As a (relatively) new parent, one of the questions that preoccupies me is: how can we show our son that anything is possible, and that he can be anything he wants to be? More specifically, how can we ensure that he knows that the templates and stereotypes laid out for him by society aren’t the only ways, or the best ways, to live a good life?
I was thinking about this last weekend at the memorial for my cousin Cort, who, among other things, sailed across the Pacific Ocean. The things he did were amazing — true adventures — but he talked about it so matter-of-factly that he made them seem like real things you could do. By simply existing and living his life how he wanted to, he broadened the horizons of the people around him, including me.
I’m grateful for all the people in my life who have lived outside of those set templates.
I remember going round to my childhood friend Clare’s house and learning that her dad had a room where he sat and wrote. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that this was something one could do, but here he was, doing it. (He asked me what I wanted for my birthday once, and I was too shy to ask for a signed copy of one of his Mr Majeika books, which I regret to this day.)
Humphrey Carpenter was the first time I became aware that using your imagination and harnessing your love of writing could be a profession, but writing surrounded me. My grandfather translated Crime and Punishment and Osip Mandelstam’s Journey to Armenia into English. As a young teenager in Oxford, my after-school job turned out to be a hub for interesting characters; for example, an odd man who regularly came in to use the photocopier turned out to be Colin Dexter, author of the Inspector Morse mysteries. And in my adult life, my cousin Sarah has built an amazing career writing young adult novels.
My parents were staunch believers in doing things their own way, including by fighting for what they believed in as Berkeley activists. I’d lived in four countries by the time I was twelve, and knew about our family history across many more. I heard my dad’s stories about being in the US Army and protesting the Vietnam War afterwards, and about his own father’s leading role in the resistance against the Japanese in Indonesia during the Second World War. I learned stories about Ukrainian Jewish villagers coming to America with nothing, Swiss textile merchants, diplomats, and avant garde film directors.
Conformity and parochialism were not on the menu. I’m grateful every day that this is the context I grew up with.
How the fuck do I live up to any of this? Let alone convey the same sense of freedom to our son?
You’d be forgiven for thinking, reading the above, that we were wealthy. We were not. There was a freedom inherent in mindset: if you were clever about it, you could do incredible things with meagre resources. But the world is less forgiving than it used to be towards people who aren’t independently wealthy. America in particular is designed to force people into a life of salaried work at the hands of another employer. Here, both your healthcare and your retirement savings are at the mercy of who you happen to be employed by; yes, you can get insurance and retirement plans independently, but they’re never as good, or as cheap.
If you already have resources, you have opportunity; otherwise, American society pushes you into pouring your labor towards someone else’s profit. Sometimes, people are tricked into a life of non-stop hustle as a way to find escape velocity — only to find that the hustle also is a grift on behalf of someone else’s profit. (Some investors I’ve spoken to speak of founder pedigree as a thing they look for; if you scratch the surface just a little, this resource independence is what it really means. You’re backable if you already have the freedom and network to build something.) Add this to the pervasive fear that sits just under the surface — of guns, of crime, of violence — and modern America seems to be set up to subjugate.
Some people share the white picket fence American dream, and I guess there’s nothing really wrong with it. But I don’t share that dream, and won’t be forced into it myself; I want our son to know, at the very least, that other dreams are available, and that he gets to choose his own adventure. He can settle in the suburbs somewhere in America with a 9-5 job, a two-car garage, and a backyard lawn. He can also live anywhere in the world, do anything he sets his mind to, and be exactly who he wants to be, whatever it happens to be. He could be President of the United States, or a revolutionary artist, or a social entrepreneur, or a spear fisherman off the coast of a small island in the Pacific. There is a multiverse of possibilities. Eleven months in, the world is his.
To really convey that well, I’ve realized, I need to be exactly who I want to be. Which is hard! The last decade was characterized by supporting my mother through a familial terminal illness, including redefining my life and moving continents to do so. We’ve lived through grief after trauma after grief after trauma, and at the same time I had to learn how to build a life and career in the US to be able to stay afloat. It was a constant state of stress and being constantly reactive to whatever was going on that felt like being trapped inside my own life. I made some very poor, harmful decisions while living in this state, as well as some other decisions that were just incredibly dumb. It hasn’t all been stupid, but I certainly haven’t emerged without regrets, and I often haven’t lived up to my own ideals.
But now I’ve got to switch gears and think about being an example for our son. You can’t convey a set of ideals without living up to them; it rings false. If I think that an untemplated life is more fulfilling (and I do!) then how can I do better to embody that and show that it’s a real possibility? How can I be Humphrey in his writing room or Corty sailing across the Pacific or my dad protesting the war in Vietnam?
If the possibilities available to you are informed by the ones you’ve been exposed to, how can I expose him to more? If the mindsets available to you are informed by the ones you’ve been exposed to, how can I show him that there isn’t one way to think or be?
Knowing that I’ll inevitably fail to live up to my ideals, what can I do to set him up well to live an amazing life?
Like I said, this is a question that preoccupies me. I don’t know what the answer is, or even if there is an answer. I hope the exploration will be enough.