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Father and Daughter. And Daughter.

Lessons in parenting from the Talmud and Paul Simon

M. Evan Wolkenstein
April 13, 2021
Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author

The song “Father and Daughter” by Paul Simon used to make me cry. More specifically, playing “Father and Daughter” on my guitar, while my newborn daughter—my firstborn—dozed in her swing, that made me cry. Admittedly, it’s a fair-to-middling song, not even in Paul Simon’s top 50, but my daughter was so tiny then, and my heart was so open, I’d reach the chorus, the waterworks would activate, and I’d blubber my way through the words: I’m gonna watch you shine, I’m gonna watch you grow, which is exactly what happened. She became a shiny, much bigger 3-year-old, and now, she’s really picky. I can’t play “Father and Daughter” anymore; she’s forbidden it, along with every other song except, currently, “Polly Wolly Doodle.”

Earlier this year, my wife gave birth to our second daughter. And of course, she is just as tiny and precious as her sister was, and, of course, I love her just as much as her older sister. But even if I was granted a pass to play “Father and Daughter,” or any song I wanted, truly, it feels like the door has shut on epic, emotional song sessions.

First of all, now that I’m a father of two, I no longer have those quiet, empty mornings to strum my guitar—nearly all of my time is spoken for. Second, I don’t have the same emotional bandwidth. The moment I’m drawn into my new baby’s gaze and the gates of my heart begin to open, my older daughter dumps the entire contents of my wallet on the floor. And finally, that was a different era in my life. Then, I was a brand-new dad, I’d only recently culled my extensive sweater (and hobby) collection to make space for a nursery, not to mention for the baby to go in that nursery—in the closet of the San Francisco apartment I’d moved into as a 30-something bachelor. I was still outlining my first semi-autobiographical novel, taking frequent emotional plunges into my own childhood. I was so lost, so overwhelmed, so raw; the sound of a D minor chord was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Now, my family has settled into a house in the suburbs, my book has been out for nearly a year, I’m accustomed to the constant partial attention of parenting, and I’m closer to 50 than 40. Maybe I shouldn’t expect to have access to that same untethered emotion, but still, it makes me a bit sad.

The thing is, it’s not just that daughter No. 2 isn’t getting gushy song sessions, it’s that, like all second children, she rarely gets my undivided attention. A quick scan of the geography of this house reveals that she’s a second child. She has the smaller room. She has the hand-me-down clothes, furniture, toys. And she’s also got a hand-me-down dad. Sometimes, I actually wonder, as I burp her, lay her in her bassinet at night, schlep myself to bed: Am I giving her everything I’ve got? Most of the time, I’m just too tired to worry about it, but I’m a Jewish dad, so I worry.

I know I’m not the first parent on earth to notice this jarring shift from being a first-time parent to second, and clearly, most of us with siblings of our own turned out just fine. But as it turns out, the transition is not without very actual dangers. The Sibling Effect, a book that curates the contemporary research on sibling relationships, asserts that sibling relationships have a very real effect on coping and conflict skills, later in life—and that 10%-15% of adult sibling relationships are “broken beyond repair.”

Those aren’t fantastic odds, and the Torah seems appropriately concerned. Genesis doesn’t waste time getting from “nothing exists” to “toxic sibling rivalry exists”—the leap from creating the moon and stars to fratricide takes only four chapters. And, further stoking my paranoia as a parent, the wordplay gestures at the way in which Adam and Eve inadvertently tilled the ground for this struggle to sprout: “[Eve] conceived and bore Cain ... and she also bore his brother, that is Abel” (Genesis 4: 1-2, translation mine). The second child is foremost a sibling, occupying a space created in relation to the first child, his name tacked on the end. And then there’s that tiny word: “also.”

Nobody wants to be an “also.” Of course, receiving your sister’s pre-teethed stacking rings is not to be compared to growing up as a neglected afterthought, but even read as an exaggerated cautionary tale, Genesis presents a pessimistic view of the human family; we cannot have a second child without him or her being an “also.” I know, I’m brand new to this—I know that much-higher-stakes conflict lies ahead, down the road, but every time I tell my older child that I cannot make the pony balance on the arm of the sofa right now because I’m wiping the baby’s [insert body part], I can’t help but fear that I’m planting the seeds of Cain and Abel, right here in my living room.

