Lost in Space: a Father’s Journey There and Back Again
When I found out I was going to be a dad, I read. As I read scores of books on the Bradley method and the science of the female body, I found that there were no good books geared specifically for dads. I’m still perplexed with this. Maybe it’s simple economics: fathers are traditionally uninvolved with pregnancy beyond buying ice cream or cheeseburgers at three AM and holding onto a leg or a hand during labor—if that—, so the percentage of shelf space at the local bookstore for dad-to-be guides is quite narrow. Maybe it’s that dads aren’t traditionally literate types, but that doesn’t seem to jive right, either. During our prenatal journey, my wife and I met plenty of eager fathers, many which were building their own cribs, researching the best reusable diaper brand, or attending afternoon swaddling lessons and monthly support groups with their pregnant partners. However, when I make a quick perusal on Amazon for dad books, the general vibe is that fathers are idiots.
John Pfeiffer’s book Dude, You’re Gonna Be a Dad!: How to Get (Both of You) Through the Next 9 Months placed a serious strain on my friendship with a dad after he loaned it to me. I was so infuriated by the pervasive hokum of this guide that after the third time complaining about the dreck within, my friend gently asked me to just stop reading the book and return it to him. I will concede that I may have misread the rapport between my friend and I, but even the author’s bio from the book’s cover reveals a systemic problem with dad books:
John Pfeiffer is a married father of three. With a stepdaughter, a naturally conceived daughter, and a baby by way of a threesome (with an IVF specialist), Pfeiffer is especially qualified to take expectant dads all the way through pregnancy’s home stretch. He lives with his wife and kids in Georgia.
Just reading that makes my eyes roll back into my head so hard that I get a headache. I also feel it incumbent upon myself to point out that this book of advice by way of low-brow baseball and beer jokes is number five in the bestselling fatherhood books on Amazon and has ninety-four five star ratings.
Pfeiffer’s book is just the tip of the Bro, her tits are gonna get huuuuuuge iceberg; there are plenty more books of the beer in baby bottles ilk, books like Ian Davis’s My Boys Can Swim (Yes, the cover does have sperm on it!), and even more dad books with the most maudlin, misty-eyed navel-gazing about the pure ecstasy of fatherhood. These all left me dissatisfied as I was preparing for my impending fatherhood.
The only book I read that had a satisfyingly believable tone was Nick Duerden’s The Reluctant Father’s Club, but that book is more about the author’s apprehension towards becoming a father, and by the time I got to it I had already accepted my fatherly fate. I am told that Michael Lewis’s Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood is also a satisfyingly realistic read about being a dad, but the sports metaphor title leaves me wary. That’s why I was excited when I found out Ben Tanzer had a new collection of essays about being a dad.
Ben Tanzer represents the dream. His writing is prolific, literary, and smart, and he pulls it off while still being a dad. (I should be so lucky.) This is the main reason why I’m drawn to Lost in Space: A Father’s Journey There and Back Again, but I would like to believe that even if I wasn’t a Tanzer fanboy I would get something out of this collection.
The essays within range from anecdotal narratives to short analyses of popular films and television, as in “The Don Draper Interlude: a Mad Men guide to raising children,” all of which contain chestnuts of fatherly wisdom. This line from the aforementioned “Don Draper” breakdown contains more useful advice than any parenting guide I’ve ever come across:
Herein lies the rub, you never quite feel like you know what you’re doing when it comes to parenting, and jokes aside about the lack of training manuals, you don’t know, you listen, you guide, you try to stay engaged and be empathic. But at the end of the day as you lie in bed with your partner or the child themselves, you don’t know shit, and you can’t do anything to quite shake that feeling. The only thing you can truly do is decide whether or not you’re in or you’re out, and if you’re in, you need to buckle-up.
And that’s just in one paragraph.
The title essay is especially affecting. “Lost in Space” details a medical scare that Tanzer and his wife had with their second son. As a father of a NICU baby, I was able to completely identify with the thought processes behind dealing with an ill child. Tanzer writes “Is this a bad dream? No it’s just parenting I tell myself, nothing more, nothing less” after a night of tending one son’s stomach virus and another’s surgery preparations.
After spending a week in Neonatal intensive care, I developed a desperate need for affirmation—someone to tell me that my wife and I were making the right choices. If only I had this book eight months ago. Ben Tanzer’s calm and frank approach to describing his son’s spinal malady allows his readers a sense of reprieve from the seas of doubt that encompass parenthood. And then, he offers such wise, lucid advice:
You see there’s an empty space in your life and you want to fill it. You have a child and then you see that they also have empty spaces in their lives and you try to fill those. Maybe its soccer or art, or maybe it’s another sibling.
Sometimes those empty spaces get filled with anxiety if you’re not sure how your life, or your child’s, is going to turn out, and other times the space is filled with fear, because it’s all so unwieldy and so many bad things seem to happen so often.
There is joy as well, of course, but regardless, you never quite know what you’re looking at, or what the right decision is. You can hide from these decisions of course, … but ultimately you have to try and figure it out, you have to hope for the best, and most of the time, … you find out that all your fears and anxieties are in your head, and it is time to move on to the next thing.
He articulates the most simultaneously challenging and rewarding part of fatherhood. This level-headed honesty features throughout the collection as Tanzer shares his parenting triumphs as well as his failures (such as trying to talk to his oldest son about individuality and failing miserably). He ruminates on lying to his children by saying his deceased father is waiting for him in the clouds a la The Lion King and even admits to not always liking his family.
It’s difficult to think about disliking your children at times or being helpless as a new parent, but, frankly, these are some of the most prevalent feelings that comes alongside raising children. This candor probably doesn’t sell copies of What to Expect…, but if more books could set aside their puerile approach many new dads would be better off. Lost in Space strikes an excellent balance of sincerity, realistic advice, and humor. I certainly know what I’m bringing to the next “dadchelor party” I’m invited to.