1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Seventeen: Kids
Posted on September 17, 2018 Posted by John Scalzi 22 Comments
When I started Whatever in 1998, I didn’t have a kid. But I knew one was coming, since Krissy was pregnant. Her due date was December 17, but as it turns out, and in the first indication that this child was truly my child as well, the baby was kind of lazy and in no rush to head out of the womb. Krissy was induced on the 23rd of December, a week after the original due date. Athena Marie Scalzi was born, 3:31 pm, 22 inches long and nine pounds. A big baby, big enough that she broke a collarbone on the way out (she got better).
When Krissy found out she was pregnant, my reaction (other than elation because, cool, we were going to have a kid) was to start having dreams about death. Which was a new one on me; I was 29 and at that point was not giving that much thought to the fact that I would one day die. But suddenly I was having dreams where, point blank, was the announcement: “You’re gonna die one day.” Which I thought was a little on the nose. My conscious brain understood why I was having those dreams — when you have a kid, you’re no longer the last generation, there’s one after you now. You’ve willingly put yourself on the mortality conveyor belt. A perfectly reasonable explanation. But still disconcerting in dream form.
When Athena was born, these dreams stopped entirely. They stopped not because I wasn’t still confronting my own mortality. They stopped because once she was born I was okay with my mortality. Not that I was in a rush to experience it; I wanted to help raise this kid first. But it didn’t bother me anymore. I don’t know if this is everyone’s experience with having a kid — hey, I’m gonna die one day and that’s totally cool! — but it worked that way for me, and I’m glad I got that particular existential crisis done and dusted.
Of the two of us, Krissy was the one that worked outside of the home, so once her maternity leave was up, I was the stay-at-home parent and also, I took the night shift duties (roughly 11pm to 5am) so Krissy could actually be rested for her work. This was fine with me; I was still a night bird then so I didn’t mind being up late, and also, you know, even if I did, I was the one with no actual set schedule, so maybe I should just shut up and take one for the team, hey? Because that’s the thing with being a two-parent household: You’re supposed to be a team about it.
It turns out that I really liked being a stay-at-home parent. One, I got to spend a lot of time with my kid as an infant and a toddler, and it turns out she was a lot of fun during these times in her life. I had been mildly concerned, prior to her birth, that I wouldn’t relate to Athena before she was verbal, but, yeah, that turned out not to be a problem at all. Two, it was actually really congenial for the sort of work I was doing. I was doing a lot of marketing and corporate work at the time, which I could do around when Athena neeed attention. When she was napping or otherwise preoccupied, I could pop over to the computer and do the work. Most of my meetings were phone meetings so that wasn’t a problem, either.
Three, it was fascinating to see how people responded to me as a stay-at-home parent. It’s still a thing, men being the stay-at-home parent, and when Athena was an infant and toddler (and even after, since I was the stay-at-home parent her whole childhood) it was even more so. I would be tooling around with Athena in the mornings and early afternoons, i.e., when men were supposed to be at work, and people would mostly respond to me in one of two ways: Wow, there goes super-committed dad, he’s great, or look at that bum, he’s probably sponging off his baby mama. I imagine that if I explained that I was a writer, the responses would definitely fall into the second category. “Writer” is, I think, generally considered code for “unemployed.”
(In fact, I remember specifically one time when some conservative writer or another, objecting to something I wrote here, emailed me to castigate me for wasting time on my blog and letting my woman support me financially rather than getting a job and letting her have the “luxury” of staying at home. It was a delightful bit of joy to point out to him I was earning six figures as a freelancer as well as writing on my blog, that my wife worked out of the home because she liked it, that I enjoyed spending time with my kid, and also, fuck you, you sexist piece of trash. I never heard back from him after that.)
Interestingly, the one place where I definitely received credit for being a stay-at-home dad was with my writing clients. Every now and again during a conference call my daughter would make a noise, and I would explain that I was the stay-at-home parent and that half my office was given over to her play area. Invariably everyone would be impressed that I was taking time out of my schedule to be such an active co-parent. I was aware then and am aware now how vastly different that reaction would have been, had I been a woman freelancer. But since it was working out for me, I didn’t complain at the time.
As soon as Athena was born, I started writing about her here, and mostly haven’t stopped. The reaction of people to this has ranged from “your kid is cute! Write more about her zany antics!” to “Oh my god, you have acknowledged online that you have a child, now the crazies will come for her.” With the former, it’s certainly the case that I cherry-picked the adorable incidents and left out the ones where she was having a tantrum, or otherwise being a less-than-optimal person at whatever age she was at. There are many reasons for this, but primary among them was the idea that not every aspect of my kid’s life needed to be known to the general public. Before Athena was old enough to make such decisions for herself, I ran posts about her by Krissy, to make sure she was comfortable with them. After Athena was old enough to understand what I was doing, I always let her decide what about her went up on the site. It was always important for me to have her understand she had agency with regard to my portrayal of her.
