undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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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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Shock and Awe

blizzard_trees102606Imagine driving home from work and getting a call that there’s a huge surprise party at your house, in your honor.  You hang up the phone.  You’re wicked excited (yes, you’re from New England so you’re wicked excited).  You imagine who might be there, what people might say.  Then your car breaks down.  You pick up your phone but its dead.  You put your head in your hands and you wait.

That’s what it’s like hearing you’re going to be Freshly Pressed, and then having a blizzard knock out your power for almost two days.

I don’t know if it’s taboo to discuss one’s Freshly-Pressedness, but I need to, because my experience this weekend made such an impact.  I got an email from the Word Press editor Friday afternoon and nearly fell down, amazed that my post had been chosen.  I was honored and gushing with gratitude.  I went downstairs and told my wife, who congratulated me in the midst of all our snow prep.  That day, schools had been cancelled and we were enjoying the day.  We stocked up on groceries in the morning, took a stroll through the new-fallen (then only 2″ deep) snow, and hunkered inside to watch the downpour.  What a great day overall.  Freshly Pressed and a snow day?  What could be better.

Things got a little hairy around mid-afternoon, when the wind started whipping our trees around and near-white-out conditions obscured our view of houses across the street.  The snow began sticking to every window, as though a freshly laundered sheet had been thrown over the house.  Around 9:00 pm the lights flickered and then the power went out.

Thus began my anguish.

No power meant no internet connection, meant no checking to see if I’d gone up on Freshly Pressed.  I was dying to know if my post would get a response.  Would I get likes?  Would folks comment?  Our family’s only internet connection was through my wife’s iPhone (I’m cheap and have a dumb-phone, no internet, no texts…I’m like a grandpa).  In the midst of checking National Grid’s outage map I just happened to pop over to Word Press and saw it had gone up!  How exciting.

“Look,” I turned to my wife, “it’s there!”

“That’s great, but we should probably save our battery for emergencies.”

Damn it.  She was right.  I’d feel terrible if I used up our battery checking my blog, and we needed the phone for some emergency.  I imagined a scene in the midst of the blizzard chaos: a pack of coyotes backing my family into a corner. Me fending them off with a fireplace poker and my wife shouting, “I’d call animal control, but we’re out of f**king batteries!”

So that was it. I went most of that time not checking, and yet being obsessed with checking. Although I knew it was a unique experience; I mean, I’d be incredibly lucky if anything like this happened again.  But at the same time, I felt badly.  Here was my family, stuck in the cold and snow, and I was obsessing about a post.  I think it all showed me how much my excitement can sometimes get ahead of me.  Of course getting excited is a good thing.  Hell, my family gets excited about a fresh episode of New Girl.  But sometimes the need to feed the excitement can be overwhelming.  I tend to latch onto my excitement and then run it into the ground.  I find that’s what so tempting and addictive about the ease of technology.  I get excited about switching my cable and so I do hours of research on providers that same night.  I get into Orson Scott Card and want to look up every on-line article about the Ender’s Game series.  There’s such instant gratification for our obsessions nowadays.  Being stripped of that easy access for one day leaves me without an outlet for my excitement.  It’s draining.  It was really hard for me to say to myself, “That’s great. Now put it down for a moment and focus on what’s in front of you.”

In time, I eventually did.  I packed our defrosting food in a cooler in the snow.  I strained coffee through a paper towel.  I picked up my shovel.

In the middle of the night on Saturday the power came back up, and I immediately shot out of bed and ran to the computer.  It was an amazing feeling.  Like missing 3 Christmases and getting all your presents at once.  I saw the incredible amount of views, and the generous heaping of comments.  I cannot begin to thank folks for their kind words, shared stories, and encouraging shout-outs.  It was a wonderful thing to see.  I went into hyper-checking mode for a couple of days.  I realized I needed to slow down.  I needed to let things run their course.  I hope to post today and not be so obsessive.  Put things down and go about my day, all the while thankful for the kindness bestowed upon me.

And, yes, I did shovel my own goddamn driveway.


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Speak Up My Buddhist Son!

Christmas_Jizo-500x666We happen to practice Buddhism in our family.  We’re members of a local Zen center and my son even attends the kids’ dharma programming there.  However, we don’t really go around advertising it. For much of my life I’ve been uncomfortable with American (White) Buddhists who parade their Buddhism like some enlightened badge of honor. I’ve met too many creepy men who use Buddhism to fabricate an aura of spiritual sophistication around themselves.  And so, we’re a fairly quiet Buddhist family.  Many people don’t know about my family’s leanings, and that’s the way I like it.  We “just do it” as they’d say in Zen.

Our approach leads our son to be quiet as well.  Unfortunately, this causes Buddhism to feel somewhat compartmentalized or disjointed from the rest of his life.  Plus, there are no real examples for him in his wider community or within media to understand his practice.  Instead, we as parents have to point out any scraps of Buddhism that have been incorporated into wider American culture.  We’ve convinced him that all Jedi are Zen monks, and that Sensei Wu from Ninjago is a Buddhist.

When our son began attending school, there were a few religious exchanges that confused him.  Especially in Kindergarten when two girls were berating this little boy about Jesus.  Then, in 1st grade the little evangelist sitting next to him whispered that God is mean to people who don’t believe in him.  Of course, not all Christian children are as in-your-face as these kids.  I use these examples because in both cases our son had no retort or response, perhaps due to how separate Buddhism is from the rest of his life.  In fact, for a while there in Kindergarten our son asserted that he believed in Jesus, not Buddha.  My wife and I responded that he could believe whatever he liked so long as he was good to other people.  Jesus was in his heart for a few weeks, and then he dropped it.  I’m convinced he thought those two girls would beat him up if he hadn’t converted.

The winter holidays have been interesting this year, because his public school is doing more to acknowledge Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa.  In our line of Buddhism, there are three major celebrations of the year, with Buddha’s Enlightenment Day falling in early December.  So this year when my son has come home from school talking about the three winter holidays, my wife always adds, “And don’t forget about Buddha’s Enlightenment!”  It sort of started as a joke, but it gave us the opportunity to talk about lots of hidden holidays that aren’t typically acknowledged in America because few people in this country celebrate them.  It was a nice way of talking about difference and dominant culture without getting too lofty with a 6-year-old.

Then Christmas day was upon us.  We also celebrate Christmas in our house, and so there’s a tree and lots of presents from parents, family, and of course, Santa Claus.  Our son eagerly handed us a present that he’d made in school especially for us.  It was a thin four by four-inch square wrapped in tissue.  My wife opened it to reveal a ceramic tile decorated in marker.  A coaster perhaps?  It had an interesting design in the middle, from which radiated four multicolored lines, each connected to a separate corner of the tile.  One corner had a decorated tree, another a burning menorah, the third a mat with a cup and corn, and the fourth a tiny golden statue.  My wife was a little confused at first, but I understood right away: Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and Buddha’s Enlightenment.

I was so proud of him.  Not that he’s making a political statement by adding Buddhism to the winter trinity or that he’s educating the kids and teachers of his school, but that he’s speaking up.  So many times he’ll shy away from asserting things in school because he wants to be a “good kid”.   He wants to fit in.  In this case he was asserting something important to him during the holidays, which was wonderful to see.  I’ve realized that my own hang-ups about American Buddhism might only get in the way of his own spiritual understanding and development.  I should make sure that my son has a voice for his beliefs, no matter what form they take.