You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Family Guy

Notes Toward a Theory of the Dad

Keith Gessen’s memoir, “Raising Raffi,” embraces the embarrassment and vulnerability of fatherhood.

Emily Gould
Author Keith Gessen with his son Raffi in 2018

It’s been 15 years this spring since Wilco released their sixth album, Sky Blue Sky. So that means it’s been 15 years this spring since music critic Rob Mitchum unleashed the term “dad-rock” upon the world. In his review of the alt-country legends’ album for Pitchfork, Mitchum wrote that it was “an album of unapologetic straightforwardness, [that] nakedly exposes the dad-rock gene Wilco has always carried but courageously attempted to disguise.” And with that, a roast was born.

The “adjectival dad” had been around since the late twentieth century, when it emerged attached to the “dad joke,” but Mitchum gave it viral life. To be a “dad” in this mode is to be embarrassing but perplexingly unembarrassed about it. For Wilco, specifically, it was about fading cool, the descent away from the alt-country movement’s punk sensibility and the band’s own avant-garde past toward schlubby mediocrity and maybe even irrelevance. The term was a cultural sensation because the efficiency of its descriptive power, its exquisite dismissive genius, made it so obviously legible and usable.

Raising Raffi: The First Five Years
by Keith Gessen
Viking, 256 pp., $27.00

But in the years since Mitchum’s review, the adjectival dad has undergone a bit of a makeover. Rather than solely signifying the cursed lassitude of middle-aged masculinity, the term can also gesture at something both self-conscious and fashionably nostalgic. The phrase “dad bod” emerged in the 2010s as a way to describe a desirable paunchy sensuality, and streetwear brands have been aggressively foisting floppy, unstructured “dad hats” on the world for years now. The dad aesthetic has taken shape as a kind of wearable critique of the very mythology of American masculinity that the term first emerged to describe. Dadliness is a kind of squishy vision of patriarchy—sharp enough to be ironically sported but vulnerable enough to be undercut. Wilco’s frontman, Jeff Tweedy, is right now in a band with his actual sons, and people love it—even at Pitchfork!

Writing about dads has undergone a similar transformation. In 2004, Keith Gessen co-founded n+1, a nervy little magazine that was framed as a provocation against the dull, sanctimonious status quo of the literary scene. The magazine’s declared charge was to bring ungainly life and youthful indiscretion to a culture bounded by cloying upstart institutions (McSweeney’s) and stuffy, older ones (James Wood writing at The New Republic). Gessen described it as “like the Partisan Review, except not dead” and, a few years later, gave his debut novel the self-deprecating (and self-canonizing) title, All the Sad Young Literary Men. His new book, the parenting memoir Raising Raffi: The First Five Years is markedly different in its outlook. As the title suggests, Raising Raffi is an episodic chronicle of the arrival and turbulent toddlerhood of Raffi, Gessen’s now-6-year-old son with his wife, the novelist Emily Gould. Raffi himself is less protagonist than provocation for this book—Raising Raffi is Gessen’s own reckoning with the intellectual and emotional tumult of new fatherhood. The story of a sad young literary man coming to terms with his own sadness, age, literary relevance, even masculinity, it’s also a story about accepting the dad-rock virtues of aging and stability, about embarrassment as revelation.

In the “Author’s Note” that begins his book, Gessen signals his awareness of the discourse into which he’s gliding. “There was a particular gap,” he writes, “in the dad literature. In the few books out there, we were either stupid dad, who can’t do anything right, or superdad, a self-proclaimed feminist and caretaker.” Raising Raffi is a book, instead, by and for dads somewhere in the middle of that spectrum: well-meaning, serious, flawed parents who know well enough the stereotype of the bumbling, arrogant paterfamilias they’re trying to avoid but also resist the sanctimony and even Sisyphean impossibility of the kind of father they might aspire to be. All the Confused Middle-Aged Literary Dads. 

