January 11, 2007

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Alternadad, by Neal Pollack (Pantheon Books, 2006, 288 pages)
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com.

Traditional Dad has no fun.

Traditional Dad works a straight job, wears a tie, has one week of vacation a year, wakes up at 6 a.m. and slowly develops a taste for music that, in his earlier years, would have embarrassed him.

Neal Pollack does not want to be Traditional Dad.

He and wife Regina have artistic passions—Neal is a writer, Regina is a visual artist. Though they love each other and decide fairly soon after meeting each other to get married (and fairly soon after that to have children), they don’t want to give up their ambitions. So they set up an office and a studio in the same back room of a cramped house and decide to make a go of home employment and parenthood all at once. Their struggles are fairly typical for their class and mindset. As self-employed workers, they have to find their own health insurance, a never-ending struggle against the absurdities of our current system. They move from a somewhat dangerous neighborhood in Philadelphia to a somewhat dangerous neighborhood in Austin, trying to balance their desire to live in a city and not in some plastic suburb (which they can’t afford, really, anyway) with their desire not to get shot when they step outside. They try to balance “daddy time” (when Neal can write, which produces the family’s only income, or go to rock shows “for work”) and “mommy time” (when Regina can attempt to work on her art). They eventually decide to enroll Elijah in daycare and suddenly find a whole new system that seems pitted against them (to get into the really good preschools kids need to get on a waiting list as zygotes) and is unaffordable.

And then there are the even more difficult-to-negotiate fears about losing one’s personal identity. Neal wants desperately to remain cool even as he’s enjoying his new dad status. Regina seems rootless, unable for a long while to return to her art and overwhelmed by the extent to which Elijah overtakes her life.

Alternadad is not a relentless whine nor is it an uplifting tale of a man and his “blessings.” It is a realistic memoir of the early years of marriage and parenthood. It is a conversation with that all too rare friend who understands exactly what you’re going through and doesn’t judge how you get through it. His musings on poop and diapers and baby vomit (the early years of baby are all about various kinds of leaking) are punctuated with sarcasm at the notion of “perfect parents” as well as some hipster rants about our corporate-controlled American lives. And, even when you don’t agree with his over-educated, under-employed opinions, it is hopeful to hear that, even after months of children’s television, he can still put together a good polemic. B — Amy Diaz