undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood

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The Gift of Bravery

spotlightI recently had a birthday. A big one. My wife planned an amazing weekend of meals, shows, and events, and I really felt loved. One of the most surprising gifts of all, however, was seeing my son up on stage, being the gutsiest kid I know.

On the Friday night of my birthday weekend, my wife put us in the car and we drove off to a destination unbeknownst to me. I love surprises, so for most of the way I was baffled about where we were going. Then I saw this red brick building where my family had attended an improv show the year prior.

I guessed our destination, and my heart sank a little. I remembered liking the show and the troupe of performers, but I hate, hate, hate being on stage and having attention thrust my way. The mere possibility of the public eye staring me down sent a wave of anxiety through me. My wife, astute as she is, picked up on my hesitation and was disappointed that she might have made the wrong choice. I tried to explain that I liked the show, but after a long work week, the last thing I wanted was to become part of the entertainment.

We settled in and the show began. One of the performers pulled a paper from a cup: the slips of paper audience members were asked to write their names on as they walked in. Whom did they pick, you ask? That’s right, me. My wife and son stared at me in disbelief and we all burst out laughing.

I won’t go into the details of my time on stage, but suffice it to say I exuded awkwardness, self-consciousness, and a lack of talent, all the qualities that I love to display to a crowd of strangers.

Later in the night, however, when the performers were looking for volunteers for a spelling bee portion of the act, my 8-year-old son offered himself up as a volunteer. I was shocked, seeing him accept the invitation and jump up on stage with a group of adults. No other kids had volunteered that night, and my son was the youngest of any of the performers.

The cast took turns spelling single letters of difficult words in rounds, or making up absurd sentences with them. My guy was up there holding his own, understanding the jokes enough to keep them going. He beamed with excitement, and when the entire cast high-fived him at the end of his performance, he trotted back to his seat with his chest puffed up.

That was perhaps the best birthday gift of the weekend.

The trickiest aspect of raising kids is that we see ourselves in them. Sometimes we see the things about ourselves we like, such as strong shoulders or a caring disposition, but other times we see the things about ourselves that we wish we could shrug off like shyness or a short temper. The characteristic I sometime see that I’ve passed down to my son is my own timidity. Growing up, I was the shy polite one who didn’t stick his neck out and didn’t draw attention to himself. It meant that I got by, but I only just got by. I didn’t put myself out there, I didn’t take risks. It has taken me so many decades to become gutsier, to speak my mind, and to stand up for myself. When I see shyness in my son, I imagine the years he could spend in the shadows of others, a cute wallflower.

But life is surprising, and on this particular birthday, my son proved me wrong. While I cowered in the shadows, he proudly stood up and cast a spotlight on himself. My son’s going to create the next few decades of his own life, and they won’t look like my early years. So I can stop overlaying my experience, fears and misfortune onto him. The kid’s got guts, and they’ll take him far.

snow-shovel


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Shoveling My Own Goddamn Driveway, Again

snow-shovelA couple of years ago I wrote a post about 30″ of snow hitting the Northeast and the back-breaking shoveling that took place at my house. The post was about contrasts: the amount of sweat and toil I invested in my hard work versus the money my neighbors spent on plow services.

Living in a wealthy section of town when you’re not wealthy can do that to you. When I’m in the yard, I frequently feel the gaze of my neighbors  and hear their imagined voices. “Look at his ugly grass.” “Wish they’d invest more in that siding.” “When are they ever going to cut down that dying tree?” But those are my own insecurities talking. They are the voices we all get in our heads when we imagine others are staring at us, judging.

And so what do I do? I judge back. “Look at them with their fancy plows. Never do a day’s worth of hard work in their lives.” That’s what my original post was about: judging the character of others based on a common household chore.

Anyone who lives in the Northeast knows that this past week and a half has been monstrous. In our town, we got about 20″ of snow in blizzard conditions early last week, followed by an additional 8″ this week from a Nor’easter. So my wife and I found ourselves outside on at least 3 occasions, shoveling the walks and driveway.

And I listened.

I listened really hard, but I didn’t hear them. I didn’t hear the voices of disdain and condemnation from my neighbors. Instead, I heard the soft crunch of the shovel meeting the snow, the soft whistle of the wind, the creek of the swaying pines. (Punctuated by my old-man grunts as I hurled snow from the path. Yet another sign of my age.) But there was no inner voice imagining what the neighbors were saying. My eye didn’t drift down the street to see if I was the only one hard at work. I didn’t glance over at my neighbor’s already-plowed driveway with envy and frustration.

