undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


2 Comments

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.


5 Comments

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.


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.

 


1 Comment

Don’t Be Like Me, Son

geeksSoccer season is wrapping up for my son, which is a bitter-sweet conclusion to the Fall. With the end of the season, my wife and I get to reclaim our Monday nights, Friday nights, and Saturday mornings, but my son is left without his team and his new favorite sport. I will truly miss seeing my son out there are on the field. His gusto, resilience, and comradery remind me of all the ways he’s not like me, which is a good thing.

As a kid, I was super anxious. I was the good, quiet kid in the back of the class who kept his head down and did his work. I was the kid who was respectful around adults and shy with peers. I was also the kid who was terrified of group sports, because I was awkward, uncoordinated, and un-athletic. During PE or recess, I would shy away from group games and sports for fear that I would mess up and evoke the jeers and disappointment of kids in my class. To combat this scenario, I’d do two things: I’d stay away from competitive games and sports as much as possible, and I’d become self-deprecating among my peers.

When captains were picking teams among a huddle of elementary school boys, I’f be the first to say, “Uh oh, I hope you don’t get me on your team!” or “Okay, I’ll just move to the back so you get a better view of the good players.” or (when I was one of the last few kids) “Looks like you’re down to the worst of the worst.” Basically, I was a 10-year-old Richard Lewis.

In this way, I beat the other kids to the punch, protecting myself from insults because no one insulted me as well as I did. But I also self-segregated myself from other kids. I distinguished myself as the kid no one wanted on his team, and so I never really tried. If I was bad, then why fight against it? So I never tried my hardest. I never fought past the awkwardness to gain any skill.

Apples don’t fall far from the tree, and so my son is like me in many ways. He struggles with coordination and rhythm. He can’t quite move his body as fluidly and nimbly as some other kids his age. He’s also quite shy. He’s very quiet around adults and is slow to meet friends. When I see these traits in him, I feel badly, because he has inherited traits from me that hindered me as a kid. So when I see him shying away from social interactions, or struggling with sports, I feel sorry for him, and wish I hadn’t yoked him with these weighty obstacles.

I think many parents struggle with the challenging traits they see in their kids, especially those the recognize (consciously or unconsciously) as arising from their own genes. They trigger in us all the memories of how we suffered as kids or they ways in which we were hindered or held back because of who we were. Parents want the best for their kids, and so this realization of a parents’ less-optimal traits are sometimes a guiding force for how we attempt to shape our children.

For me, I always push my son to interact with others and have a voice in the world. I prod him to go up and ask adults questions, like librarians, waitresses, or cashiers. I coach him about how to respond to adults if they ask him questions, so he isn’t a nodding mute when confronted with an adult inquiry. I encourage him to make friends or approach other kids. I know I do these things because I was a shy kid who never took social risks and never had much of a voice. I don’t want my son to grow up like that, because I experienced it as so limiting.

Sports were different though. I never pushed him to do them, because I was always terrified of them. For myself, I felt as though they’d be a set-up for ridicule because of my awkwardness. I think that in many ways, perhaps unconsciously, I de-emphasize sports with my son, because I see myself in him, and want to protect him from any rejection.

But my son is not me. When soccer season came around, I was astounded that he wanted to try. He was (perhaps luckily) put on a team that my wife and I dubbed the Bad News Bears, because they were a troop of rag-tag kids on a loosing streak. Their abilities ranged from not-so-good to okay, and so there were very few superstars on the team. I was thankful because I didn’t want any cocky athletic kids making fun of my son.

My son was off to a rough start. He fumbled around with the ball at his feet and shied away from the action. When the kids charged for the ball, he would defer to his teammates and take a supportive role, never taking the lead. When he did get the ball, he’d quickly give it up or pass it to someone else. When I projected my 8-year-old self into his shoes, I knew I’d do the same, but I’d take it to a different level. I would have given up. I would have complained to my parents that I didn’t want to go, or I would completely opt out of receiving the ball for fear of how badly I’d do.

But not my son. Throughout the season, he stuck to it. He practiced and practiced. He gave his all during formal practices, only to go home and ask me to kick the ball around with him. He loved goal keeping and would ask me to shoot balls his way while he defended them from hitting our fence. As games progressed, he’d get gutsier and charge in with the other kids. He scored one of the team’s few goals during the season! He started asking the coach if he could be goalie, and even asked his mom and me to buy him goalie gloves. By the end of the season, he looked like a different player, still with a lot to learn, but a kid who wasn’t afraid to get in there, make mistakes, and push through the struggles.

