A Son’s Notes from Parenthood

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The parent-child relationship is fraught with misguided and unattainable expectations.

To the parent of a child, pre-adolescent, there is simply nothing that can sway them off the opinion that their child, amongst all the others, is MOST special, MOST handsome and MOST capable of curing cancer, ending war and solving global warming. No one goes so far as to say their child WILL do these things, but most of us wouldn’t be surprised if it happened.

Concurrently the pre-adolescent child can see no more great or benevolent figure than Mommy and Daddy. They may pout and scream and defy, but they are doing so not to the person that stands before them, but rather to the great and powerful Oz… who stands before them. To this child daddy can move mountains and mommy hauls up the sun every morning and puts it to bed at night so the moon can have its turn. To the child there is virtually no booboo that can’t be greatly improved if not cured entirely by the simple act of a kiss from one of these mythic gods known as their parents.

This is as it must be. Fostering a life from birth to independence is an overwhelming feat. Every parent needs to feel that given enough time and patience they can cure all. It is even more necessary for the child who needs to know that the ‘Gods’ know them and will protect them. That they can go out confidently into the scary world, knowing they are being watched and loved and protected by the most powerful beings on earth, their Mommy and Daddy.

With such an inaccurate point of view being reinforced perpetually in both directions it is inevitable that the crumbling of the facade is indelicate. When the child reaches their teens they are likely to have their coming of age prompted by the encroaching suspicion that mom and dad are in fact NOTHING like all powerful and benevolent gods, but are rather flawed and human. The momentum generated by this epiphany pushes that teenager’s opinion right past reality, swinging all the way to the other end of the spectrum, resulting in the firm knowledge that my parents alone are THE most embarrassing and THE most unfit for responsibility and THE pettiest dictators the world has ever seen. [1] Teenagehood is a very dramatic hood. It’s the daytime soap opera portion of your life. There’s no understanding or perspective there. People are caricatures, and your parents are the worst of all.[2] When you can get a break from there arbitrary rule setting that doesn’t consider how capable you are of navigating on your own, you actually feel sorry for them. The way you do for those tiny single-celled organisms that don’t have a brain or free will or the ability to see all the amazing wonder that life has to offer.[3] They’re actually kind of sad with their early bedtimes and late night ice creams on the couch.[4] It’s unfair that you could have been so fabulous without this albatross of a family around your neck[5], and this angers you, generally. But still, they are to be pitied in some way as they’ll never know how deep and meaningful life could be since they’re just not capable of it. But these moments of empathy pass. They are now the enemy, to be tricked and defeated and never to be heeded. What once were gods are now feeble minded and feckless tyrants and it is your job to keep reminding them of their loathsomeness[6].

In a coincidence that is surely one that evolution has deemed necessary, parents discover this idiot kid, this now smelly and gross animal that seems to know less than nothing[7] at almost exactly the same time that it is realized by the child that their parents are not divine entities. This child, once capable of anything, is now capable of only thoughtless and careless behavior that will inevitably leave them penniless and angry. They are certain to make EVERY wrong decision possible. Now, when it is most important that they heed your warnings they in fact are incapable of even hearing you. In fact they have taken on a new language, one you’re not meant to understand, but to your untrained ear it seems to speak only the most vile of ugliness’s and is one that was designed and is now employed to in fact make you understand that this child hates you[8]. You who have done nothing short of committing your best years to this kid! This knucklehead! This jerk![9]

So what was once a beautiful and utopian relationship based on unquestioning devotion and love born of mutual awe is now a war torn landscape covered in mines that while not intended to kill, still sting, often injure and have the potential to maim. This is nothing short of an emotional civil war. The youth is duty bound to secede. If you’ve raised them right and given them what they need, they have no choice. And you, the parent, likewise conscripted to this fate have to provide resistance. It is both your inclination as well as your responsibility to resist with all out total war tactics being implemented. The enemy is at war for something they don’t understand and it is your duty to fight, to fight dirty if needed. You must win the early battles since you know, in your heart of hearts, that you will lose in the end. When all is just about to be lost it is your job as the adult to wave the white flag and retreat.

You will offer council and do your best to respect that the victory was theirs, but you know it was only so because you allowed it. At least by being the one to accept defeat you have now gained some control of the peace. It was not the control you wanted when the war began. But you have to allow that victory has its spoils and the period of detente must also play out through periods of latency, threats of renewed conflict and negotiation to maintain some sway in this new nation’s future as its ability to be self-sufficient and thrive is all you can now hope for.

