Mike Christie grabbed us with his emotional essay, “All Parents are Cowards,” published in the New York Times. In it, he talks about growing up with an agoraphobic mother, how skateboarding helped him break out on his own, and what it was like to return to his mom’s side as she was dying years later.
Mike is the author of the short story collection, “The Beggar’s Garden,” and the novel, “If I Fall, If I Die.” Follow him on Twitter.
Parents: Mike and Cedar
Kids: son August, 5-and-a-half; son Lake, almost 2
Parent Co.: Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to write your moving piece in the New York Times?
Mike: Sure. My mom died in 2008 of cancer. That was just before my first book was published. It was a collection of short stories. I was having a child or about to have a child. He hadn’t been born yet, and she passed away. It was pretty quick. For my next book I wrote a novel based on my relationship with her growing up and also somewhat based on my life. It is pretty fictionalized. I just found myself returning again and again to memories of her and looking back on my life and going home. I remember being with her when she was critically ill. It was very much a grieving process for me. Then also an examination of my own life as a parent so far. I’m sorry that’s a long answer.
You say, “Your experience of parenthood so far,” – how old are your kids?
(Our first son) was growing up while I was writing the novel. Then when I wrote this piece it was six months ago. He had just turned five at that point, I suppose. I also have another son who was about one at that time. He’s almost two now.
It’s a lot of fun. We live on a little island off the coast of Vancouver. It’s good because we can just point him outside. It’s really safe and natural and fun.
That’s particularly interesting considering you grew up with the antithesis of free-range parenting. Your mom, because of her own mental illness, kept you very close to her. Then you met this peer. Was it the boy that you met or the skateboarding that sort of pulled you out of the house?
It was both. There were some instrumental particular boys that I hung out with. Yes, it was more just the sight of skateboarding that revolutionized my life. I tried other things. I tried everything. It was just something about skateboarding itself that just completely overtook me – to my mother’s complete horror. She just hated it.
She’s a very creative person. She loved the artwork and the music, that aspect of it. She loved that it was noncompetitive and all that. At the same time when I’d come home bashed up and sprain the ankles and breaking things it was really hard for her, as it would be for any parent but particularly …
Right, I was going to say I can imagine that would be hard for any parent. Even my daughter who’s almost seven and started taking skateboard lessons last year – she was doing nothing approaching what I can imagine you were doing as an eleven or twelve year old. Maybe this is where the Times got the headline right – there is a level of fear that we all experience as parents.
Totally. Nothing will terrify you like becoming a parent. There is nothing scarier. It’s one thing to worry about yourself, but it’s a completely different fear, and magnitude of fear, to worry about someone who’s completely helpless and someone who you love more than you love yourself. It’s brutal.
Do you struggle with, as I certainly do and a lot of parents do, trying to understand your separateness from your children, trying to understand and accept that they are their own humans with ever increasing autonomy and ability to make their own decisions?
Yes, I certainly do. I’ve gone through periods of pulling back almost too much and then going in and being too much of a helicopter dad. Yes, I struggle with it all the time. It’s something that you never get over. I don’t think there is a solution to it. There is no perfect level of involvement.
We as parents, and especially this kind of new parent, there’s a real difference between the way that I parent versus the way that my parents did or the parents of my peers. We’re thinking about it much more analytically than people have in the past. We’re coming up against these really unsolvable problems like, do you let your kids fall off the playground structure or are you there every minute? Do you catch them? Do you send them off to some war-torn country so they can build character like some super dogmatic free-range parents would advocate for? It’s not either of those. It’s somewhere in the middle and that’s hard.
Yes, it can be especially hard because there’s so much room in the middle. We can understand on an intellectual level that the best choices are somewhere in the middle, but even there, there are so many possibilities. What things do you look for when you’re making decisions about your kids that show you, or clue you into the fact, that you’re making the right decision?
