undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


4 Comments

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.


5 Comments

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.

 


2 Comments

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.

 


2 Comments

Taking One for the Team: Or, How I Got Talked into Being Unikitty for Halloween

My kick-ass Unikitty mask

My kick-ass Unikitty mask

Being a dad means taking on rough jobs, whether it’s unclogging toilets, cleaning vomit, or dressing like a big pink LEGO kitten for Halloween.

My son had a tricky time deciding what to be for Halloween this year, but finally landed on Emmett, the construction working main character of the LEGO Movie. In spite of the show’s popularity, we couldn’t find a single costume manufactured to look like any of the LEGO Movie characters. During our pursuit of a construction vest and Piece of Resistance, my family joked about us all dressing like characters from the movie. Immediately, my son said my wife should be Wyldstyle, the DJ-named master builder. My wife turned around and insisted that I be Unikitty.  Not Batman, not Vitruvius, not even President Business. Unikitty.

For those unfamiliar with the movie, Unikitty is a pink, block-headed kitten that lives in land of rainbows and lollipops, and meets every challenge with syrupy sweetness while tamping down her seething rage.

emmet At first I insisted there was no way in hell I was being Unikitty, but my wife and son were adamant that it would be the best possible costume. They thought it would be hilarious, and I’m a sucker for making the laugh. I also knew it would likely be one of the last years that my son would tolerate his parents dressing up for trick-or-treating, let alone dressing with a family theme. I’m sure that in the years to come, he’ll scoff at any suggestion that we dress up with him, and I’m sure as a middle schooler he’d drop dead from embarrassment if we aligned our costumes with his. So, I sucked it up and I did it: I became Unikitty.

As a dad, I think it’s my job to do whatever it takes to make my family happy. Sometimes that means accomplishing very practical tasks, like holding a job and making money so that we can have the comfort of food, home, and heating. Or, it might take the form of family activities, like apple picking, visits to the pumpkin patch, or trips to the amusement park. But other times it’s making a complete fool of myself to get a laugh.

WyldstyleI’m not a natural at putting myself in uncomfortable, semi-humiliating situations for a good laugh. My wife is naturally funny, irreverent, and goofy, and has such a knack for making herself the butt of a joke for a good laugh. She’s always ready with a crazy face, story, song, or dance. I usually have to be prodded to be the clown. Most of the time she has to spur on my goofiness, whether it’s making me do a weird dance, hiking my my pants up under my armpits, or giving me a wedgie that rips my boxers by pulling them over my head (yes, this has happened). Plus, there’s usually the double-embarrassment of photographing or videotaping the incident.  I may feel self-conscious or ridiculous, but I’m so glad she encourages it. These times of goofiness are some of the most fun we have as a family, and are the times when we fall out of our chairs laughing, nearly peeing ourselves. Isn’t that what family’s about?

UnikittyI’m actually a bit uncomfortable dressing up as a big pink box-headed kitten for Halloween. Especially since I have to see other fathers who wouldn’t be caught dead in a costume like mine. I kind of feel like a nervous kid who risks a daring costume or piece of clothing and fears that his friends are going to make fun of him. But screw that. My family wants me to be Unikitty.  They think it’ll be hillarious, and that’s all that matters. So, for this Halloween, I’m happy to take one for the team, and strut around the neighborhood in second-hand ladies pink pajamas with a box over my head. I’m Unikitty, and I’m proud.

 


12 Comments

Dear Soccer Dad, Do you want your son to hate you?

kicking-and-screaming“Isaiah, move up! Move up!”

“Isaiah, what kind of a kick was that?”

“Isaiah, why you giving up, bud?”

These shouts ring from the sidelines a few feet away from me on a brisk October Saturday morning. I’m there to watch my son in the town’s U9 soccer league, and I’m loving being a newly christened soccer dad. There’s something great about having a new home team and it being your son’s. But what’s up with this dude down the line?

There are all sorts of soccer dad’s, as I’m beginning to learn. Surprisingly, the most popular version is the absent soccer dad, judging by the lack of men on the sidelines (but that’s fodder for another post). There are also the quiet watchers, the cheerers and, apparently, the beraters. I’m surprised to learn that I’m a cheerer, and a very vocal one. Like, verging-on-annoying-cheerer.

As a kid, I was always a quiet sports spectator. Sure, I would cheer and clap when a point was made or a ball was saved, but I never shouted words of encouragement or cheered for specific players. I was somewhat sports illiterate growing up, and so I think the prospect of shouting encouragement or advice felt overzealous or even hypocritical.

But now I see these 8-year-olds running their hearts out on the field and I want them to know we’re cheering for them. Although I’m historically bad about remembering kids names, I’ve been pretty good at learning most of the team members’ first name at this point in the season. I shout words of encouragement for each of them as they receive the ball, I praise their defense and passing, and I cheer when a ball is saved and (less frequently…we’re on a losing streak) when a goal is scored. Each time, I try to call the player by name.