A childless male friend recently asked me what’s the best part of being a parent. With this soccer season fresh in my mind, I responded that it’s seeing your child surprise you. It’s seeing aspects of you in your child, but realizing that in spite of being an amalgam of you and your partner’s genes, your child is a unique human being who can always surprise you.


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.


6 Comments

Karma Police

kismet10cSometimes I have no fun at all, and sometimes it’s my own damn fault.

Random groups of children and parents set the stage for some of my most frustrating experiences. For instance, this April vacation, my son and I had some alone time and planned a day around robots. A local museum was hosting free guided tour of its robotics exhibit for kids and families. The issue was that it was free and first-come-first-served to only 25 participants, which was a set-up for all sorts of anxiety.

My son and I made a day out of it. After taking the train early and having breakfast, we charged through the rain and stood outside of the still-closed museum under an awning. Eventually making it inside, we had to wait until 30 minutes prior to the tour to receive a free ticket. We scoped out the reception desk, and at exactly 10:30, they started giving tickets away. Someone’s dad cut in front of a line that included me and women with strollers. I was mildly annoyed, but got my tickets and we waited.

When the tour started, they cordoned off the entire wing, so that only tour participants could take part. We felt very special. The tour started well, with the curator giving the kids stickies to put on the exhibits they found most interesting and most scary. I noted that the tour seemed small, with only about 20 people. Finally, about 10 minutes late, another family of five, a mom and her 2 pre-teen girls and 2 teenage boys showed up. Her kids started on the periphery of the group, while she found a bench all to herself, staring at her cell phone.  It took about 5 minutes for her girls to stray from the group and wander the deserted hall, and after about 10 minutes her boys followed suit, until the entire family was doing their own thing and mom was staring at her phone.

I kept glaring at them. I kept thinking about how disrespectful it was to the tour guide. I kept thinking about all the other families in the museum who had the opportunity of a private tour stripped from them by these people who weren’t taking advantage of it.

About 30 minutes into the tour, that family left the exhibit, never to return. I was left up on my moral high horse, alone with my frustrations.

The issue with being up there on my moral high horse was that I wasn’t down in the tour with my son. It was hard for me to put away my anger and instead focus on the fun that was happening right in front of me. This happens to me a lot, especially around children and their parents. Inevitably there’s somebody that’s out of control or at least troublesome: the kid who runs around, or disturbs the group, or makes fun of the exhibits, or barrels over other kids. But that’s not the unnerving part; after all, they’re just kids. In most cases, these kids are chaperoned by parents who aren’t doing anything. They sit back on their phones, or appear oblivious, or throw their hands up with a “whatcha gonna do” face. This is the thing that drives me bonkers.

“We live in a society, people!” my inner George Costanza screams. The only way to enjoy the fruits of society is by sharing them. When parents don’t teach their kids to share space, time, and resources, then kids become self-serving, domineering adults. And so standing in that tour group, my mind wanders to the future; to these kids growing up and populating a world where my son has to share the highway with them as they swerve through traffic, or stand in line while they cut in front for their morning coffee, or work in an office where they steal his ideas and pawn them off as their own. I think of a million different scenarios about how the world is (and will) become a worse place because kids aren’t taught about how to respect others.

It all sounds very good as a write it. In fact, there’s a part of me that wants to stop there. End of post. People suck.

But what I’m really trying to convey is the way I feel obligated to be the morality/karma police in these situations. Looking around the tour group, there were obviously children who were participating, and their parents appeared just as engaged. Even the curator seemed to be ignoring the wandering family and going about her business, touring the group. Why was I the one steaming? Why did I feel as though I had to hold the weight of other people’s decisions?

I think that is the hardest part for me. I don’t want to lose that part of me that discerns behaviors that I don’t want to cultivate in my son. I also don’t want to be so fixated on that discernment that it takes over my mind and disallows me from enjoying the moment in spite of others. I’m sure the other parents in the group noticed this wandering family. I’m sure some of them even made judgements about their behavior. But somehow, they were able to live and let live, or perhaps even forgive and forget. For me, it never feels easy.