With the latter, I have to say I was never all that worried about it as Athena was growing up. We live in a small town, I have a two-hundred yard driveway, and growing up Athena was with a parent when she wasn’t at school or otherwise accounted for. Beyond that, I’ve never been that hard to find. Even at the height of people being dicks to me a couple years back, no one ever bothered to come up to the house. I remember some angry dude threatening to dox me; I pointed out to him I’m in the phone book. I’m not sure he knew what a “phone book” was.
Athena was important for me in my writing life, not for Whatever fodder but as a general inspiration to do the work. Athena needed food and clothes and a place to live and eventually a college education, and I could not be too precious about the work I took in order to assure these needs would be addressed. I’ve always been lucky in the freelance work I got, but part of that “luck” was the willingness to be flexible about the work that came in. Short of work I found morally objectionable, I didn’t pass on anything. I had a person depending on me to give them a life that didn’t suck. Between me and Krissy, we managed that pretty well.
(She was the inspiration for one bit of fiction: Zoe, from the Old Man’s War series and particularly Zoe’s Tale. In those books Zoe is mostly a teen, and the books were written when Athena was between six and eight, so she wasn’t a direct influence. But I tried to imagine what Athena might be like at sixteen, and wrote someone like that. I was not far off.)
You may have noticed that for this piece I’m not directly talking a lot about who Athena is as a person. Mostly that’s because I’ve done that before, and what I wrote then still stands. But you can be assured that she is one of my favorite people in the world, and not just because she’s my kid. She’s a pretty great human. But this piece is really more about my experience of having a kid, and having her in my life for these last 20 years. It’s worked out pretty well, I have to say.
But Scalzi, you say, this topic was “kids” not “kid.” Well. We did try for more, and it didn’t work out, as sometimes these things don’t. In the fullness of time — which is kind of what this series of pieces is about — that’s been part of our experience as parents as well. I don’t think either of us regret trying for more, just as we don’t regret the life that we ended up getting to have with Athena as our child. I don’t think we’ve lacked for anything in these last twenty years. It’s been a very good life, as a parent.
“Kids make your life complete” — Sure, they can. You can have a full life without them, and many people do, so I don’t think you can say, “Only kids will make your life complete,” which is often the subtext. I can say that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of the past 20 years with my kid, and my wife as a co-parent, and all three of us as a family. My life, at least, is complete because of them.
I’m a stay-at-home dad to a toddler son and infant daughter, so I can really relate to your experience staying at home with Athena. Going into it, I was concerned about people having a negative perception of me staying at home and my wife working, but I’ve been surprised by just how little I heard about it. The first year or so, I would get annoyed and irritated when people would say things along the lines of “oh, is daddy babysitting?” or something similar, but as time went on, I heard that less and less and began to hear more praise about it.
As long as there is a “me”, I will be grateful to an old friend for the privilege of, briefly, helping with raising her daughter and for the privilege of observing their lives over the years. However, that experience also taught me that however well or poorly I would have done as a father (It’s not something you can judge until you’ve actually done it.), being a father is not for me. Gramercy.
Glad the two of you worked out a way to be there for Athena! The most important thing is to be loving parents — how you do it is not that important.
My twins are 20 now, their older brothers 27 and 24, and I was the stay-at-home parent. My spouse and I decided we wanted one of us at home if at all possible, and she could not feasibly bring her work home (librarian). I’m an IT consultant, so I got the thrill of having my income drop 70% all at once, as most of my clients (auto companies) wanted consultants/contractors in the building. Asleep was fine (sometimes) but in the building was not optional.
I did get some of the “babysitting” comments, which were annoying because they reflected a presumption that I was not there because I liked being with my kids. It was also sometimes annoying to be praised for just being a parent because I was male. As John says, the easiest setting in the game of life—being overpraised for just showing up really underscored that truth.
Across the years all of that changed a bit for the better, but even in 2006 I was asked if the twins (at 8) would be in after school day care when I got a job. I had various creative answers to such questions.
I consider myself lucky and privileged, and would not trade a minute.
I’m curious for more detail on how you managed to get work done with a toddler in the house! Speaking as another freelancer who works from home, but who sends my child to daycare, I haven’t had much success being productive on the days when they’re home.
I can relate to your statement about becoming a parent causing dreams about death, but I’ve never had dreams about my own death. Instead they were/are about the deaths of my loved ones. My wife dying in childbirth and me having to care for a newborn without her. Our child suffering from a terminal illness or killed in an accident. Me having to explain to our young child that Mommy isn’t coming home. And the really scary thing is it happens everyday to someone just like me and it’s only sheer luck that it’s not me.
DH and I agreed when we first got married that kids were not going to be part of the arrangement. MiL put the curse on us of ‘May your children behave just like you did!!’; while that didn’t really have a bearing on our decision, we haven’t regretted it either, as the choice gave us more options than we would have otherwise had. We ended up being temporary de facto parents for a younger friend whose parents had a protracted, acrimonious and messy divorce, which gave us enough of a taste of parenting, both the good and the bad. Parenting is tough, and not everyone’s cup of tea.
