undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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Weeding Out

2011-08-21-13.38.03I love weeding.  And yet I’ve met many people who despise it.  In fact, I meet very few people who weed their lawns or gardens by hand, presumably because they have gardeners or a fondness for Round-Up.  I found myself doing a lot of weeding and other yard work this past weekend.

But I discovered I was weeding a lot more than just the flowerbeds.

Personally, I’ve had a terrible couple of weeks.  There has been an ever-widening gap between me and my own parents, and a recent communication from my father drove one more nail into that coffin. It’s one of those things that I’m either not ready or not willing to blog about at this point.  Maybe because I don’t have the strength, or maybe because it feels too vulnerable.  Suffice it say that these events left me feeling completely untethered.  I wasn’t sure what grounded me anymore, and felt as though I was wasting my time in a multitude of endeavors.

One such endeavor was blogging.  This is the first post I’ve written in over a week, which is unlike me, as I’ve typically posted twice a week for the past half a year.  But this past week, I couldn’t find it in me to do it.  Blogging had become one of those things that I did for me; one of those things that I felt could be an expression of my struggles.  However, feeling as though I’d been kicked down by your own flesh-and-blood, I questioned whether I was worth anything; whether my blogging even mattered.  There was a lot of thinking and self-doubt and questioning.  Lots going on in my head: thinking, thinking, thinking.

I had to clear things out.  I had to get out and weed the garden.

I’ve been dying to get outside for quite a while, but these damn snow/sleet/rain storms in the Northeast have become increasingly maddening. Finally some halfway decent weather this past weekend gave me that rare opportunity to get outside.   At first it wasn’t weeding.  It was just yard work, hauling big-ass rocks from a pit in my backyard to the front of the house to line my driveway.  It became a sequence of throwing 20 pound rocks out of hole, running them up a steep incline in a backpack, and then putting them on a sled (I’m currently wheelbarrow-less) and sliding them over the lawn to their final destination.  Just throwing, hauling and dumping.  Throwing, hauling and dumping.  I did that for hours and hours.  I attempted reigning my son into it too, saying that I needed his “artistic eye” to line up the rocks just right.  He got very distracted and disappeared in spite of my flattery.  Even at 6-years-old, I got the “nice try old man” look as he walked to the backyard to play with sticks.

So I continued, as content as could be with my rocks.  Then Sunday came and I woke up much earlier than anyone else in the family. That’s the time of day when I’d usually write.  But I didn’t want to write. I didn’t want to look at the computer.  I suited up and went out to the front yard for about two and a half hours.  I wanted to be outside in the bitter 30-something degree March cold, digging in the dirt.

Weeding is just about the most meditative action I can think of.  I get down on my knees, look for weeds, then twist, pull, toss.  Over and over again.  Twist, pull, toss.  Engaged in that action, I find that I don’t or can’t think of anything else.  I’ve even TRIED thinking about things as I weed, but I just can’t do it.  My mind always goes back to the weeding.  After all, that’s the heart of meditation, noticing a thought, releasing it, and returning to what’s right in front of you.  I weed time and again, and always feel calm and complete during my weeding practice.

I’m sure that I’m also attracted to the metaphor of weeding.  Post winter my lawn looks like a wreck.  Decorative grasses have shed their husks, which drift across the semi-green grass.  Weeds and grass intrude on the mulch.  Fallen sticks from hurricane winds and blizzard snow are cast like war zone obstacles on my grass.  Entangled masses of dead perennials choke the flowerbeds.  Spring weeding is a chance to get rid of it all.  It’s a chance to slog through all the death and decay and make room for new life awaiting in the fertile soil. There’s nothing quite like clearing dead leaves with your hands to uncover a crocus popping through the soil.  Or standing up from hours of crawling around on your hands and knees to admire order emerging from the chaos (or at least the illusion of order).

I finished this weekend with a little more clarity.  Of course, there is a time for thinking.  There are many issues that I need to make sense of, feelings that I need to work out.  But in the flurry of thoughts and feelings around issues with my own parents, I lost sight of some of the important things in my life, and lost hope that these things were worth anything at all.  This past weekend was one of those times when thinking wasn’t going to do me any good.  I just had to weed, weed, weed, uncovering some of the new growth under the decay.