I was hard at work. My wife was hard at work. It was us, the snow, and teamwork, and I reveled in it. I could feel my body hard at work. I could feel the beads of sweat. I could feel the world around me. I felt accomplished. I looked over at my wife, and saw her toiling just as much as I was, and I knew that I had a true partner: someone ready and willing to do the hard work needed so that our family could survive another day. And I saw my son, 8 years old, picking up a tiny, forgot shovel and pitching in, moving whatever snow he could from the path. I knew we were setting a good example.

This snow storm wasn’t about contrasts. It wasn’t about what they’re doing versus what we’re doing. It was simply about what we were doing. And what we were doing was marvelous.


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Impromptu Sex Ed

associated-press-sex-ed-picI suppose most sex ed discussions between parent and child are impromptu, but perhaps I had a fantasy that mine would be more thought out. A “let’s sit down son” sort of thing. But a recent discussion in the car certainly caught my wife and me off guard.

We were going for groceries with our 8-year-old son, and started talking about our choice to have one child. We were asking our son what it would have been like for him to have siblings.

“How are babies made?” he eventually asked.

Silence from the front seat.

“Well,” my wife attempted, “a woman has half a seed and a man has half a seed, and when they come together they make a baby.”

“Where does the seed come from?”

“The man’s seeds are in his private parts and the woman’s seeds are in her private parts,” she replied.

“They come from your penis?”

“No, they come out of your testicles.”

He groaned in the back seat.

“What?” we asked in unison.

“Ahrg, you’re makin’ my balls hurt.”

“They don’t come directly out of the man’s testicles, they come out through his penis,” my wife had the wherewithal to understand the groan.

Silence and consternation from the back seat.

“So how does the man give his seeds to the woman? Does he pee them out in the toilet, pick them up with his hand, and give them to her?”

Raucous laughter from the front seat, slowly dying off into silent hesitation.

“No, the man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina.” I attempted, my wife’s head whipping my way. I shrugged and grimaced.

After a few moments, my wife added, “Yes, this is what happens between moms and dads. But different parents choose to tell their kids different things about making babies, so don’t go talking to your friends about it, okay?  It’s up to parents to have this discussion with their kids. We trust you to know these things now because you’re responsible, but maybe other 3rd graders aren’t ready to hear that yet.”

“Okay, yeah,” from the back. Ponderous silence.

My wife and I debriefed alone afterwards, again bursting with laughter. “I didn’t think we were going there,” my wife said. Neither had I, but how else do you respond to such pointed questions without either blowing off the question or making up stories? We agreed it made sense that he knew, even if it was a bit shocking to all involved. And I admired my wife through it all. She knew enough to think about the big picture. To know that there are other kids in the world, and that these kids talk to one another. The last thing we need is our son becoming the sex-educator of the 3rd grade.

I honestly can’t remember a sex discussion with my own parents. I have no sense of how I absorbed that knowledge except through a sordid patchwork of inferences from peers and popular culture. I’m glad my son is comfortable enough to ask, and that we trust him enough to let him know. And we’ll always have the funny story (likely to be retold at his wedding reception) with the 8-year-old quote, “you’re makin’ my balls hurt.”

Now if I could only get the image of a man scooping his seed from a toilet out of my head.

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Get Out of My Way, I’m Trying to Get to Diagon Alley!

20141229_073410After months of saving and anticipation, our family was lucky enough to visit Orlando this holiday for a trip to Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade! This was a trip that dad was looking forward to perhaps more than anyone.

Last winter, I had been searching for new jobs options and had some interviews. I told myself and my wife prior to one very pivotal second interview that if I didn’t get this (dream) job and found myself in the same crap job in the summer, then we were all taking a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios as my consolation prize. As the title of this post suggests, I did not get the job and, unfortunately, my current job ramped up to a flurry over this past summer, so much so that I couldn’t even take a vacation as planned in June. So we postponed everything until December.

