Have you ever read an article that focused on something completely outside of your own interests and walked away wanting to be a better parent? That is how I felt after reading novelist Michael Chabon’s introspective account of his trip to Paris with his son, Abe, that ran in GQ earlier this week. Did I mention the trip was Abe’s bar mitzvah present?
The article is heavy on fashion jargon, which I am definitely not fluent in, yet I sat there reading it in my spit-up stained tee and yoga pants, completely captivated. Throughout his narrative of observing his son at Paris fashion week, Chabon reveals to us that he truly knows his child, has made an impressive effort to recognize and reference top designers in men’s fashion because of Abe’s interests, and has raised his son to be humbly aware of the privilege from which they clearly come. (Chabon is married to fellow writer, Ayelet Waldman.) He writes:
“He wore a pair of $400 silver Adidas by Raf Simons purchased for $250 on adidasx.com…. Money to pay for the “Rafs” had been earned by Abe’s raking leaves for neighbors, organizing drawers and closets around the house, running errands, and other odd jobs.
He [Abe] knew that for a lot of kids his age—good friends of his among them—the price of a pair of “fire” sneakers represented a greater and more important sacrifice than it would for him and his family.”
I recently filled out a school form for my 1st grader. The questions stumped me: “Describe your child, what are his/her greatest strengths?” and, “What are your hopes for your child this year?” Those questions felt huge and I was left wishing it said, “What is your child’s favorite food?” because that was the level at which my tired mind was ready to delve into this pile of paperwork for my firstborn child.
And yet I read this article and Chabon uses words like impeccable, interesting, and fearless to describe his child. He gives the most introspective parental account of his child’s childhood, how he watched his interests and personality evolve, the stumbling blocks, the influences of his siblings and peers. It was told from a deep place of admiration, where he played the role of privileged observer of this boy for 13 years. It was an account of a father in awe of his son for embracing his individuality through eclectic interests.
“Abe suffered taunts and teasing for his style of dress and his love of style. But he did not back down; he doubled down. He flew the freak flag of his Tigran Avetisyan shirt high. And though I couldn’t fathom the impulse driving my kid to expose himself, every day, to mockery and verbal abuse at school, I admired him for not surrendering, and in time I came to understand the nature of my job as the father of this sartorial wild child: I didn’t need to fathom Abe or his stylistic impulses; I needed only to let him go where they took him and, for as long as he needed me, to follow along behind.”
At the end of the trip, both father and son come to the realization that Dad was bored and Abe was disappointed to have visited what was the Super Bowl of fashion, dragging around someone who could not and did not appreciate any of it. We can all identify with being that baggage to a loved one’s sparkle.
Abe is the fourth of four children, and while his dad might have been less than thrilled to experience Fashion Week, he proved through this thoughtful observation of his son that he truly knows, appreciates, and celebrates his child’s individuality. That was the gift of this article.
Like Chabon, I also have four children. And while they are still very young, each year they grow and blossom to become less an extension of me and more a light of their own. I spend endless time trying to know my children. Reading, learning, trying to connect with parts of them that are foreign to me. Trying to separate who I am in order to make way for who they are. All the while embracing the challenge to build their hearts to be resilient enough to live their true self unapologetically.
I think a lot about that 1st grade intake form on which I jotted a few things down and mailed back in. If I had to do it over, this is what I would write: “My son is gentle, kind, and fiercely loyal. His creative energy can sometimes get in the way of his academic focus, but that doesn’t stop him from working day in and day out to find a balance. My wish for him this year is to build confidence in his individuality, to seek out those fellow tender-hearted peers to bring into his small circle of trusted comrades, and to know without a single doubt that my heart swells just waiting for him to step off of that school bus into my arms.”
Michael Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize winning fiction writer, but after reading this it seems his next project should be a parenting book. I’d be the first in line to buy it.