You should write a book.
– PracticalDad’s Better Half
It was a comment made years ago by my wife as the three kids were young and growing. Eldest was then in middle school, Middle in the upper elementary grades and Youngest was only a preschooler. I was then in the midst of managing a busy household and all that it entailed and the notion of being able to carve out hours each day to write seemed problematic. But it was a good suggestion and a reasonable starting point appeared to be a website. I could get into the swing of writing and the commitment tucked into the time constraints imposed by the household requirements of three kids and a working spouse.
And so in 2008, my alter-ego – PracticalDad – came into being. Now please keep that year in mind.
Any relevant life-experience writing requires a thesis, an underlying premise that serves as a framework to tie together the wide variety of articles that could be written. PracticalDad’s thesis was that fathers were capable of providing more for the than just the traditional paycheck; that despite the popular media, which often viewed fathers on the domestic scene as essentially idiots, men were capable of being highly competent and loving caregivers. At the time, women faced glass-ceilings – and still do – but the incomes of women versus men were growing at a faster clip and the demographics showed that more women were by then entering college than men. With this occurring, more time would be claimed and if family stability was to be maintained, then the father would have to pony up and shoulder a much greater load. Most of the early PracticalDad articles were consequently based upon my own experiences as a stay-at-home father, from traveling with kids to what a father should understand about breast-feeding or communication.
But starting in late 2009 and into 2010, the thrust of the articles began to change as the effects of the 2008 financial crisis continued to ripple through the economy. My response was to wonder this: how does this affect my family and what I must do to help prepare them for the world? The articles shifted from the prosaic family matters to questions of politics and economics and the tone became darker and in some instances, angrier. It was an anger fueled by an early recognition that the adult world that my children would inhabit would be far more economically difficult than the world in which my generation – and the several preceding – lived. This vein continued until early 2015 when the flow of articles slowed in response to the increasing demands of an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s, notably spliced with a strain of paranoid dementia. Couple that with the onset of a new round of personal health issues in later 2016 and virtually all new writing ground to a halt. PracticalDad, for all intents and purposes, slipped away.
The other situations were resolved, the parent dying in the late winter of 2017 amidst a series of my own surgeries to address issues. The subsequent mental dust cleared with time and as I looked around, I considered the website. It still existed and while there was almost nothing new written, I noted that the syndicated feed had continued to grow even in its dormancy. The site platform was antiquated and creaky and the design, fresh in 2008, was tired and dated. The technical questions were overwhelming to a non-technical guy like me. How to move everything to a new platform and if the syndicated feed mattered, could that go along? From a writing perspective, how did I start again after simply ceasing more than a year earlier? Most importantly, was there even a thesis that would tie together to drive new writing? The reality is that all of us are now a decade older and there are plenty of other information sources for young fathers. The questions were significant enough that it was easier to just not consider it at all.
But serendipity exists and it was serendipitous that the original site designer and programmer contacted me to discuss shifting the site to a new platform so that he could close out the server on which the original site resided. He kindly took the technical end in hand and in the past several months migrated the articles and feed to this new platform and set things up for me to move forward. The kids, now older, have encouraged me to get back to it and it was Middle’s suggestion that if there are still people reading, then perhaps re-start by explaining the silence and moving on from there.
The final question still remained. Was there a pertinent thesis that served to drive the writing moving forward? I re-read everything that I’d written for the site as well as other notes and even draft chapters for an unsubmitted book proposal. The final piece was to force myself to re-read the Journal that I kept during my mother’s three year sojourn through Alzheimer’s. Were my – and my family’s – experiences, entirely novel or did they somehow fit into a larger narrative of what’s transpiring in our society?
The unfortunate answer is that there is a thesis and it is this: the economic, social and political changes that have occurred since 2008 – there’s that year, again – are not cyclical but instead structural. What we are witnessing is the real-time wrenching adaptation of a society that is reverting in fits and starts to a standard of living reminiscent not of our parents or even grandparents, but akin to at least three generations ago. Along with the ongoing damage to the American Middle Class, we are watching several generations of growth in a national standard-of-living being washed away like so much dirt from a Mississippi River dike. The pressure has built for decades but it was with the 2008 financial crisis and the policy responses that the erosion began in earnest. It most certainly affects the American family and how child-rearing is managed, even whether or not children are born. What will be different moving forward is a far-reaching shift in the family dynamic as the nuclear family concept is challenged by a return to the old multi-generational model with elders assisting, and being assisted by, their adult children. The myriad changes that affect the family, and the potential responses to them, will be the thrust of writing as we move forward.
This is not an intellectual exercise for me. It has been a periodic topic of conversation with the kids at one time or another over the past several years. It is truly saddening to have these talks with the kids; to tell them that they are going to have fewer opportunities and choices than we and our parents did. They will be far more constrained by greater financial demands of health care, higher education and retirement that have been shifted to the backs of individuals and families by corporations and the various levels of government. What is heartening personally is that each of the three seems to get it and I see efforts by each to accommodate that new reality.
So let me take a moment and re-introduce the principal cast of characters from the 2008 version of PracticalDad. First, there is my wife, BH; she is a physician with more professional certification letters after her name than I have in my entire given name (it’s true, I counted). Then there are the kids. At the website’s start, Eldest was just entering high school; she is now a college graduate and a married working mother. Middle was in upper elementary school and he is now entering his senior year at a major urban university as a theatre major. Finally, there is Youngest, who was in first grade at the outset. He is now entering his junior year of high school, working part-time and deciding on higher education. The family is now joined by in-laws Millie and Phil, who recently migrated north to be closer to their daughter and Hub, Eldest’s spouse.
I had two rules at the outset of this kitchen table project a decade ago. The first is simple: while I reference my family, I refuse to post anything that might be even remotely construed as embarrassing. Multiple finished articles were ultimately deleted before posting because someone might have taken offense or been embarrassed. The second is that there will be no daily posts because sometimes, there is just nothing worth saying and if you’re going to read, there should be something worth reading.
It’s nice to be back. And thank you, John, for your kindness. I hope that you can take something worthwhile from this for your own family.