Thoughts From A Still New Father

My son was born six months ago tomorrow. It’s put me in a reflective state of mind, or at least, it does on the rare occasions when I’m rested enough and the baby is calm enough that I can be reflective. Currently, he’s sitting in the exercise pod thingy that we lovingly call “the Circle of Neglect” and is intensely examining his own fingers, which means I have a bit of time to write, at least until he decides this whole thing is bogus and we have to go do something else.

So what have I learned in six months of fatherhood? Turns out, a lot!

I’m not as smart as I used to be, and also I’m worse at things involving my brain

Since becoming a father, my spelling has gone from pretty damn good to see me after class. I usually don’t need to rely on spell check except for words like rythym rhythm, but in the introductory paragraph above, it took me ten tries to get the word “occasions” spelled correctly and the only reason I didn’t just let the spell check get it was because I had to prove to myself that I could do it. There were also numerous examples of poor typing throughout that didn’t used to happen.

I think this is a combination of getting much less sleep than I used to, not sleeping as deeply as I used to, and the fact that I’m tired. And between the two of us, I’m the one who is getting the lion’s share of the sleep between my wife and I. This is due to the unfair genetic advantage I have, as when I do sleep, I’m a deep, heavy sleeper. Which means that by the time I’ve heard the baby fuss long enough to rouse me, my wife has already been awake for fifteen minutes and has been working on soothing him. Add to that the fact that even when roused, I’m basically still in Low Power Mode mentally speaking, and you get situations like this:

Baby: *cries loudly*

Me: *awakens with a start* OH NO, FUSS BUG!

Me: *goes back to sleep*

My wife: . . .

Baby: *still crying*

Add to that the unfair burden of responsibility created by breast feeding (which is to say, she does all of that, I do not) and you’ve got a situation where we’re both sleeping less than we used to and even though I’m getting more sleep than she is, my brain just isn’t where it used to be compared to when I could clock in a leisurely 8 hours uninterrupted.

There’s also the constant state of distraction, in that at any given time, there’s about a 10% chance that he could do something to endanger himself, so even when he’s happily playing in a safe environment (like right now), I’m still keeping some of my attention on him, just in case it turns out the toy that was specifically engineered to not be a choking hazard turns out to be a choking hazard.

Which brings me to my next point . . .

I’ve reached a stage of acceptance with regards to worrying about him.

When he was first born, I was terrified of SIDS. Even though he’s been perfectly healthy and we have the safe sleep environment and we don’t smoke, etc. etc., there was about a two month period where I was convinced he’d just . . . stop breathing at some point while he was asleep. And then I’d go and check on him and he’d be fine, of course.

There was one night where I got up to check on him so many times that I finally just had to give up. If he’d suddenly stopped breathing, there was nothing I’d have been able to do about it, so it would just have to be a problem for Tomorrow-Matt.

I also carried him with all the attentiveness of a student driver who is committed to hands in the 10 and 2 position. Every movement was planned and executed like I was carrying around a Fabergé egg. At any moment, I was certain his neck would snap and his head would fall off.

Six months in, when we need to go somewhere, I kinda just sling him under my arm. A lot of this, admittedly, has to do with him these days; he’s much stronger and he can support his own head, so he just doesn’t feel as fragile as he did as a newborn. But even so, I can feel the change in my mind. I know I’ve got him safe and secure in the “Dad Side Carry” position, I’m not going to drop him, and he’s having a good time.

But I imagine it still looks weird to people, especially people that don’t have kids, and I’m sure they have opinions about it even if they don’t say anything. Which brings me to . . .

Everyone has advice and opinions on what you should do, what you should read, what you should buy.

For the most part, I don’t mind. My brother once started a phone call that began with “you’re going to have everyone telling you what you should do on how to raise a kid and it’ll get really annoying” and then, guilelessly, told me everything he thought I should do.

