Failing Better

A poet’s messy second chance at fatherhood

A few years ago, after writing a memoir about my family, specifically my son’s autism diagnosis, I was grateful to receive the occasional email or Facebook message commending me on being a good father. Grateful but also surprised. I secretly wondered: what book were they reading?

After all, my portrait of myself was of a man overwhelmed by self-pity—more frustrating than frustrated. Of course, writing honestly about coping with autism and the strain it puts on a marriage and on family life was kind of the point for the book. “Once you are finished writing a memoir,” I remember reading somewhere, “you should be able to sue yourself for libel.” I was sure I had accomplished that much at least.

But instead of being chastened for my mistakes, I was congratulated for not screwing things up worse. Fathers, even those of us more inclined than ever to do our fair share of child care, enjoy a luxury mothers likely never will. We are graded on a curve. Writing about fatherhood, in his essay collection, Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon points out that the handy thing about being a dad these days is that “the historic standard is so pitifully low.”

In his new book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir, Winnipeg poet and freelance writer Maurice Mierau will probably be given the benefit of the doubt, too, even though, to his credit, he never asks for it. Mierau is keenly aware of his failings and just as keen to share them. In fact, he compiles a helpful list for his readers in “Shrinking,” the unflinchingly candid opening chapter about his grudging foray into psychotherapy.

He admits, first of all, to being an unresponsive parent to his mostly grown son from his first marriage. “I was preoccupied with myself and my own problems,” he tells his psychologist. Then he chronicles his current wife Betsy’s complaints about him. “She says I refuse to talk about my feelings. She says I change the subject when it gets difficult.” When his psychologist concludes he is “very angry,” Mierau reacts with sarcasm and barely repressed anger: “How perceptive, I thought.”

Mostly, though, Mierau agrees to the “shrinking” because he is worried about the future, not the past. He is afraid he will end up failing the two young brothers, Peter, five, and Bohdan, three, whom he and his wife have adopted from Ukraine. One way he believes he can avoid his typically detached parenting style—what he calls an inability to pay attention—is to write about the trouble he is having connecting with his sons and about how much he is disappointing his wife. In an astute observation that also reads like a snarky parting shot, Mierau’s psychologist says, “So you’re writing a book about people you ignore. How come?”

How come indeed?

The question haunts the first part of Detachment as the narrative quickly goes into flashback mode with Mierau recounting in excruciating, often Kafkaesque detail his trip to Ukraine and the bureaucratic hoops he and his wife had to jump through to adopt their children. But dealing with local fixers and corrupt officials is child’s play compared to dealing with the emotional scars Peter and Bohdan have suffered from institutional abuse and neglect. Not to mention from the birth parents who abandoned them.

In Detachment, Mierau demonstrates a quality that tends to serve writers better than it does your typical non-literary father and husband: he has a knack for making things harder for himself than they probably need to be. There is, for starters, the decision to adopt orphans from Ukraine, a decision prompted by Mierau’s father’s roots and traumatic experience as a child and eventually a refugee from the former Soviet Socialist Republic.

During World War Two, Mierau’s German Mennonite grandparents, who settled in Ukraine for the soil, not the politics, found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, persecuted, on the one hand, by the Soviet government and exploited, on the other hand, by the invading Nazi army. His father’s family, in particular, were witness and victim to terrible, unforgettable crimes. It is a legacy that left its mark on Mierau’s father and, not surprisingly, on Mierau: “My father hugged me for the first time that I could remember when I was in middle age, and his hugs were stiff and awkward, like a board, just like mine.”

Back in Winnipeg, in the second part of Detachment, Mierau carries on the family tradition of stiffness and awkwardness. He also continues to make a very tough situation—adoption, specifically foreign adoption—tougher. His sons—Peter in particular, who is diagnosed with an “attachment disorder”—are having problems adjusting to their new reality and family. But then so is Mierau. He admits to being equally incompetent at doing household chores and being emotionally present. But while he blames himself for his “level of inexpressiveness,” he also finds himself revelling, in the middle of a routine argument with his wife, in “the terrible joy of being an asshole.”

In the last two decades, memoirs have become increasingly popular and, in the hands of talented writers, often fiction writers such as Philip Roth trying out the genre, critically accepted. Still, anyone trying to write a literary story drawn from his or her own life is likely to come up against a significant obstacle. How do you overcome the tyranny of the happy ending? What I learned writing my memoir was that while I enjoyed nothing more than revelling in my self-pity, readers were unlikely to share this peculiar enthusiasm of mine for very long. Midway through the writing of the book, I realized I had to figure out how to be a better father so I could become a better character in my own story.

In Detachment, Mierau is faced with his own steep learning curve. Late in the book, on what feels like an ill-advised vacation with his sons—his wife wisely decides to stay home—he struggles with their bad behaviour as well as his own unproductive reactions to it. A bond is formed during their time alone together, although clearly a fragile one. Mierau may have once harboured the illusion of being a hero to his sons, but eventually, recognizes that “fatherhood was not a single day’s rescue mission.”

“A father is a man who fails every day,” Michael Chabon concludes in Manhood for Amateurs. His point, I assume, being: so what? Writing with heartfelt honesty about his own self-doubt and self-absorption, Mierau is forced to do what he assumed, in his first chapter, he could not—pay close attention to the daily, often mundane trials of fatherhood. As for the victories in Detachment, they are hard won and incremental and the more believable for it.