Published on September 6th, 2018 | by Cheryl Klein0
Sometime during the lovely, delusional years that C.C. and I daydreamed about having kids, we found ourselves in the apartment of one of her college friends, talking about our plan to make one kid and adopt another. We sat on his elegant if not entirely comfortable couch, the couch you would expect a gay architect to have.
“I’ve thought about adopting too,” he said. “But—this is going to sound terrible—what if they’re not smart?”
Years before, he’d been kicked out of the Marines “for an independence of thought displayed at the wrong place, wrong time” and out of his evangelical Christian church for being gay. I wondered he still felt the pull of those values and/or the need to prove he could be infinitely more fabulous without them. Despite my own much gentler coming out story, I did and do.
I murmured a reply about the role of education in intelligence, about never knowing what you’re going to get with a biological child either, about other traits like kindness being more important.
But I’d been raised by parents with master’s degrees, fed a steady diet of books, and gotten (almost) straight A’s. I craved the prestige of publication and writing residencies the way I supposed my corporate counterparts coveted country club membership. So did I hope my future kid was smart? Yeah, I did.
Then came the years of IUIs and IVF, of adoption paperwork and false hope after false hope. Early in the process, we poured over donor profiles at our local lesbian-owned sperm bank and considered the advantages of a professor vs. an engineer.
A female couple we were friends with initially selected an unknown donor, but got spooked by the idea of their child having random siblings out there in the world. Instead they introduced one woman’s egg to the sperm of the other woman’s brother.
“We’re going the opposite route,” I told them. After seven failed IUIs between C.C. and I, and one IVF pregnancy that ended in miscarriage, we committed to adopting. “We’ll literally take anyone’s kid.”
That wasn’t completely true. We’d checked boxes in our adoption profile saying we weren’t open to working with birthmoms who’d used drugs extensively, or to babies who had severe disabilities. Those choices didn’t feel generous, but they felt realistic.
Still, we were light years past caring about our child’s genetic pedigree, or eye color, or college prospects, or unknown extended family members. I didn’t care how many fingers or toes they had. My desperation for a baby tore me apart in many ways, but it solidified my confidence in my ability to love unconditionally.
When Dash, the child we eventually adopted, our child, was a year and a half old, C.C.’s mom took him for a walk around our neighborhood while she was babysitting. On the way home, Nana got turned around. She didn’t have a smart phone, so—half talking to herself—she said, “Dash, which way is home?”
He leaned forward in his stroller and pointed. He got himself and Nana home.
Granted, he had a fifty-fifty chance. But more recently—he’s three and a half now—we were driving down the main boulevard in our neighborhood when he pointed to a residential street winding toward the foothills.
“Bea live there,” he said.
Bea is his 14-year-old babysitter, the daughter of friends whose home we’d visited with Dash maybe three times in as many years. The last time C.C. had driven Bea home after watching Dash, they’d had to put her address into Waze, even though there were only two turns between our house and theirs.
So yes, this is the part where I brag about my preschooler’s uncanny spatial aptitude as well as architectural knowledge. He ponders brick buildings vs. wood vs. stucco. He is obsessed with bridges and tunnels. When he’s having trouble sleeping, he says “I want to drive to the viaduct.” We half-joke about him becoming a civil engineer.
“Or an urban planner, if he’s not good at math,” said my urban planner friend.
“I can do three now!” he said, holding up three fingers. Then he opened his full, five-fingered palm. “This is four!”
I mused to another friend that he probably wasn’t a math prodigy, and they seemed mildly horrified. “But how old is he? Of course he’s not running equations yet.”
The root of my observation, though, was my awe in Dash’s brain revealing itself. This is the fun part of parenting. When the infatuation, anxiety, and physical overwhelm of babyhood recedes, you are two humans whose fates and growth are inextricably tangled. You get down to the business of learning who this other person is. What is he good at? How does he think? What does he love? What kind of tutor am I going to need to hire?
It’s true that every parent believes their child is a genius, but my personal theory is that this isn’t (just) the result of bias. It comes from witnessing, close-up, the miracle that is human development.
Six months ago, Dash would have talked about having an owie. Yesterday, he said, “My scab is coming off because my skin is healing.”
In our official “match meeting” with our adoption agency, the social worker asked us and Erica,* Dash’s birthmom, questions about our values and aspirations for the person growing beneath her sundress.
“What about college?”
At the time I was working for a nonprofit that served former gang members and people who’d just left prison. I was acutely aware of all the ways a life could go wrong, and how people could right themselves again.
“I think we’ll strongly encourage college,” I said. “But honestly, as long as they find a way to support themselves doing something they like, I think there are multiple paths to that.”
To my relief, Erica agreed. “I went to community college for a while, but it wasn’t for me. Then I went to beauty school and loved it.”
Erica liked to read. Erica described her favorite genre of TV, with an eye roll, as “trash.” I love books and rolling my eyes as I binge on trash TV, too. Are we smart? We’re smart enough.
