Sunday 26 May 2019

Michael Chabon's Pops: Essays on parenthood show fatherhood doesn't have to be the enemy of creativity

Pulitzer prizewinner Michael Chabon's ambling essays on parenthood reassure new dad Hilary A White that fatherhood doesn't have to be the enemy of creativity

Long game: Chabon argues that new dads' fears about parenthood are not necessarily rooted in the immediate
Long game: Chabon argues that new dads' fears about parenthood are not necessarily rooted in the immediate

'Don't have children." That was the career advice issued to a fledgling version of Michael Chabon by a much older and securely established literary great. The conversation took place at a party thrown by Chabon's publishers as they readied the release of his debut novel.

"Children, the great man said, were notorious thieves of time… Writers needed to be irresponsible, ultimately, to everything but the writing, free of commitments to everything but the word count. Children, by contrast needed stability, consistency, routine, and above all, commitment. In short, he was saying, children are the opposite of writing."

The tip was most likely delivered with transgenerational solemnity from that era when 20th-century male writers felt obliged to regard themselves as bloodletting savants, entitled to greatness for the contributions they gifted the reading public. On the eve of both his first marriage and his maiden novelistic voyage, Chabon wisely ignored the advice of this relic and went on to nab the Pulitzer a little over a decade later for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a glorious, primary-coloured romp that gushes with something unashamedly childlike.

The parenting/creativity debate is one that, as John Banville discovered a couple of year ago, sparks heated opinions. Cyril Connolly's oft-trotted maxim about the pram in the hallway is one that nudges all would-be breeders who define themselves as trading in fruits of the imagination.

Take me. As a recently anointed dad myself, I inevitably spent moments in the run-up scanning the landscape inhabited by friends and colleagues across print media. There I found excellence on both sides of the parenting argument, but a pattern of childlessness did appear to exist among career journos a generation above me. Hacks, much like fiction writers, never really "clock off". Was this the reason, and was my own work now about to suffer?

Chabon, a father-of-four teenage children who now comes encrusted with literary awards and honours, quashes Connolly's law. Pops, however, is not a channelled, long-form proclamation. It is an ambling collection of previously published articles on the subject of being a dad to children during their formative years. Its very existence, however, indirectly addresses Banville's theory about writers being uniformly poor parents, too preoccupied by their own rectums to be loving and attentive. These essays - simmering with affection, concern, wonderment - cover everything from watching a child develop a fashion sense, to negotiating censorship during bedtime reading, to an achingly poignant and prismatic polaroid of his own ailing father. In doing so, Pops - his second family-oriented compendium after 2009's Manhood for Amateurs - shows that the fruits of one's loins can be an absorbing reason to toil at the typewriter.

With that monkey off our back, Chabon finds other obstacles to worry about, and by god is parenthood plotted with the things. Even if we accept that the environment in which Chabon and wife and fellow writer Ayelet Waldman live - that navel of righteous indignation Berkeley, California - might fine-tune the microscope of correctness and ethical standards when it comes to raising our replacements on this earth, it is a minefield. It may have its edges gently burnished by Chabon's lulling, mercury-smooth voice, but reading it with the bewildering banality of a new baba bleating nearby involved some gentle swatting away of projected future headaches. Chabon attests to my long-suspected - and now confirmed - theory that for new dads, the fears of parenting are not necessarily rooted in the immediate. Bumps and scrapes will heal and are all part of learning to stand on one's feet. The real ogres lurk under those bridges much further down the road - will my son grow up with a good moral compass? Will he survive a terrible afternoon where a promise isn't kept or come through the lions' den of the schoolyard unscathed? Does the butterfly flap today bring a tsunami decades hence?

In 'Against Dickitude', Chabon tries to teach his son to be nicer to a girl who is giving unwanted attention. He riffs about his own attitude to being respectful and decent to women, fostered primarily by his single mother's unhappiness with the suitors who passed through her life. It wasn't until his own daughter arrived that he saw how insensitivity could cause "a crack" in children, "fine as a hair but like all cracks, irreversible". His illustrative example? Not complimenting his 14-year-old heiress after an early trip to the hair salon. Now you have me awake at night, Mr Chabon.

Sartorial matters and their role in allowing youngsters to forge an identity crop up a few times here ('Little Man', 'The Bubble People', 'Be Cool or be Cast Out'). Once upon a time, we had bands and music genres to conduct our wardrobes but there isn't even that cultural anchor for insecure teens to lean against any longer. Fashion acts as a marker for Chabon to measure both his children's hunger for self-expression and their resilience to bullying, all the while hoping that he is doing the right thing by encouraging individuality.

In the case of the gorgeous 'Little Man', he brings along his style-mad son to Paris Fashion Week on assignment for GQ and comes away realising that for all papas, a time will come when you are only slowing your child down and that sucking it up is integral to daddydom. See also those crimes of hubris that we are doomed to perpetrate, and which Chabon identifies with admirable self-examination, piercingly so in 'The Old Ball Game'.

Here, his deep, genetic-level obsession with baseball spills out into the arena of fatherhood. Watching his own son's involvement in little league arouses a frankly convincing argument of how much better playtime was both within and beyond the baseball diamond before "the wild watershed of childhood had been brought fully under control of the adult Corps of Engineers". A few lines later, with much humility, he checks himself ("I revile all codgers, coots, and alter kockers with their retrograde agendas, and it pained me to find myself among them").

Yes, funny creatures, dads. Time on our hands in the early, mummy-centric days to ponder and wring hands until our principal role as wrangler, fixer, and droll finger-wagger is upon us. Increasingly, pressing back against the world with overarching niggles and colonies of bees in our bonnets.

Pops mightn't have all the answers but it provides a balm by coming at these things side-on and encouraging us to meet the challenges with grace, resolve, and the odd, knowing eye-roll (which, I fully accept, my callow assumptions here may be causing among more learned fathers). To know that opinions on coolness are no longer our concern, and that we should expect our sprogs to amplify disillusionment with the modern state of sport, music, manners, etc. And at its most bittersweet, there is Chabon's call to accept that while you may know and love your child, only if you are lucky will you manage to fully understand them.

"And that ought to be enough," he supposes with hangdog fatherly resignation. "But it is never enough."

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