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Raising Raffi is a portrait of the author as modern father

Still sad, no longer young, kind of literary.

The cover of the book “Raising Raffi: The First Five Years,” by Keith Gessen. Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Bryan Walsh is an editorial director at Vox overseeing the climate, tech, and world teams, and is the editor of Vox’s Future Perfect section. He worked at Time magazine for 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia, a climate writer, and an international editor, and he wrote a book on existential risk.

“There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” So wrote the English literary critic Cyril Connolly in his 1938 book Enemies of Promise, wherein he left no doubt about the identity of the No. 1 barrier to literary greatness: children. The burdens of domesticity, Connolly argued, would sap the promising writer of the time and oxygen they needed to achieve greatness at the only thing that really mattered, which was very much not their family. It’s an astringent line, one still regularly asked of authors to this day. Must they choose between the perfection of the life or the perfection of the work?

Sorry, did I say “they”? Writing in the 1930s, Connolly made it clear that the choice was only to be made by one category: men. Family life, he wrote, could only work for the writer if he had money and “a wife who is intelligent and unselfish enough to understand and respect the working of the unfriendly cycle of the creative imagination.” The pram in the hall was Mom’s problem, and it was her job to ensure that its occupant didn’t get in the way of Dad’s creative freedom.

So men got the chance to be Writers with a capital W, and they could also be fathers, provided there was someone else there to do the most if not all of the actual work of parenting. If literary merit was implicitly associated with freedom from familial responsibilities — if not necessarily freedom from a family — it gave male authors even more of a leg up than they already had. They could have it all, while female authors could not.

Despite that, however, many of those male authors didn’t seem to make the best fathers. About a third of the way through Keith Gessen’s new parenthood book Raising Raffi: The First Five Years, a memoir of the early years with his first child, I began to wonder: What would it look like if literary lions of the past had decided to try their hand at fatherhood books? How about four-time-married Ernest Hemingway, whose youngest child once wrote, “I felt profound relief when they lowered my father’s body into the ground”? Or F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote lovely if perhaps ill-advised letters to his only child Scottie, which probably didn’t quite make up for the years of alcoholism and mental illness that marked her childhood? Or William Faulkner, who put it bluntly when he told his daughter, “No one remembers Shakespeare’s children.”

Gessen, for those who weren’t physically or spiritually in Brooklyn during the first decade of this century, is in many ways the modern descendant of those literati. He is best known for co-founding n+1 in 2004, a left-wing print and digital literary magazine that resembled those finely crafted cocktails that became popular in New York around the same time. Take one part 21st century Marxism, one part high-end literature, one part, uh, Harvard, shake well, then toss out and serve beer and cheap wine at the parties. Gessen is a novelist twice over, a translator of Nobel Prize-winning authors, a Columbia University teacher, and a literary journalist who covers the war in Ukraine for the New Yorker. He is a very serious writer and a very serious guy. And in Raising Raffi, he makes it clear that he is very serious — if frequently confused and confounded — about what he calls the “simultaneously mundane and significant” act of fatherhood.

Simply by virtue of the fact that Gessen doesn’t treat the occupants of those prams — in addition to now 7-year-old Raffi, Gessen and his wife (the novelist, publisher, and blogger Emily Gould) have 3-year-old Ilya — as an obstacle to his writing career, he’s done something unique and valuable. In doing so, he’s demonstrated the enormous weight that “parenting” — a verb that only came into vogue in the 1970s — takes on for the highly educated, city-dwelling, and just somewhat neurotic members of his gender and class. (Notably, women have been pulling off this act for decades with less notice and fewer plaudits.) And as a fellow member of that class — the putting-words-in-a-computer, small-child-having in a too-small-Brooklyn-apartment class — I have to say: I feel seen.

Which isn’t to say that any of us have any idea what we’re doing, or what these children we’re so busy raising will become.