But the real gap Gessen has to contend with is not necessarily the one within the dad literature itself, so much as the gap between dad literature and mom literature. Over the past couple decades, acclaimed, ambitious literary narratives of motherhood have abounded. There are books and essays by Helen DeWitt, Rachel Cusk, Elena Ferrante, Elisa Albert, Sarah Manguso, Brit Bennett, Valeria Luiselli, Maggie Nelson, Rivka Galchen, Jacqueline Woodson, Lydia Kiesling, Mieko Kawakami, Jenny Offill, Jessamine Chan, Meaghan O’Connell, Torrey Peters, and in fact Emily Gould (in her 2020 novel, Perfect Tunes). This is by no means a list of niche works; many of them are among the most influential pieces of writing of this century so far. And that’s not even to mention the amount and quality of writing produced by new, expecting, and veteran mothers, as amateur and professional writers, on blogs throughout this period. The contemporary literature—fiction and nonfiction—on modern parenting is varied, dynamic, and deep, but there aren’t a lot of dads at its center.

Part of this disparity, Gessen supposes, is about justifiable anxiety on the part of dad authors. “I felt ridiculous about it at times,” he writes. “To write about parenting when you are a father is like writing about literature when you can hardly read.” It’s not just the looming presence of the mom canon but the idea that cisgender fathers, for reasons both cultural and existential, lack some essential insight about parenting that no amount of rigorous thinking can uncover.

In other words, it’s about how little fathers know. Intimate scenes of pregnancy and childbirth, for instance, are a common feature of a lot of the recent mom lit canon. When Gessen narrates Gould’s birth experience, the book itself feels gripped with anxiety. “He was in good hands with Emily,” Gessen writes of the baby in utero. “The weak link was me.”  Whether the mother gives birth or not, the state of motherhood is one that can be socially imposed; a dad comes up against the notion of innate maternal ability, one that can so easily warp the balance of domestic labor in even the most avowedly egalitarian heterosexual partnerships.

Fathers must choose to become dads. It is unnervingly easy for the experience of becoming a father to make little or no impression on the father himself. And so the process of narrating this choice is not inherently interesting or even sympathetic, certainly not one filled with the stakes and drama and violence of motherhood. It is true that one must essentially decide to become a father—to occupy the role that your child and partner require of you—but it is also true that, by the time that choice comes to pass, nobody could give a shit about your process. Every word dedicated to a self-conscious dadhood is also, by definition, a self-indulgent one. Gessen gets that.

That self-indulgence is both a constraint of Raising Raffi and its shadow subject. This is, in other words, not just a book about fatherhood but a book about the idea of writing about fatherhood. And central to that is Gessen’s focus on the uncertainty of parenthood, the questioning of every decision, the feeling that one is never really getting it right. It’s hard to count the number of paragraphs or reveries that end, simply, with an “I don’t know” or an “I’m not sure.” “I laugh at the thought now,” he writes, of belatedly realizing that big building across the street from his beloved pizza place was actually the famous elementary school P.S. 321; “at my own ignorance.”

Whereas the provocative tone of the early n+1 days positioned Gessen as a fiercely confident intellectual combatant—and All the Sad Young Literary Men both exalts and satirizes this pose—the Gessen of Raising Raffi is firmly on the other side of the equation. Raffi, the ferocious and precocious toddler, is now the combatant and Gessen himself the establishment. Raffi’s intractability, in the face of his father’s own ideals and impulses, prompts much of the self-reflection in these essays.

The most formidable battles Raising Raffi recounts are ones that are, not coincidentally, related to the imperfect passing-down of fatherly wisdom. In perhaps the book’s best essay, Gessen wrestles with both the philosophy and the logistics of raising Raffi bilingual in English and Russian. Gessen moved to the United States from the Soviet Union as a child, and the meaningfulness of this immigrant identity is something he’s well aware that he’s incapable of truly giving to young Raffi, but he’s all the more motivated to do so because of its apparent impossibility. After scavenging through the scholarly literature on bilingualism and child development, Gessen comes to a pivot point: 

Did I like what I was doing? Did I want to be doing it? I watched friends in a similar situation to mine—that is, friends who came over when they were little and still spoke Russian with their parents—decide not to speak Russian with their kids. They were more comfortable in English, and that, for them, was the decisive factor. But it also felt to me like they were liberating themselves from Russia, from all its problems and its dangers. It felt like they were finishing the work their parents had begun. I envied them their certainty. I wondered if they were right.

