Writer Tom Montgomery Fate Reflects on His Role as a Father
Seeing Children: Windows and Mirrors
When our son Bennett was younger I used to drop him off at the preschool at the college where I work. Because it was a teaching school, it had a long one-way mirror in the front hallway. Students and parents could look in at the kids without them seeing us––our window was their mirror. But it took several days for me to even notice this. Because I was always in a hurry. After the sign-in sheet, the hug, the nod to his teacher, I bolted off to my office with my briefcase to do important things.
Though one day, on the way out, I caught a glimpse of my distracted self in the window. That's not the way it's supposed to workâ€”the kids are supposed to see themselvesâ€”on the other side of the glass. But when I took two steps toward my faint, self-absorbed reflection, it disappeared. And suddenly I actually saw the world on the other side, the world I so often just walked by: children sprawled everywhere on the carpet in a kind of wild and holy innocenceâ€”working wooden puzzles, reading board books, rocking dolls, singing silly songs. My God, they were delirious with curiosity, and I was thrown into their childhood, and my own, so abruptly that I found myself in tears. What was it about this window?
I could see the kids, but they couldn't see me. If they tried to look back at me all they saw was themselves and their own world. Yet the metaphor didn't work, because I was the ego centric one, having seen myself in the window first––before seeing them.
But finally, I did learn to see them.
Four-year-old Maggie, in pink, glittery slippers and a baggy, green velvet dress and two strings of white, plastic pearls, stirred a pan of air on a little wooden stove with a rubber spatula and intently adjusted the dials until the temperature was just right. Then James came running over with a little snake he had rolled from a ball of electric blue playdoh and popped it in Maggie's pan. This perturbed her. But soon she began to stir it in and to readjust the dials. Bennett, who wore a black and silver stethoscope, sat cross-legged on the carpet next to Maggie and diligently checked the heart rate of the stuffed green dinosaur he was cradling. Then he tucked it into to a wooden crib, and said something to itâ€”perhaps a bedtime prayer.
How odd it was to see Bennett but not be seen by him, to be in the same room with him, yet not. When I got up to leave for the office, and was several feet away from the window, I again turned it into a mirror, caught my dim likeness in the glass, and recognized the obvious: I was also watching Bennett through the dim reflection of myself, weighing my own childhood against his, the known against the unknown. But unlike Bennett I was responsible––for his childhood, and for how our lives would converge. Maybe that was what brought the tearsâ€”the fear I wasn't doing such a great job, that I still wasn't seeing beyond the surface of things, and all the while our lives were slipping by.