All the sad young(ish) literary dads

Gessen makes two remarks early in Raising Raffi that set the stage for the experiences that will follow. “I was part of the first generation of men who, for various reasons, were spending more time with their kids than previous generations,” he writes. “That seemed notable to me.” For many dads — especially the kind of fathers like Gessen and I might know — this is largely true. A 2016 study found that fathers on average were spending triple the time on child care than dads were 50 years ago. The bar has been raised, and we know it’s up to us to meet it.

A little later, though, Gessen says something else. Writing about his life before Raffi arrived, Gessen notes: “I had always assumed that I’d have kids, but I had spent zero minutes thinking about them. In short, though not young, I was stupid.” That tracks. Spend some time surfing through Gessen’s pre-Raffi writing, and you’ll find that children rarely if ever appear. And while not every Brooklyn dad is a writer — it just seems that way sometimes — the life path Gessen describes is common enough. His sibling, the journalist and critic Masha Gessen, put it this way in an interview with the Cut: “There’s a particular narrative to the maturation of an American male, urban, of a certain class, who just, like, doesn’t have to take care of anybody for a really, really long time,” they said. “You’re a fully formed human being by the time you have to take care of another person.”

The result for us dads is going from 0-60 in what feels like about three seconds. A new being, utterly defenseless and utterly incomprehensible, enters your world, and you have no preparation, no life experience, for how to deal with it. And unlike many of our own fathers, there’s no escaping to the office or the bar. We are in it, whatever it will turn out to be.

Presented with what he doesn’t know, Gessen falls back on what he does: books, interviews, and eventually — when he can spare the time — writing. (Though writing actually directed at dads he finds mostly useless: “In the few books out there, we were either stupid dad, who can’t do anything right, or superdad, a self-proclaimed feminist and caretaker.”) Some of the best parts of Raising Raffi are when Gessen applies the same deep reading he might have directed pre-child toward a work by the Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich to, like, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Reading Raising Raffi after having gone through the same experience is like meeting a guy and discovering you’re into many of the same bands. “Oh, you liked Michael Cohen’s The New Basics? I dug his early stuff, but now I’m really getting into Harvey Karp’s Happiest Baby on the Block.” Just, you know, much less cool.

Gessen is particularly good on the sheer bewilderment of the very earliest days of parenthood. Whether you have a home birth, as Gould did, or in a hospital, at some point the doulas or the doctors deliver the baby, hand it over to you … and, more or less, that’s it. Leaving the hospital with our son a day after he was born, I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was going to stop us, ask us for our identification or our qualifications. But they didn’t. “They had left us with a little baby,” Gessen writes, “and we had no idea what to do with it.”

Nothing demonstrates that more than Gessen’s notion — which he is quickly disabused of — that he could balance writing and caring for a tiny, squalling being incapable of sleeping for more than two hours at a time. “As for rocking the baby to keep him from crying while you write emails or your novel, you can sort of do that, but the trick is that to keep the baby from crying you usually have to pick him up,” he writes. “That makes it harder to write your novel.” (At moments like this — and really throughout much of Raising Raffi, from which she is often absent — I wondered what Gould, who had her own vibrant writing career to keep up, thought of Gessen’s assumptions.)

Infancy passes in a blur of sleepless nights, breastfeeding for Gould, and “look[ing] up something online that was worrying me” for Gessen. To a father, it all feels very familiar, as well it should. The parenting experience is most universal when children are at their youngest. Infants, you quickly discover, don’t really have personalities; at best, they have traits. They might be a relatively good sleeper, as our baby was, or they might be restless, as Raffi was. Gessen describes being bombarded with advice “from our parents, our friends, from strangers, and then of course books and the internet.” There are endless routes to only one destination: keep them alive, which Gessen and Gould do manage.

But then Raffi begins to mature, and the act of parenting — and the book — gets more interesting, individual, and so much more difficult.

