In Search Of A Grown-Up

A good defense attorney uses what he's got, and what David Westerfield's attorney had was what is euphemistically called "lifestyle." Much of the evidence didn't look good for Westerfield as he stood trial in San Diego for the murder of a 7-year-old girl. Experts testified that little Danielle van Dam's fingerprints and hair were found in the RV he took into the desert the weekend she disappeared and that her blood was found on a jacket he brought to the dry cleaner first thing Monday morning.

So Westerfield's lawyer tried to counter that forensics mess with another sort of mess, the messy lifestyle of Danielle's mom and dad. It was a little difficult to keep it all straight, but it seems as if Damon van Dam had had sex, in the presence of assorted spouses, with both of the women with whom his wife, Brenda, went out drinking on the night that their little girl went missing. That night the women had smoked marijuana in a garage fitted with a special lock intended to keep the kids from barging in, then gone out to a bar for an evening of heavy drinking and dirty dancing, then came back to the home where Damon made out with one of his wife's friends until Brenda told him that it was rude to do so because they had guests downstairs, a rule of etiquette with which I was not familiar.

Counsel never succeeded in making this relevant to the question of who took Danielle from her pink-and-purple bedroom and dumped her body in the desert, where it was found, badly decomposed, nearly a month later.

But it does have something to do with a curious attitude that seems to have taken root among some modern parents. And that is that life with kids is just like life without kids, only with bunk beds.

It is possible to have children and still work punishing hours. It is possible to have children and still have a bitchin' social life. It is possible to have children and still booze it up and do drugs, just as you did when you were young and single.

It is possible. It is surely not desirable.

Having children changes everything. There's constant grousing about the failure of various sports figures to serve as national role models, when all they really are qualified to do is pass a little ball around a little area. But the moment that little cord gets cut with those little scissors, two little people have been turned into role models instantly, whether they like it or not.

Everything afterward is a process of compromise and even self-sacrifice, or ought to be. The center has shifted, from sleeping late and midnight movies to Saturday soccer games and those night terrors that lead to three in a bed, two of them exhausted. This is all onerous. Clean up your language. Clean up your act. Cut down on the business trips, the profanity and the beer. "An inadvertent example" is how the psychologist Lawrence Balter describes what a parent becomes without even trying. A child is watching. And learning.

Or sometimes people behave as before. Nothing inside them is essentially different; otherwise they would not forget and leave the baby in the car to suffocate in the heat while they go off to work or the hairdresser. Alongside the plight of teenage parents, we have the plight of the kids of parents who behave as if they're still teenagers themselves. The saddest shows on trash-talk TV are ones like "My Mom Dresses Too Sexy." If you feel the need to put a lock on the garage to keep your kids from walking in while you smoke marijuana, it may be nature's way of telling you the time to drop the bong is when you put up the crib.

To much fanfare Sylvia Ann Hewlett published an account earlier this year of how high-achieving professional women find themselves successful, and childless. Many of them seem to have missed the basic biological lesson that fertility declines sharply with age. And some of them seem to have bought into a mathematical impossibility: that there are an endless number of hours in any day, and that devoting most of them to work would still result in many of them available for child rearing. Common sense says that's not how it works. Something's got to give, and that something is you.

It is possible to feel deep sympathy for Brenda and Damon van Dam, and yet at the same time to think that they missed something basic about the way a person ought to modify his or her behavior when elevated to the position of parent. They loved and lost their daughter in the kind of southern California neighborhood immortalized in the movie "Poltergeist," in which each spanking new house without a history looks so much like its fellows that you wonder how anyone recognizes his or her own. But in some ways they are no different from many in other settings all over the country. Is it the youth culture that suggested that no one really had to play the role of grown-up in the morality play that is life? Instead there is a thriving subculture of parents who act as if everything goes on as before. That's ridiculous. Having kids changes everything. Or at least it ought to.