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Adventures in Babyland

Writer Sam Apple on how parenthood changed him—and how it didn’t

June 18, 2009
Sam Apple(© Aaron Liebman, courtesy of Random House.)
Sam Apple(© Aaron Liebman, courtesy of Random House.)

American Parent: My Strange and Surprising Adventures in Modern Babyland, out this month, is journalist Sam Apple’s addition to the burgeoning hip-parent genre. In it, the 33-year-old Brooklynite considers the history of hypnosis in childbirth, deals with an infant’s heart-wrenching bedtime shrieks, and wonders how kids fit into his own life. He started writing when his wife, Jennifer, was pregnant with their first child, Isaac, now nearly 3. Twin girls, Nina and Lila, arrived last year.

What was the thing you feared most about having a child?

One thing I was never worried about, one of the most stereotypical worries, is how I’m going to relate to my child and am I going to still have a social life? But I never really had a social life, and I always loved playing with children. I was looking forward to the stuff that might make some fathers nervous. I was worried, and it’s an accurate worry, that it would be a challenge not to extend some of my hypochondriacal tendencies to another life. I worry about myself less because I’m focused on our children. It’s nice not to be so much the object of one’s own anxiety.

You write about your anxiety that having a baby would mean sacrificing your ambitions, your personhood.

There are two parts to that anxiety. One was financial; the other part was about my sense of self. I’d liked to think of myself as a young, independent person still figuring out where I was going. I was waiting for a certain moment after I became a father, a dramatic shift where I became a serious adult. But now that I’m a father, my sense of identity hasn’t really changed. It’s mind-boggling to me when I tell people I have three children. That said, I think it remains a real possibility that I’ll have to make some choices, take on jobs that I might not otherwise have chosen, because I have to make a decent amount of money now.

Were you worried about passing down your obsessive-compulsive tendencies?

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what sort of parenting techniques, if any, would be useful should any of our children inherit OCD tendencies. But I don’t like the idea of predetermining what the kids are going to turn out to be. We’ll let them grow up to be the people they are.

You named your son Isaac, which is a bit unusual. But, as you point out, parents use names now as a way of standing out.

There’s the conundrum of how to come up with something that simultaneously feels original but not so out of the norm that it seems like you’re trying too hard. Isaac seemed a nice middle ground. Actually, Isaac is my father’s middle name, so originally we put it aside on superstitious grounds. But I always liked it—the association with laughter. And sure enough, it turns out the name is on the rise. There’s this phenomenon: people of a certain generation, who grew up in the same general environment, think of the same names, even though they think they’re unique. We’re trapped in the zeitgeist whether we like it or not.

There are a lot of Jewish superstitions associated with babies, like that you shouldn’t name them after living people. And not having a baby shower, or telling people the name you’ve chosen. How superstitious did you get?

It happens that even before my wife was pregnant, I’d been making a conscious effort to push back against my own superstitious fears, so the pregnancy was a good test run. I think I did a good job. When we went shopping before the birth, I was nervous about it. But I get nervous every time I get on an airplane. There’s an ongoing struggle between my rational mind and the irrational; I see superstitious fears as one part of that larger struggle. With superstitions it’s not only your own mishegas, it’s that of an entire people. Sometimes there’s a fine line between superstition and tradition.