Our daughters were raised in a grown-up world, or the real world, if you will, by parental decree. They didn’t have a lot of toys. We had only one television, and it was mainly for political news or the Baltimore Orioles. We didn’t go to children’s museums, or children’s parks, or children’s restaurants. We did not play Candy Land or take them to Disney World. They just lived where we lived and went where we went. This is because their father and I are very selfish people.
We developed our parenting style, if selfishness can be called a style, while dining out one night. We were with Gillea and Maisie, who at the time were toddlers. Seated next to us was a couple with their two daughters, who were probably 10 and 12 years old. The mother and father were seated side by side, wordless, apparently engaged in a no-blinking contest. Across the table their daughters were giggling and yammering about their weird teachers and how they hated their braces.
Fear and insecurity prompted our parenting style. We were afraid that somehow we would lose ourselves.
The two girls were being two girls. The parents, however, were the living dead. We were terrified. They were diminished, as if they had forgotten who they were and certainly how to blink. We were quite sure they never had sex. We ordered another Scotch and called a family meeting. “See those people over there,” we whispered to our daughters. “We will never be that couple. You will never be those girls.” For some reason (reference: Scotch), commandeering dinner topics seemed absolutely critical. “Starting tonight, we have a rule that at dinner we can talk only about ideas, ancestors, and…rules.” Gillea and Maisie had no idea what we were talking about—and neither did we. To this day I cannot remember why we added “rules” to the mix (finer points of parliamentary procedure? Use the little fork for salad?) but it must have been about securing the right to legislate and discuss protective measures down the road. When we got home, we moved all the toys to the girls’ room and took back our living room. And that is how it went for the next 25 years.
It would be fair to wonder if our daughters—Gillea, Maisie, Chrissie, and Loddie—suffered some deprivations or were forced to grow up too fast, but it wasn’t like that. It’s just that our lives were pretty seamless, whether at the dinner table, or in the living room, or on a trip. The girls always knew that we took their ideas and opinions seriously and that we delighted always in the pleasure of their company. Not having a lot of toys and gadgets made space for writing plays, and riding bikes, and making worlds out of cardboard boxes. We had a country house in upstate New York and on weekends big Allisons and tiny Allisons spent every moment together, in a large multipurpose room, reading books, cooking, listening to public radio. The girls helped in the garden and played in the forest. It wasn’t the Magic Kingdom, but it was magical.
I share all of this because when I met Joslyn Taylor, the founding editor of this magazine, we connected around the idea that we both had tried to put family, rather than children only, at the center of our respective universes. We also agreed that being subsumed by children is in no one’s best interest. Looking back, I think it was not selfishness that prompted our parenting style but fear and insecurity. We were afraid that somehow we would lose ourselves. We did get lost, but that had nothing to do with our children. And as crazy a couple as we are today, we never became that couple. Our children, well, they are beautiful grown-ups now, and they are good at it. I like to think it’s because they are familiar with the territory.