Sunday, June 20, 2010

Registered Bastard

“This has no apostille!” So said the lady at the registry of births who examined my marriage certificate. I was trying to register my newborn son with the state, but it seemed the officials weren’t going to have it.

“Sure it does,” I said. “Look right there.” I pointed to the embossed gold stick-on seal in the corner of the document in all its splendor. I drew her attention to the attractive gold tones used elsewhere and the four different signatures on both sides of the page! This document was a bureaucrat’s wet dream. If this wasn’t an apostille, then I didn’t know what was.

The official raised the document to eye level and turned it in the light. “No, that’s just a gold sticker. You need an apostille.”

In 1992, Estonia freshly out of Soviet clenches, a gold seal on a document would have gotten me just about anything. An American friend who taught English in Rakvere once presented his university diploma to a traffic cop and told him he was head of the United Nations and had diplomatic immunity. The cop let him go. The same friend liked to show the police his City of Chicago library card when he was stopped for inspection. He claimed the cops believed it was a driver’s license, but I think an equal argument could be made that they wanted to avoid the extra hassle that arresting a foreigner would bring. Especially one who was also head of the United Nations.

Those were the days when the reverence for shiny stickers was such that any document with stamps and signatures could pass for whatever you said it was. While I remember those days fondly, I’ve stopped living them. I honestly believed that my marriage certificate had an apostille. After all, the marriage certificate had long been accepted by the tax board to justify filing a joint income statement, and it was approved years ago by the immigration authority as the basis for my current residence permit. If it was good enough for them, why wasn’t it good enough for the registry? I put that question directly to the nice lady.

“That’s impossible,” she said. “The immigration authority will only take a document with an apostille. Maybe you had one and lost it.”

“No, I never had one,” I insisted. “Because I remember well when they took away my three-year residency permit. When I reapplied under the basis of marriage, I was only eligible for a one-year permit.”

“The migratsiooniamet will only take an apostillitud document,” she repeated, as if saying it out loud somehow made it true. Or made me a liar.

“Well,” I said, trying a different tactic. “I have lots of foreign friends in common law marriages with Estonian women whose children have been registered. What’s different about my son?”

“Because you and your wife are married.”

But were we? Hadn’t she just told me that in the eyes of the state we were not? She had me thoroughly confused. I pinched myself to make sure I was actually there.

“Well, I can tell you right now that I’m not going to be able to get you the document you want before your 30-day deadline,” and I noted that there were only seven days left. “So go ahead and register my son as a bastard.”

“No!” she gasped. Which quite frankly surprised me.

***

Although Estonians like to brag about their IT accomplishments, I have always been more impressed by something else: their tolerance for alternative ways of living. In the west, where a child born out of wedlock is often viewed as a potential bank robber or murderer, in Estonia nobody bats an eye. But what impresses me even more about Estonia, is that single mothers never indulge in self-pity. They do not take on poor-me-against-the-world attitudes; they do not see their lives as “over”; they do not stand in line twice at the government trough; they do not use the lack of a father as an excuse for everything that goes wrong in their lives. Quite the opposite: they meet reality head on and go through life without any visible chip on their shoulder.

In the west, I’ve often thought many children might do better without a father in the home. I am overstepping my mandate here and speaking as a psychologist, but it seems to me that no father is better than a crappy father. In Estonian society, a woman is free to mate with a deadbeat and drop him, while in the west he is often kept on for appearance’s sake, because a child born out of wedlock is “disadvantaged” and teachers will whisper behind his back in the school corridors: “There goes that poor bastard. With no father around to teach him to use deodorant, it’s no wonder he smells.”

But I don’t care if my kid is a registered bastard, and that’s what I told the woman at the registry. “He’s going to be a Canadian citizen. He’s going to be an Estonian citizen. Why should I care what mark you put next to his name in your book? Make him a bastard and give me my piece of paper so I can take him to the doctor.” I only wanted some mark next to his name. I didn’t care which. Any mark at all would get him, as Walker Percy famously wrote, “a neat styrene card with one's name on it certifying, so to speak, one’s right to exist.”

