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May 13, 2010

C'mon Papa by Ryan Knighton

There is no better metaphor than blindness to describe new parenthood. Nobody knows what they’re getting into, nobody ever really sees the baby properly in the ultrasound, nobody expects what will happen when the baby arrives. Even those of us blessed with good vision have had trouble recognizing our newborns once they’re out in the world. And, um, even those of us with good vision have stuffed soothers into eye sockets and smashed fragile skulls into door frames. Parenthood is the kind of thing you have to pick up on the job, and there’s plenty of stumbling along the way.

All this is to underline the universality of Ryan Knighton’s experience as outlined in his memoir C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark. But of course to consider blindness as a metaphor is only part of the story. Knighton has been losing his vision since being diagnosed with a dengerative eye condition at 18, and he is now blind. What vision he has left has enabled him to see his daughter only in glimpses, as a blur. His story of fatherhood and blindness considers little details the rest of us take for granted– venturing out with the baby carrier when you can’t see where you’re going (though he should know that many of us have also walked around with our children facing out and covered in puke, and not realized it), how to find a silent toddler who has toddled away, how to change a diaper when you’re guided by touch, how to move around in the dark so the light doesn’t wake the baby (and it is perhaps here only that Knighton would have an advantage).

Knighton writes about life with a newborn better than any other parent-memoirist I’ve encountered. (The horror! The horror! Fear of colic! Fact of gas!) This might be because he’s the first father parent-memoirist I’ve ever encountered– I think most mothers get too lost in the murky swim of things to remember it all as pointedly as Knighton does, and even if they do, those memories fall victim to amnesia. What he gets really well, however, is how sound factors into early parenthood: the incessant newborn cries, the claustrophobia of being stuck in a car with a shrieking infant, that eerie silence once the baby is asleep and all ears are tuned listening to… nothing. Or was that a rustle? And oh shit, the baby’s up again. You go.

And did you know that baby monitors were invented out of the paranoia of the Lindbergh baby case? Um, and that if your baby woke up you’d probably hear it anyway, even without an electronic device?

Knighton’s book has a bit of the “There are the notes./ Now where is the money?” about it, which is refreshingly honest and illuminating. He describes the pressure to write, to produce, in order to support his family, which is probably common of most fathers and not something mothers would experience to the same extent. Because “Provider” is the one role that is defined for a father, the one job for which he’s not just a bystander. Knighton’s helplessness in supporting his wife in other tasks would not be limited just to a blind man– during pregnancy, labour and the newborn days, fathers are very much outside of the experience no matter how much they’re supportive, and Knighton does a fine job of describing what that helplessness feels like. So he does what he can do– he writes and writes.

Ryan Knighton belongs to that generation that believes it invented parenting (though it kind of did, grammatically speaking. was “parent” even a verb before that?) but as a father and as a blind man, he has a unique perspective to add to the mommy/daddy canon. His book is hilarious and beautiful, and a testament to love and to family.

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