One of the many surprising things to me about fatherhood is how it has perverted my attitude toward risk. It is true that there are many kinds of risk—emotional, social, financial, physical. But I can’t think of any I enjoy taking more than I did before I had children—unless you count the mere fact of having children as a kind of celebration of emotional risk. Otherwise, I’m rapidly becoming a wimp. There are little risk-averse things I do now that I never did before and little risk-averse feelings that I have now that I never had before. To wit:
Item: The other night Tabitha and I went to see Minority Report. It’s the sort of movie that just a few years ago I would have cheered and Tabitha would have at least tolerated. But in the middle of the film a small child is abducted from a public swimming pool. That was enough to ruin it for Tabitha and to make me feel we ought to just skip dinner afterward and go home and make sure nothing terrible had happened to our children. This is obviously neurotic. I don’t know a single case of a small child being kidnapped at a public swimming pool in Berkeley, Calif., while his father holds his breath underwater, much less from her bed at night while being guarded by baby sitters. But I am no longer rational on this subject. My emotions are easily manipulated by cheap dramatic tricks involving the suffering of small children, and by the current media hysteria about what is in fact an ordinary rate of child murders. I think I could still sit through the scene in Richard III when the villain has the two little princes smothered in their beds. Anything closer to 21st-century American life ruins my day.
Item: I no longer enjoy rolling the dice in the stock market. I never enjoyed it all that much, but what pleasure I took in it vanished with Tallulah’s arrival—well before the stock market collapsed. With her arrival, for the first time in my life, I began to worry a bit about money. I have no reason to worry about money but that doesn’t stop me from doing it. When people talk about the mood in the financial markets they tend to assume that the market drives that mood. But of course it doesn’t, not entirely. A few years ago a piece in the University of Michigan medical journal argued that the reason the Internet bubble reached such ridiculous heights was that huge numbers of investors were now taking drugs that lowered their inhibitions. With a third of the U.S. investing population on Prozac or some other mood-enhancing drug, the paper concluded, it was no wonder that so many people believed the market would simply keep rising.
Small children are also a mood-altering substance with financial consequences. Their effect on the human mind is the opposite of Prozac. At any rate, my own current financial taste for cash and bonds seems to be at least partly a response to parenthood.
Item: I am no longer as open as I once was to helping out people I don’t know, especially when those people need a bath. Several times a week I have a vaguely hostile response to a stranger that I would not have had if I didn’t have children—for instance, when I see a bum loitering in the park near our house. I find it less amusing than I once did when people knock on my front door to ask me to join some religion or sign some petition. I used to pick up hitchhikers every now and again, but I wouldn’t think of doing it today. In general, the probability that I will extend myself to a stranger in need, always slight, is now zero.
Item: Not long after our first child was born, but well before Sept. 11, I began to experience a mild fear of flying. There was a time in my life when I could, fairly blithely, hop out of an airplane with a parachute on my back; now I can’t get onto an airplane without melodramatic feelings of doom. When I travel, I carry pictures of my children for the sole purpose of having one long look at them the moment after the engine dissolves into flames and the plane enters its final dive. These occasional spasms of terror are as pathetic as they are undeniable. The only explanation I can come up with—other than that I’ve become a pussy—is that I can now imagine an elaborate narrative triggered by my tragic death. Before I had children I had no particular reason to fear dying, because I had no particular notion of the consequences of my death. If I had died in some absurd accident it wouldn’t have mattered all that much. Now, because of the children who would be left without a father and the wife who would be left alone to care for them, my life seems more important, even though, in some respects, it is actually much less important (having as I do, fewer years to lose).
I am aware that all these feelings are more or less nuts. But they are also more or less true. I know for a fact that my children are insane. Or, at any rate, I know that if an adult behaved as my children do, he would be institutionalized. Is it possible that they are contagious?