Thank you. And I didn’t know about the linked post, so thank you for that as well.
Finding the right mix of publicity and privacy is never easy. I am glad you all are navigating it so well.
My wife and I had afternoon tea with Athena on last year’s JoCo Cruise (wasn’t prearranged or anything, we all just happened to be at the same table). She is a perfectly well-mannered young lady. I kind of remember her talking about how excited she felt about her college courses. My wife, who is a teacher, talked with her a little about school. I’m embarrassed to say that, having seen pictures of Athena here so often, I found myself a wee bit starstruck, and said without thinking, “You’re Athena Scalzi, right, John Scalzi’s daughter?”
So she DIDN’T come out of a crack in Zeus’ forehead? Greek mythology is wrong!
But seriously, thanks for this.
Yes, nice one. Your last paragraph makes your post complete.
During the summer I was the stay at home Dad. I share my story if this was just my experience or a common experience. This is 2004 on ward in central Massachusetts.
I found being a stay at home Dad socially isolating. I would go to the play ground and play with my kid. I was never invited to the coffee drinking mothers who sat at a table who were not playing with their children.
During the work week I was the only male on the play ground who shaved. In the 8 years of summer stay at home dad, I struck up two conversations with women. No women initiated a conversation with me. Like John S, I look average.
Stay at home Dads, is this common or is it just me?
I read through the “The Child on the Train” post. Out of curiosity, I clicked on the “Next Post” link. What an emotional about-face and what a change in plans! How did that turn out? ;-)
My husband is a stay at home dad and he has received tons of sexist comments about being the baby sitter of giving mom the night off. Usually he can shrug it off, but sometimes it’s just too much. Either gender, stay at home parents deserve a lot of respect.
I was sure that this:
was going to end with “because you can’t dream if you don’t sleep, and we had a newborn in the house!”
Please forgive me.
Athena is pretty marvelous, IMO. Not surprising at all.
I wasn’t a Whatever reader back in 2003, the year in which you wrote the piece on miscarriage (linked herein). As it happens that’s about the time our family experienced the same thing, although maybe we were a little less good at sending the grief on its way than you folks were, and as with your family, what could have been a two child family became one for us too. I mention all that because your description of a miscarriage utilizing the train station as metaphor is the most achingly apt I’ve ever read on the subject. It’s like you’re a writer or something. ;)
I’m really going to miss the 20/20 pieces when they’re done in a few days. Thanks for writing them.
To quote Arthur Fonzarelli, kids can make you “whacko, nutso”. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Child the 1st is 26 and about to become engaged, while child the 2nd is cruising through her senior year of high school with a GPA about 3.7 or so. I’ve been lucky with the child the 2nd, in that I’ve been able to maintain a better presence in her life during her teen years than my late father did with me. And that is directly due to the fact that I’m the one parent who doesn’t interfere/nag too much in/about her life to the degree that her mother & grandmother do.
For various reasons I associate our miscarriage with Mary Chapin-Carpenter’s cover of “Downtown Train.” (And yes we had others, but no it still took years for the pain to subside.) So I am going to consider the title of your earlier piece my own personal trigger warning.
Sixty years go, after two miscarriages, a woman I’ve known all my life was told she couldn’t have children. For her third pregnancy, she quit smoking. That apparently did the trick, and thus I was her first-born. A sister came along two years later, but I was definitely the favorite far more than necessary.
CONGRATULATIONS on not GETTING doxxed THISp time. I assume YOUR overlords did the USUAL MIND zoop. Humanity is not READY to HANDPLE the TRUTHH. Or the REA:L ;pHONe BopoK. And CURppses TO ;whatever INVENT:oed this palpating interFACE.
I don’t approve of humans reproducing. But you got a good one.
I will put in another plug/attaboy/kudo for stay-at-home-fathering. I did the same for my guy his first 18 months. I had quite a few glances askance at the time, and my son’s mother still has people marvel at how she was able to set up her nonprofit while raising a child, causing me to 1) mentally say to myself and the person, Um, well…, and 2) relate very much to the millions of women whose child rearing was (and is) discounted as the man built his career.
It has been striking to me over the years how many of my male friends with kids are now envious of that time I had with my son, and the bond my son and I forged because of it. I would not trade that time for all of the treasures of the world.
Fellow stay-at-home-dad alum here. It was a challenging 14 months, but I strongly believe that the time I spent with my son was the beginning of a solid relationship and that it forced me to develop more patience and improve my emotional intelligence. Most dads miss out and many don’t even know what they are missing.
We also had a miscarriage and recently made it through a challenging pregnancy. “The child on the train” hit me right in the feels. The child we missed probably had a lethal genetic defect and probably could not have lived under any circumstances, but there is always going to be an empty space in my heart for the child that wasn’t. Cherish the people you have, because life is a delicate thing.