April 14, 2016
(++++) FAMILY MATTERS; FAMILIES MATTER
So You’re Going to Be a Dad, Revised Edition. By Peter Downey. Da Capo. $14.99.
Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World. By Susan Silverman. Da Capo. $24.99.
An ample oozing of sincerity is not enough for a modern book on parenting and families. Yes, the treacle must flow, but even treacle – or molasses, if you prefer – must be appropriately sweetened or combined with other ingredients to be palatable. The choice of those other ingredients, which may range from humor to hyper-sincerity, is what separates family-focused books from each other. The new edition of Peter Downey’s So You’re Going to Be a Dad, revised 20 years after its initial 1994 publication, comes down on the “humor” side of things. When it comes to “buying stuff,” for example, Downey makes it a point to refer to the now-customary online shopping experience that was barely on anyone’s wallet’s radar in the mid-1990s: “A quick stroll through your local baby-equipment store or baby expo or online warehouse will leave your head spinning at the almost infinite number of baby-related products, gizmos and accessories available on the market. (Bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing as ‘Nipple Butter,’ huh?) Don’t be bamboozled by all the stuff you see. There is a lot of junk on the market, and you don’t actually need all the bits ’n’ pieces, so be wary.” This is a pretty good encapsulation of what Downey has done here: there may be new places to buy baby junk, but it is still junk; and if a father is still as clueless as Downey thinks dads (including Downey himself) were 20-some years ago, he still needs to be warned about bamboozlement. It could, however, be argued that today’s dads are more likely than Downey realizes to know exactly what nipple butter is; and there are ways in which Downey’s writing seems almost quaint, for instance in such mundane remarks as “you and your wife will need to make some decisions” – a phrase whose first part might nowadays more frequently appear as “you and your partner.” Nevertheless, Downey manages to make many of his points with humor that remains fresh, as in his comment about a woman who wanted a female obstetrician because having a male one “was like having a vegetarian teach you how to barbecue ribs.”
Downey neatly intersperses humorous personal stories with his humorous more-general ones; for example, in discussing the likelihood of a sexually active woman becoming pregnant in any given month, he remarks, “Meredith and I turned out to be as fertile as the Nile Delta and only need to drink from the same coffee cup for her to start feeling sick in the morning.” Presumably Downey’s wife, Meredith, is fine with this – they have three children together, after all – and presumably one reason for that is that So You’re Going to Be a Dad is filled with so much useful material that it really can serve as a make-it-through-pregnancy guide for many fathers-to-be (and can give mothers-to-be something they can tell fathers-to-be that they should go read for a while so the mothers-to-be can take it easy, doggone it). Downey deserves credit for trying to come up with male-friendly ways to describe elements of the pregnancy-and-birth process: “Contractions are generally described as intense period pain (a useless description for us guys) or extreme abdominal and back cramps. (Maybe think medicine ball and testicles?)” He deserves additional credit for making even the most stress-provoking elements of the whole process amusing, at least when they are not happening to you. For example, if the baby insists on being born while you are driving to the hospital, “Don’t stop in the middle of an intersection or outside a boys’ high school during their lunchbreak. If you’re in a taxi, make sure the driver turns the meter off.” And he adds that if the baby is actually born in your vehicle, you should remember, after things calm down, to “put your car up for sale for half its market value.” The point of all the humor is to make the genuine information – of which there is plenty – go down more easily for men who have not accompanied their partners through pregnancy and childbirth before or, if they have done so, have forgotten what it was like since the last time it happened. Downey does allow feelings about the wonder of it all to peek through, but he makes sure that readers stay focused more on the amusing aspects of the whole situation, as when he recommends that fathers “invest in a diaper-changing outfit. A wetsuit, oxygen tank, welding mask, blacksmith’s gloves and a wooden spoon will do you nicely.” Or when he discusses which pets are more or less risky to have around babies, remarking, “Turtles are aggressive, but they move so slowly that you’ve got about four days to head off a direct attack.” It is impossible to tell from this book what kind of father Downey himself is, or how he prepared himself for fatherhood back in the 1990s, but he does say that “becoming a dad redefined me,” which seems like a pretty good summation of the experience. What the new edition of So You’re Going to Be a Dad offers is an updated version of what the original one provided: the sense that it is, indeed, possible to get through the whole experience of becoming a father by simply laughing about it to the greatest extent possible.
There is humor as well in Susan Silverman’s Casting Lots, but it is calculated humor, deliberately designed to balance the considerable intensity of the book’s message and its foundational save-the-world-or-at-least-a-little-piece-of-it morality. This is a book about adoption, but not just any adoption: it is about international adoption, and the circumstances that led Silverman to become the founder of a nonprofit group called JustAdopt. It is about interracial adoption, about the notion (mistaken, Silverman strongly argues) that adoption in Western countries is a new form of colonialism, about the concept (also mistaken, also strongly argued) that children “belong” to their birth parents. It is, in other words, a book about heavy subjects, and Silverman obviously realizes this and tries to lighten things up with occasional wry humor. This does not work very well – the amusing elements almost always feel forced, a diversion from the real material to which Silverman cannot wait to return – and the lightening never lasts long. Silverman’s Jewish faith is a big driver of what she does – she is a rabbi as well as an activist – but she tries to broaden the appeal of what she writes by describing the tribulations of her own birth family, in religious matters as well as secular ones: “My parents were do disdainful of religion that they once jokingly threatened to punish me when I confessed to believing in God, but our new house was so Americana perfect that one Christmas, we even had Christmas. …But there was no Christmas miracle for this bunch of Jews.” No, there was not: Silverman’s parents divorced, and it was only later that they remarried and came into themselves as parents after finding new life partners. Silverman connects the elements of her background to her own adult life and her experiences with international adoptions. And certainly there is emotion here, but there is a studied feeling to it in Silverman’s writing: “The red tones of his brown skin deepened against the stark white cotton with hand stitching. His little bare feet were heart-burstingly soft against the bumpy blue embroidery at the hem of the pant legs, and the large four-petal blue and black flower embroidered on the shirt seemed to reflect the expansiveness in his huge dark eyes.”
Readers of this (+++) book will have to decide for themselves whether it is primarily a call to action, a celebration of love that knows no boundaries, or an explanation of real-world boundaries that really do exist and need to be overcome if one wishes to adopt internationally; whether it is heartwarming or overstated, funny or assertively comic, wise or merely clever. It is a book with a mission, to be sure, but whether it is convincing in furthering that mission is another matter. Its most involving elements are those in which Silverman’s self-assurance and righteousness reveal self-doubt underneath, as when she finds out that Adar, adopted from Ethiopia, has been asking God – referred to in this family as She, not He – to turn his skin white: “When he called God a She, as I had taught him, I felt a surge of guilt. Not only was Adar different from his family, he was different from God. Was I making him as alienated from his spiritual source as he was from his biological source? My control in the creation of Adar’s world was all too apparent. It usually went under the radar of our daily lives, but when you rewrite God, it’s hard to miss.” It is certainly hard to miss Silverman’s sincerity, but it is also hard to fathom everything she is getting at in this combination memoir and advocacy pamphlet. She has indeed created a family that works for her and a way to focus on a cause in which she believes, but the story here is so individualized, so one-of-a-kind, that Casting Lots is not the sort of book that seems likely to bring many others to the societal barricades with her.