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The Curse of Date Night

My mother once said that in order for the family to be happy, parents have to make time for themselves as a couple.  She was divorced a year later.  Regardless, her statement still rings true.

There aren’t a lot of things my mom and I agree on, but I guess this is one of them.  And yet this has been one of the most difficult things for my wife and I to do: make time for dates.

As first time parents, my wife and I refused to leave our infant son with a babysitter.  We were both working, my wife Tuesday-Friday and me Monday-Thursday, each cramming 40 hours of work into 4 days. That meant our son was in daycare 3 days a week from a very early age.  It was perhaps the most difficult thing we’ve had to do as parents.  So, with him being ripped away from us 3 days a week, it was unthinkable that we’d go on a date.  We did what we could, taking him to restaurants or the park, taking advantage of the down time together while he slept, but that was the extent of it.

As a toddler, the pattern simply continued.  There were no good candidates for babysitters.  Our closest relatives are 3 hours away, and all of our friends worked or had children of their own.  We just couldn’t bite the bullet and use a website or a neighborhood teenager.  For many years, dates consisted of putting our son to bed and watching TV.  If that qualifies as dating, we have a hell of a dating record.

It really wasn’t until he was 3 years old that we started dating again.  But even now, our dates are very infrequent.  We have a lovely high-school aged babysitter from a good family whom our son loves (and likely has a crush on), but we almost never text her to set up a time.  Some of it’s the cost, some of it’s laziness, but there’s also (dun dun dun!) the Curse of Date Night.

The Curse of Date Night is what I call the fear that surrounds infrequent dates.  I was recently having coffee with a friend, and was  relieved when he shared a similar taboo/anxiety about dating.  I described to him that when my wife and I do set aside time for a date, two fears are prevalent: that we’ll get into some argument and/or we won’t have anything to say to one another.

The first fear has been realized a few times.  Driving to the new restaurant we get lost, and there’s a spat about how to get to the place.  Or, we can’t find a parking spot and get flustered with one another.  The arguments aren’t about the directions or the parking space, but about the fact that we can’t “just have a nice time together”.  There are so many anxieties around leaving our son for a date, that we as a couple put an enormous amount of pressure on ourselves to “have a good time”.  At the first sign of any conflict or difficult, we slam ourselves for not being able to have fun.  Inevitably, we’re able to come back to our senses and recognize the incredible strain we put on ourselves.  Only then can we brush off the difficulty and have fun.

The second fear is something that arose more recently: the fear of not having anything to talk about.  My wife was afraid that we’d make time for a date, sit down at a restaurant, and stare at each other blankly.  I was surprised to hear her describe things this way, but it made sense.  Sometimes when we sit down for dinner as a family, we’re lively and joking, but other times the energy is low, because we’re (I’m) worn out. My wife was concerned that on a date, I’d let my guard down and practically fall asleep at the table.

In spite of these fears, we set out on a date a few weeks back. We used a gift certificate from Christmas and headed to a fancy restaurant.  And….it was a success.  Not a single argument, and great conversation for two straight hours.  We did it.

I believe that with these infrequent date nights, my wife and I put an inordinate amount of pressure on ourselves to make them a perfect success. Dates are so few and far in between that we wonder if we can even do it at all.  But, we’re making some strides and getting out there, in spite of the curse.


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I Married My Dawn Tinsley

The Office - Series 2

Yes, my cable is dead.  After many disputes with the cable company (and some dodged charges), our family’s cable shut off tonight, and we are left with internet-based media.  This evening, after my wife went to bed, I discovered that hulu plus carries the entire series of The Office, and I was in heaven.

I’m not talking the Scranton, Dunder Mifflin, Michael Scott, Dwight, Kevin, Jim and Pam Office.  I’m talking the Slough, Wernham Hogg, David Brent, Gareth, Keith, Tim and Dawn Office…especially Tim and Dawn.

I was/am a huge fan of the original BBC series, and own all the episodes, but seeing it there on hulu tempted me.  That and the fact that I decided to take a rare “sick” (mental health) day tomorrow from work and felt entitled to stay up late and watch whatever the hell I wanted to watch while eating cake.