Perhaps a lot like literary and cultural criticism, parenting is equal parts thoroughly interrogated, programmatic intention—sleep training, attachment parenting, hysterical realism—and feel. To Raffi, to a child, these decisions are not freighted with decades of personal and geopolitical history. Raffi’s resistance to learning Russian, his discomfort with his father’s choice, has no cultural valence to it, but it certainly, and understandably, does to Gessen. How do you parent a toddler who simply isn’t thinking through these issues as rigorously as you are? Later on, meditating on his own short temper, Gessen writes, “I, too, by blowing my top too often, by not controlling my emotions, was teaching Raffi aggression, though not in any systematic or deliberate way.” Part of Gessen’s revelation in Raising Raffi is how little systems and deliberations matter to child-rearing. The book, like parenting itself, is a long series of important accidents, and the new dad a figure who has the luxury of guessing. 

Gessen’s other intellectual commitment is to sports. He writes about the effects that hockey and football have had on his life. “Physical labor, teamwork, discipline,” he extols, “the martial virtues without the martial vices.” Conceptually, Gessen is quick to disavow that particularly American vision of team sports as a character-building grit mill, but it’s impossible not to see once again the tension between thought and feeling. Gessen, the thinker, sees the flaws in that ideal, but Gessen the parent can’t help but feel the power of it. That awkwardness provides both insight and comedy:

He misses the ball more often than he hits it. In order to keep him interested, I make a goal out of my legs. When, after numerous attempts, he finally scores, I pick him up and spin him around to celebrate. After that he doesn’t want to kick the ball anymore; he just wants to get picked up and spun around.

This moment occurs at the beginning of the essay about sports, but it neatly contains everything Gessen ultimately manages to find in his long disquisition on the subject. “I think now there is no tragedy like the tragedy of parenthood,” he writes later on in the essay. “You succeed when you make yourself irrelevant, when you erase yourself. Parents who fail to do that have failed. I feel myself failing in this way every day.” When Raffi finds transcendence playing soccer, that is when his father’s narrative of the encounter—imparting a valuable social and emotional skill to my son—falls away to the rapture of regular intimacy, the thrill of just being alive in the world.

Gessen repeatedly notes that the worlds of parenting—its practices and its institutions, the lived reality of finding schooling, even the school buildings themselves—were “invisible” to him prior to Raffi. To some extent, then, Raising Raffi is functionally a narrative of discovery. Gessen is both self-deprecating and not about this aspect. In a recent profile in New York magazine, Gould phrased it somewhat more epigrammatically, when she jokingly called him “the Christopher Columbus of mommy blogging.”

But the book shares little of Columbus’s grandiose ambition. Indeed, the place where the book most clearly displays dadlike innocence is in its form. Especially in comparison with the more lyrical or experimental examples of mom lit, this piece of dad lit is relatively matter-of-fact. Mitchum called the dad-rock-era Wilco “unapologetically straightforward.” He meant that as a ding, but here it’s a virtue. Gessen knows well enough the breadth and depth of the literary and experiential gap that Raising Raffi might seem positioned to occupy that his stylistic approach tends toward a kind of modesty. He’s neither bragging nor bemoaning when he talks about the invisibility of the dad universe to a sad, young, literary man—just observing a fact. At worst, this tour of discovery yields frustratingly abrupt or cursory considerations of parenting topics otherwise covered at epic length elsewhere; at best, it offers a sharp sense of wonder about the quotidian details of fatherhood. Gessen’s admittedly limited knowledge—the ignorance of all fathers—is, then, the limitation of the book but also the feature that makes it illuminating. In the essay about the early days of the pandemic, Gessen pauses to consider if he learned any “lessons about parenting” from lockdown. “The answer,” he writes, “is that I’m not sure.”