I explain all this to convey that I understand this desire to be vocal on the sidelines. I’m not there to be a passive observer, but Isaiah’s dad takes active support to a new level, by becoming coach, ref, judge, and asshole. He’s the guy who’s there before every practice, running the ball with his son and giving him lots of pointers. He sits through practice and yells advice, peppered with lots of frustrated commentary. Game days are by far the worst. He shouts to his kid about where to be on the field (even when counter to the coach’s strategy). He yells at him to move faster or stop giving up. He berates him for slowing down, giving up the ball, or allowing a pass.

It’s hard sitting on the sidelines near this guy, hearing all this. My imaginary monologue to him goes something like this:

“Do you want your son to grow up hating you? Because that’s what you’re doing. Only two things can come out of this. Either he grows up hating and rejecting his dad who always gave him a hard time, or he grows up always trying to please you, while at the same time feeling like he’s never good enough. In the second scenario, he’s likely to treat his own kids to a life of insults because it’s his only model for how to be engaged as a dad. Pull back a bit dude. It’s great that you’re here, but let the coach coach, and chill out a bit.”

I can’t, however, imagine a scenario in which I have the balls big enough to confront this guy with my diatribe. But these same sentiments run though my mind each time I hear him. I don’t see anyone else (aside from my wife) holding the discomfort of hearing this guy’s comments, but I can’t imagine other parents find it unproblematic. Plus, the coach is always on the opposite side of the field from the spectators, and so a lot of it happens off the coach’s radar. Perhaps the most skilled and emotionally cognizant coach would be able to finesse a conversation with all parents about etiquette and the proper show of support.

But what do I do? As the season goes along and I become more invested in my son’s team and its players, what do I do with my discomfort and pity for this kid who’s given such a hard time by his dad. For now, when I see him set up his chair on the sidelines, I’ll set up mine a few dozen feet away. I’ll focus on the game and try to drown out his words, but that poor kid will hear them for the rest of his life.


2 Comments

Bruce Lee is Dead: A Fish Burial

150_5092Coming home from a grueling day of work this past week, I found my wife sitting at the kitchen table with my son standing at her side. They stared at me, tears welling up in my son’s eyes.

“Bruce Lee is dead,” my wife said. My son burst out crying and nuzzled his face into my wife’s neck.

Bruce Lee was one of the four Koi fish we keep in our small backyard pond. The pond has been there since we moved in two years ago, but only last May did we buy four 5-inch long koi to fill the pond and, by the end of the summer, each was at least a foot long. Bruce Lee was named for his impressive golden scales with black trim, reminiscent of his name-sake’s iconic jumpsuit from the movie Game of Death.

Bruce Lee had been sick for a few weeks, and I made several efforts to help him, but his scales were inflamed and he lost his equilibrium at times. I was really torn up about him being sick, trying whatever I could to help a situation that might have been inevitable. I felt a great deal of responsibility to make it better.

But that day when I came home to find the fished had died, I wasn’t anguished by the news. In fact, it was a relief. I knew the ordeal was over, the pain that he might have felt was done. In fact, my only sympathies were for my son, who was devastated.  He was the one to find him dead, which was heart-breaking for him. I wanted to comfort him.

But instead of sitting with his sadness, I jumped into fix-it mode. I knew I had to get the fish out of the pond and into the ground before the sun went down. Right after dinner, I rushed my son outside so we could dig a hole and net our dead friend.

While waiting for my wife before the burial, my son wrote a letter to the fish. He asked me to contribute every other line, in a sort of joint eulogy. We wrote that we’d miss him, that the other fish would miss him, that we hoped he was happy in the big pond in the sky. After writing his final words, my son sank his 7-year-old face into my neck and burst into tears. I was surprised at how much this affected him, and had to take stock in the situation.

Bruce LeeI have this tendency to compartmentalize sad feelings in order to get the job done. If something shocking or saddening happens, I somehow feel that it’s my duty to trudge forward. In these situations, it sometimes helps that I put aside my feelings so that things get done. For instance, there was a time when my son spews vomit all over the bed in the middle of the night, coating every fabric-covered surface in yuck. While my wife helps our son to the bathroom, I had the gross job of cleaning up. Or when the basement toilet backs up and spits sewage all over the floor, I’m the one cleaning up. When things are gross or shocking, I put away my feelings, put on my “man-hat”, and git-r-done. In these very practical situations, it works. Vomit and feces don’t pick up themselves.

But this same compartmentalization can happen when there’s loss, and the job needs to be done to pick things up and move along. I have learned the hard way that this is not the way to deal with grief. When there has been loss or great sadness, there are times when I cordon off my feelings and move forward. There’s a part of me that feels like this is just how I take care of others. I want to help get them to a better place. I want to show them hope. But in doing so, I can overlook the grief and the anguish, as though they don’t exist. My approach can leave others feeling unsupported and overlooked. Granted, sometimes there needs to be a pragmatic voice within a family when things are gloomy, but to charge forward solely in a utilitarian mode only denies others their sadness.