This is the thing about The Office: it possesses the rare power to make me cry.  It’s very seldom that I shed tears, even during the most catastrophic times in my life.  But somehow, watching other people’s joys and miseries play out on the screen makes it easier for me.  Perhaps it’s because there’s some distance from the characters and situations, and so it feels safe.  When I shed tears for TV or movies, I’m crying for someone else, because their life is shit or overwhelmingly heart-breaking.  If I cried because something in my life was shit or heart-breaking, it would feel too vulnerable, too raw.  It would signify that I couldn’t “fix” that thing in my life.  TV and movies are safe.  I can shed tears and feel badly for that character, but maintain the sense (illusion) that I have my own shit together and can fight another day.

The “Specials”, as they’re called, are where I really lose it.  The Specials are the last two episodes in which the cast returned for their final goodbyes.  For those of you not familiar with the series, Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman) is the lovable lost-soul of the office who’s infatuated with Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis), the sad aspiring illustrator stuck in a reception job at Wernham Hogg, a paper merchant.  Tim pines over Dawn in a very subtle, tortured way over the course of the season, making two bids for her affection, both thwarted as Dawn inevitably chooses Lee, her doltish, perpetual fiance.  Viewer like me watched in anguish throughout the season as funny-man Tim quipped with Dawn and nudged her toward fulfilling her hopes and dreams, while she was pulled down (and away) by Lee’s subtle insults.

The Specials picked up two years after the series ended, to find Dawn living in Florida with dead-beat Lee, mooching off of his sister, while Tim remained in Slough, brow-beaten by impish Gareth who now manages the branch.  The “documentarians” offer to fly Dawn and Lee back to Slough for the annual Wernham Hogg Christmas party.  Dawn and Tim are painfully reintroduced, but they quickly fall back into their comfortable way with one another.  Their short reunion is emblematic of everything wonderful about their relationship: Tim saves Dawn from suffering through office chit-chat, the two poke fun at Gareth, and Dawn draws a portrait for Tim.

It’s those last 45 minutes when I as a viewer am not able to hold it together.  (I would write SPOILER ALERT, but anyone who would stick through the last 500 words is probably already a fan of the series).  At the party, Lee bad-mouths Dawn’s artistic abilities before ruining one of Tim and Dawn’s private jokes and whisking her away from the party in a cab.  As she rides away, Dawn opens up her Secret Santa from Tim, to find an oil painting set and the portrait she drew of him with the words “Don’t Give Up” written on it.  We find Tim later at the party talking to David and Gareth when Dawn returns, kisses him, and the two leave the party hand-in-hand.

And I lose it.

I’ve seen the episode about eight times, and lose it every time.  Tonight I was left alone in my living room at midnight wondering why this always happens to me.  After all these years, I still can’t help but cry when these two connect.  And then I understood.  I see myself in Tim.  He’s somewhat shy and self-conscious.  He tries to be funny, in spite of how down-trodden he feels about his own life.  And he’s rubbish around women, especially Dawn.  He pines for her throughout, but can’t make it past the jokey, supportive friend phase with the woman he loves.  That’s how I always was with women.  I was the shy, quiet guy who wouldn’t stick his neck out for fear of being shot down.  For fear of being hurt like the times Dawn hurt Tim.  It’s a miracle I’m now married and have a child.

But why am I married now?  Because I found my Dawn.  On my first date with my wife-to-be, we went to a party.  I am crap at parties.  We sat separate from everyone, making our own little jokes.  Some harmless, some at others’ expense.  But they were our private jokes.  This became the hallmark of our relationship: we can always make each other laugh.  Not only that, but we can pick each other up when the other one is feeling down.  We can praise one another for the talents we each possess, and inspire the other to always keep trying.  These are the things that are important in a relationship, and we’re lucky enough to embody them.

I realize that nothing in this post is about fatherhood.  But my relationship with my wife is the core of our home.  It’s the example we set for our son about love and fidelity and joy.  Just like my inability to cry about myself or my real life, sometimes I’m perhaps stifled by the “realness” of everything around me, by the nitty-gritty of everyday life.  Sometimes it takes seeing characters on the screen to get some distance and see what is sentimental and good.  But it’s only because I have something good in my own life that the tears flow when I see Tim and Dawn walk out of that party.  I realize that I’ve walked out of the party with my own wife, hand-in-hand, into the real world where we’ve made a life for ourselves.  And I realize that I’m a very lucky man, and a lucky father.


