Checking in with Alternadad: A conversation with Neal Pollack

In 2007, Neal Pollack wrote a book that would become a touchstone for parents who were determined to raise children—as the marketing copy for the book suggested—without growing up too much themselves. They wanted to be cool, and they wanted their kid to be cool, complete with a solid appreciation of the Ramones.

In the book Pollack gave a voice to some of the thoughts that so much of us have had, but perhaps didn’t think we could say out loud. He talks about taking Elijah to a mall and, while it wasn’t the best experience, at least at the end of it he was an hour closer to bedtime. Saying things like that, he made countless parents feel just that slight bit less alone.

When the book came out Elijah was four. He’s 12 now, teetering on the cusp of the teen years. He’s grown up quite a bit. And his dad? I reached him at his home in Austin, Texas, to find out.

In the book you wrote that “birth is just the beginning of a more complicated story.” Does it continue to be more complicated?

I wouldn’t say it’s more complicated. He’s more complicated. He’s a person now, as opposed to a plant or a toddler. But I wouldn’t say that being a parent is more complicated. In some ways I feel like I am better suited to being a parent of a kid this age because I can remember what it was like to be a tween and to be a teenager and I’m more or less familiar with the challenges that that age brings. Whereas being the parent of a three year old, you don’t have a lot of control over the situation. You have to deal with a lot of other people—with other parents, a lot of other animalistic toddlers. But when your kid is this age, well, there’s fewer characters really, is what it comes down to. It’s more his life and you’re just trying to drive him around to it.

I mean, he doesn’t bite people anymore, as far as I know. He’s still the same person in a lot of ways, he still has the same temperament, but he’s just better able to control himself, express himself, you know, and go to the bathroom by himself, dress himself. He can occasionally feed himself.

Twelve is the age we’re legally allowed to leave him home, so we go out for food, or a party, go get drinks, or whatever. We can do whatever we want, and he’s fine. He can text us if he’s hungry and we’ll tell him, you know, go make yourself some food. [Laughs] It’s really much better. I’m sure I’m going to pay for saying that.

Part of the idea of Alterndad was a desire to continue to be person that you are, even as a parent, and not to become whatever it is expected that a father should be. You mention a bit about your father going to rotary and eating hot dogs. Was part of the Alternadad idea a desire not to be him?

I think it was less about my own parents than it was the parenting culture that I saw springing up around me—the societal expectations of what a dad should be, what a dad should look like, and how a dad should act. It’s that you should become this generic parent-person once you have a kid.

And do you find that there’s a grittiness that comes into things, as you move further into the marriage, further into the experience of being a parent. That it’s not all roses.

I guess what it comes down to is [as parents] that you have these kids, and you have these hopes that somehow everything is going to be different this time. But life just kind of does its thing to you, and kids don’t make everything perfect. At all. At all! It’s the same old dramas playing themselves out over and over again.

There was a popular tumbler that went around with pictures of dads from the seventies. And you look at all these photos of bearded, longhaired dudes, you know, drinking beer, hanging out, smoking weed. Playing with their kids, skateboarding, whatever. And I’m like, “Oh, it’s the same as it is now.” If anything, people were more laid back then, and cooler. Less sort of generic, I guess.

It’s almost like parents then didn’t know what they were supposed to worry about. I remember running free in the neighbourhood at 5, which would raise gasps if we saw that today.

Yeah, and especially around this free-range parenting thing, there is a lot of debate about what we should be letting our kids do and how free we should let them be. But, really, I don’t think all that much has really changed between parents and kids. Same crap, different decade.

In the book you write about ordering the Silver Surfer [a vaporizer to use to consume marijuana] and that when you first got it, you waited until Elijah was asleep before trying it out.

Yes. I still have it actually!

Are you still hiding things like that from him?

No, I don’t hide anything from him. I mean, um, I don’t share. [Laughs] But you have to think about it. When it comes to marijuana, this is a very different time we’re living in than when that book was written. [Now] marijuana is legal in four American states and Washington DC. They had a debate about legalizing marijuana in Elijah’s school because it’s being debated in the Texas house. It’s being seriously debated as something that could happen, and probably will in the next four or five years. So, the reality of marijuana, when it comes to kids, is that you’re going to have to talk about it differently, like you talk about alcohol. Because it’s going to be legal almost everywhere.

So, yeah, he knows I get high. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not something I’m neurotic about, or my wife. She’s not a stoner, but she’s not neurotic about it. And the line you take with him is: if you’re 21, and you live in a place where it’s legal, do it if you want, and don’t get into a car with a stoned driver. You’ve just got to treat it the same as alcohol. You’re a hypocrite, I think, if you have any other take on marijuana. Unless you’re a complete teetotaler across the board, when it comes to alcohol as well, then you can go ahead and say [as a parent to a child] “in our house this does not happen.”