Needless to say, I had a lot invested emotionally in this trip. First, it felt like something I was owed. If I had to languish in my demanding and thankless job, then I was damn well going to get a fun vacation out of it. And “fun” was the key word. Although we could have saved up for the Caribbean or an overseas locale, I needed somewhere that would serve up simple, unadulterated fun, and only Harry Potter would do the trick. Secondly, if I was driving my family out (yes, driving, 20+ long hours from New England), then it had better be good. I felt like it wasn’t only me who was “owed” a good vacation, it was my entire family, and I had been the guiding force for devising this trip: scheduling the vacation package, booking the hotels, even coming up with an itinerary. And so felt that the responsibility of providing a fun time rested upon my shoulders.

I was smart enough to get a package that included early admission to the park, which felt a little crazy at first, arriving at the park in the pitch-black of 6:30am, but was well worth it. Early admissions folks got herded forward to the Wizarding World locations before the gates opened, giving us full access to the best parts of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade before the throngs. It was upon our very first entry through that brick wall that I realized we had done it, and damn was it worth it. As completed Potter nerds, my wife, son, and I reveled in every nook and cranny of Potterdom. Seeing it for the first time, and getting into the attraction without hassle caused me to drop my shoulders and relax into the experience.

20141229_153751And then the craziness happened. Surprisingly the Sunday after Christmas, the crowds were not that bad. We were reasonably well prepared for the amount of people we’d be seeing, but the next two days were shoulder-to-shoulder crowded. I particularly remember our second day of early admission (heading to Hogsmeade this time), and feeling the stress as folks rushed past one another, causing me to instinctively move faster and usher my family along. It was almost as though my body reacted uncontrollably to the pace of others. On one of our return visits to Diagon Alley, the crowd was so bustling, it was difficult to move anywhere without knocking into others. I recall how someone would cut me off or bump into me (“Asshole”), but the next minute I’d be cutting someone off or accidentally bumping into them (“Who’s the asshole now?”). I wasn’t intending on being opportunistic, is was just that the shear number of people made it difficult to navigate the crowd and time my movements.

What helped were these little “a-ha” moments when I could see my body and mind responding to the throng of people, whether speeding up to match the pace of the crowd or nearly crashing into some unsuspecting park attendee because I was simply trying to move forward. I wanted a good experience for my family. I wanted to make the trip worth all the trouble and “get mine.” When, in fact, everyone there held the same desire for their families. Folks had come from all over the world, investing hundreds if not thousands of dollars to give their children and families this experience, and we were all working off that same adrenaline and need to take care of our own.

20141229_154936 (2)When I realized this, I was able to take things in stride. This realization made it much more tolerable when someone bumped into me or seemingly cut me off. In the chaos of excitement, anticipation, and humanity, everyone wanted a good experience. They wanted to show their families a good time. This was the motivation that bonded me with them in some way, and I realized (in that very Buddhist-y way) that working solely for the betterment of our own rather than for the good of everyone truly is the root of much of the strife in the world. Sure, I still wanted a good experience for my family, but getting caught up in the competitive spirit would have only caused my trip to suffer. When I was able to see that we all wanted the same thing and reminded myself that we’d get our turn, everything fell into place, and we had a great time. Or, perhaps it wasn’t some great realization. Perhaps Harry Potter simply cast his spell on me.

I wholeheartedly recommend the experience to all my fellow Harry Potter fans. Universal has done an amazing job. And I fully recommend visiting Orlando Informer, which is an invaluable on-line resource of planning your trip to the Wizarding World!


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Finding Out Your Friend is an Absent Parent

part2-1 (2)“Where’s Ted?” my wife asked one of the moms at a soccer game this summer.

Ted is the father of my son’s best friend. The friend with whom my son shares a 3rd grade class, a soccer team, and (previously) a fencing class, and so we see this kid and his family a lot. Over time, our families began inviting each other over for get-togethers, and a family friendship started to form. However, aside from the family functions, Ted was nowhere to be found while his harried wife toted their three kids to every imaginable after-school activity. “Where’s Ted?” became a mantra of sorts when we’d see the family.

Although both parents worked, Ted didn’t appear to take any interest in his kids, whether for mundane practices or bigger school events. One weekend Ted’s wife asked if my wife and I could bring their boy home from a game because she had to buzz off to some other kids’ event. We agreed, and when we finally pulled up to the kid’s house, Ted answered the door in his slippers and thanked us for dropping off his son. Where the hell were you, Ted, when your kid had a soccer game 7 blocks away?!? My perception of Ted took a nose-dive.

Over the years I’ve found that when I became a husband and a parent, my friendship standards shifted so that I evaluate others’ viability as a friend not only on their personalities, likes, and interests, but also on their attitudes toward marriage and parenting roles.