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Requiem for Food Network & Travel Channel

PrintIn order to cut costs, my family recently decided to save $60 a month by cancelling cable.  It’s supposed to be shut off in a few days, and I keep turning on the TV just to see if we still get reception.  It’s like trying to spend every waking minute with your high school girlfriend before she flies off to college.  I’ll miss you (*whimper*), cable.

In this age of technology, though, we won’t be missing much.  Between hulu, Netflix, and amazon streamed through the blu-ray, we should be able to watch all of our shows, with a few notable exceptions: AMC, Food Network, and Travel Channel.  Don’t get me started on AMC.  Only three more episodes of The Walking Dead this season, and I’m about to lose my feed?!?!  Rick vs. the Governor?  Woodbury vs. the prison?  I can’t miss that!  Thank god for $2.99 episodes on amazon.

But the real topic of this post is the Food Network and Travel Channel.  Of all the cable networks, these get the most air time on our tube.  Sometimes selected by my wife and me, but mostly requested by our son.  He LOVES the Food Network.  Some of his favorite shows are Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives (is that show always on?), Chopped, and Iron Chef America.  Then there’s the Travel Channel, with shows like Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and Man v. Food with Adam Richman.  These food-related shows are some of my son’s favorites.  At the beginning of the first grade, the kids filled out a survey (without their names) and hung it up in the halls for open house night.  It was a test to see if parents could identify their children.  We found our son’s right away because under “Favorite TV Show” he put “Food Network”.  Not a show, but the entire cable station.

He loves seeing foods made and eaten.  He loves the creepy stuff on Bizarre Foods, and arguing about what each of us in the family would and wouldn’t eat.  He loves what they can make on Chopped, and making guesses about how he would combine the foods.  He loves rooting for Adam Richman, and seeing what that man can stuff into his mouth, even if we are concerned about his blood pressure and risk for diabetes.

I didn’t have a love or an awe for food growing up.  My parents weren’t the best cooks (if they read this blog, believe me, they’d agree), so dinner was always a mystery.  It was some sort of food with some sort of meat.  Usually something that wasn’t that good, but we had to eat it.  We weren’t very well-off growing up, so we almost never went out to restaurants.  Therefore, I had a very limited palate and a very limited understanding of food.  At one point, when I was in my teens, my mom designated a day of the week to each of the four kids, and we were in charge of making dinner for the family.  It was an utter disaster.  I’ve never seen a family eat so much frozen pizza and mac ‘n cheese.  It was sad because we were put in charge of meal planning, but never taught how to cook.  We weren’t taught the wonders of food and the skills of preparation.

travel-channelSo, I offer up this post in honor of the Food Network and Travel Channel, as they have helped round out my son’s love of food.  Of course, most of the credit for his love of food goes to my wife, the expert chef of the house.  But these channels and their shows have opened up the world of food culture to him.  Through them, he can see the various ways that food is prepared, enjoyed, and revered in other parts of the county or other parts of the world.  He sees that food can be fun.  It can be an experiment.  And that the art of cooking is full of successes and failures.  That chefs constantly try to make something better.

I’m glad that his experiences with food have expanded with the help of these networks, and we’ll certainly miss them when the cable goes out.  Until then, Guy Fieri will grace our screen.


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Big Thanks #1: Liebster Award

Liebster-award-ribbonI have been incredibly delinquent to my blogging community over the past few weeks, as I’ve neglected offering thanks where thanks is due. Therefore, I’ve composed this “Big Thanks” series of posts to express my gratitude for the awards bestowed upon me by my fellow bloggers (and to share the love).  I find it important to honor the spirit of these award with a post, and by sharing the good fortune with other bloggers whose words deserve to be discovered.

The first of these awards is the Liebster Award, presented to me by Life By Kimmy, Musings For The Ether and Shadow Girl of Becki’s Book Blog.  All are great blogs, and I urge you to check them out.  To borrow Shadow Girl’s words: “What is the Liebster Award you ask? Well from my understanding Leibster is a German term for sweetest, kindest, nicest, dearest, beloved, lovely, kind, pleasant, valued, cute, endearing, and welcome. Its awarded to bloggers with less than 200 followers as a form of recognition and support to keep on blogging.” And here are the rules:

  • You must thank the person who nominated you
  • Answer the 11 questions posed by your nominator
  • Pass the award on to 11 new recipients
  • Pose 11 new questions to your bloggers

Because my fortune is tripled, so is my responsibility.  So, here are my answers to the 33 (!) questions posed to me:

1. What made you decide to start Blogging?

I was in a writing rut and hadn’t picked up any of my manuscripts in a while.  I needed to get my words out there again (and cave to the Writer’s Digest articles chewing me out for not having a platform).