You start with talks, promising to remove sanctions and provide humanitarian aid[10], but you know your constituents will resist and you make small, easily fulfilled promises at first. You operate through back channels to ensure that this new nation, while still feeling great pride in establishing its independence from you, is provided with what it needs to thrive without it knowing that you are a true safety net that won’t let it fail. You realize soon that your former adversary is in fact making the same mistakes that history shows all new nations make.[11] You learn that this is okay. You learn that mistakes are part of the process and you try to help your former enemy through this challenging time. This relationship, thus established forms what looks like routine. You fund, they spend, you fund, they spend. You come to accept and then rely on its regularity. But change is afoot.

Recently freed from the colonial ranks they are now a free and independent state alight in the world. They are eager to partake in all that has been restricted from them as a dependent state and in doing so they delight in freedoms bounty[12]. New to the world, the lack of security that accompanies the lack of history is not a problem[13]. They have a lifetime of potential to tap and these years are filled with small bets on future greatness.[14] Each gamble easily digestible on its own, but forming an ever more staunch and stark reality that is facing them when story turns to history and security becomes imperative. This adult person, who is free by nature, is now faced with the harsh realities of the ill-advised choices[15] they made when they had no information. More to the point, they face the realities of choices they made before they paid any mind to the now glaringly obvious warnings that their former caretakers warned them of. Realities that they now know were realities forever, and that their parents were struggling with even when this new nation was just a child. Struggles that the parents were generous and strong enough to hide from the child so they could live in glorious ignorance and believe simply that the world was their oyster. Now old, aware and vulnerable, it dawns on them that this rock has been ever present in their life.[16] Their parents. These seemingly odd and eccentric benefactors were in fact the greatest blessing that one could ever be afforded. I was that one. I was the one afforded the most wonderful parents in the world.[17] Parents that laughed at convention because they knew laughter was the only way to overcome. These individuals that chose ALWAYS to make room for more even at the expense of their own wellbeing. These people that put up with endless amounts of your shit[18], not to mention the shit[19] of your brothers and sisters for a period of time that amounts to the entirety of the life you’ve led to this point. It’s superhuman, really. They are not in fact gods only because we have defined gods to be something else.[20] In all other ways they are in fact much much more than merely powerful. They are the personification of love and dedication and trust in your entire life.[21]

Now the pendulum swings back and those giants who controlled all, then fell so far as to be not even deserving of anything but your scorn have revealed themselves, once again defying all reason and equanimity, to be the greatest parents and people that the world has yet seen. Once accepted the evidence is everywhere that the world agrees with you. At least if you’re as lucky as I am, you see this newfound respect and admiration and love of your parents reflected by everyone that has EVER come in contact with them. This is so universally true that if anyone were to disagree there argument would be drowned out by the chorus of good feeling that accompanies the mere mention of the topic.

Likewise, having lived through the battles and learned over a lifetime, the parent can now see that the child is now a man. That he is good and always was. That the acts that felt so much like disrespect and unfixable mistakes were merely needed steps in this beautiful creature of gods journey to become this amazingly talented and loving person you see before you.[22] You are proud and hope that they know that you love them to no end and you believe that ending all war aside[23], the world would be a sincerely darker and less joyful place without them. They are evidence of your love for them, your love for one another and your life well lead.

At no point on this journey, taken together, is there ever anything approaching balance, rational assessment or unbiased understanding. Nope. The child to parent relationship is lacking any reality while simultaneously being the ‘realest’ relationship a person can have. It’s confounding and beautiful and is so entirely out of whack that it is uniformly nonconforming.

Both as a parent and as a son I am so grateful that it’s never normal.

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[1] I am compelled at this point to let you know that I’m coming at this solely from my perspective and with little formal education. My observations of the cruelty of teens in the assessment of their parents is a memory of a terribly mistaken young man that wishes he could have gotten to where he was going without ever stopping at this mile marker, but fears he needed to. Sorry Mom and Dad.

[2] Again, I LOVE YOU TWO MORE THAN ANYTHING IN THE WORLD

[3] So sorry. Again, channeling a jerky, know-it-all teenager I knew once. I’m starting to understand his penchant for self-loathing. Ick.

[4] Now I’m just projecting. You guys have always been night owls.

