Bourbon and Milk: Guilt Cocktails (for American Short Fiction blog)

Recently, I stopped feeling guilty about being a flawed parent, or the kind of parent others would perceive as flawed. I was sitting in the living room with my 3-year-old and my 10-month-old daughters, who were both playing quietly on the floor, not scribbling on the walls or playing in the toilet water. It struck me: These kids are great, and I love them, but I’d rather be doing something else.

I had a sense that this was “wrong,” or that I should feel guilty. We’re supposed to — at least in the current prevailing parenting culture in middle-class America — adore hanging out with our kids, we’re supposed to eagerly disregard our own interests and desires in favor of the interests and desires of our kids. The fact is, I just don’t like playing with them that much, and I actually don’t think I should be responsible for entertaining them. I’ll talk to them, I’ll make jokes with them, I’ll feed them and change their diapers, but I’m not going sit on the floor with them for hours and fork over every part of myself for their benefit. And I’m not all that sure it’d be to their benefit if I did: self entertainment is an useful skill, it was this need to entertain myself that got me reading and writing fiction when I was eleven years old, which has now, at last, become a pseudo-gainful career for me.

In my second novel The Dismal Science the 60-something protagonist’s only living family is his 20-something daughter. She becomes a repository for love that would go elsewhere if he had other relationships. Meanwhile, she does have other relationships, and so she essentially tells him: I love you, but I’ve got other things to do, like hang out with my boyfriend. And so can you scram for a while, or something?

To his own surprise, he’s gravely wounded by her mild indifference. Over lunch at a department store, when she tells him that she’s not going to spend Christmas with him, he responds in a way that’s deliberately cold and hurtful to her:

Leonora’s pain was clear in her face. It was as if she could tell he had never felt so little love for her. From that dreaded theory of the stages of mourning—the Kübler-Ross gauntlet—he had harvested one idea that stood up to scrutiny: some emotions must occur, almost by definition, separately. So, although he loved Leonora—loved her far more than any other living being—he could still hate her at times, too; and when he hated her, he just hated her.

She wanted to stay and say more, this much was clear. She wanted to talk it out and dispel the horrible feeling right away, but he was already standing up, already going for his coat, saying, “You ready?” and, “Don’t forget the bag.”

Maybe this painful exchange could’ve been avoided if he weren’t so dependent on her. There’s more to it than that, of course, but insofar as my actual life and my fiction are sometimes in a quiet conversation to which my conscious mind is not invited, it does present a question for me about how much of myself to reserve from my kids.

I love my children, and I would do a lot for them, but my life did not begin when they were born, and it will not end when they head off to college. In the meantime, I will not be subsumed, and I will not feel terrible about myself for claiming my own space.