2. What is the most important lesson you have learned about Blogging so far?

Ease up. I’m still learning this.  Constantly checking my blog, the comments, my readership, can become a bit overwhelming.  The second lesson is that there are many insights to be discovered about oneself through a blog, especially about ego, reflection, and humility.

3. How many other Blogs do you actively follow?

56 and counting…

4. If money was no object, what would you do tomorrow?

Take my family on a much needed vacation.

5. Do you think you will still be Blogging in 5 years time?

No, the zombies will have taken over by then.  I’ll be focused on scavenging for food.  Perhaps a line of ham-radio broadcasts?

6. Name one weird fact about yourself.

They’re all weird.

7. Have you traveled, or do you have aspirations to travel?

Have traveled, but not as much as I’d like.

8. Cats or Dogs?

Oddly a dog person who’s morphing into a cat person, attributable to all the dog crap I’ve cleaned off of my floors this winter.

9. What do you hope people think when they read your Blog?

Even if I come off as brash sometimes, my readers will stick with me, because there’s other good stuff here (and I’m not a complete a-hole).

10. What inspires your Blog post ideas?

Random events with my family or reflections on blogging.

11. Coffee or Tea?

Coffee all the way.

12. If you were one of the seven deadly sins, which one would you be?

Envy.

13. Why did you start your blog?

(See 1 above)

14. Anita or Buffy?

Oh gosh, I’m not the biggest fan. Can I say Sookie?

15. Which of your blog posts is your personal favorite?

I’d have to say my “About” post, the one that started it all.

16. Can you choose one favorite book for me? Or top 3-5? No pressure.

Now that is some pressures.  I’d say Middlesex by Eugenides, Cloud Atlas by Mitchell, and Ender’s Game by Card.

17. What is your ultimate blogging goal? No askies backsies – that’s a hard question!

Cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and have a movie made about it. Dammit, someone stole that one.

18. Biggest pet peeve?

Inconsiderate people.

19. Are you married/single/divorced/it’s complicated/all of the above?

Married.

20. When is your favorite time of day to blog?

5:30 am

21. You’re on death row, about to be executed. What is your last meal going to be?

My wife’s jajamyun.

22. Tell me your favorite TV. Is it Sunday Walking Dead, Adult Swim on Cartoon Network? American Horror Story Wednesdays? Something else, from a decade ago perhaps?

Nothing has beaten my Lost obsession, but now it’s Walking Dead.

23) What time do you wake up on a weekday morning?

Between 4:30 and 5:30?

24) What is your biggest fear?

Loss of loved ones.

25) What was your first car?

’77 Chevy Chevelle

26) Did you go to college?

Yes.

27) If you had to live in a state other than the one in which you currently reside, which would it be?

CA knows how to party.

28) How many people other than you live in your house/apartment?

3 (not counting the ghosts)

29) Do you have any siblings?

Yes.

30) Do you speak another language, if so, which? If you don’t, which would you like to speak if you could?

Little bits of lots of languages, nothing fluently.

31) What is the most remote/exotic place in the world you have ever visited?

Tibet

32) Do you believe in ghosts?

Hells yes.

33) Are we alone?

Always and never.

My 11 nominees include:

writingwaves

bussokuseki

serenebabe

Unfiltered Fatherhood

Dadicus Grinch

Dadgitated

Peculiarities and Reticences

The Secret Father

Crispy Indeed

Slouching Toward Thatcham

Making the Days Count

My 11 questions for nominees (some stolen from my nominators) are:

1. Which of your blog posts is your personal favorite?

2. Name one other blog post from another writer that really inspired you.

3. Unicorns or zombies?

4. Favorite children’s/YA book?

5. Why did you start blogging?

6. On average, how many times a day do you check your blog and/or its notifications?

7. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from blogging so far?