I have a  philosophy, let’s say, when I’m in the car with my wife. Sometimes she’ll point out something, like “look out” or “car’s coming” or any number of other alerts, advisories, or guidance. And then she’ll apologize for backseat driving, acknowledging that I probably already saw the thing she was pointing out. I, however, prefer that she tell me rather than not, because in the worst case scenario, I’m hearing something I already knew (which doesn’t cost me anything) and in the best case scenario, I’m hearing about something I didn’t know, such as an oncoming car (which would cost me a lot, possibly everything). And so I take a Pascal’s Wager mentality, in that I’d prefer she say something rather than assume I already knew, because the potential benefits outweigh the costs.

Thus, I don’t mind getting opinions and advice from other people about parenting. You never know when you’ll learn a trick that unlocks something you were stuck on. I don’t feel threatened by well-meaning advice, because I know that while I’m not an expert on babies, I am one of two people on this planet I can say is an expert on my baby, having spent more time with him than anyone else save my wife. So I don’t feel like my status is threatened.

That said . . .

I get a lot of well-meaning advice from people that don’t have kids.

Maybe they have a niece or nephew somewhere that they see once in a while. Maybe they babysat a kid twenty years ago. Regardless, while I appreciate the intention behind the action, I really would prefer to not have to go through the emotional energy of being gracious while being advised “to try white noise, or get him on a schedule, or baby massage, or . . .”

I appreciate the intention. I really do. But you can tell within about 5 seconds whether someone actually knows what they’re talking about when it comes to babies. It’s okay if you don’t know babies! I didn’t know any babies until the one came along, and even now I’m really only qualified to tell you about him, and even then, half the time my answer is probably “fuck if I know, I just try things and see if it works.” And that’s after a six month intensive study of this one particular baby.

I remember the first time we had several friends over after he was born, and one of my friends was giving him a bottle, and I made a few adjustments, like “hold it a little more like this.” And even though it looked like this effortless wisdom, like I just knew what I was talking about, that’s only because I’d had two months of trying a hundred other ways and managed to develop a semblance of understanding through trial and error.

So, please. If you have people in your life that you love or even just like, and they have new babies and you don’t . . . please don’t advise them. It’s well meaning, but it’s annoying and I really need to marshal all my patience reserves for other things, like my baby.

That said, let me give you some advice (hah) . . .

There are many baby raising philosophies, but this one is mine.

For me, the thing that made it click was the “Circle of Security.” You can look it up if you’re interested, but in a very abbreviated version, it explains why kids do the thing where they want you to put them down so they can play with a thing and then five seconds later, they cry and want you to pick them back up again, then ten seconds later they’re done with you, so put them down again, now it’s been a whole minute, pick me up, and so on and so on, seemingly for the rest of time.

It turns out kids have a reason why do they do this! And knowing that reason helped me immensely, because what seemed like random caprice was much easier to endure when viewed as a fledgling approach to learning and exploring. It continues to help me every day.

That said, it’s something that works for me and my baby. Maybe it’ll work for you. Maybe not. I don’t know your baby. Try it and see. Or don’t.

One nice thing is how much easier it is to have a “try and see” approach with your own baby. When it’s someone else’s baby, you’re terrified of fucking it up, especially if you don’t have any experience.

For example, when my brother’s first child was about a month and a half old, he said “okay, it’s time to learn how to change a diaper” and tried to walk me through it. And I was so afraid of making it too tight, or too lose, or wiping too hard, or not wiping hard enough, that I basically minced around the entire process, which resulted in a diaper that worked only until her next big production and the diaper came off, to the horror of my sister-in-law who was holding the kid at the moment it happened.

But when it’s your baby, you’re okay trying things. What’s the best way to do (anything involving the baby?) I dunno, I’ll try a bunch of stuff and see what works. And half the time what worked the previous time won’t work the next time, because replicability only matters for science, not babies. Since then, I’ve put on diapers that came off because I didn’t do a great job. You shrug, clean him up, then jump in the shower, having learned one more way to not put a diaper on.

