Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Pick Your Battles

Joy-sparking tidiness expert Marie Kondo says “I now keep my collection of books to about thirty volumes at any one time.”

Leishman homes have the same rule – except we apply it on a per shelf or per stack basis. Any more books would be structurally unsound.

Whenever we visit my parents’ house for Grandma food or a technology house call, I check out my mother’s various stacks of current library books and new acquisitions. Tonight when we go over for family dinner I need to remember to return some Tupperware as well as Mom’s copy of Jonathan Rauch’s The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50.

This cultural exchange has been going on ever since I left home for college. I vividly remember returning for Winter Break one year and discovering my mother had recently acquired a copy of a book called How To Raise Teenagers.

I pointed out that it was too late – I’d already entered my twenties, after spending my teen years as an overachieving (and thoroughly repressed) eldest child and good little Mormon boy.

My mother sighed. “Before I had a son in his teens. Now I have teenagers.”

I’m the oldest of four brothers. After leaving the dorms, I lived either alone or with gay male partners and housemates. As I wrote in Puberty So Far, “female secrets remain a mystery to me – particularly all that sex and hormones stuff.”

My daughters are now high school freshmen. It turns out adolescence is an exciting time of change for everyone in the house. Id like to characterize my parenting approach as “Getting to Yes!” Hopefully I’ll get to finish that upbeat essay someday. No one likes “Nagging Papa” or “Angry Papa,” especially me.

In the meantime, however, my parenting strategy is primarily defensive. It can be summarized as “Pick Your Battles.”

While writing this essay, I examined a wide variety of books about parenting teenaged girls. Sadly, I only had time to review the book covers. Parenting Teenage Girls is a typical example. The cover pictures a hugging mother and daughter, and offers an “Easy guide to connect with your teenage daughter.”    

Fortunately, I already did my research years ago, after the ultrasound revealed our birth mother in Puyallup was having a girl. Most parenting books describe a common dynamic of teen girls butting heads with their mothers, while staying Daddy’s little girl. Our darling daughters have two fathers. My secret plan was to subtly redirect all their hostility toward my ex, while encouraging them to stay Papa’s little girls. 

Unfortunately for my clever scheme, this August my ex and his husband filed for divorce, and my ex moved to the Midwest to start a new life. The kids look forward to visiting Daddy and his new partner during school breaks, but otherwise they’re are staying with me fulltime in Bellingham.

After five months of solo parenting, I’m still groping for a Plan B.

I saw my first musical on Broadway in 1988. I was in law school, and Manhattan was just a 90-minute train ride away. My voluminous collection of Playbills begins with the program from the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. The incomparable Bernadette Peters played the Witch.

Near the end of the show, just before the Witch sings “Children Will Listen,” the ghost of the Baker’s Wife appears to him. (She was crushed by a giant in the previous scene, after philandering with Cinderella’s Prince Charming.) The Baker is alone in the woods with their crying baby.

BAKER:  Maybe I just wasn't meant to have children--

WIFE:     Don't say that! Of course you were meant to have children.

BAKER:  But how will I go about being a father … Alone?

Her answer is a line that’s been stuck in my head for the last few months:

       “Be father and mother, you’ll know what to do.”

I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

The most accurate book cover I found was for Parenting Teen Girls: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Teenage Daughters Today. It shows a girl alone, staring at her smart phone.

My children are part of the first generation to grow up permanently attached to their iPhones. (As McSweeney’s petulant "Teen Yoda" says, “Connect me to all living things, it does.”) We are only beginning to understand the disruptive impact of this technology. I have an upcoming series of “Unplugged” essays exploring the science and sociology of cell phone and internet addiction.

In addition to rewiring human brains, the advent of iPhones fundamentally changed parenting. Today I control a nuclear weapon that is far more powerful than anything in the primitive arsenal of my parents generation – grounding, chores, bread and water diet, beatings, car privileges, whatever. Nothing compares to the threat of taking away a twenty-first century teenager’s cell phone.

The new Apple operating system makes this part of my job even easier. My kids and I are on the same “Family Sharing” plan. As the “Family Organizer,” I can use my own iPhone to remotely impose individualized time or content limitations on each of my kids, or to disable their internet access completely. Wailing and gnashing of teeth are just one click away.  

My parents’ and my nephew’s phones are also part of the same AT&T account. Fortunately, I haven’t had to use the “Screen Time” function on them.

With really great power comes really great responsibility.

1 comment:

  1. I might have posted this before, but the best advice I ever heard about parenting was this: it's pass/fail.