I’ve developed this rule that I have to wait five seconds before I say anything that I worry may be intrusive. I find it’s a nice little buffer. My son will be doing something that’ll be semi-dangerous or getting there and I’ll say, “Rather than heading this off at the pass or jumping the gun potentially on something that could turn out to be nothing just take a breath and don’t jump in and don’t open your mouth.” That’s one strategy that I find really helps. It’s so difficult. It’s just minute by minute. You’re in the moment making a thousand decisions a second with your kid. It’s so hard to say what is the ideal strategy.
It’s true. Then it’s hard, too, when you’re trying to adjust for developmental progress and things when you realize, “Oh, actually …” Maybe that’s what those five seconds or one minute are for – maybe that breath is the time where you realize, “Oh, my kid knows better now. That’s great.”
Totally. I used to get really angry at my mom for what I felt was not acknowledging my movement towards independence and not being like, “Oh, my God, you’re making food for yourself.” She wasn’t welcoming those things. It was almost like she was horrified by my steps towards independence. Even later in life she would say, “Are you okay driving?” I’d be like, “Mom, it’s a small town in Ontario. I’ve driven a motorbike from Vancouver to Mexico. I know how to drive. I’ve done this stuff.” It was her inability to adjust to increased levels of independence. Now I’m finding out that is really hard to do.
Even if you’re not agoraphobic!
No, totally. It’s really hard no to. I forgive her. There are so many moments I wish I could take back now in terms of my own frustration with her. Now I know how hard it is. It’s really hard to adjust to the fact that your baby’s not a baby anymore or that your kid is now an adult who gets embarrassed. It’s so strange for me to do that, or going to be strange for me with an adult child.
I find it so frustrating: The fact that we can’t see that until we become parents ourselves. We just can’t understand what our parents are going through on a daily basis and where their fear might be coming from. Truly so much of what our parents were doing that drove us crazy was all coming from a place of love and a desire to protect us. Right or wrong, it’s almost always well-intentioned. It’s so hard to see that before you became a parent. Even if you’re an adult who’s not a parent, it’s still hard to understand that.
That is probably the best answer to your first question. Writing the essay was all about me coming to the realization, coming to a place of forgiveness, and a place of understanding for what my mom went through and how hard it is to parent. I attributed it all to her illness and all to her quirkiness. It’s hard for everyone. It’s certainly hard for me.
I spoke with comedian Greg Fitzsimmons a few months ago about his parents’ struggle with depression while he was growing up and his own struggles with depression. We talked a little bit about how tricky it is to be very aware of the fact that you’re consciously fighting against, in some ways, how you were parented or where your parent’s mental health came into them parenting you and just how complex that is. I’m curious how you dealt with that? You don’t have feelings or tendencies towards agoraphobia. Still you’re affected by it simply by being your mother’s son. Are you constantly checking yourself for any signs of decisions based in fear?
Anyone who’s grown up with a mentally ill parent – or anyone who’s grown up with a parent – will say that they’ve had a profound effect on them. Especially when you’re growing up with somebody who’s really struggling in the house, you take on all kinds of roles that aren’t necessarily ideal to be taken by kids. I like to think of it as you adapt. You adapt to the environment that you were raised in. You adapt very well. You come up with some really great and ingenious ways of getting your needs met and staying a person.
Then the problem arises when you move outside of that world that you’ve adapted to so well and you realize that you are no longer adapted to this world. It’s almost like you’re a polar bear moving to Africa when you leave home. I really had that experience. I was completely unprepared for life outside our home. For me it really manifested – I had a lot of relationships with women who were really in trouble. Not necessarily agoraphobic but really struggling with mental health or with addiction or all kinds of stuff. With my mom I was very much her caretaker during a lot of the stuff and sort of reassure-er. I continued that adaptation. I continued that role out in the world.
Right, it becomes your identity.
It becomes your identity and it was completely unsuccessful. Obviously. That took a long time to figure out and recognize in myself.
And then outside of that, and I wrote about this in the piece, I don’t know if it’s because I’m a skateboarder or because of my mom, I mean, I actually have had a lot of tragedy in my life, as well. So, I don’t know why but I’m very in tune with how things can go bad, and how things can go wrong because I’ve seen it happen a fair deal. I’m constantly trying to keep that in check. I’m constantly trying to keep my alertness and my hyper-vigilance under control because I live in a pretty safe world and I act like I don’t.
