This past weekend we packed the kids in the car and headed to one of our favorite places on Earth: New York City. Good friends bought a house an hour upstate two years ago (check out their blog!), and this provides a kid-friendly accommodation with free parking, not to mention great food, even better company, and lots of wine. Our friends took the kids for the day, and my husband I hopped on the train to Manhattan where we had tickets to see the new musical Big Fish, based on the 2003 Tim Burton film and the 1998 Daniel Wallace novel.
Big Fish came to Broadway with lots of fanfare and a boatload of expectations. Reviews were lukewarm though and the day after we saw it they posted a closing date for the end of the year. The show is certainly not without its flaws, but we enjoyed our three hours at the theater immensely, even though I spent most of that time a blubbering mess in search of a tissue. The show gets heavy at points, especially as the main character Edward Bloom lies dying in a hospital bed while his adult son struggles to discern truth from fiction before his only reputable source leaves the world forever. I started crying way before that though.
The show stays fairly close to the source material: Edward Bloom is a traveling salesdad who returns home from time to time to tell one whopper after another to his young son. The boy grows up with an eye for verisimilitude and what begins as simple questioning turns into the belief that his father is a consummate liar with something to hide. The first song has Edward telling his son to “Be A Hero” and sets the stage nicely for this character who is doing what he thinks is right for his son, no matter what young adult petulance has to say about it.
That first song isn’t really anything special, but the sentiment got me. The father-son relationship in Big Fish isn’t a mirror to my relationship with my own son, but it did parallel it in many obtuse ways. I do struggle with my son. A lot. I do my best to parent him in the only way I know how, and still we constantly butt heads. I hold my ground, insist on certain things, and I try to balance this out with letting him be who he is going to be. In truth though, the former far outweighs the latter in his life, and I know he can feel it. I don’t know why when he chews with his mouth open at the table, it makes me want to scream at the top of my lungs; the same behavior from my daughter prompts a fairly calm, “Please chew with your mouth closed.” Each night, I help him pick out his clothes for the following day; we’ve worked out a deal where he alternates between jeans and sweats, so when I pick him up from school and he’s wearing yet another pair of ratty sweats instead of the clean pair of jeans I put out with him, my blood begins to boil as I picture him manipulating the morning sitter as he carelessly tosses the clean clothes around his room leaving a huge mess for me to pick up. When he spends 90 minutes on the soccer field, becoming more and more fatigued, he starts making bad decisions, like throwing a water bottle in the air that hits his coach right in the head, and I want to pull him aside and yell at him until he cries so I know for sure he knows how wrong that was. I wish I could say I don’t always resort to these extremes, but at least I typically hold back in public.
I don’t want to make it sound like I’m emotionally berating the life out of him; he’s still a very happy kid, and we do share an appropriate affection, but he certainly gravitates toward my husband more, who is far less the disciplinarian and who doesn’t feel the stresses when solo parenting as often as I do. Sometimes when I have to work late and don’t get home until after the kids are in bed, I secretly relish having taken the opportunity to skip a night with them where I might be pushed over the edge by my son’s simple–and mostly age-appropriate–choices. This of course makes me incredibly sad, and I have to constantly remind myself that I’m doing the best I can.
Early in the first act of Big Fish Edward’s adult son sings about how his father is a “Stranger,” and at this point my tear ducts opened once again. I feel myself sometimes pulling away from my son for fear of how I will interact with him, and I have to constantly push myself to re-engage. I don’t want my son to grow up not really knowing who I am simply because I feared a negative outcome of our time together. There was a time a few months ago where that was a real possibility. My husband had to often come in and separate my son and me because I was being totally unreasonable. My husband agreed that our son’s behavior wasn’t ideal, and at the same time he didn’t think it often warranted my highly emotional reactions. I did some research, talked to some parenting coaches, and I think I’ve taken some necessary steps to alleviate some of that parenting pressure. Still, the vestiges of those feelings have never really gone away.
In act two, Edward sings the best song in the show, “Fight the Dragons,” in which he explains some of what he’s trying to accomplish with his unique style of parenting. While not at all a direct analogy for life with my son, I felt it so perfectly captured much of what I struggle with as a parent to an adopted boy of color with two dads who will grow up and struggle with all that in so many ways. As I’ve written about here before, there will come a time when he is no longer adorable when he throws a water bottle at his coach’s head. There will come a time when his predominantly white friends begin to acknowledge his color and I want to ensure that he stays an individual instead of becoming their mascot. I want for him to think of himself as normal, and I still want to prepare him for the realization that he lives on the periphery in so many ways. I think this is at the heart of my struggles with him, even though it often manifests in such frivolity as me screaming, “What do you mean you don’t want to put on slacks and go see Alvin Ailey?!”
Big Fish is closing at the end of the year, so please go see it! It’s worth the discounted price of admission they’re offering these days, and it might provide a different glimpse into the struggles of the father-son relationship for you.