Notes on Sentimentality and Fatherhood

Maybe it is age. Maybe—more likely—station in life. But I feel my gaze softening these days. My heart seems nearer the surface. I keep wondering if I am becoming sentimental.

This is not a new concern, and I began writing about it last spring, but somehow my half-formed thoughts never made it to the surface, never made it into a piece that felt whole. They still don’t feel whole, exactly, but now that my second daughter has been born–three weeks ago tomorrow–these six-month-old thoughts feel like a relic, like notes from the periphery of a world that I have now entered more fully.

Here is what I wrote last spring:

My daughter is eighteen months old now, a little person. She refers to herself as “baby.” This is the closest thing in her vocabulary to a pronoun; if she wants to do something herself rather than having it done for her, she says, “Babyself.” But she doesn’t seem like a baby to me anymore. Sunday night she fell asleep in our bed. She often does. My wife fell asleep too. So I lay there in the dark, listening to them breathe. Noting the nearness of these two people whom I love, around whom my life seems to orbit these days, a small trajectory.

It was Easter, and we had spent the day with other people whom we love, friends whom we hadn’t seen in too long. This after gathering to worship. Church, for us, is not an obligatory holiday ritual. We go with joy. We speak the liturgy in loud voices, and sing, and believe without irony. The day before, walking in a muddy field, we had heard a meadowlark. And we saw a bluebird, the first of the year at our northern latitude. And this morning, tiny nascent buds on trees.

All of this feels dangerously sentimental. Tired, and used, and familiar in all the wrong ways. It feels like something that, if I encountered it in a creative writing class, I would balk at. Or, at least, I would scour the world of the story for trouble. I would tell the writer that there is not enough trouble. And I think I would be right, but maybe I would only be shortsighted. Likely, I would be being hypocritical, it seems. Because I certainly don’t want trouble. Who does?

Lying there last night, it also felt fragile. We felt vulnerable, like it wouldn’t take very much to undo us. And I would be no help, and neither would my sentiment. And it’s not that I think God would be no help; it’s just that I think he has bigger plans than I do. I think that he doesn’t really build lives without trouble, which is maybe why I don’t believe it in fiction either.

These days, when I hear about trouble, I do not feel brave. When I hear about disease, and tragedy, and death. When I hear about things like children dying, small bodies breaking against the hard and sharp and cold edges of the world. I do not know how people recover. I do not know how lives are put back together.

On Easter night, we lay together in the bed, breathing in the dark, terribly happy and terribly vulnerable. We three, the center of this small eddy of quiet in a world that is larger and more terrible than I am ready to admit. In a world that is made and governed by a God whom I love but whose purposes I cannot fathom. Who is larger than we are by far.

16 Comments

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    This is, quite simply, gorgeous.
    It’s not always easy to find that line between sentiment and sentimentality, but when sentiment is done right it can grab readers by the throat and maybe stir up a little trouble in the reader. Maybe we writers want trouble since it’s easier to handle than vulnerability?

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Thanks, Cathie. This is a really smart point, I think, about trouble being weirdly less troubling than real emotion. Why is that, I wonder?

  • Melissa says:

    I also love this post, especially the “terribly happy and terribly vulnerable” line. I think it can be refreshing to see genuine sentiment on the page, though I agree with your analysis of how hard it is to pull off. But to quote one of my favorite movies of all time: “the hard is what makes it great.” It’s easy to do snarky and flippant; we know that because we see it everywhere. It’s detached and usually lacking depth and we forget about it ten seconds after we read it. But when sentiment is handled well, and the reader knows the second they read it that they’ve just read something true…like Cathie says, that grabs you by the throat.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Yes. Yes. If I’m honest, sentiment is really what I’m looking for as a reader, especially as a reader of fiction. And of poetry. In nonfiction, I feel a little different. Sentiment is welcome, but I’m equally compelled by interest and idea.

      And I like that quote. What’s it from?

  • Brett says:

    I don’t know how I could cope with the loss of a kid either. I’d have a hard time not hitting self-destruct.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      I am truly amazed when I see people carrying on after losses like that. It’s probably a variety of naivety that I see those tragedies as dead ends, since so many people do find ways to carry on, but from my position of relative peace and privilege, it seems enormous.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I think there’s a significant difference between tenderness and sentimentality — and that exploring that tenderness is one of our jobs as fiction writers.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Agreed. And this is how I try to talk about it with students. (I like “tenderness vs sentimentality” as opposed to “sentiment vs sentimentality,” which I’ve used up to now. The more distinct terms seem to help distinguish the impulses). But, although I understand this distinction cognitively and can recognize it as a reader, I find the line between them very faint and difficult to distinguish when I’m approaching it in my own work.

      • Melissa says:

        I really like this distinction between tenderness and sentimentality as well, especially because tenderness can be shown in such unexpected and interesting ways.

  • The last paragraph slay me. I am not a person of faith and I am not a parent.Yet, I relate because we all experience pockets of happiness only to worry about them not lasting long enough.

    Sam is so right about the difference between tenderness and sentimentality. Sometimes the difference depends on your reader, whether they are open to tenderness or consider emotional writing sentimental. Like Melissa pointed out, it’s easy to be critical and flippant, much harder to be honest and open–in writing and in life.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Thanks, Asa. And this is a good point about sentimentality being largely in the eye of the beholder. What, for me, is saccharine might be, for another reader, deeply sincere.

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