But there’s no reason to hide it. There are levels of appropriateness, but we can’t pretend that drinking and sex and drugs and profanity don’t exist. My take is not to encourage my son to do anything, but I also don’t to present these forbidden fruits.

Do you swear in front of your son?

Yeah. Of course.

Is there any word you wouldn’t say in front of him?

No, not really. Well, he’s 12. It was different when he was six or eight, or something. But we also don’t put a lot of limits on what he watches or consumes, media-wise, so he hears it anyway. I just feel—especially when your kids get to be a certain age—treating him as a person [living] outside of reality doesn’t make any sense. You know? Like, “hello, you’re going to be 13: no cursing, no sex, no alcohol, and no drugs in the world.” And when they go out into the world, all those things are around all the time. [Better is to admit that] yes, they’re there. Use good judgment.

I don’t really worry. What does he do in his free time? He runs on track team and he plays Magic: The Gathering. He’s not out getting high behind the portables.

How do you handle discussions about sex?

It’s an ongoing process. We let him know that if he has any questions, we’re here for him. But I won’t sit him down, and he won’t sit down for a talk. He’s not interested.

The public schools here teach an absurd, abstinence-only thing. But he seems to have a pretty good grasp on it. We just let him know that if he has any questions, ask. And the phrase “wear a condom” has been uttered more than once. You know, it’s “If you’re gonna do it” — well, he’s too young at this point, but in a few years he won’t be – “use birth control and be respectful to your partner. Don’t be a jerk.”

And sexuality online, what’s your approach to that?

It hasn’t really come up yet. He’s playing Minecraft, League of Legends and that kind of thing.

We’ve talked a bit about how to behave online. Don’t be a racist, don’t be flinging around anti-gay slurs. But that’s not his thing. His main activity outside of playing games online is he likes to go Tea Party Instagram sites and leave trolling political comments. He shows me some of them. He’s more liberal than I am, politically.

There’s a moment in the book where you’re watching him and you realize, at that moment, that you knew “he’d never be a stranger to me.” Which is interesting in that it sounds like a reaction to something, perhaps the worry that he might someday become a stranger to you.

Yeah, I think my mother said, when he was born, that he’s going to be a republican engineer. And I’m thinking, “Why? Because I’m a liberal writer?” Is it automatic that your son is going to be the opposite of you? But he’s certainly not a republican, and if he becomes and engineer, then our bridges are in trouble.

He makes me laugh, and he says interesting things, but I can’t say that anything he says and does surprises me.

You say in the book that we all judge other parents, and that never changes. What kinds of things are you judging of other parents?

Mostly how their kids behave in public. Sometimes the judging comes out of envy, say if they have more money than you do. But what I don’t judge other parents about is losing their temper, or dealing with a difficult kid. There are certain things we shouldn’t judge about but, well, we do anyway.

But that changes. When you have a toddler, you’re parenting in public. When you have a teenager, most of those things happen behind closed doors. You’re also not at parties, hanging out with other parents—you’re not in the same proximity, and I like that because, honestly, that was the worst part about having a kid. The parent child classes, and the preschool potlucks, the second grade plays where you all have to say hi to each other—even when we were at schools where we liked the other parents, that shit drove me crazy.

Now you see other parents in passing, like once a month in the halls or something. There just isn’t the same proximity.

You mention in the book that your wife, Regina, felt a certain level of mommy-guilt, which is a very real emotion for many, many women. Does she still feel that guilt?

No. Again, the older the kid gets, the more that crap just kind of fades away. When you first have a kid you’re trying to come to terms with the fact that you’re not young anymore. But at a certain point, at least for me, something just kind of opened up and I thought, Oh, I’m myself again. That “dad” does not define me in any way. I’ve integrated it into my identity.

My wife might have a slightly different opinion about that, but I know that she is not defined by “mom.” She is a mom. She is a great mom. But she doesn’t define herself by motherhood. Absolutely not. Because why should we define ourselves that way. You know, “Hooray, we’ve reproduced just like everyone else.” That shouldn’t have to define us.

So, I worry about my kid, but I don’t worry about the kind of stuff that I used to worry about.

So, all in all, as a dad, are you hitting it out of the park?

I’m doing OK. My son does well in school, except for math. He can have a intelligent conversation with a grownup. He exercises. He eats his vegetables. He’s got pretty good taste in movies and TV and books.

Most importantly, he thinks for himself. And that’s all that I’ve ever really cared about, that he’s his own person: that he thinks for himself and that he has an independent spirit about him. And he’s got that! If nothing else, I gave him that, and I gave him a little bit of irony. Which is important to me. Those are my biggest expectations for him. Everything else is just a lot of variables that I can’t control.

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