8. Do you have kids and, if so, do you hope that they’ll read your blog one day, or stay the hell away?

9. You’re on death row: last meal?’

10. When does the writing bug tend to strike?

11. Real name or pen name?

Thanks again for all the recognition.  I really appreciate it. More thank-you posts are on their way!


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When Your Son’s Friend Thinks You’re Cool

thingstodo_archery_000Picking out activities for our son has been an interesting experience.  While the process should be similar to holding a magnifying glass up to our child, to enlarge and expand his own interests, at times it’s been more like holding up a mirror, reflecting back our own wishes and hopes as parents.

In our son’s six years, he’s tried several things: soccer, dance, art, and archery.   Each was tried for different reasons.  Soccer because it seemed to be “what kids do” and there was some talk about kids doing it at his school.  We tried it for one season, but the schedule was inconsistent, and our son didn’t know any of the kids on the team. So, there wasn’t much of a draw for him.  Then then was dance.  We’ll be the first to admit it was because my wife and I are huge So You Think You Can Dance fans.  We’d show him very cool clips from SYTYCD, and fawn over the performances.  “Why don’t we try dance?” we asked.  We did, and he was good at it (and the only boy, which garnered special attention by the teachers), but he certainly wasn’t crazy about it, and only lasted a few months.

Then there was art.  It was that one true thing that we saw flowing from him naturally.  He’s the type of kid who can set himself up on the floor with construction paper, pens, markers, stapler (always the stapler), and sit there for hours drawing elaborate ninja scenes or making paper houses for his My Little Ponies.  We know he loves art, and so started with classes.  One type was one-on-one classes with a local woman, and he did really well.  One was a group lesson with a gruff guy, which was a disaster.  But, he really stuck with the first one, and seemed to like it.  We’re happy that he found that one thing that will likely be a staple in his life, and that we’ve helped him tap into something he loves.

Then there’s archery.  That was all me.  That was my mirror.  We started out super casual on that one.  I took him to a local archery range, with this great owner who runs kids programs and would set up balloons for my son when he started out.  My son took a liking to it at first, which was great.  We went on a regular basis, just him and me, and made a ritual out of it for the summer.  Then the complaints started.

“Do you want to go to archery this Saturday?” I’d ask, barely containing my glee.

“Uhhh (pause), yeeeeaaahhhh,” came a very drawn-out, non-committal yes.

That was all I needed. He technically said yes, so we were going.  That was how I initially approached it.  But once we’d go, he’s start getting tired after 10 minutes, saying his arms were sore.  So, he’s sit out, I’d shoot, and we’d call it a day.  Eventually, I started to be more realistic about it.  I would try in a very calculated sort of way to be nonchalant about it, almost like asking a girl out for a date in high school.

“So there’s this thing, this, archery thing this weekend.  And, ya know, if you’re not doing anything, I thought we could check it out.”

“Uhhhh,”  (it hurt just like a high school girl’s rejection).

“Nah, that’s cool, that’s cool. Maybe some other time.” So, I started taking this very hands-off approach, and he backed off for a while.  By that time, I had really gotten into it, and had even bought a new bow for myself, so I went alone a few times.

And then, his friend was looking for lessons.

His friend’s dad was talking about how his son was talking about archery all the time, and really wanted some lessons, so I was super eager to jump in.  I offered to bring him the next time we went.  My son, of course, renewed his interest as well.  So, one weekend, we met his friend and his dad at the range, and I played the part of teacher, getting the kid set up and showing him the basics, while my son shot by his side.  It was so funny, because my son’s friend was enamored.  He just loved every aspect.  He watched me shoot with fascination.  He was giddy to shoot.  He retrieved his arrows with glee.  His enthusiasm was infectious, and my son jumped right on that train.  I felt pretty cool.

Then the most interesting thing happened.  I wished that my son had this kid’s enthusiasm.  I wished he was the one who was fascinated, hungry to learn more.  That made me feel guilty.  I realized that I had really been trying to shape him into a certain mold.  A mold in which I could be cool, in which I could be the teacher.  But, that’s just not the case, and I have to accept it. I know that I have to back off.  Perhaps his friend’s passion will ignite something in him. Perhaps it’s a blessing of sorts, which will bring my son and I together around this common interest.  But if it doesn’t I have to remember to just let it go, just like with dance.  Let him explore the things he loves, while I carve out a little time for the things that I like.  I never want him to feel beholden to some interest, just because his parents like it.