Bear Dad

As Raffi grows as an individual, so does Gessen as a dad, bringing his own life experience to bear as a parent and father. For Gessen, that doesn’t just mean writing, but his experience as a Russian-born immigrant who came with his family to the US at the age of 6. Some of the best parts of the book involve Gessen’s attempts to raise his child bilingual, speaking to him chiefly in Russian. Closely reading Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom, Gessen begins to imagine creating an ideal fusion of his Russian American upbringing: “Bear Dad,” as Gould nicknames him, though she cautions Gessen that it may make people think his book is “about being a cute, hairy gay guy.” (As the line suggests, “Bear Dad” isn’t quite a defined parenting style.)

It goes, as so much of the parenting does during Raffi’s often difficult toddler years, not all that great. Though at home he’s the stricter parent, when he takes Raffi to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Gessen is chastised by his Russian relatives for being too lenient, and finds himself caught between cultures as a parent. (Maybe he should have listened to his sibling, who remarks in the book that “the chief distinguishing characteristic of Russian parenting was a hatred of children.”) Gessen retained his native Russian at some effort in the US as a way to remain linked to his own parents, especially his mother, who died of breast cancer when he was a teenager. But Raffi doesn’t have those links, and “his failure to learn it was hard not to take personally.” That frustrates Gessen, as does his “adorable little boy’s” habit of punching him on the nose. Which makes Gessen — understandably, I’d say — a little angry.

Anger is the shadowland of modern fatherhood. My earliest memories of my own father are shaded by his occasional bouts of anger; not just the eruptions, but the wondering when it would burst forth. Our relationship has largely been repaired since, but the memory of that fear colors my own parenting. I strive to be gentle, to be nice, to be easy with my son, even when it isn’t easy. (And I wonder: Was the anger always there and I’ve only noticed now that the occasional object is a small, helpless being?) Nothing can flood me with shame faster than when I fail — a feeling Gessen describes well:

“‘Dada’s not nice.’ The words cut me to the quick. If there was one thing I aspired to, it was nice. I wanted to be nice. I wanted my son to feel that I was a warm presence in his life. ... I was finding it very hard.”

Did Hemingway worry about being nice to his children? Did Faulkner? (Based off the quotes at the start of the piece, I’m going to imagine no.) But we modern, involved, doting dads — we want to be nice. We need to be nice. And we don’t always succeed. “Instead of an articulate, ironic, permissive American father,” Gessen writes, “Raffi is getting a mushy, sometimes yelly Russian father with a limited vocabulary.” It’s a scouringly honest line, even if it explains why “Bear Dad” is unlikely to catch on as much as “Tiger Mom.”

The tragedy of parenthood

There’s more to Raising Raffi, like Gessen’s attempts to get his son interested in sports, which is opposed by both Gould (who believes organized sports “inculcated violence and were implicated in rape culture”) and by Raffi (who’d rather play with his Transformers and watch “Wild Kratts”). A writer who has always paid attention to the material realities of society, he’s particularly good on the way that “having a baby altered how I thought about money. Before Raffi, there was nothing that people with more money had that I actually wanted. Now they did.” And he is absolutely right about the single most important rule of parenting: “You should be as close as possible to your kids’ day care.” (Parenting in New York, like all else in the city, comes down to real estate.)

As Gessen himself acknowledges, many, many women have been down this road before, including literary authors like Louise Erdich and Anne Enright. There’s no single line in Raising Raffi as good as Gould’s description in the Cut profile of her husband as “the Christopher Columbus of mommy blogging.” Modern dads may be far more involved than many of their own fathers were — let alone Gessen’s male literary antecedents — but on average we still spend barely more than half the time mothers spend with their children. We desire some recognition that the act of modern fatherhood — a book we’re all in the process of writing — is worthy of close attention and effort, something Raising Raffi provides, but we’re also smart enough to know that our partners face even more pressure.

As for our children, we want far more, we fathers caught in what Gessen calls “the tragedy of parenthood.” We want them to be like ourselves, but “better, and freer, and happier,” as he writes, to maximize all our best qualities and minimize those parts of ourselves that we wish didn’t exist but do. It’s an impossible wish, as impossible as trying to write a great novel when the main character wants to take over the story halfway through. (Try that, Faulkner.) But at the very least, we want points for trying. Which, when all is said and done, is the most dad goal possible.