded behind them.

(Not that things were any kind of a picnic for mothers either. I got a strong sense, when I was growing up, that my father blamed my mother for the fact that we children existed at all, and now that we were here, it was up to her to make damn sure we stayed out of the way of his life plan.)  

The training took. My brother doesn’t have children. Neither does my sister. I never expected to have children either.

Having grown up in a home of, at best, middling happiness, I went on to create a fairly unhappy home of my own. I was married at 30, and by the time I was 35, my first wife and I were already in a downward spiral. In the middle of that spiral, we had a daughter. I wish I could say that having a child was an act of rebellion against my upbringing, but the unflattering truth is that it was more the result of passivity on my part. My wife wanted a child very badly, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it myself, but I wanted her to have what she wanted, so we had Lily.

My parents hadn’t provided me with much of a model for how to be a parent, or for that matter how to be a spouse. My plan for being a father was to act like Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music, all the time.

Lily was born by cesarean section, so the doctors handed her to me first, all wrapped up in a hospital blanket. Up to that moment in my life, I’d had very little contact with children, at least not since I’d been one. I had no younger siblings. I’d never even babysat. With her triangular face and deep violet eyes, Lily looked to me like a tiny alien creature. The most beautiful alien creature I’d ever seen, but still: a visitor from a foreign planet. A planet of which I was now, suddenly, an inhabitant.

I can clearly remember changing my first diaper in the hospital and thinking: That can’t be how you do it. It can’t. There must be some other way. Surely somebody’s cracked this problem. But no. That was how you did it.

One of the first things I discovered about fatherhood was that my father was right: It was hard, and it kicked the shit out of your life plan. I had a full-time job at a magazine, but what I really wanted to do was write novels. That’s what was on my life plan. I’d written and published two already, but I wasn’t satisfied with them, and from what I could see of my Amazon reviews, I had the sense that other people weren’t satisfied with them either. I hadn’t found my voice yet. My second book had sold well, well enough that the publisher was interested in another one, but it had an oddly chilly quality to it that I couldn’t seem to shake. In between the words, there was an awful lot of blank emotional space.

It had been hard to write too—too hard. I’d worked on it for six years, and those years were like breaking rocks. They’d paid off, in the end, but there are books that should take six years to write, and that wasn’t one of them.

My wife worked on Saturdays, and before Lily was born, I would spend my Saturdays writing my books. Now I spent them looking after Lily. As far as fiction went, my output slowed to a trickle—whatever I could do in the evenings or during Lily’s naps. Instead of writing, I changed diapers. I made lunches. I played games. I gave baths. I sang songs. I strapped and unstrapped Lily in and out of car seats. I did all the things parents do. They’d never sounded especially hard; frankly, I’d always thought that parents were a bit whiny about them. It wasn’t till I did it myself that I realized that being a parent was harder than anybody let on. The reality was, people weren’t whining nearly enough.

It wasn’t that I didn’t love Lily. I can honestly say that I loved my daughter more than I’d ever loved anyone or anything in my life. But child care reduced me to a state of boredom that was practically hallucinatory. I lived in fear of those Saturdays. The minute my wife got home on Saturday I started in dreading the next Saturday. When—probably as a result of sheer stress—I came down with shingles a few weeks after Lily was born, and the doctor told me I had to minimize contact with the baby for a while, I was actually kind of relieved.

I realize now that I was probably making it harder on myself than I had to. For example, I shouldn’t have been trying to take care of my daughter in total solitude. But I didn’t have many friends with children, and none of them lived nearby. My wife belonged to a moms group in the neighborhood, and they had play dates and hung out together and chatted about being moms. They liked one another. There was a dads group too, and I would absolutely have joined it, except for the fact that I would rather have died.

It got to the point, six months in, where I was preparing to hold a wake for the writer I had hoped to be. I felt like I’d sacrificed my writing life on the altar of this poor, helpless, weeping little creature. My life plan was screwed. All the time and energy I’d hoped to put into my books, I was putting into meeting Lily’s many and varied needs. And I accepted this.

