Dad Again

Driving Miss Tallulah

A daughter resists the back seat.

A painting from a happier mind(Digital images sponsored by RadioShack)

The other day on the way to school Tallulah demanded, unusually, that I shut off the nursery rhymes. Then, even more unusually, she sat silently, staring straight ahead, ignoring my attempts to engage her in conversation. I tilted the rearview mirror to make sure she wasn’t choking on something and was greeted with a gaze of what I can only describe as mad intensity. Finally she said, “My Daddy is dead.”

Tallulah’s vision of a spider’s sorry end? (Digital images sponsored by RadioShack)

Four weeks ago, before the birth of Dixie, this would have shocked me. Now it’s almost pleasantly familiar. Tallulah’s going through a dark phase. A week ago she came home from school with a stack of drawings. Gone were the blue and pink pastels she has favored since she first became a prolific artist. In their place were many disturbing furious black scrawls. One horrifying ink and crayon sketch resembled an ax-murdered spider. My child has entered her first new period.

“Oh, so now I’m dead?” I said, cheerily.

“You stink, Daddy,” she said.

“Am I dead or do I stink?”

She thought it over. “Both.”

On some days she hollers insults at me the whole way to school—”You stink” and “You’re dead” are two favorites—and if she can find something to hurl at my head, she’ll do that, too. Driving her around these days is like playing right field for the visiting team in Yankee stadium.

The division of responsibility that’s followed the birth of a second child has left me exposed in whole new ways. With Tabitha essentially glued to Dixie, I am the only outlet for Tallulah’s understandable need to scream at her parents. I am also her main parental influence. I confess I hadn’t realized the implications of this until the other night when, after a brutalizing day on which I foolishly agreed to take both children myself so that their mother might go to San Francisco, I was tip-toeing out of the room containing mother and nursing child and aiming myself in the general direction of the sofa bed. Mother seemed glum. “What’s the matter?” I asked, not particularly caring for the answer. Out gushed a torrent of complaints about Tallulah’s behavior since Dixie’s birth. She’d become surly with baby-sitters; she’d stopped sleeping through the night; she no longer ate her vegetables; she was resisting the final, crucial stages of potty training; she showed no interest in any activity except watching Shrek for the 150th time; she’d been rude to her mother when she returned from San Francisco.

In the good old days when Tabitha complained to me about Tallulah she did so in a collaborative spirit. We were joined by common interests; we were Munger and Buffett hashing out investment strategy. This didn’t sound like that. This sounded more like an Arab attempting to engage an American on the subject of the Israeli army.

“She’s not eating her vegetables because she’s pissed off about Dixie,” I said.

“She’s not eating her vegetables because she had a huge cup of Frosted Mini-Wheats just before dinner,” she said.

The Frosted Mini-Wheats had been my idea. She didn’t say that; she didn’t have to. Everything about Tallulah was now my idea. My wife knew this was the time in Tallulah’s life when she needed to be indulged. But she also had an investment to protect.

“I just feel like my two and a half years of work on her is being washed down the drain,” she said.

“She’ll get all her good habits back once she gets used to Dixie.”

“Once you lose good habits you can’t get them back,” she said.

Never having had good habits myself I was poorly situated to argue the point, and if I had, I wouldn’t have been believed. My wife was raised in a military household that left her in full possession of the martial virtues. I was raised in a home where it was possible for me every couple of weeks to steal a jumbo sack of Nestlé’s chocolate-chip cookies from the kitchen and secrete them under my bed at night without anyone being the wiser for it. I was meant to be 6-foot-3 and make straight A’s through high school but as a result of skipping dinner and instead eating a dozen Nestlé’s chocolate-chip cookies every night I wound up 5-foot-10 with a D in biology my sophomore year. I could see my wife’s point. She had spent two and a half years drilling her better qualities into her first child only to see them sucked out in three and a half weeks of prolonged exposure to me. She was the ace of the pitching staff who had shut down the opposing batters for eight innings only to watch the closer blow the game in the ninth. (I’ve had baseball on my mind.)

In the past three years I have tried on occasion to imagine what effects I am having on my child. I do this dutifully rather than naturally because it seems like the sort of thing a father should do. But I never get anywhere with it. The fact, as opposed to the theory, of life with a small child is an amoral system of bribes and blackmails. You do this for me, you get that. You don’t do this for me, you don’t get that. I’ve always assumed that if a small child has enough joy and love and stability in her life, along with intelligently directed bribes and blackmail, the rest will take care of itself. And my approach appeared to be working. Right up until the birth of her sister Tallulah excelled at childhood and did so, it seemed, effortlessly. It honestly never occurred to me that I should be in some way shaping her. I was one of those easy-going CEOs who believe that excessive discipline crushes the creativity of his employees. I believed in managing by hanging around.

In retrospect, the only reason I was able to get away with this pose is that I wasn’t the CEO. I was more like a titular chairman, allowed to sit at the head of the table but never actually listened to. Now, clearly, I must take a different approach. The CEO’s attention has been diverted by a difficult acquisition in a foreign country. The chairman is, however briefly, in charge. Everyone else is anxious.