Learning to appreciate the valleys: A Q&A with author Dan Szczesny
NH writer Dan Szczesny explores fatherhood in his new book, “You & Me: Reflections on Becoming Your Dad”
Dan Szczesny has some advice for new dads: Learn to love the unpredictable.
Szczesny, a Manchester memoirist, travel writer and journalist, is the author of the new “You & Me: Reflections on Becoming Your Dad” — the first in publisher Hobblebush Books’ ‘Reflections’ series.
“A new dad asked me the other day, ‘what’s some advice you can give about parenting?’ I told him, dude, the only advice I can give you is there is no advice,” he said. “There is no road map. Dr. Spock isn’t going to tell you how to do this. Every kid, every situation, every family is different, so learn to be comfortable with the unknown.”
“If you’re going to be shocked or horrified anytime something unexpected happens, you’re never going to make it,” Szczesny said. “Embrace the discomfort.”
It’s just one of the themes Szczesny touches upon in his newest book, a collection of 50 essays that describes life with his now five-year-old daughter, Uma. The essays bring readers along on milestones such as leaving the hospital, Uma’s first steps and losing a tooth, but it also revels in the quiet moments that define fatherhood because that, Szczesny says, is where the beauty is.
What prompted you to write ‘You & Me: Reflections on Becoming Your Dad’?
“Uma was born in late December 2014. We had been trying to have our own kids for a while – we’re not spring chickens – so doctors would tell us over and over again that there might be some challenges to having a baby this much later in life. I don’t consider myself old, nor does my wife, but the pregnancy had no great issues.”
“On the day of her birth, though, we had some challenges, and it ended up being a pretty close call for my wife. That was really unexpected. I think we hold the record for the most days in the maternity ward. We spent 10 days there while my wife recovered. I basically lived at the Elliot Hospital. My wife’s parents came in from Chicago to watch the baby. It was a hard three to four months there. There were some operations, always back and forth to the hospital. It was a long, nasty haul to get us all healthy again during that period, and I dropped everything else. Basically, I was taking care of my family, and more or less wherever my wife was, that’s where I was living.”
“I had a notebook with me, and I didn’t have anything else. I had terrible insomnia; I was hardly getting any sleep and I had time on my hands. I was writing and keeping, not a diary, more like a ‘what’s happening’ thing. My wife was groggy and in and out of meds. She didn’t know a lot of what was happening.
My daughter, an infant, would never remember any of it, so I wanted to keep a record of that period of our lives. I wrote a lot. I tried to incorporate philosophy in the writing. The big questions. But at the same time, my wife is super popular with a lot of friends and family, and I didn’t have the brain space to be on phone all the time, updating people, so I used social media and a lot of writings and journal entries on social media as way of letting family and friends know, ‘OK, here’s how to help.’”
“What happened, as it turned out, those posts got really popular, and I began to realize that there’s this mythology of parenthood, and that this romantic mythology isn’t true. It’s hard work. And it can be reassuring to know that here’s a community of parents or caregivers or guardians out there going through some of the same things we’re going through.”
When did you realize you had a book?
“Inadvertently, this community built up around these passages and essays I was writing. We got out of it OK. We had about four months of recovery or so. The first year of Uma’s life I was stay-at-home dad, so there was this whole year of just me and her.”
“I was taking care of a baby and I wrote about that experience because people seemed to like it, but also it was a form of therapy for me. It’s hard work, and I needed that outlet. Nothing really came of it. Some were published in magazines and freelance places over the years, but I never had it in my head to write a book about it until the fall of last year.”
“I had an update lunch with my publisher – we get together and shoot around ideas – and she said she was putting together a series with Hobblebush Books called the ‘Reflections’ series. One book per author, nonfiction essays all on a particular subject or theme. She stalks me on social media, and she said, ‘you’ve written so much on parenting and fatherhood, I’d be interested in leading off the series about parenting and fatherhood using these essays written over the course of Uma’s life.’ I thought, heck, it’s pretty much written. That’s how book came about.”
Tell us about something you learned while writing the book.
“It’s going to sound really weird, and I write about it in the book, but it’s about the collapsing of time. I write a lot in the book about the connections between little things. There’s a great pop philosopher named Jason Silva who talks about ‘the awe of the mundane.’ That’s a really appealing concept to me, given what we’ve been through in the past five years.”
What does Uma think of the book?
“In the past year, she started becoming aware that I had a job, and my job is writing and that I write a lot about family. Once she got to be 3,4 and now 5, she has her own opinions. And there are issues of privacy. If I’m going to be writing about her and the family, I want her to be part of that, so I would occasionally read some of these essays to her.”
“She’s not a shy kid. She’s unafraid of audiences and talking to people. She’s come to events with my wife. She knows I write and stand in front of people and talk, and it’s starting to be a thing for her.”
“I don’t want her to be surprised when she’s 13, 14, and she Googles her name. I don’t want her to be shocked. She hasn’t said ‘no’ to anything yet, but I don’t think she’s at that age where she’d say, ‘oh my God, dad, don’t write that about me.’ But it will be, and when that time comes, I’ll respect that.”
What’s been the most rewarding part of the experience?
“We spend so much time as human beings trying to get through the mundane, the everyday, to reach the peaks. The reality is that we only have a few peaks and we’re in the valleys. You have to learn to appreciate the valley. That’s so important when you’re bringing up a kid, especially a baby. The diaper changing and the clothes and getting food ready and the 3 a.m. moments when the kid won’t fall asleep – that stuff shouldn’t be the moments you have to get through to get to the good stuff. That stuff should be the good stuff.”
“Keeping this journal and writing every day about the mundane has helped me be in the moment, and I think live a more mindful life. I’m more acutely aware of how fast time flies and how we need to hold on to those little moments that maybe you’d otherwise just rush though. Those little moments are what make the experience of parenting and fatherhood what it is.”
“Sure, I’m going to take her hiking and we’ve been to the Grand Canyon and overseas and we’ve had these epic journeys, but to this day five years later, it’s about that evening when everything is quiet in the house and you’re just baking bread and listening to Bob Dylan on the radio and she’s sitting at the table coloring and my wife is in a chair reading a book – that’s the important stuff. You have to find a way to recognize that when it’s there. Because that’s mostly what’s there. Trying to live more in the moment. That’s something she’s taught me.”
‘You & Me: Reflections on Becoming Your Dad’ is available at bookstores and online booksellers. For more information, go to www.danszczesny.com.
Bill Burke is a contributing writer for ParentingNH.