The web site of Austin-based writer Eileen McGinnis.

 

The Daddy Diaries: Charles Darwin, Fatherhood, + The Origin of Big Ideas

When my son was born in 2015, I repurposed a red Moleskine journal that I'd used to document our honeymoon in Japan. It would now function as a record of my (mis)adventures in parenting, as well as our child’s developmental milestones.

The entries were a bit emo and the prose a tad purple at first. Eight days in, for example, I wrote:

I’m pretty much constantly overwhelmed by the ferocity of my feelings for this boy, the intensity of worry and heartache lest something go wrong and he get hurt. This is Heady Stuff – it is so hard to get one’s bearings; like a Tokyo of the Emotions, there are innumerable neighborhoods, cities within cities really, in which to lose oneself.

They were also sparse – only four entries in the first two months. But then I got into a rhythm once it clicked that I could simply jot down a single sentence about our day together (no need to be the next Anne Lamott or anything).

Two-and-a-half years later, I’m deep into my second notebook. I faithfully write in it before bed at least every other night, whether I am in the mood to or not, whether I think I have anything to say or not. The journal has become a way of cultivating a disciplined writing practice, especially in those long stretches of time when it was my only opportunity to write.

I have also come to understand that the journal is less of a record, a time-capsule for my kid than I initially thought (will my adult son really care that on Feb. 9, 2016, he enthusiastically ate a salmon-pea-rice puree for dinner, e.g.?). Instead, it has become a way of culling through the frenzied and frenetic days with a baby and now a toddler. It forces me to remember, reflect, and (often) give thanks. It’s my small solution to dealing with the parenting truism that “the days are long, but the years are short.” 

So, what does all of this have to do with Charles Darwin? Well, in obsessively chronicling my child’s development, I find myself in good company.

In a history of science class I took many years ago, I first learned that Darwin had kept detailed notebooks with observations about his young children. (Charles and Emma had 10 children in all, seven of whom survived into adulthood.)

Darwin with his eldest son William (aka, "Hoddy-Doddy"). The author with her son in 2015.

The journals originated in his unexpected joy in becoming a parent. When Emma gave birth to William Erasmus “Hoddy-Doddy” Darwin in December 1839, Charles wimped out about the realities of childbirth but was quickly enamored of his firstborn. In one letter, he wrote,

[William] is a prodigy of beauty & intellect….I defy anybody to flatter us on our baby—for I defy anyone to say anything in its praise of which we are not fully conscious.

I found an echo of Papa Darwin’s pride in my journal entry from May 25, 2015:

[Baby] is just so beautiful and sweet, so special. I don’t think it’s just because he’s mine that I feel this way. It feels like I have this sacred trust, that I’m not worthy, Wayne’s World-style, of this beautiful baby even though he came out of me. He’s so innocent and lovely and new, and we seem so fumblingly human in comparison.

As a father, Darwin to some extent confounded Victorian stereotypes. As Janet Browne notes in her definitive Darwin bio,  

Darwin threw himself into his new situation wholeheartedly, surprising the rest of the family with his powerful fatherly affections and demonstrative behaviour. He was lavishly fond of his ‘little animalcule of a son,’ not afraid to hold him in his arms, kiss, or bathe him, quite unlike the usual idea of withdrawn or mysteriously absent Victorian fathers.

Fatherly pride and scientific practice, however, quickly dovetailed in the notebooks. Darwin observed his son in minute, rigorous detail, interspersing data with speculations and hypotheses. Here’s Browne again:

Thereafter the boundaries between doting parent and ostensibly impartial observer crashed to the ground. Every sign of William’s progress pleased Darwin in both the personal and scientific sense. The magic of human development captivated him as easily as any other eager father.

What began as an affectionate exercise eventually became a rich source of observational data. Decades later, Darwin would return to these early notebooks as he began work on his comparative study of facial expressions. Titled On the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), the book explored how human expressions and behaviors originated in our ancestors.

Another detail I love about this project is that Darwin relied on women’s observational expertise as mothers to collect additional data. His own fascination with children and embrace of his role as a parent gave him unique access to the domestic sphere – hidden in plain sight to many other male naturalists. It provided a window onto a neglected stage of life that would eventually become a field of scientific study in its own right.

 A photograph of a crying baby from Darwin's  On the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.  Via Wellcome Images.

A photograph of a crying baby from Darwin's On the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Via Wellcome Images.

Certainly, Darwin was not always exuberant about life as a parent, especially as his brood grew. He admitted to feeling by turns “sentimental” about and “exasperated” by the demands of fatherhood, according to Browne. And he generally had the luxury as a man and as a gentleman scientist of begging off and throwing himself into his work when things got to be overwhelming.

There’s also a tragic dimension to how his experiences as a father influenced Darwin’s thought. Charles was devastated by the death of his favorite child Ann in 1851, when she was ten years old. Some see her death as opening up a door to Darwin’s frank rejection of a deity or the concept of an afterlife.

But what I (more optimistically) take away from Darwin’s journals is that whatever your creative practice – whether you are a photographer or a naturalist or a writer – a close attention to the seeming minutia of your offspring’s habits and preferences is not necessarily, or not only, navel-gazing. Even though it might often feel trivial, a distraction from the world’s ills and/or one’s own creative growth.

Darwin’s example shows that integrating the parent self and the professional/citizen/artistic self can happen in unexpected ways. Out of the steady, plodding amassing of details, out of the patient transformation of craft into daily habit, might come true insight.

Maybe we, too, can trust that someday these seemingly disparate identities will one day add up? Or at least, sit together a bit more easily? 

In the meantime, get yourself a notebook.

 

 

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