Charging forward also denies my own sadness. When I put my grief to the side in order to make things better, I don’t sit with the sadness of it all and end up feeling wrecked in the end, while my loved ones feel overlooked.

All of this came back as I sat at the kitchen table with my son, composing a fish eulogy. I had to take a breath, and sit with the sadness of a boy who had bought, named, and nurtured a 5-inch baby fish into a 14-inch glory. He was heartbroken, and I couldn’t go too fast. I had to sit with the sadness of it all. I had toforget the waning sunlight and the hardened ground and think about this small boy who had just confronted death face-to-face. Sure there was a job to be done, but that job was right in front of me: hugging my son and accepting his tears.

 


10 Comments

One of My Biggest Fears

20130531-070751.jpgMy dad has issues. For a three year stint, he didn’t talk to me, for unknown reasons. I tried reaching out the olive branch on several occasions, through letters and email, but these attempts were met with absolute silence. It wasn’t until a pending trip to Chicago, that he responded to an email of mine. His response was pretty much, “What’s the problem. You know I’m not a good conversationalist.”

This is what scares me….neither am I.

When it comes down to it, my fear is that this legacy of emotional and communicative disconnect is going to bleed into my relationship with my own son.

My dad has his own set of problems. Born in the 1940’s and shipped to Viet Nam in his 20’s, I always knew my dad as the guy who “doesn’t like to talk about things.” This was the family narrative. You didn’t ask my dad about his life. The war was off limits. Discussions about his parents, especially his father, were out of bounds because his dad was institutionalized after a bout of incapacitating meningitis. Talk about his extended family was out of the question because he just hated the bastards. Aside from that, his only real interests seemed to be hunting and electronics, leaving few common interests between him and me (or most people).

“Alexithymic” is probably also a good way of describing my dad. It’s a word I picked up in grad school, which characterizes a person who is neither able to name his/her emotions or describe them in words. My dad and I have never had a single conversation about his feelings, nor has he ever offered up a description of them. In spite of his divorce, the death of his mother, his own cancer, none of these things enlivened a single visible emotion or mention of his feelings.

These two issues make it nearly impossible for me to talk with my dad, outside of topics such as the weather, traffic, or consumer electronics. We’ve never had the ability to talk. There were times in my life when my father and I just did more things together, and therefore spent more with one another. And yet, we weren’t necessarily close. So, as an adult man, separated from my father by half the country, there’s no way of connecting. We don’t live close enough to do things together, and conversations fall short, so our relationship languishes.

And so, each time I sit across from my son at the breakfast table in silence, or drive home with him in a quiet car, I project 20 years into a future in which we have nothing to say to one another. No bond.

There are times when conversations with my son really fall flat. My son is a relatively quiet kid. I’ve spent time with kids who provide a running narration or their thoughts or actions. Kids that are always talking. Or for some kids, once their interest is peaked, they can talk a mile a minute. This isn’t my son. He’s shy most of the time, and even when someone inquires about something he knows well, he gets self-conscious, or hesitant, preventing him from share what he knows. This is true whether it’s a stranger at a cash register, or even his parents at home.

Somehow, my wife has a magic with him, and they can have the longest conversations. I find that when I try, I’m pulling teeth. I get feedback that it’s my style. Sometimes I come across like an interviewer when having a discussion. I can pelt a person with endless questions. For my son, that doesn’t work, and he turns into a deer in headlights. I’ve tried easing up, and inquiring or opening up conversations in an inquisitive, non-threatening way. And yet I find these conversations still falter.

These scenarios bring up two things for me: anger and fear. The anger is directed at my own father. When I find myself stuck in conversation, I can’t help but think part of the reason is that I never got good modeling as a kid. If my dad was a bit more skilled, or for that matter, simply tried just a little bit harder, I might have some vocabulary for father-son dialogue. I feel robbed of some kind of formative experience that would have taught me the skills for connecting with my own son.

The second feeling is the fear I mentioned: that fear that in a few years or decades, my son and I won’t know what to say to one another. He’ll live far away and I won’t have any way of building in-roads with him, his family, or his life. Perhaps it’s a bit catastrophic, but nonetheless, it’s where my mind goes. I so desperately want a better relationship with my son, but when face-to-face, I sometimes feel incapacitated.

I substitute with time, activity, interest. When he’s around, I try to do things with him, or take an interest in the things he likes. For now, I think this works. But as he emerges into his teenage years and doesn’t want to spend time with me, or when he goes off to college, what am I to do? It’s something that I constantly grapple with, and need to keep facing head-on, before the years slip away.