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Mac ‘n Cheese ‘n Picky Eaters

macaroni-and-cheeseMy son had a play-date last week, and just before the kid got to our house, my wife said to me, “Oh my god, I need you to go out and get Mac and Cheese!”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s the only thing his friend will eat.”

“Really, it’s the only thing he’ll eat?”

“He’s very picky,” she explained.  I picked up my keys.  Just before leaving she called out, “And not the good organic stuff.  Get the Kraft stuff.  That’s the only kind he’ll eat.”

My wife and I are blessed with a son who’s a good eater.  He’s adventurous and will try almost any food.  I’m sure part of it’s his temperament, but it’s also his upbringing.  He never had foods that were any different from what my wife and I ate.  Even when venturing into solid foods as a baby, he’d eat peas, or steamed zucchini, or cucumbers, or cut-up grapes.  All foods that he saw us eating too.  So, when he started eating full meals, there was never anything special offered to him.  He needed to eat what we were all eating.  No special kid foods, no alternatives, no choices.  Here is your food, now eat it.

He’s so amicable that we haven’t had many problems.  He very rarely puts up a fight.  I’d even say that he holds a sense of pride in the fact that he eats just like the grown ups.  His recent challenge is spicy foods, and so he’s been adding Sriracha or Frank’s Red Hot Sauce to his meals. There are a few times when he’ll pick around his mushrooms or onions, but he sits and eats regardless.  The only other kids we know who eat well are his cousins, and I’d guess that he has the most fun eating with them.

But unlike family, all his friends are picky eaters.  Nearly every time we go out to eat with families, they order buttered pasta for their kids, while the adults eat more exciting foods.  Or, if kids come over, we always have to consider whether they’ll eat what we’re eating.  Typically, we won’t hold our son’s friends to our expectations.  Instead, we usually circumvent the problem by making something “kid-friendly” if a friend is coming over.

I’m going to sound like a crotchety old man for writing this, but I think that (in most instances) the problem is with choice.  Each time I see a parent of a picky eater feed his or her child, the kid is presented with options.  The kids can choose to opt out of eating what everyone else is eating. He’s given the option of mac ‘n cheese, or pb&j, or some other carby, cheesy,  sugary option.   The kid goes for that option every time.  When the meal consists of something healthy or somewhat unappealing to the child, there’s rarely an expectation to eat it or, at the very least, try it before rejecting it. So, when we go out to eat with these families, and the only things the kids consume are buttered pasta or bread, I’m not surprised.  When they reject things like vegetables and their parents laments that they won’t eat anything but pizza, burgers, or grilled cheese, I’m not surprised.

One particular exception I’d note is kids with sensory issues.  I work with many students with sensory issues, and smells, textures, and tastes are very triggering for them.  It makes sense that these kids (and their parents) are faced with significant hurdles when it comes to diversifying their pallets.  However, sensory issues are very rare, and I would guess don’t affect many of the kids in my son’s social circle.

I think our relationship with food starts from day one.  There is a culture around eating that gets ingrained at a very early age.  For instance, growing up, my family was  very territorial about food.  We each had our own plate and no one touched your food and you didn’t touch anyone else’s.  My wife grew up in a family where everyone shared food from+9*the middle of the table.  To this day, she and I are very much influenced by our own food cultures.  I think the message we send to kids when they’re given choices around food is that they get to eat what they want, and that food is theirs.  Food is not a family decision, but an individual one.  The option to choose offers the child a lot of autonomy around what they’ll elect to eat.  Probably too much autonomy.

The problem is that kids can’t recognize what’s healthy.  They go for taste.  So, in many ways, just like discipline or boundaries or rules, parents need to set parameters around food just like anything else.  As parents, we need to be the models for how and what to eat, and not abdicate responsibility just to make our children happy (in the moment).

Rereading this, I sound like some goddamn saint.  There are certainly times when my son has said he “isn’t hungry” and pushes the food around his plate, and he has to get multiple reminders of his expectation to eat.  There have also been times when we’ve left him at the dinner table to finish food that he was ignoring.  I realize it’s a struggle at times, but parents wield a lot of power, and they need to exert it early to set a good example for future habits.  Plus, it’ll save me runs to Stop ‘n Shop for Kraft products.