Every Friday, I feature something written by one of my fellow bloggers at Patheos, a web portal devoted to religion and spirituality, or by another blogger/writer whose work I admire. This week I am discussing Christian Piatt’s new memoir as part of a book club discussion hosted by Patheos.
Our recent trip south for my mother-in-law’s funeral reinforced something I know all too well but prefer to ignore most of the time: My children’s genetic legacy includes a fair amount of darkness. Substance abuse. Depression. Suicide.
I do not say this to trash my husband’s family. On the contrary, our time in North Carolina for Ruby’s funeral was a testament to both her survival through 88 years of hard living, and to the beautiful, intelligent, hard-working children, grandchildren, and extended family who gathered to remember her.
But there are a few too many holes in the family tree to overlook the probability that buried somewhere in the genes that my husband passed on to our children are some poorly understood propensities toward self-destructive behavior.
We have coped with a fair amount of physical illness, my own and my oldest daughter’s, as she and I have navigated life with fragile bones that snap and shatter far too easily. I have said that I hate OI (osteogenesis imperfecta, our shared genetic bone disorder). And I do. I hate it. I used to hate it for what it has done to me and my body. Now I hate it even more for what it has done to my beautiful daughter—to her body, but even more so, to her spirit.
Having witnessed the spirit-crushing effects of a physical malady, I am certain that witnessing one of my children being tormented by a mental or psychological disorder—the sort of thing that is all about crushing one’s spirit—would be harder than caring for them through physical illness.
This realization is bizarre to me, given that when Daniel and I chose to make our genetic legacy a factor in our childbearing decisions, we focused solely on my genetic legacy—the one that makes bones break. As I wrote in No Easy Choice:
The ability to match certain problems to certain genes tempts us to forget that all human lives are subject to risks, known and unknown. My family history and Daniel’s are great examples. My OI mutation was easy to target because it was known, it had predictable effects, and the physical ramifications of passing the mutation on were clear: Our child would break lots of bones. Daniel, coming from a family with a significant history of substance abuse and depression, as well as diabetes, brought plenty of genetic risk to our childbearing, but we didn’t focus on those risks because, compared with OI, they are less understood, less precise, and less likely to affect our children when they are young.
We focused on my genetic legacy because we could. But our children remain vulnerable even though their risk of inheriting my OI has come and gone. And the soul sicknesses that could afflict them are, to me, far more frightening than physical maladies that have clear causes and treatments.
I have been thinking about all of this—the irony of focusing our childbearing angst on fragile bones when there were worse things to worry about—because I recently read fellow Patheos blogger Christian Piatt’s memoir, PregMANcy: A Dad, a Little Dude, and a Due Date (Chalice Press, 2012). Childbearing angst is precisely what Piatt’s book is all about. Specifically, it chronicles his journey through his wife’s pregnancy with their second child, illuminating the worries and changes that dads-to-be go through while their wives are pregnant.
This is a book about young parents with young children making childbearing decisions. Even though I also wrote a book about having a second child, I struggled a bit to relate to Piatt’s story. Now that I have a middle schooler and an upcoming birthday that practically screams, “MIDDLE AGE!” I no longer qualify as a “young” parent. The subjects on which Piatt focuses in PregMANcy—worries about how another baby will affect family relationships and checkbook balances, precocious witticisms from his then four-year-old son, the many types of bodily fluids that permeate a young family’s days—are central to a life that I am no longer living.
I’m pretty sure that I am not Piatt’s target audience for this book. Given the subject matter; Piatt’s facial hair, trendy glasses, and combined profession of writer and dabbling singer/songwriter; and his penchant for sprinkling mild profanities into his prose, I’m assuming the prime intended audience is young hipster dads deeply involved in early fatherhood. My husband, although he sported a goatee for a couple of years, has a very nice pair of glasses, and is a very involved dad, is definitely not a young hipster dad. He’s a librarian, first of all. Whatever the definition of “hipster” is, I’m thinking “not a librarian” must appear somewhere on the list. And he beat me to my upcoming middle age-ish birthday by two months.
All that to say, reading PregMANcy was a bit like reading a travel narrative about a place I visited a long time ago. I recognized the scenery, I recalled bits of the journey with both nostalgia and relief, but my reading lacked the visceral connection and anticipation of reading something about a place that I’m in right now, or plan to visit imminently.
That is, except in those few places where Piatt went a little deeper, and a little darker.
In a chapter called, “Spawn of Crazy,” he contemplates the foolish decision to have kids when one has “at least four consecutive generations of nuts.” In Piatt’s case, those “nuts” took the form of suicides, alcoholism, and his experience of being institutionalized as a teenager, followed by a “dark night of the soul,” in which he heard voices and lost weeks of his life in a fog of psychotropic drugs and booze.
I wanted to know more about this part of Piatt’s story, this grappling with the darkness we pass on, along with brown eyes or curly hair or a penchant for math. Not out of some voyeuristic desire to gape at another family’s skeletons, but because I am learning that this is the stuff that continues to haunt and challenge us as parents, long after we stop worrying about birth plans and sibling rivalry and sleep deprivation and how to get baby puke and toddler poop out of the carpets.
How do we forgive ourselves for bringing our children into a world that can wound them so severely? How do we work alongside them to build a path to life and health and light, knowing that they can, at any time, choose to take a different path altogether? How do we love them, knowing that we cannot possibly keep their hearts from breaking, we can only nurture hearts strong enough to keep on beating despite the scars, and wise enough to know they can’t put themselves back together without help?
These are the parenthood anxieties we don’t ever outgrow. So why do we do it? Why say “yes” to that second (third, fourth….) baby? As Piatt says,
“We don’t have kids because we’re guaranteed the results we want. We have them because the love contained within us longs to be expressed.”
And then we worry.
P.S. Christian also blogs for Patheos; loyal readers might recognize the name, as I’ve linked to his stuff before. He has a funny weekly post on bizarre church signs. Check out his blog here.