Trawling Daddytypes.com, where it’s been a busy week full of love for wood and hate for Lufthansa, I came across this, from the new compilation of last interviews given by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño:
In the end, one could talk for hours about the relationship between a father and a son. The only clear thing is that a father has to be willing to be spat upon by his son as many times as the son wishes to do it. Even still the father will not have paid a tenth of what he owes because the son never asked to be born. If you brought him into this world, the least you can do is put up with whatever insult he wants to offer.
[The original interview excerpt came through Biblioklept, a site which, in the dusky twilight before DadWagon began, came up with a list of their five favorite fictional dads that we could not improve upon if we tried.]
I feel a bit guilty about Bolaño: my review copy of The Savage Detectives from 2007 went unread, victim of the time-management calamity that is my life after Dalia. It sits there on my shelf waiting for the day that feels like it will never come, when I have Lots of Time to Read. For now, it’s good to hear Bolaño’s voice in whatever way I can.
And this quote struck me in particular because it claims to offers a way of understanding one of the great cyclical mysteries of parenting: why our children eventually betray us.
I worry about betrayal and abandonment the way that some parents worry about car crashes or swine flu. Except that my fear will certainly come to pass. Because all children betray their parents. They hold grudges. They nurse regrets. They reject advice and screen calls. (And those are the loyal ones. Other children pistol-whip their parents because lunch isn’t ready.)
I understand that most of this is part of normal development, of becoming independent. But in all the time I was busy betraying my father in these little ways, I never knew how much work it takes to be a parent. And more important, how much you care about your kid, and therefore how much those betrayals must hurt.
I know I have at least a decade before my kids’ perfidy begin in earnest. But already I’ve tried to imagine how to cope, and all I’ve been able to come up with is that you have to find a way to distance yourself from your kid, maybe even preemptively. It’s a cold and cowardly idea—that in your heart you should begin rejecting them before they start reject you. Yet nothing else occurred to me.
Until Bolaño. The beauty of what he’s saying is that he doesn’t argue for protecting yourself at all from your sons. Give them an open target for their spit and invective. Because sons don’t owe their fathers anything; on the contrary, the fathers are the ones who owe, for having brought the sons into this world.
A bit ridiculous, right? If Nico could talk, he’d no doubt say he’s more happy to be alive than not. He’s got a lifetime supply of Cheerios, for Chrissakes, and 24-hour butler service. But what Bolaño is really saying is, Don’t pretend that having a kid is some kind of saintly sacrifice. It’s far more self-serving than that. Couples have children for lots of selfish reasons. They have children because they think it will solve problems in their own relationship (a terrible idea, by the way). They have them so that someone can carry on the family name, or so that someone will take care of them when they grow old. Nico, like a lot of second children, was born in part because we thought it would be good for Dalia to have a sibling. That’s not a role that helps him much, nor one that he asked for.
All of which helps me rethink the (hopefully minor) estrangements to come. I am not the victim. I am, as usual, the perp. And when the time comes, I should take my punishment like a man.