Meet Keith Gessen, Writer and Father of Two

Tell us about yourself 
I’m a writer married to a writer living in Brooklyn with two boys, 7 and 4. I was born in Russia and my wife is from Maryland, so we have some disagreements over childrearing. I recently wrote a book about life with our oldest son called Raising Raffi.

Tell us your favorite dad joke!
This isn’t exactly a joke, or maybe it’s just an unfunny joke, but when Raffi was five we read the Dog Man books continuously, every day, over and over. In one of the books, Petey the cat attempts to clone himself so he can commit more crimes but ends up instead with a little baby clone named Li’l Petey. Petey is very disappointed by this and refuses to return Li’l Petey’s affection or acknowledge that he is his father. He even tries to give him away. So my joke was this: I would say, very seriously, “Raffi, I need to tell you something. You are not my son. You are a clone.”

Raffi did not find this funny and would say, “Stop it,” every time I made this joke.

What was your most rewarding moment as a dad?
It’s pretty hard to pick one out—I find fatherhood to be a constant rollercoaster where one minute I feel like a miserable failure and the next like I am not that bad. A semi-recent proud moment was when Raffi learned how to ride a bike. Out of inertia and laziness, we used training wheels instead of a balance bike so there was some question whether Raffi would make it—and then one day he asked me to take off the training wheels and we went out to the playground and he started riding! It turned out he knew how to peddle but he didn’t know how to stop, so he crashed into the fence a few times. But by the end he was riding. I was very proud.

What is your most valuable dad advice and how would a new parent apply it to their daily life?
I think when I started out I would get mad at myself all the time for not being the perfect parent that I had read about in parenting books. It took a while to realize that I was never going to be that parent—and that was ok! I could still be a decent parent by being the best parent version of the person I actually was: an occasionally grumpy, impatient, yelly Russian guy who is also, I hope, loving and attentive and really interested in his kids.

What's a common dad-misconception? What do you wish people wouldn’t assume about being/becoming a dad?
I thought somehow that parenthood would be more of a radical rupture from my previous life than it has been... it's definitely changed my life a great deal, but for better and worse I'm still the same person. I think if I'd understood a bit better how continuous my post-kid life would be with my pre-kid life, I'd have been better prepared.

Whether in your life or at large, why is a dad's role so important?
I actually think we're at a generational turning point, for dads--the structure of the workforce, the nature of work itself, the cultural expectations around parenting (specifically, that it be more equal) are all converging to make fathers a much more significant presence in the lives of our kids than our fathers were. (Nothing against our fathers--but things were different then.) And that means we need to think more deeply about what that new kind of fatherhood is going to look like--what things we want to throw away from Old Dad, and what things we may actually want to keep. It's a complicated situation and requires a lot of care. But our kids' lives, future and happiness depends on it.

Check out Keith's Book, Raising Raffi:
Raising Raffi, just out from Viking, is an attempt by the writer Keith Gessen to describe, from within, the new strain of more committed, more involved, but not necessarily more competing parenting that fathers now do in the United States. Arranged thematically, it describes Gessen trying to teach his son Russian, sports, and how not to hit Gessen (too much). It describes, too, Gessen's struggles with anger and his deep reading on cross-cultural parenting (Gessen was born in Russia, his wife in America). The New York Times called Raising Raffi "a wise, mild and enviably lucid book about a chaotic scene," and Slate has called it "the most honest mommy memoir I have ever read" (which, Slate added, "could only have been written by a man"). It is a book for new fathers, future fathers, retired fathers, and, of course, their partners.

Read more on Raising Raffi here.