All this time, Robert sat there in his car seat on the bureaucrat’s desk looking ever so helpless. Twenty years ago a cute kid and a box of chocolates would have gotten the job done. No apostille would have been needed. But this official was completely unimpressed. How Germanic, I thought. I reflected that maybe the Estonians would run the EU well in 2018. (And then I wondered if we’d get the roads fixed by then.)

Despite my appeals and the cuteness of my child, the bureaucrat was chained to her system. She believed that Liina and I were married, and she desperately wanted to record in her book what was correct. I admired this, honestly, but it wasn’t all that expedient. My pressing issue was that after 22 hours in labor, Robert’s emergence into the world wasn’t the easiest, and his family doctor thought it might be a good idea to see a specialist. “But don’t take him to a big hospital,” the doctor said. “The doctors will refuse to see him if he’s not registered.” Our options, she explained, were to pay at a private clinic or petition the state health insurance fund to give Robert short-term coverage. “So what am I paying 33 percent social taxes for?” I asked the doctor. She didn’t have much of an answer. “Bureaucrats,” she shrugged.

***

I’ve determined the west is wrong in attributing the troubles of the world to the birth of children out of wedlock. It’s not bastard sons responsible for the ills of the world, but rather frustrated fathers of bastard sons. What bureaucrats fail to understand is that when it comes to my son I am completely indifferent to their tiny pieces of paper and the different positions they arrange them on their desks during the day. If my kid needs a doctor, I’m going to do whatever is necessary to get him one, including stepping over, around, or directly on top of a bureaucrat. Don’t bureaucrats have children of their own? Or are theirs are born with apostilles on their foreheads, completely equipped to navigate life’s labyrinth of ciphers? And, most to the point, why can’t Estonia’s bureaucrats simply be as practical as Estonia’s single mothers?

***

Read it in Estonian in Postimees.



Saturday, June 5, 2010

Fatherhood

“Lance Armstrong, how does it feel to win the Tour de France?”


How do you answer that? I’ve never been satisfied with the answers athletes give, and so I found myself stumped when friends began calling to ask, “How does it feel to be a father?” I answered like a professional athlete (“Great!”), but I couldn’t help but be disappointed in myself. For someone who values language, the answer didn’t measure up. How should one express the feelings of fatherhood in a telephone sound bite suitable for the 21st century? Perhaps the greater problem was that I didn’t yet really know how I felt. Some distance was required. It had to soak in before hitting home.


But Lance Armstrong, upon winning the Tour de France and asked about his emotions, is not permitted to shrug his shoulders and answer, “I dunno.” And so I too had to come up with a better answer.


***


At first, all the screaming is charming: a hospital floor packed with women in labor. I’d seen a birthing video, and so I knew the women had been trained to make these sounds. It’s like the mother is pronouncing the letter “U,” and breathing out at the same time, and it comes together in a way which might resemble an orgasm but is far more similar to a pack of coyotes howling around the rim of the Grand Canyon, a pleasant sound I’d used to put myself to sleep on several occasions. But the howling doesn’t last forever, and sooner or later, each woman on the floor begins to scream. It’s then that pleasant comparisons come to an end and you start to think of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo.


After 22 hours spent in the birthing ward, the screaming ceased to haunt me. It became rather business as usual, or white noise, the background hum of the world in which you dwell. In my case, I entertained Walter Mitty fantasies of what a fine medicin sans frontieres I’d make, the type of man who calmly saves lives amidst the chaos of battle or, in my case, wards of hysterical women.


Physically speaking, giving birth for the first time is difficult. I think those who forgo the laughing gas or epidurals are the Sir Edmund Hillarys of the birthing world. Although aware of the rigors of natural birth, I knew I was up to it. Liina was committed, too, as much as she could be, not knowing what circumstances would dictate. My job, according to the natural birthing video, was to support her in every way possible. To encourage. To enable. To, as politicians say, share her pain.


