Keith Gessen’s series of linked essays about first-time fatherhood will resonate with anyone who has raised a child, give pause to those who anticipate doing so, and fascinate those who do not expect to have this particular experience. Before the birth of his son, Raffi, becoming a parent seemed to Gessen akin to a trip to outer space — exciting in concept, but will one ever really go, and what does one actually do when one arrives?
The reader accompanies Gessen and his wife, Emily, on this glorious, terrifying, often unnerving, but always compelling, journey as their squirmy, noisy infant begins to develop a personality and a style of his own, necessitating growth and a new world of understanding on the parts of his parents. Raffi becomes a charmingly rambunctious toddler and, later, a verbal and interesting child. Each day is a new adventure and a challenging learning opportunity for both parent and child. Differing parental approaches and expectations arise and each decision made is fraught with myriad possible consequences, each one looming large. Discipline issues are considered — how much, what style, which methods work better than others?
A school is chosen with care and with an attempt to balance both personal and societal concerns. Gessen is a Russian speaker whose parents brought him from the Soviet Union in 1981 when the United States Congress passed legislation that encouraged Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, tied to trade agreements between the two nations. He carefully considers the pros and cons of bringing his son up bilingually and, ultimately, chooses to do so. When the COVID pandemic arises, it certainly affects all segments of society but has unexpected twists and a very particular set of challenges for new parents who are already scrambling to find their footing in an unfamiliar world.
Gessen is unfailingly thoughtful and analytic as he describes his daily life in an engaging and forthright manner. He makes it clear that life with a child isn’t all obstacles and challenges, although there are plenty of those; there’s a lot of fun, as well. Still, the responsibilities are weighty even during the best of moments. He provides no firm answers, but his experience encourages other new parents, reassuring them that this daunting task is worthwhile and fulfilling. He focuses on the use of instinct and common sense (although he read many parenting advice books), and he acknowledges his many frustrations and mistakes, although it is very clear that even the missteps were made with love.
This is a journey and an evolution as readers watch Gessen develop into the father he wants to be. As they watch, they smile, they sigh, they admire, they shudder (just a bit), and they enjoy watching Raffi grow through his father’s loving eyes.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.