It sounds like that shouldn’t square with how much I worry about him, as mentioned above, but all I can say is that I’m now capable of holding a paradox in my mind and being fine with it. Every single thing I’ve learned about my baby, all the casual confidence I have now, came in slow, furtive attempts. Most people don’t get to see that, which is a good thing, because if you did see how slowly and painstakingly that confidence is earned, I think the human species would die out. Just kidding, it’s easy and fun. You’ll do great.

Here’s something else I learned during the pregnancy phase and which continues to be true in the first six months of fatherhood . . .

The standards for fatherhood are very low.

Let’s say it’s your turn to watch the baby. You want to know if you’re doing a good job or not. Here are the standards of success for parenting:

For mothers: “is your baby thriving? Is he perfect? Is everything perfect? Did you read to him? Did you mentally stimulate him? Did you protect him while also allowing him freedom to explore? Did you speak to him in at least three languages today?”

For fathers: “is the baby still alive?”

When we found out we were going to have a baby, my wife got a bunch of books about babies from the library. I grabbed a couple and started reading through them. Most of them automatically assumed the reader was a mother, but there were occasionally mentions of things dads should do. Unfortunately, these scintillating pearls of wisdom included things like:

  • try holding the baby sometimes
  • ask your partner if she needs a break if she looks like she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown
  • tell your partner she’s pretty, even though you don’t think so
  • change a diaper once

I can only imagine what the advice was forty years ago. “Try remembering the names of your children,” perhaps.

Fortunately, there are slightly better books out there and I picked up a few of them and got some better guidance. But it doesn’t change the fact that things I considered basic were somehow looked at as something special in most of the reading material.

I think fatherhood is what realized my understanding of what privilege is; she’s expected to do everything and do it perfectly or the baby is ruined forever, and for dads, it’s like “hey, you tried to change the diaper and even though you put it on his head and that’s not where it goes, good effort, champ, way to contribute equally! You’re a modern parent!”

There are some things in this whole parenting gig that aren’t fairly distributed and there’s nothing you can do about it, like the unequal burden created by breastfeeding and the random biases of the baby himself (sometimes Mommy holding him soothes him in a way that Daddy can’t do). So you already need to be working pretty hard to carry your share of the load. And then you look around and wonder, okay, what does my share of the load look like, and you get this feedback loop that praises you because you changed a diaper once this week and everyone is like oh my god, you’re so involved with your baby and it’s like, please, stop. Don’t praise that. It’s like praising me for not dropping the baby on his head, which should only be praiseworthy in extreme circumstances, such as slipping on a patch of ice or while baby is slathered in soap or something.

In conclusion

Having a kid has been great. I’ve really learned a lot. I look forward to sharing more of this wisdom in the days to come, but not right now, because he’s crying and there’s a chance he’s crying because he swallowed a battery or something and I should attend to that. Bye!

Writing Fantasy: The Problem of Lineage

“I have encountered a vergence in the Force . . . a boy. His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I have seen in a life-form. It was possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorian.” -Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace

“The Force is strong in my family.”  -Luke Skywalker, Return of the Jedi

“His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I’ve ever seen in a life form. It’s possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorians.” -Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace

“For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. It’s energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you…me…the tree…the rock…everywhere! Yes, even between this land and that ship.” -Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

The examples of the problem are countless, though that hasn’t stopped us from trying to count them anyway. Whether it comes from destiny or something about who your dad was, we know this much; in fantasy fiction, it really fucking matters who your parents were. Your real parents, at least. Your powers are something you are born with. Sure, maybe you need training, maybe you need an eccentric mentor type to help you hone your talent, but that all comes later, typically after you inherit your ancestor’s cool weapon.

We could be talking about Star Wars, like with the above quotes. Or maybe we’re talking about Aragorn and the Lord of the Rings. Or with a bit of stretching, we could include any superhero whose powers are the result of their inborn biology as opposed to what they might have constructed in a cave, with a box of scraps.

