“MY RELATIONSHIP WITH MY SON FEELS LIKE A ROUGH DRAFT. IT’S UNCHARTED TERRITORY.”
Photo by Sara Epstein.
An Interview with Brian Gresko
It’s funny to present Brian Gresko formally. As one of my brother’s childhood friends, he’s always lurked in my mental picture of our extended family. Why would he need introducing? (He did, however, always warrant both names, “Brian Gresko”, to distinguish him from the nameless rabble of Brians and Jennifers crowding schoolyards in the 1980s.)
I lost track of Brian when he and my brother entered different high schools. A good decade-and-a-half later, I noticed his byline popping up on The Huffington Post, The Atlantic.com, Salon, and The Daily Beast—interviewing great fiction writers I also admired. Following that modern rabbit-hole, the clickable link, I discovered it was the self-same Brian Gresko of yore, curiously unaltered from his boyish self, now a stay-at-home dad and writer whose work spans the life parental as well as literary. In addition to his writing on culture and gender roles, he writes excellently about parenting in a daily blog for Babble and others. He’s also the editor of the anthology When I First Held You, featuring twenty-two critically acclaimed authors on fatherhood, due out on May 6th from Berkley Books.
Brian and I recently caught up over drinks in Brooklyn. Minus the itchy Catholic-school plaid and plus boozier drinks, it felt like no time had passed at all. We’ve been in regular touch since, even more so since I got pregnant and had my first child, a son, last fall. We conducted this interview as parents of young children do, on nights and weekends, via what we dubbed “the world’s slowest game of email tennis.”
I. FEAR CAN BE A SIGN THAT WE’RE ON AN IMPORTANT TRACK
THE BELIEVER: We’re here to talk about your anthology on fatherhood, but starting there feels like putting the cart before the horse. When and how did you know you were ready to become a father yourself?
BRIAN GRESKO:The when and where is easy: in the fall of 2006, in the outskirts of Shanghai, China. The how is a bit more involved. I’ve always liked kids, but the thought of being a dad scared me; it seemed so responsible, something a grown-up would do. I knew I’d screw it up somehow, and don’t like entering races I know I can’t win. But my girlfriend—whom I moved in with in my mid-twenties—wanted a family, and as thirty crept up I felt her need was becoming more urgent.
At the time, I was teaching middle school in East Harlem. I’d give my students pep talks about taking creative risks, but I wasn’t doing much to follow my own dreams of becoming a writer. I spent three weeks in China one summer and realized that living abroad could help me wake myself up.
I ended up at a private school in Shanghai with a secret missionary bent. I wasn’t just expatriated from my country; I also didn’t fit in well with the other teachers, most of whom had rural and conservative backgrounds. It was hard, at times depressing. Nothing like what I thought it would be. My first morning there I broke down crying on the phone with my parents. Dark times! But it did the trick. I kept a blog about my experience, and for the first time in my life fell into a daily discipline of writing—not just journaling, but writing for a readership. I decided to apply to MFA programs.
I had a small group of friends and we became close very fast. We called ourselves “the heathens.” At one point, I was talking about my fear of fatherhood and my buddy said, “You’re crazy—you’d be a great father.” Hearing that from someone I’d just met shocked me. I had the courage to relocate, and start writing, and my girlfriend had supported me the whole time—I felt like an idiot for avoiding an experience I was curious about just because of anxiety.
At some point after that, lying on my yoga mat and listening to Brian Eno in my spartan apartment, I realized I wanted to come back to New York for my MFA and marry my girlfriend, and accepted that would entail parenthood. So my decisions to be a writer and a dad came from the same catalyst.
BLVR: You actually said something similar to me that prompted me towards parenthood. I told you my husband and I had been circling around the idea but also weren’t ready to act. And you said: “Parenthood is like a moth circling a flame. If you’re that attracted to it that you can’t fly away, you just gotta plunge.” It was both reassuring and badass: reassuring to accept fear as a necessary part of the equation, and badass because plunging into your fear IS totally badass.
Even as I type this, I realize: plunging into your fear is a pretty fair characterization of writing, too. How do you manage anxiety in parenting and writing?
BG: Some days it feels like the anxiety manages me. It certainly keeps me up at night. (Some badass, eh?) But anxiety isn’t a bad thing in the right dose. It can be easy to find excuses not to write, or to get stuck in endless revision, or frozen with indecision. But when you have kids you feel compelled to use what little time you have available. Also, I felt pressure to build a career so that I could prove both to myself and, eventually, to Felix, that I was capable of making my dreams come true.