American culture is notoriously anti-intellectual, but we are simultaneously obsessed with genius, especially if it has a good origin story. Elon Musk and TED Talks, homeless-to-Harvard memoirs, STEM camps for kids. Every college application asks about leadership experience, as if a world populated entirely by leaders would be anything but an obnoxious clusterfuck.
We know that most measures of intellect are culturally biased, from IQ tests to the SATs, to how we perceive speech differently depending on accent and dialect. Is “intelligence” an infinitely complex, amorphous concept that is impossible to divorce from culture and privilege? Absolutely. Do most immigrant parents want their children to go to college? Absolutely. To hold mixed feelings on subject feels itself like a marker of privilege.
British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott coined the phrase “good enough mother” to describe a primary caregiver who meets many but not all of her child’s needs, thereby forcing the baby to learn independence and adapt to their surroundings. Frazzled moms cling to the phrase like a life raft in a sea of Pinterest icebergs.
My wish for Dash—as if I had a say in the matter—is that he be “smart enough.” I hope the predispositions he inherited from Erica and his birth father blend with the emotional intelligence C.C. and I are trying to model. Stirred in is the stuff he’s learning at school and the common sense that comes from being granted incremental independence. I hope they add up to the ability to navigate the world, learn from his experiences, and earn a living doing something he mostly likes.
What a humble thing on which to pin my hopes. All I want is for the stars to align, the economy not to bottom out, war not to roost in America, and my son to be thwarted by neither un-tethered genius nor soul-crushing academic struggle, so that he’s, you know, happy enough.
As any good enough mother would tell you, getting to good enough is fucking hard. Is anything enough?
I arrived at Dash’s preschool as I always do, thirty seconds before the 6 pm closure, and was pleased to see that the teacher on duty was Joan*, who is kind and mellow, and not Brenda*, who says things like “Dash, looks like you’re the last one again.”
Dash came running. It’s telling that I don’t remember what he said—maybe something about the day’s lesson on snakes—but I definitely remember what Joan said: “He’s a smart one.”
My proud-mom heart swelled. My A-student heart swelled. I hadn’t let myself fantasize about having a smart kid, but maybe…I mean, what if…? Could it be?
“I think he’s pretty smart,” I agreed, because I’m learning not to deflect compliments.
I was, in the same breath, suspicious. What is a smart one—what does that even mean? Dash’s babysitter is in the gifted program at her school; her mom insists that in LAUSD, “gifted” is just code for “middle class,” and I’m inclined to agree. Having the kind of economically and emotionally stable home life that enables and encourages a kid to focus on learning about snakes is indeed a gift. The school rewards parents who have the resources and time to advocate with more gifts, in the form of special programming.
“Smart” can also be code for “good,” which I think is at least half of why I was an A student. I wanted to “be good”; Mary Ingalls in the Little House books was my idol. I did my homework. I didn’t disrupt the class. Of course teachers liked me.
In college, I did a summer internship at a newspaper with a computer system that was ancient even by 1997 standards. The paper’s monstrous tan machines were equipped with an internet predecessor called the “basket system.” I was itching to write articles, but my editor told me to pace myself and focus on learning the basket system, and I diligently applied myself. Meanwhile, the other intern, who worked under a different editor, got several pieces in the paper. My editor consoled me that Brooke’s editor was displeased with her basket-system performance, and for the first time it occurred to me that perhaps well-behaved women did not get their byline in The Daily Breeze.
Do I want Dash to be well-behaved? I want him to be respectful and not to break rules to the point of self-sabotage. But he’s a high-energy kid, and I admit that when he noisily moves chairs around at the library or makes soap-suds volcanoes that overflow the bathroom sink, I get a small vicarious thrill. I want him to be well-behaved enough. I want him to get in a little “good trouble.”
Described by educator Carol Dweck, “growth mindset” (as opposed to “fixed mindset”) is the idea that no one is inherently good or bad at anything. We learn and practice and create neural pathways. That’s why current parenting wisdom tells us to praise children’s effort, not their accomplishment. (When I first heard this advice, I’d already told Dash “Good job!” approximately 14,000 times.)
I learned about Dweck’s research via a training at work, the same place where I’ve been feeling, often, that I’m not getting good enough, fast enough. As a kid who practiced gymnastics for hours a day, I employed a growth mindset while romanticizing the notion of natural talent. I still do. I want to be good at everything out of the gate, and I fear that people will reject me if I’m not, but I also harbor some kind of imposter’s belief (or maybe I should call it “everyone who is not a straight white guy” belief) that I can toil in secret to make up for my deficits.
I want to take a growth mindset to identity itself. I’m dumb before coffee and smart after it kicks in. I write the proverbial shitty first drafts and (with editorial help) smart enough final drafts. Maybe Dash will maintain the growth mindset that comes standard on babies, or maybe he’ll get discouraged and find his way back to it in his 40s. Either is growth (enough).
The other day, I accidentally referred to his trash truck as his fire truck. “You were wrong!” he shouted gleefully.
He’s done the same when I make wrong turns while driving. Even when I’m genuinely frustrated, I try to laugh with him. Look at Mommy! So accepting of failure as a part of the learning process! I’m smart enough to know that if you practice something enough, eventually it becomes true.
*Name has been changed