In fact, because there are so many examples and variations on this theme, we’re going to narrow it down to Star Wars, not simply because Star Wars (and more specifically, the prequels) are the most egregious offender, but because there is such a clearly defined timeline that explains the problem. Even though I’m talking specifically about the Force and the Jedi here, these are themes that can be found in almost any fantasy story that has some kind of magical power and a specific group of people that can wield that power. So you could substitute “magic” and “mages” here, if you really wanted.

We begin with the original trilogy. Despite all the references to Luke’s destiny as a Jedi, because his father was a Jedi, by the time we get to Yoda, we see someone who doesn’t seem to give a shit who your dad was. If you want to be a Jedi, get off your ass and work on it. You better have the deepest commitment and the most serious mind if you want to make it through Jedi training, or your ass isn’t levitating anything.

Sure, there’s still privilege here in the story as presented. Not everyone gets to be a Jedi. But why not? Maybe you don’t have the natural patience to sit still long enough to let a green elf lecture you while inhaling swamp gas. Or maybe you couldn’t afford to take a top-of-the-line military starship and fly off to some random swamp planet to meet the right teacher because you have to ride the space-bus every day. Maybe you don’t believe in hokey religions and ancient weapons, so the whole thing is just a waste of time.

Regardless of the barriers that might keep you from Jedi training that exist mentally, physically, or practically, at this point, the metaphor is still clear; if you really want to become a space wizard, you can. It’s going to be hard as hell. You could fail and die, or turn into an evil tyrant instead. But you can still try. It doesn’t matter what your blood type is. It doesn’t matter who your dad is. The Force is everything, even in the trees and rocks.

And then it turns out that none of that is accurate, because while it is true that the Force is super-cool and it’s all things and we’re all luminous beings, it’s also true that you won’t have a chance in hell at graduating from Jedi school unless you won the genetic lottery the moment you were born. A single check of your blood type (so to speak) determines whether you can be a space wizard . . . or, you know, something else. Maybe a queen, if you’re lucky enough to live on a planet with a democratically elected monarchy system.

Sorry, the Force isn’t for you. You don’t have the right blood for it. Even though the number of little organisms in your blood isn’t actually the source of the power, it’s still the bridge, the gateway, but ff you don’t have it, you never will. If you do have it, you can start working hard on developing it.

The parallels to fantasy fiction’s love of the aristocracy should become apparent here, if they aren’t already. The special people get all the best perks because they were born special. Again, and again, we see this theme.

You could argue that this accurately reflects real life and I’d agree with you. Unfortunately, the circumstances of your birth determine a lot about what opportunities are open to you and which ones are closed. Even before we consider anything else about me, the fact that I was born straight, white, and male meant that I had fewer barriers starting out than other people.

But my feeling is that it’s not the role of fantasy fiction to tell us how the world is, but how it should be. We don’t live in a world where good always triumphs over evil . . . but we should. Our fantasies tell us a lot about what we value, what we consider to be important. And so we come to the actual core problem: our Jedi fantasy started telling us that we believed anyone could become a hero, but shifted into telling us that only special people can be heroes.

We learn from stories. In particular, we learn about what’s important because we intuit what people want to tell stories about. Overcoming evil is more important than making breakfast in the grand scheme of things, so we usually focus our grand narratives there. And at one point in time, Star Wars knew this.

Participants: George Lucas, Richard Marquand, Lawrence Kasdan, and Howard Kazanjian
Location: Park Way House
Note: Many of the ideas here are conceptual only and should not be considered canon in the Star Wars saga.
Lawrence Kasadan: The Force was available to anyone who could hook into it?
George Lucas: Yes, everyone can do it.
Kasadan: Not just the Jedi?
Lucas: It’s just the Jedi who take the time to do it.
Marquand: They use it as a technique.
Lucas: Like yoga. If you want to take the time to do it, you can do it; but the ones that really want to do it are the ones who are into that kind of thing. Also like karate.

That’s the solution. It’s the direction that I went with in my books, although I hadn’t read this transcript at the time. If you make the magic powers a skill that someone can learn, you reinforce the idea that what you do matters more than who your parents are.