It’s very important as a parent to align your idea of how dangerous the world is with the actual truth of how dangerous the world is. If you’re parenting a child in Afghanistan right now, you’re going to need some different skills than if you’re parenting a child in San Francisco. As a parent you really need to get a realistic view of the dangerousness and the amount of attention that’s required. Then also the media does a terrible job in actually giving us a good sense of how dangerous things are.
Right. That’s a really important thing to remind people of because, as you mentioned with the prevalence of media coverage of the terrible things, we’re just not supported naturally in that truth – in the reality of where we live. It’s skewed by the terrible stories that we hear all the time.
I’ve read studies about how our brain is not set up to deal with that amount of catastrophic input. That it actually can’t discern the fact that there is a flood happening an entire world away but that is not happening to us right now potentially. It’s very difficult to put up a barrier between the tragedies and the immediate reality. That’s really difficult.
Have you ever struggled with panic attacks in your life?
Yes, I’ve had them. I wrote about them in my novel a lot. There’s a lot of description of panic attacks. I did a ton of research. I used to get them more. I worked at an emergency homeless shelter for many years. It was really high stress and lots of crazy stuff happening. I would get them then. These days I don’t really get them at all.
I’m asking because I had them, panic attacks, regularly for seven years before finally going on medication for it. Everything you’re saying is exactly my experience with panic attacks. It was so hard to understand boundaries. Like, “That person is passing out at the concert, not me. I’m actually fine.” It turned into, “Oh, my God, that’s going to happen to me. Something is wrong with me!” I so deeply empathize with what you’re saying and how difficult it is. Especially when you put it in the context of parenting, how very important it is to really figure out the truth, to figure out what’s true, and stay there.
The way I always look at it is, if I’m there – in the truth, in reality – then my kids are there with me, and that’s where they deserve to be. Not in my made up terrible world.
That’s right. In some way you’re preparing them for a world that doesn’t exist. That’s the biggest disservice we can do… That “catastrophization,” as parents we really have to be careful of it. We have to be good at recognizing when something is a real problem and then recognizing when something is a scrape or is a knock on the head or something very benign. That’s so hard to do.
It is. It’s equally important to do. I’m always reminding myself of that. Sorry, I feel like I got us off on a little bit of a tangent there.
No. Tangents are much more conversational.
They are. That’s where the good stuff is. When you speak of yourself professionally now, do you call yourself a writer?
Yes, it’s funny. I have a weird relationship with the word. I have a serious case of impostor syndrome, really bad. I have to reassure myself. I’m like, “My major source of income is writing fiction. I published a book. I’m writing another book now. I have an agent. I guess that makes me a writer.”
That’s so legit.
Yes, I am a writer.
Do you still skateboard?
I do. Yes, I still love it… There’s actually a small park here on the island. We go quite a bit. I’m definitely not at the level that I was at one time. I still just adore it. If I had more time I would skateboard every day.
I’m wondering how becoming a dad has impacted your approach to your creative work?
It’s been really helpful which is funny because the lack of time and the lack of energy and the lack of sleep. You’d think that those things would deplete you or rob you of the ability to do creative stuff. I was this very unregulated human being before I had kids. Not even just partying unregulated. I was a very haphazard guy. I would stay up all night one night and sleep all day the next day and take a random trip somewhere on a motorcycle for absolutely no reason.
With kids, I find that their cycles regulate me in a way that I was incapable of doing to myself. Now I put my son on the bus. I go down to my writing cabin. It’s like, “Now is the time to work,” and before I never had that. It was like it’s always the time to work and it’s never the time to work so I never worked. Now, it’s focused my life and focused my respect for my own time and my ability to do it. For me, it’s been great despite all the more difficult parts like lack of time or sleep.
I find myself now, looking at my friends who don’t have kids, I’m like, “What do they do?” People that don’t have kids have become this mystical animal and I’m wondering what they do with their time. How do they fill up all those hours? I don’t know.