Fortunately, so far, the 3-year-old shows only tenderness toward the baby. And yet, at least once a day, she plunges into an inscrutable tantrum. Is she running around the house sobbing because she is 3 or because the new baby has obliterated her primacy? My wife and I will try to do everything we can to mitigate the damage of the “also” phenomena—ensuring that the eldest daughter doesn’t feel erased or diminished, and that the younger daughter doesn’t grow up feeling like an afterthought. Hopefully, we will do a better job than Adam and Eve did.

On the other hand, I’m no stranger to the benefits of repeating, revisiting, reconstructing an experience. As a runner, I am content with cruising the exact same route, week after week. The repetition allows me to enter the flow state quickly, efficiently; currently, I crave that flow state more than I crave novelty. As a music lover (back when owning hundreds of records and CDs meant something), I prided myself on my collection. But now, as a father of two small children, when I’m not playing Raffi, I’m listening to the same 100 songs, over and over, drawing comfort and structure from the familiarity.

A year into COVID-19, we’re all trapped in a laboratory of “unprecedented” and “also”—enduring the repetition of daily life in four walls, and yet eagerly, we await news of the dawn. We witness once-in-a-lifetime events happening in digital formats that once beggared our imagination. And yet, by now, we’ve all been to a Zoom baby-naming and also a bar mitzvah or wedding and also, God forbid, a funeral. We are going around and around, even as life flows straight ahead, numbingly slowly then jarringly quickly.

Our tradition prepares us for this tension. The rabbis in the Mishna (Brochot 4:1) debate the relative value of unique, individual prayer, whenever and however it strikes us (kavanah) versus prayer with the same words at the same time and even the same place (kevah). And rightly so. Our civilization has its roots in both the precision and consistency of Temple sacrifices and also in the urgent outcry of our patriarchs and matriarchs in their hours of hope, their hours of darkness. The rabbis’ solution: Recite the daily scripted prayer and add some spontaneous supplication. This tension provides us as Jews with a test and a toolbox: how to develop sustainable systems to weather each generation’s challenges, how to live in each magical moment, aware of the blessings around us, the blessings we create—a balancing act of tradition and inspiration.

One particularly noteworthy balancing act takes place during the Passover Seder. In each and every generation, we are commanded to see ourselves as if we, personally, went on the journey out of Egypt. Just after my second Zoom Seder, in the same kitchen I’ve been stuck in for a year, with the same technology we’ve all been shackled to, an old friend and I spoke on the phone and he offered a brand new reinterpretation: Not only must each generation connect individually to the Passover story (e.g., our parents, us, our children) but also, as we proceed through each and every life stage, through our own personal generations, we must relate to our story differently, anew. To expect a child to relate to their world as a well-traveled adult is absurd, and to expect an elder to strip themselves of their mileage invalidates their accrued wisdom. A child can be wise beyond their years and an elder can see with fresh eyes, but each of us is who we are, where and how we are. We can and should be only who we are.

In this way, I find the tiniest bit of comfort and validation in my inability to provide my second child with weepy guitar sessions. That was the manifestation of something special, something of that era. I was that generation of father then. I am a new generation of father now. This generation has a 3-year-old who needs to go to the playground. This generation of father has a wife who needs a modicum of time each day without a child hanging on her body. This generation of father accepts that he is no longer raising a baby for the very first time—but he is doing it for the very last time. This generation of father cuddles and soothes and settles the newborn into her swing, turns on the mobile, and goes off to prepare a “butter taco” (half a microwaved corn tortilla) for the 3-year-old.

I pray that one day, the older daughter will understand the blessings of responsibility and leadership that can come with her position. And I pray that this baby will grow up to see her older sister as an inspiration. All this praying must happen quickly, though, because even as I type, my older daughter demands I close my laptop, join her in the living room, and help her to balance her pony on the arm of the sofa. This generation of father knows this will have to be good enough. God willing, it is.

M. Evan Wolkenstein is a high school teacher and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Turtle Boy is his first novel and winner of the 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award. He tweets at @EvanWolkenstein.