In Dinomancer, I intentionally keep it vague on whether or not I think of the ability to wield the Geas is a supernatural power or not. Where does it come from? What powers it? Right now, I’m not saying (gotta save material for future world building).

What I do explore is the relatively egalitarian nature of the skill itself; it really is true that anyone can learn it, just like anyone can learn French. But just like learning French, just because anyone can learn it doesn’t mean the deck isn’t still stacked in some people’s favor more than others.

Obviously, the easiest way to learn French is to be French. Barring that, going to France and living there for a while probably works. Barring that, taking a class or having a French teacher. Barring that? Maybe a book or something; at this point, you have fewer advantages working for you, so most people don’t really try. Sure, there’s the occasional self-starter who really manages to pull it off, but most of us don’t.

Anyone can train to be a dinomancer, which is my current working title and term for the protagonists until I can come up with something better. As discussed in the aristocracy post, this creates a form of social mobility, in that anyone can learn the skills needed to become a dinomancer, and the skills are so valuable that you’re guaranteed adoption into a noble House if you can master it. In theory, anyone can raise his or her station. All it takes is a bit of hard work, can-do attitude, and know-how . . .

Oh, and you need to be willing to stand in front of a bull tyrannosaurus as it charges toward you while all you do is hold out your hand and think really hard to make it not want to eat you and somehow believe that this will work even while your instincts are screaming at you to run away.

And the mortality rate for learning the skill is about 50%, but this risk isn’t evenly distributed. It’s lower if you’re a highborn, considerably higher if you’re lowborn.

Highborn will train for this challenge their entire lives. You can’t take your title or be considered a true member of your noble family unless you’re a trained dinomancer. Those highborn kids that don’t or can’t learn might remain comfortable all their lives as their parents care for them, but they won’t inherit any land, titles, or power ever, so if they don’t want to end up out in the cold one day, they best get to work.

Fortunately, there are plenty of trainers available for these highborn kids to help them prepare. Most families specialize in breeding one particularly powerful species, such as a Tyrannosaurus or Spinosaurus, but many smaller, less dangerous dinosaurs are common enough to be used for early training. From the time they can walk, these kids will grow up around dinosaurs, learning to interact with them, care for them, and everything else they’ll need once it’s time to learn the skill. They’re given every possible advantage to help them succeed.

The lowborn kids . . . are not. Any lowborn can send a child for dinomancer training to the noble family that rules over them. In point of fact, anyone of any age can go to learn, but culturally, it’s just better economic sense to send your little tykes off when they’re young so that if/when they fail, you’ve only invested six years into raising them instead of sixteen. You’re playing a numbers game when you’re lowborn; all you need is one kid to survive long enough to graduate, then they’ll have enough resources to care for you. You don’t get to become noble yourself, obviously, but most former lowborn provide enough for their families to lift them into a pseudo-middle class. Not all do, but it’s common enough.

Unlike the highborn, lowborn don’t have to send kids for training. There are plenty who don’t, since there’s no social expectation for them to do so. Lowborn kids can grow up and live lowborn lives. But the rewards are great enough that for most lowborn families, it’s worth risking a few sons or daughters.

The system isn’t fair. The powerful hoard their resources to ensure their own progeny retain their grip on power. We’re not creating a perfect world here, after all; we still need enough problems so there are things for our heroes to overcome. But the important distinction is that the core philosophy of the world itself is coded as “anyone can learn” instead of “you must have the right blood to learn.”

The elite of this world twisted things to serve their own interests. If someone more enlightened came along and wanted to open a dinomancer public school, there’s nothing inherent in the setting that would stop them. In contract, you don’t get to be a public school Jedi if you’re not born for it. Don’t even try.

How we construct our pretend worlds says a lot about us. My hope is that we’ll continue to see fantasy settings that trend in this direction. You can still make magic and magical powers rare and special without making them restricted to the genetically gifted. I still love magic and hidden places and lost arts. I just hope we see more things like the Jedi as envisioned in 1981 (“it’s like yoga”), instead of 1999 (“microscopic organisms living in your blood”).