But not gracefully. In fact I started acting out. I became a bad person, or maybe just a worse one than I already was. I recited little assholic monologues in my head, along the lines of Marvin the Paranoid Android in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Brain the size of a planet, and they expect me to empty the Diaper Genie … ” I ogled the beautiful moms at the playground, as they squatted and bent over to take care of their offspring. I drank too much. Wine with dinner, then wine without dinner, then binging with childless friends. Any man who has to take care of a baby while nursing a hangover, on two hours of sleep, deserves what he gets, and I got plenty. It wasn’t appealing, and it wasn’t sustainable. Something had to give.

What gave, it turned out, was me. Something inside me—the psychic equivalent of R2D2’s restraining bolt—snapped.

I noticed it first in my writing. I’d spent the 18 months before Lily was born working on a vast, layered, galactically ambitious novel, a glittering labyrinth of moving parts and nested stories. An American Cloud Atlas, you might say, or that was the idea anyway.

When I came back to my book, after Lily was born, I saw it for what it was: cold, dull, lifeless, massively overthought—a labyrinth with no minotaur inside. I told myself I was just taking a break from it, but the truth was I binned it and started something new. I picked up an idea I’d had years before but hadn’t taken seriously at the time, because it was fresh and weird and risky and different from anything I’d ever tried before. Six months after Lily was born, I took a week off from work to explore it, and I wound up writing 25,000 words in five days. I’d hit an artery, and the story came surging out hot and strong. Not only was it the most productive week I’d ever had, I enjoyed it more than I’d enjoyed doing anything for literally years. I was more proud of it than anything I’d done in my entire life.

Something was afoot. I was waking up. Somewhere inside me the emotional pack ice was cracking and melting, ice that had formed long ago in the Fimbulwinter of my childhood, and feelings that I’d been avoiding for decades were thawing out and leaking through, both good and bad: joy, grief, anger, hope, longing. I was like some frozen extrasolar planet, where even gases exist only in neat, handy solid forms. But now I was warming up, and buried things were surfacing.

The cause of this cosmic disturbance was Lily. I didn’t see it at the time, probably because I had the emotional intelligence of a sea slug, but it was all her—she was the sun that was warming me. I couldn’t stay frozen around her. She wouldn’t have it.

I was raised by cool, distant parents to be a cool, distant person, but there’s no point in trying to be cool or distant around a baby. There’s no point in holding things back. Babies don’t hold anything back. They have no filters, and around Lily I was losing track of my filters too. You can’t bullshit a baby. Who would even do that? I couldn’t bullshit her, and I was losing my ability to bullshit myself. It was as if she generated a weird truth-telling field. Lily set the bar high, as far as honesty was concerned, and I was damned if I was going to disappoint her. There are few worse feelings than disappointing a baby.

For the first time in life, I felt like it mattered what I did, and who I was. It was all well and good for me to fuck around and write mediocre fiction when I was just some asshole. But I wasn’t just any asshole anymore: I was Lily’s father. I could let myself down all I wanted, all day long, year in and year out, but I was damned if I was going to let her down. Any time I wrote a sentence that was less than true I could feel her looking over my shoulder and shaking her head, slowly and sadly: Come on, Daddy. We both know that’s crap. Having a child didn’t make me wise or mature, but it did make me realize how unwise and immature I was. It was a start.

I’ve started to think that the business of making new people is actually pretty important—important enough to go on a life plan, even. Because otherwise where would new people come from? My only regret is that my parents never taught me how to be a father, so my daughter had to teach me instead. It’s a lot to ask from a little girl. Fortunately, my little girl is tough as nails.

Not only that, she taught me how to be a writer. It took me five years to finish the book I started after she was born, writing during nights and weekends and naptimes, but I did finish it, and eventually it was published. It became a best-seller, and the sequel was a best-seller too. In a way, having children did screw up my life plan, well and good. Probably I would have written a hell of a lot more if I’d never had kids. But I would have been miserable doing it, and I’m pretty sure that what I wrote wouldn’t have been worth a damn. It wasn’t that I’d finally, at long last, found my voice. It’s that Lily had found it for me.

From “Daughter Pressure” by Lev Grossman copyright © 2014 by Lev Grossman, Reprinted from When I First Held You: 22 Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood, edited by Brian Gresko, by arrangement with Berkley, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, Copyright © 2014 by Brian Gresko.