But there’s so much to be anxious about, even when things are going well. Right now, for instance, I’m both thrilled and nervous about the upcoming anthology. Am I doing the best job I can to promote it? What are my next steps, career-wise? And how can I make more money? In his essay in the anthology, Frederick Reiken writes: “I have the sense that any father, regardless of income level, has a moment in which he looks at his first child and thinks, My God. I need more money!” That’s definitely been the case for me.
Every parent can find no end of things to worry about, from development, to schools, to the way that we spin the roulette wheel of fate when we step outside our door. Just today I heard a report about the number of people killed while crossing the street—even when they had the right of way—because of negligent drivers. That’s life, but when you have a child to care for you see more clearly how little control we have over the world.
BLVR: Very true, sir. Kids and writing both put you in the bulls-eye of a kind of permanent anxiety, rendered odder by the fact that it’s willfully chosen. Do any other contributors to your book write well about this anxiety?
BG: Dennis Lehane lists delusions that fatherhood has stripped him of, the first being that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” He writes: “Since my children were born, I fear everything. At its worst, the fear jolts me awake in the gray just before dawn, heart thumping away. At its best, it lurks, as politely as something can lurk, behind most of my thoughts.” The world presents a sharp contrast to the sweet, bright light of your child; you see a lot of shadows.
I find the best thing to do with these fears is not to push them down, but to put them on the page. In this regard, writing can be a helpful thing for a parent. Writing about fatherhood has helped my relationship with Felix; it’s clarified my feelings when confused, and alleviated my anxieties by giving me a release valve for airing them.
When I was a kid, your brother and I used to watch a lot of horror movies, and I read a lot of Stephen King. I’ve always had an overactive imagination, and those things scared the hell out of me. I slept with a nightlight for years! But they attracted me too, because they deal with vital issues—life and death, good and evil, health and security. Fear can be a sign that we’re on an important track, that we’ve got ahold of something basic and human. A writer should feel some sense of unsettlement about their work, I think. That it’s plumbing deep, dark parts of them.
II. ALL PROCESS AND NO PRODUCT
BLVR: I find fatherhood so much more interesting than motherhood—probably first because motherhood is so well-plumbed as a literary topic, but also because fatherhood is so conceptual, so much in the brain. As a woman, I was struck by how immediately physical parenthood is, starting with pregnancy. It’s bracing actually, to be taken out of your head for a change. But men could literally deposit their teaspoonful of sperm and just walk away. It’s only the concept of fatherhood, a strong idea, that hooks them.
What under-explored side of fatherhood did you want to reveal in this book?
VG: Like you, I was also curious to know how other guys feel about fatherhood. Probably all dads would say they love their kids, but I was curious about the shape of that feeling, and its location, and all the mystery you alluded to.
I did, though, believe that feeling isn’t inherent in conception or pregnancy as much as it’s engendered from the presence of the baby. In my introduction I talk about how I didn’t know my biological father until recently. He was a teenager when my mom told him she was pregnant. He said he wasn’t ready for kids and offered her money for an abortion. She refused, and then he dropped out of the picture, and her family was pretty upset about the whole situation too.
In the course of the pregnancy she turned to her old high school sweetheart for support. They had been engaged twice but called it off both times, and then she took up with my bio-dad. But they rekindled a friendship, and later a romance, and he was with her the night I was born, and he’s been there for us ever since. This was always amazing to me: here’s a guy who isn’t my dad but who feels compelled to make all the sacrifices a parent makes in order to give me a good upbringing, while the guy who did the deed wouldn’t have come back into my life had I not sought him out myself. When I did talk to my bio-dad, he said he was remorseful about walking away, but I haven’t talked with him in months; he’s not really a part of my life.
A lot of fathers, and some mothers as well, don’t really feel like a parent until their child is born, and then they feel it deeply and physically. That’s why the collection is titled When I First Held You. I think that’s a powerful moment for a father: if it’s not the moment then it’s a big part of when fatherhood hits you in the gut. How could it not? It can come even later, though. In his essay, Stephen O’Connor writes: “The true intensity of our attachment to [a] person only becomes fully conscious when we think we are going to lose him or her.” His piece tells about how he made a rash decision that endangered his son’s life, and it’s only because of that traumatic event that he came to feel a real sense of fatherly love for his son.
