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Are You an Alternaparent?

Before my son, Elijah, was born, in the fall of 2002, I went around trumpeting that I was going to be a “cool” dad, though I had no idea what that meant, exactly, or what effect my determination to be … Read More

By / November 15, 2006

Before my son, Elijah, was born, in the fall of 2002, I went around trumpeting that I was going to be a “cool” dad, though I had no idea what that meant, exactly, or what effect my determination to be a cool dad was going to have on my increasingly uncool life.

Well, now I know. Over the last year, I’ve become one of several unofficial spokespersons for a social trend that some people find annoying, and others find even more annoying.

I’m talking, of course, about hipster parenting, because as the author of the soon-to-be-published Alternadad, I’m currently incapable of talking about anything else. Here’s the crux of what I’ve been saying: As a generation, we’re gradually moving toward an understanding of parenthood that’s laid-back but not permissive, strict but not authoritarian, involved but not obsessive. In other words, we’re going to fuck up our kids in our own special way. I hope to help that process along.

While I became a dad deliberately, I became an “alternadad” very much by accident, or at least unwittingly. After the critical and commercial failure—which I could not possibly have seen coming—of my satirical novel about dueling rock critics, I flopped about for subject matter, a bylined grunion looking for a place to lay my next batch of literary eggs. Metaphors like the previous didn’t help me much. The publishing world proved indifferent to O,Timeless City!, my novel about a 19th-century Irish-American superhero who traveled through time on a flying pig. A baseball parody called The Balls of Summer also went nowhere. My agent, who had enjoyed my amusing complaints about fatherhood during the disastrous process of not selling those two projects, pretty much ordered me to write a parenting book.

I put together a proposal, which sold. It was, if I may say so, clever and energetic, if a bit scattered and soulless. At that point, Elijah wasn’t yet two years old, and thus my pre-fatherhood self hadn’t been completely eviscerated. The editor who bought the book was wiser than I, though I suppose that’s damning with faint praise. He said I’d grow into the material, which was nearly half about teaching my son to “rock,” and that the book would deepen as Elijah grew older.

“Sure it will,” I said.

I don’t know whether my perspective deepened or not. But I suddenly found myself paying a lot more attention to the parenting world into which I’d inadvertently stumbled, where kids did yoga at Sunday clothing bazaars thrown by a coalition of independent artisan mothers, where fathers straight-facedly proclaimed that their three-year-old son’s favorite band was Devo, and where people came up with their own organic baby-food recipes and posted photos of the results on Flickr. My wife, Regina, and I received, as a baby gift, a black onesie that bore the words “Born to Raise Hell” and featured, as an illustration, a flaming bottle that was spurting little drops of milk. It didn’t just resemble a phallus. It was a phallus.

The gilded era of ironic parenthood had begun. Having already put a Hatch Print Shop poster of Johnny Cash in my son’s nursery, I fit in perfectly. By the time Elijah was two, I was having conversations with him like this:

“Daddeee!”

“Yes, son?”

“I want to hear Ja Cash!”

“Johnny Cash?”

“Yeah! Train song!”

“Which one? Folsom Prison Blues or Orange Blossom Special?”

“Orange!”

“Look over yonder,” I sang to him, as I lifted him out of his crib, “Comin’ down those railroad tracks …”

I gradually started making my hip fatherhood public knowledge. When Elijah got kicked out of a lousy Montessori preschool because he wouldn’t stop biting a little girlwith whom he was in love—I wrote a tortured, somewhat tongue-in-cheek article for Salon about the incident, revealing the horrific fact that Regina and I were a little annoyed with him for doing this. The only other time I ever received such vile hate mail was when I dared state, in a different Salon piece, that Led Zeppelin may not be a relevant rock band anymore. But I’d rather piss off Zeppelin Nation than a million parents with access to email. Letters to the editor attacked us as “people who shouldn’t have children” and worse. Yet not everyone reacted so badly. There were other people who said they appreciated my honesty, that I should keep going, keep writing, keep telling the truth about what it means to be a parent, even though truth in parenting is deeply subjective, and probably impossible.

So then, like every other new American father between the ages of 27 and 40, I started blogging. Only gradually did I discover that I was part of a vast blog network, including Dadcentric, Daddy Types, and The Blogfathers—a network which paled in size next to the even more vast universe of mommyblogging. Meanwhile, a weird, locally based indie rock culture for kids had begun to spring up. In San Francisco, The Sippy Cups played psychedelic hits of the ’60s and ’70s to audiences that reached into the hundreds. A dancer and new mommy in Philadelphia started a party afternoon for families called Baby Loves Disco, which quickly spread to a half-dozen cities. Kids’ clothing boutiques started sprouting on every corner of every gentrified urban neighborhood in America. Hip parenting had arrived, and it was my destiny.

And so I’m going to write about this culture, in this space and anywhere else where I can get paid. My goals with this column aren’t really political. There are other people who understand the “Mommy Wars” much better than I do, and the ethics of nanny hiring are far away from my reality—we’re lucky if we can afford a sitter two Saturday nights a month. Instead, I’ll simply be chronicling, critiquing, and possibly providing a guide to negotiating this neo-parenting culture—and by calling attention to its existence, doubtless destroying it.

That destruction may already be underway. I was quoted as an expert (or “unhinged egomaniac,” depending on how you look at it) in an article in New York magazine a few months ago that described this generation of parents as “Grups,” sort of Peter Pan types in expensive sneakers who refuse to give up youth culture even as it’s passing them by.

There were certainly some truths in the piece, but I think that “alternaparenting” has a lot more depth to it than a trend piece in New York might indicate (shocking, I know). But even if alternaparenting turns out not to be a trend after all, I’ve always got that novel about the 19th-century Irish superhero. Ill-conceived cartoon ideas have a certain timeless appeal, and often make millions of dollars for their creators. On such profound observations will I build my career as a professional parent. I hope you enjoy them.

 

N E X T

Do: Are you an Alternaparent, or do you think Neal Pollack’s definition is way off? Post your comments below. Go: Pollack's alternaparenting not your bag? Then drop by the Orthodox Union’s Positive Jewish Parenting Seminar in North Jersey on January 10. It’s at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva!! Read: The New York magazine article that started it all is pretty de rigueur. And Neal Pollack’s blog has cute pics of the Alterna-tyke.

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