ChoicesEssays, Family — By Jason Tatum on July 19, 2012 at 6:41 am
I’m at this odd age now. This time of transition that a lot of my friends are going through, a time that I’m working out with a bit of fear and trembling. It’s a time when many of my friends are having not their first but their second child. Some are finished and have hit the showers after their fourth little reproduction.
I love watching my friends be parents. I don’t think I know any of them to be particularly bad parents, or even average. Maybe I’m biased or maybe I’m comparing poorly or perhaps I don’t see the real-life Kardashian mania that goes on when I’m not there (to be honest, I’ve never seen anything with the Kardasians in it. They could be lovely people).
I’m not convinced, though. I think my friends are great parents because I get to watch them so much. And I think that most of them are close enough to me to let their guard down. I’m not the friend that just comes over for dinner every so often. I’m the one who spends 12 hours there. I tend to show up and we go on adventures. It was once me and Travis back when we were in high school. Now it’s a family affair. I love it. So I believe that to what extent this is possible, I get to see my friends really parent their kids. I maintain that they’re good at it.
Here is why I think this. I watch them communicate with their kids. I see the way they talk to them. I am sort of a sponge for this kind of thing and it’s probably out of a lot of reasons that go back to my childhood, but that’s a different essay, a different book altogether. Sometimes I feel like I’m observing the art of parenthood the way an alien would quietly take in the quirks of the human race. I study it, and I hope to the good Lord that I’m taking it in so that when my time comes I’ll be able to actually help my children thrive.
At first I noticed how my friends would get down on their kid’s level, how they would look them in the eye. From even a couple of years ago I can hear Travis’s voice as he asks his oldest daughter a question, as he explains the nature of what just happened to his oldest son. They started doing this work from the very beginning, and it was amazing to witness how responsive a two year old could be to direction if they had been talked to early on. That was the first lesson: communicate everything. Everything. It looks, from my perspective, to be really hard work, but I suppose it’s the type of work that makes everything else a little bit easier down the road. Or at least that’s my naive hope.
I noticed something else the other day that I hadn’t picked up on before. I notice that my friends, Robert and Natalie, Travis and Liz, and so many others, do something else. They give their kids choices. They have choices in every context, so they understand that they can pick their own destiny, yet there will be consequences or rewards depending on the action. Right now the choices line up with with everyday ecstasies and heartbreaks like treats, bath times, and wether or not they really need another item from Pixar’s never-ending stream of “Cars” products. Later on, however, we’ll see a whole new set of choices emerge. As a wise man I know always says, “Life gets better, but life gets harder.” As I’m experiencing this march into full-maturity, this quest of sorts, I ponder how right he is. Our choices become more complex, and provided that we act with wisdom (sometimes I do, many times I do not), then the consequences or rewards are proportionally as filling and deep. It’s very simple, the sort of thing that my grandfather would have explained to me had he lived on.
This is amazing to see now, and I realize that many people know this stuff intuitively because they had parents who bred it into them, who mixed it in with the applesauce. My experience was a bit different. For me it often feels like I’m discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls.
A kid that doesn’t know he has choices, I think, begins to see the world as a matter of inevitability. He can start to slowly believe that things just happen. It’s a mark of passivity, which might be the single most unattractive quality in anyone.
So I watch the way Robert or Liz talk to their children, giving them a way, giving them a set of options with explained consequences for whichever path is taken. I see Benjamin and Amaris make a decision. I see them taking ownership for their own lives, even though they’re incredibly young. It’s beautiful, I’ve begun to realize.
I read an article the other day that was just amazing. It had to do with Creating vs. Consuming, and the former being a standard mark of maturity in a man. Just about every line rings with clarity and knowing.
The author speaks of how boys consume. Their capacity for pleasure is shallow and superficial, so they constantly need to go back to the well and get filled up. It doesn’t last so they just need more. It’s exhausting for everyone, and it’s an empty pursuit.
A man, however, learns to gain pleasure through creating. To Make Something gives back over and over again. The joy and pleasure of it’s existence, that which you are responsible for, is like living beside a river. It’s constant, it’s deep, it’s the stuff of life. Mature people create, kids consume. Maturity is dying to your old self and creating a life that is fruitful, that is creative, that gives. We can create just about anything and enjoy it. My friend is currently making a table out of solid cherry. Others are creating families where previously there was none. I’m building a new career, not so I can consume more stuff, but so that I can use my skills and success for the benefit of others: the poor, the disenfranchised, my own kids, my neighbor. That’s what I want to pursue above all things, this kind of maturity that creates. I am a long way off yet.
On Saturday I had brunch with an old friend who I had not seen in a couple of years. She took me over to the old jail on Pryor Street in downtown Atlanta, where she works at what is now the Gateway Center. It’s an amazing program that is working to end homelessness in Atlanta. As we were talking about the programs that they have, I asked her if she believes in what she is doing. She told me that she could point me to countless success stories off the top of her head of people whose lives have completely changed. She told me that every person that comes to them has a choice, and if they don’t want to do it, then they are not captive.
I said, “So you’re saying they have a choice?”
“Yes!”, she said. “It’s human. We have the tools, but they have the choice in what they do with it, what they do with their lives.”
And then it hit me how incredible it is that my friend’s kids, they ones who all call me their uncle, how sweet their life can be and how pleasurable their dance through their years may be as they learn now, at the ages of 2 and 3 and 5 that life does not happen by a matter of the moon and the stars falling out of alignment. Life isn’t passive, it doesn’t just occur. We are making choices still and roads and trails are being taken every moment of every day. We get to pick. And the trick from there, I think, is just to be brave. Or at least more brave than we are afraid.
Jason Tatum now lives in Atlanta, GA as a writer and public relations. He spent three wonderful years in England working with university students and now is trying to run without passing out in the Georgia summer.