Throughout my 20’s, I judged whether a friendship would work based on how that person treated me and our mutual friends. First of all, did we click? If so, then could you be counted on? Were you reliable? Did you care about the same people and causes I cared about?  These questions about friendship all centered around how that person treated me and our mutual friends.

When I got married, my focus began to shift. Dedicating my life to making my wife happy and building a life for us became the most important thing to me, and so I wanted to connect with others who had similar investments in their relationships. Are you dedicated to your wife or partner? Do you work hard in your relationships? Do you work to find balance in your responsibilities as a couple (i.e., do you cook, dude, or do the laundry, or clean the bathrooms)? 

As the years went by and kids enter the picture, my focus shifted again. Being a candidate for friendship didn’t only mean how well we clicked and how well you treated your wife or significant other, it became about how well you treated your kids, your family. Are you an involved dad? Do you accept parenting responsibilities? Do you dedicate time with your child(ren) and honor their pursuits?

In this way, finding friends has become a multi-layered process. In retrospect, finding friends that I clicked with in my early 20s was pretty easy. Are you a cool guy?  Great, then let’s hang out.  Now I find that there are many more factors involved in figuring out whether a guy is “like me” and someone I can trust and invest in as a friend. It becomes a bit exhausting, and I find that it’s hard to do.

Here’s an example. I had a good friend several years back who was making some tough decisions. He was married with an infant, and he had decided to make a career change based on his principals (he wanted to do more socially-conscious union work) and by changing jobs he sunk his family’s income below the poverty line. Once in his new job, the family qualified for section 8 housing, which they pursued. After the move, he started donating his time to a political campaign (though his union work) that led him to canvass for votes several states away from home for weeks on end, leaving his wife at home to care for their toddler.

If I had known this guy when he was single, I’d probably have admired him. He was dedicated to social justice and willing to make difficult, moral-based decisions even if they resulted in personal loss. But because of where we were in our lives, his actions caused me to look at him through a different lens. I could understand feeling conflicted with his job, but I couldn’t understand threatening the well-being of your family based on principals alone. I also couldn’t stomach the fact that he opted to spend weeks away from his young daughter to volunteer his time. At the time, our family was close with his wife as well, so we heard directly from her how his decisions negatively impacted the family, which put me in a further bind. Eventually, the friendship ended abruptly, in many regards because of my change of attitude toward him.

The trickiest part of all this is that I didn’t feel as though I had the right to address the things about him that impacted our friendship. His decisions about his career, his family, and his child had nothing to do with me, and I knew I’d overstep my bounds by addressing his decisions. At the same time, these decisions were diminishing my respect for him and eroding our friendship.

So this is now where things stand with Ted, and yet I don’t know the guy enough to say, “So, you don’t spend much time with your kids, huh?” To do so would sound judgmental and presumptuous. It’s not my business how he decides to spend his time, but it certainly affects how I see him and whether I’d choose to pursue a friendship with him. This relationship, the entire family relationship, is slowly eroding because of value difference. As someone who already struggles with friends, these examples underscore just how tricky these relationships can get.

And yet, as I review my history of attitudes towards friends, I realize that no matter what stage of life, my priority has always been focused on how the other person treats the people in his life. How does he treat me, our mutual friends, his wife or partner, or his kids?  Perhaps children are simply the most salient relationships in which to see whether someone cares about others. The job of a dad is so well-defined for me that it’s the easiest means to see whether someone is focused on the most important relationships in their lives.

To me, that is a true test of friendship.

 


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Struggles of a Buddhist Dad

894-Buddha-and-MangaWhen I was shopping around for a local Buddhist community, I sat down with the abbot and monk of a local Zen center for an interview.

“I’m a father, with a wife and son, and I don’t have much time that isn’t already dedicated to my work or family,” I explained to him. “What do I do about my practice and making time to come to the Zen center?”

“Your family is your priority and your practice,” he responded immediately, with great confidence. He went on to explain that being a father is the situation I am in, and that dictates how I use my time. I should dedicate myself to my family, he explained, and by fully engaging in every action with them, I am practicing Zen.