BLVR: Oh, fucking up is a classic theme of both writing and raising kids, and also a key difference between the two. When you fuck up at writing, you can easily erase and no one ever need read it. (I guess there are exceptions, like foolishly publishing a bad piece of work, which is easier than ever to do nowadays.) Raising kids, though, means every decision is terrifyingly live and ongoing, never a chance to rewind. You’ve been at the parenthood thing several years longer than me. Any reaction to that?
BG: Kids are more elastic than you think. They’re flexible and open to change—something adults can become better at by hanging out with them.
I’ve made some stupid moves as a parent, probably the worst being the attempt to discipline my son by spanking. He’s got a naturally defiant temperament, which in many ways I admire. But as a toddler it got intense: he’d kick and punch my wife and me, or do this sonic attack by screaming at glass-shattering levels. We didn’t feel safe in the midst of these tantrums, and sought advice from other parents. We heard from a few older folks, our parents included, “Well, in my time we’d spank a boy like that and it’d be the end of it.” So I tried it, and it didn’t work at all, and left everyone in the family feeling horrible. Worse, my son would say “I’m going to spank you now” when he hit me! Turns out violence isn’t a good reaction to violence—surprise, surprise. So we flipped the script and said, “No one hits anyone in this family. You can whack a pillow, or get a hug, or walk away.” That did a much better job.
I worried I had done some permanent damage with the spanking, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. If anything, he’s proud, like “I don’t get spanked anymore, we talk things out, which is what big boys do.” My relationship with him—with anyone, really—feels like a rough draft. It’s uncharted territory. And like any rough draft I make wrong turns and mistakes and have to revise and rewrite midstream. Where the metaphor breaks down is that this draft will never be complete; as he grows and changes our relationship will too. It’s all process and no product—which is really where my interest lies in writing as well. The real excitement lies in working things out on the page, more so than the finished result.
III. BATON-PASSING ON AN ETERNAL PLANE
BLVR: You wrote a great essay about the peculiarly sublime boredom of hanging out all day with a kid. What do your contributors have to say about parenthood and boredom? I struggle with that, but I’ve noticed fathers seem better at matter-of-factly accepting the contradiction: you can love your kid like crazy but find spending loads of time with him or her dull. Moms seem to beat themselves up more about it—at least I do.
BG: Non-parents and even working parents sometimes think staying home with a kid is all fun and lollipops. They don’t understand how hard it is to avoid going batshit crazy when you’re listening to “Free to Be You and Me” for the nine millionth time that day, or playing the same damn game of pretend over and over for hours on end.
Two contributors in particular really get at this. Chris Bachelder’s essay “Father’s Prayer” about how his two daughters talk a mile a minute every minute from the moment they open their eyes to when they finally fall asleep is hilarious, especially if you read it aloud. He perfectly captures the inanity and zaniness of how kids speak. Bruce Machart’s “A World in Which We Refuse to Play,” about how he loves his son but hates make-believe, is also very funny, and is something all fiction writers can relate to. It’s pleasurable to retreat into your own imagination when penning a short story or novel, but putting on a puppet show during a long car ride for your toddler is the mental equivalent of a root-canal.
BLVR: Let’s finish with a lightning round: What’s your favorite moment or quote in the book? Mine is the final anecdote in Ben Greenman’s essay. It’s too beautiful to condense entirely, but it’s about how becoming a parent changes your relationship to time. He watches his sons playing basketball and thinks, “Time accumulates as a mass inside the mind when you know how much it can weigh. Eventually the young will watch the less young pass into time. But this is still very near the beginning.”
I think about this with our 9-month-old son all the time. Here my husband and I have actually created a person we’ll invite to our deathbeds—someone who is still only barely knowable. Just as the beginning of our lives is unknowable to him, his ending will (hopefully) be unknown to me. Parenthood is baton-passing on an eternal plane.
BG: It is really hard for me to pick a favorite, because I have a relationship to all of the essays, and feel strongly about each one. That said, I’ll never forget reading the first essay that arrived in my inbox: Matthew Specktor’s “Our Birds.” In particular, when he writes to his daughter, “I will not fuck you up, Philip Larkin’s famous adage notwithstanding, because no matter how many mistakes I make, and have made, you will never be one. Your mistakes, whatever they are, have already been forgiven, however many years in advance we are of their commission. I may never forgive myself a thing, but your sins will always be pardoned. And whenever I am with you, whenever I hold your hand or carry you in my arms—for however much longer I am permitted to do either—I feel almost pardoned too.”
Jude Stewart writes about design and culture for Slate, the Believer, Fast Company, and Print, among other publications. Her first book ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color is now available from Bloomsbury. Follow her on Twitter @joodstew.