But, as Liina will attest, I am not the most patient man. I am also slightly competitive, and so nearing the twentieth hour of labor it began to irk me that the howling and screaming were so regularly followed by the crying of someone else’s newborn. As if by clockwork, every hour saw the birth of a child not ours, and each time I felt like someone who had been seated out of order in a popular restaurant: Hey, we got here before they did!


Although Liina and I are bit older than the average couple who gives birth in Estonia, this was our first child, and I tried to remind myself that first births are the most difficult. I had anticipated a birth like in the videos: ten minutes of coyote howls, two minutes of murderous screaming, and then a slimy infant in the arms of a weeping mother. Even though I’m aware there is editing involved in those videos, 22 hours is longer than anyone deserves. And that’s speaking only for myself. I can’t imagine Liina’s pain.


But all birthing videos are accurate in one respect: the child will eventually be born. True to the video’s promise, Liina’s pain ended miraculously and immediately, and mine along with it. There was palpable relief that the child would not attend university inside the womb.


***


As someone whose office is the kitchen table, bringing an infant home means that all work ceases. Life immediately revolves around the infant, and any pre-pregnancy pledges about a disciplined feeding routine are thrown out the window with the child’s first scream. Stopping the hollering becomes the focus of everyone’s life, and the father soon discovers that neither the pacifier, contorting your face, or threatening the child in a mock German accent will have any affect. A child will scream. It’s what they do.


I soon found it helpful to see my relationship with the child much the way the west views Hamid Karzai. Recognize you have to give him aid, but know that he’s almost always out to manipulate you. Remain flexible and in good humor. And constantly seek intelligence about his motives.


I placed my son on my lap as he screamed, and I logged on to Perekool.ee to seek advice from veteran mothers. Despite far more information available in English, I sought comfort from the experience of Estonian mothers, as if my son’s genetic code or their geographic proximity might make their advice more effective. I mummy-wrapped him in towels in the Soviet fashion, rubbed olive oil on his belly to relieve gas, and finally settled on the most cynical e-mother’s advice: I turned on my iPod and set it to maximum volume.


Given Liina’s birthing ordeal and her need to rest, I helped out where I could with our son’s care. I took over the shopping duties and found myself shoulder to shoulder with mothers in the aisles of Selver. An infant in my arms somehow gave me the right to join their lamentation about the poor quality of Fazer pirukad (no filling), the absurdities of sterilized eye swabs (sold only three to a pack), or where to put the oil on the stroller wheel so it will drive straight (I’ve given up).


Occasionally, I would encounter another man engaged in solo care of his infant, and we would naturally bond, sitting on a sunny bench outside the store where we made lists of pithy observations to give our wives who sent us shopping (Don’t put fruit and apples on the same list: the latter are the former, so we buy one and cross them both off. Lehttaigen and filotaigen are similar enough to be interchangeable. And don’t ask us to buy Estonian chocolate when Finnish chocolate is cheaper.)


In my forays with my son I was even given instruction in the Estonian language by fellow parents. For example, one should not ask if a newborn is an isane (male) or emane (female). Poiss or t├╝druk (girl or boy) will do just fine. Passing Russian babushkas were so full of advice that I never even once had to ask for it. Store clerks became more patient. With an infant in your arms, it’s as if the whole world is finally on your side.


***


I finally made my peace with the answer “Great!” when someone asked how it felt to be a father. The real answer was simply too time consuming, and I was raised stoically enough to not give it over the telephone or share it with those I didn’t know well. But in the case of someone calling who really did want to know, I answered this way: When your child is born, you understand the phrase “I love you” is much more than three trite words on a Hallmark greeting card. You understand that it is shorthand for “I would throw myself under a train for you.”


And I also learned that at that moment when a child is born, everyone cries for different reasons. The child cries to fill his lungs; the mother cries because that’s what mothers do; and the father cries because, perhaps, he’s finally done something in his life that truly matters.


“Hey, Lance Armstrong, how does it feel to win the Tour de France?”


“Honestly speaking, I feel a lot of love.”


No, I can’t imagine it, either.


***

Read it in Estonian in Postimees.

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