That did it for me. Up until that time, I had been half-halfheartedly searching for a Buddhist community, but had little faith in the process. I had been biased against American Buddhists for most of my life. I had met too many old White male Buddhists who were more interested in wearing beads and touting their belief system than being engaged and compassionate with those around them. But I’d come to a point in my life where I had to admit to Buddhism’s hold on me, and I wanted to give up my trepidation and stereotypes, and find what might be out there for me. The abbot’s response caught my attention, and I’ve been part of the community ever since.

But this has been the problem: even after I found a faith to embrace, the integration of my family life was a challenge. Most American Buddhist communities are very individualistic in their practice traditions. Most communities offer meditation, retreats, and interviews for the individual practitioner. They may also hold talks, community meals, or discussion groups but, for the most part, these events cater to the individual practitioners in the community. And who are these individual practitioners?  Typically, they are the people who have time to go, by themselves, to a center or temple for meditation. In my journeys, this typically translates to young adults (folks in their early 20’s) or retirees, who have the time to dedicate to individualized practice.

So what about people my age? What about folks with kids? Where are the families?

From my experience, parents can’t make the time to go. Who will watch there kids? Plus it feels rather self-indulgent to go sit in meditation, when there’s a family dinner you’re missing or a soccer practice that the kids need to get to.

But is this what a faith community is supposed to be about? Faith communities are composed of two essential elements: faith and community. Ever religion has its believe system, comprised of world-view, ethics, story tradition, practices, etc. But in order for it to be a religion, it must have a community: that group of people who come together around a particular belief system. Most of these communities culminate naturally around a church, synagogue, or mosque, where there’s an expectation that the family commune regularly with other families of that faith. In some cases everyone in the family comes together for a service or practice, or kids head out for religious education or activity while the parents worship or practice. Regardless, most faith communities are inclusive and embrace families and family life. But few American Buddhist communities feel this way.

As for me, I’d much rather say, “Let’s get in the car and all go to church!” than “Have fun at dinner while dad goes off to sit quietly for an hour.” This was the impetus for me to start a kids group at my local Zen center. I knew that if I wanted a community of Buddhist families, I might just have to help create one. So my wife and I were instrumental in getting a children’s group off the ground. It’s had its ups and downs, but for a while it was quite special, and gave the kids and families an opportunity to come together to learn about mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhism.

But four years later, the two elements never connected up: faith and community. Here’s what I mean. We overlaid our kids group onto a functioning Zen community, comprised mostly of the practitioners I mentioned above, young adults and retirees. In some ways, they enjoyed having kids around, but they didn’t know what to do with us. Although our group grew, it grew on the periphery. The second issue was that the parents coming for the kids programming weren’t really part of the Zen center community. They were interested in mindfulness classes for their kids, but they weren’t necessarily Buddhist or practitioners. Plus, most didn’t have the time or interest in connecting with the rest of the community because, although it’s fun to come to a kids class, they don’t have additional time to practice with the broader community. Therefore, we grew this community of kids and families, but it was segmented from the rest of the faith tradition.

At this point, the family community is transient. If you’re coming for a mindfulness “class” it’s much different from, say, going to church. The “class” mentality doesn’t keep parents dedicated to the group. Therefore, folks come and go, and there isn’t a consistent group attending. There isn’t much connection to the rest of the center. Everything feels disjointed.

My wife has more recently been going to a Unitarian Universalist church for services, and I’ve been coming along. UU’s are experts at children’s religious education. It’s a hallmark of the faith community, and I find it to be inclusive, respectful of difference, and amazingly varied across the lifespan. When I see this, I feel an emptiness in my heart. This emptiness comes from my strong desire to force something that isn’t easy. It comes from this a desire to be a part of a Zen faith community that also honors, engages, and loves families and kids. But this isn’t the case within most Zen centers. Even if there is a recognition of the importance of family, there is no outlet to foster and care for parents and kids.

I’m trying to come to peace with where things are for me now. I realize that forcing a community based on my own desire isn’t very Buddhist, isn’t very “Zen”. All my disappointment and grief are a product of that desire, and of seeing what I “can’t have” from the UU community in my own Zen center. I find that I need to remind myself of the teaching I received was from my initial interview with that abbot. My family is my priority and my practice. As an Zen practitioner, I engage fully with the situation I am faced with, whether it’s sitting down for a meal with my family, going to a kids group at the Zen center, or listening to a sermon at the Unitarian church. It will be a process letting go of my grief for the community that never was, but that grief is what holds me back from fully engaging, fully seeing the glory or the community I have right in front of me: my own family.

 

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