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  • As a member of the New York liberal intelligentsia, it is perhaps inevitable that Gessen is concerned about his parenting choices from a political perspective. Tweet This
  • Gessen writes that he was “adamant that [his marriage and family] must not interfere with my writing.” It is as predictable as it is charming that his son does not allow for this. Tweet This
Category: Parents

“I think now that there is no tragedy like the tragedy of parenthood.” So writes Keith Gessen in his sometimes moving, occasionally facile, and usually observant memoirRaising Raffi. Considering the first five years of his son’s life, he notes, 

There is no other thing you do in life only that the person you do it for can leave you. When they leave, that is success; when they do something because they want to do it and not because you want them to do it, then you have done your job. You succeed when you make yourself irrelevant, when you lose yourself.

Trying, with his wife, to civilize a rambunctious, obstinate toddler in a small apartment in New York City was a challenge in many ways. The couple, who are both writers, have a younger son as well. They don’t have a lot of money or family nearby who can help, so Gessen does a significant amount of child care. Gessen says he is “part of the first generation of men who, for various reasons, were spending more time with their kids than previous generations. That seemed notable to me.” But that doesn’t seem entirely accurate. The hours men spend on child care has been steadily increasing for the past half century. According to a Pew Research report, “In 2016, fathers reported spending an average of eight hours a week on child care–about triple the time they provided in 1965.”

What is true is that Gessen recently had to live through a pandemic lockdown with two small children and probably did more child care without any help during that time than most parents in history. And it gave him a lot of time to think about what kind of father he wanted to be. He recalls that prior to fatherhood, he had not given the matter much thought, but spent years "imbib[ing] the heroic male literature of family neglect: Henry James who skipped a family funeral because he was finishing a story…; Philip Roth, who refused to have children; Tolstoy, who had many children and a long marriage but who still managed, at the end of his life, to walk out on them.” He adds that he was “adamant that [his marriage and family] must not interfere with my writing.” 

It is as predictable as it is charming that his son does not allow for this. Not just because Raffi is a difficult child who doesn’t want to sleep or listen to his parents’ instructions, but because Gessen is constantly charmed and amazed by his son, and actually wants to spend time with him—usually. 

As a member of the New York liberal intelligentsia, though, it is perhaps inevitable that Gessen is concerned about his parenting choices from a political perspective. He reads Nicole Hannah-Jones in the New York Times and says, “I started to hate my fellow white parents” for the segregated school system they created. He buys all the nonsense about charter schools destroying the system, etc. In the end, though, he is not willing to sacrifice his own child’s education on the altar of social justice. And so they chose neither the poorest school that was losing students, nor the one with the well-funded PTA, but a school that was in the middle. He feels he has done, “if not the right thing, then the rightish thing….We had pursued integration, but in a way that didn’t inconvenience us.”

Gessen’s most interesting thoughts are those comparing his own upbringing as the child of Soviet emigres—his family moved here when he was six—to his own method of raising children. His parents were stronger and seemed to know better what they wanted for their kids. Though his wife thinks he’s too strict, his own relatives find him too loose. “Someday someone is going to tell [Raffi] no...and he won’t know what to do,” Gessen’s aunt chastises him. But he also realizes he cannot recreate the immigrant experience or get his child to understand the kind of difficulty and worry that come from growing up in a family that had to live under difficult circumstances.

In one of the later essays in the book, Gessen describes an interview with his own childhood pediatrician, a Russian immigrant herself, in which she explains her views of American parenting. She tells the story of overindulgent parents who wind up with a troubled daughter who has dropped out of school and “couldn’t really get on her feet.” The doctor explains that her parents didn’t want their daughter to be afraid of them: “Instead, she is afraid of everything else.” 

This lack of resiliency that he sees in the spoiled children of American middle-class parents—and perhaps in his own son—seems directly related in this telling to a sense that the world is a deeply dangerous place. (This combination of overprotection and doomsaying is described brilliantly by Robert Pondiscio in his recent Commentary essay, “The Unbearable Bleakness of American Education.”)

It is easy to see how Gessen engages in a version of this himself. He coddles Raffi day in and day out, failing to enforce a bedtime, allowing Raffi to sleep in bed with him and his wife, failing to effectively curb his assaults on his classmates and his younger brother. Raffi does not fear his parents at all, but one day in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Gessen tells his preschooler that “police regularly harassed and even shot Black people and poor people.” When the boy expresses concern that the police will kill his friend from pre-K, Gessen says “They don’t shoot kids,” to which his wife adds, “sometimes they do.”

Leaving aside for a moment the dangerous myth that police regularly go around shooting people because they are Black or poor, one might wonder about the wisdom of telling a four-year-old that police are the enemy. Gessen is an engaged, observant, and loving—if occasionally ineffective—father, but as with so many activities these days, politics will make things much worse—including parenting. 

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.