When I was in graduate school, one of my professors assigned an article from The Atlantic, with the recommendation that if we subscribed to only one magazine or journal, it be that one. Twenty years later I have followed this advice faithfully, and have never been disappointed. Atlantic articles and writers have shaped -and challenged- my views on a wide variety of issues. So when I saw a book by a writer I have come to respect and admire, Ron Fournier, about his own parental journey (a topic I still struggle with), I decided to read it. And was, again, not disappointed.
Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent’s Expectations (Crown Publishing Group, 2016) take its title from a visit Fournier and his family made to George W. Bush’s Oval Office on the author’s last day covering the White House for the Associated Press. The story is charming (I’m abbreviating it here to get to the gist of the title):
“Where’s Barney?” my son shouted.
The five of us stood in front of Bush’s desk, which, like everything else about the Oval Office, had a history…”Where’s Barney?” Tyler shouted again, in a voice so inappropriately loud and demanding that I jumped slightly.
Bush smiled and nodded – first to an aide and then to the lawn. “He’s coming. He’s right there. He likes to sit out there.”
Tyler launched into a one-sided conversation, firing off one choppy phrase after another with machine-gun delivery…I cringed. Tyler was a loving, charming, and brilliant boy – he had a photographic memory – but he was somehow different. His voice was jarringly deep and loud for a kid his age. He fixated on topics, like presidential history and animals. He was, in a word, quirky. But the president was enchanted. He laughed, listened, and asked Tyler several questions about dogs before gathering us together for photos…
A few minutes later we were walking out of the Oval Office when Bush grabbed me by the elbow. “Love that boy,” he said, holding my eyes. I thought I understood what he meant.
It took me years to understand.
Now, I was never a Bush fan. In particular, I thought the Iraq war was a mistake from the start, and events have, I believe, proven me correct. But a high school friend I deeply respect and admire was one of his advisor’s, and this story shows a side of him that moves him up several notches in my estimation. It also underscores a basic truth about parenting: sometimes our children are not going to be who or what we expect, and how we handle that, how we love them in spite of that, makes all the difference.
The discerning reader will have guessed at what it took the Fourniers years to figure out: Tyler has Asperger’s. This diagnosis, and the attendant guilt it brings up in his father, serve as a catalyst for a series of road trips designed by the author’s wife to encourage the father and son to bond over a common interest: presidents and their history. Together they visit several Presidential Libraries and homes, as well as meeting with current and former Presidents. Along the way, Fournier reflects on what he learns about his parental expectations, about Asperger’s, and about how to help his son grow into a happy, thriving young adult.
My daughter and I have had a lot of conversations lately about “parenting”. She and her husband are considering this next step in their lives, and I suspect it terrifies her. I do think that it is harder to be a parent than ever, not least because “parenting” via Pinterest/Facebook/Instagram/the Internet in general has made us think there is one correct way to do the job, and that if we screw up we’ll be single-handedly responsible for another person’s lifetime misery. What I like so much about Fournier’s book is that he tackles these myths head-on. He is very honest about his own failings, and about his false starts and mistakes with his son. He also offers hope and encouragement.
I’ve been thinking about this book quite a bit lately within the context of the presidential election, obviously because it deals specifically with presidents past and present, but also because of what we learn about the presidents we meet as humans beings beyond their public persona. It will come as no surprise to anybody who knows me that I consider Donald Trump to be not only an unacceptable presidential option, but an actual threat to the survival of our civilization. And I wonder: how would he handle an autistic five-year old in the Oval Office?
My children are both grown and gone and (I hope) reasonably happy. But I still ask myself what I could have done better, or differently. My youngest keeps the family at a remove, and that is painful for me. Fournier’s book helped me step back from my perennial self-doubt and see that I was doing -and continue to do- the best I could with the information I had. He also helped me see that the gap between what we expect and what we get can not only be overcome, but celebrated.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.