[5] That’s right. You all knew it wasn’t just gonna be mom and pops, right?

[6] I swear, by the end of this I have restored you to your proper and rightful status as the most amazing people in the world. A sincere belief of mine.

[7] I’m soft-selling it here. Really, I’m amazed I made it out of my teen years, which in my case lasted until my 30’s, alive.

[8] This man, however, adores you. Have I said sorry for my previous behavior?

[9] These are my words. My parents are far better than that and if they ever so much as thought it, they NEVER spoke it.

[10] The need for the aid is real, but you suspect that as many times as not more thoughtful fiscal policy at an earlier time would have obviated the need for support. And in my case, you were right. I owe you like, A LOT of money.

[11] In my case I suspect that my mistakes were not replications of my parents. They’re awesome. Seriously. And funny. Have I mentioned they’re funny?

[12] They drink beer. A lot of beer.

[13] Because of the endless and unappreciated generosity of their parents. Thank you.

[14] Which, even if it does arrive, comes with no promise of wealth. No Promise at all. Like, none.

[15] Pfft! As if I was taking any of the advice given.

[16] Yep. Slow learner here.

[17] Me and like an ARMY of siblings and friends and coworkers lucky enough to be in their presence.

[18] Including your adolescent insistence on vulgarity, despite your obvious vocabulary and facility with language.

[19] Gratuitous.

[20] Blasphemy to make a point.

[21] Yup.

[22] Their sentiments, not mine. Like many others I struggle to accept this, but its so much easier when you can see it through your parents eyes! Thanks.

[23] There’s still time.

High Stepping Out of Toddlerhood

They know its ‘daddy’s car’ that they get into to go to school. They are three and one so it is definitely daycare, but it’s a truly great one and they learn a ton and have the chance to interact endlessly with all kinds of kids and they do so more naturally than kids who aren’t fortunate enough to have this opportunity. It would be nice to spend the whole day with them, everyday, but I could never give them what they get at the Y. Sometimes the days are longer than you’d wish and by Friday all that play and fun can add up to some tired and cranky kiddos, but all in all, its great.

This is because, every morning after me and the older boy drop off the younger boy, getting him to his favorite teacher that got him past those tough early days when it was all confusing and scary, I get to walk to the end of the hall, the other side of the daycare center and drop off the older boy with his teachers and make small talk as we put his special meal away (food allergies) find and move his nameplate from the out board to the in board and ask him if he needs to go potty. Then I take a knee and say, ‘I love you, buddy. Have a great day.’ and he hugs me and I hug him back and tell him I’m proud of him. Finally I get up and once again, more publicly say, ‘have a great day buddy. Bye.’ And he says ‘have a great day, daddy.’ See ya later. There’s really nothing cuter than a 3 year old talking, trust me, its adorable. I tell the teachers to have a nice day and I head out of the room.

Unlike any of the other dads, I turn right out the door, take two steps and go through another door. This brings me to the corridor stretching about a fifty feet or so from the welcome desk to the right, and the doors that are closed all winter but open all summer as they are the point of entry and check in for all staff and campers in the summer day camp program at the Y about fifty feet to my left. I’m 5 feet from the door to Charlie’s classroom, I step directly across the hall to my office. That’s right, I work maybe 20 feet and two doors from my kid all day.

Recently it’s become okay for him to see me and it doesn’t ruin his day if we happen upon each other. So I do my best to happen upon him whenever I can. I sneak onto the mezzanine around the pool he learns to swim in and I spy on him, until he sees me and refuses to do anything other than to wave to me nonstop saying ‘Daddy, daddy.’ I have to leave once discovered. All his friends know who I am too, so they do the same and let him know that his daddy is there. Cover blown I blow him a kiss and he returns the kiss to me and I wave bye bye and leave. In the halls we slap high-fives on the occasions we run into each other. I even have a window in my office that looks out on the gymnasium where he plays an hour a day in the winter months and I sneak peeks when I can and worry when he’s sitting or playing by himself, or if I think he’s sad. Until I look around and see about ten kids playing independently like this and I remember that I was much the same way, still am, and while like everyone I sometimes wish I had opposite characteristics to my own, I’m a decent and well adjusted human and it would be weird if he weren’t somewhat like me.

All these things are highly valued by me. I took a big risk to be sitting here with these perks that I rarely talk about. We’ve only been here for a year. Not even. I dropped a fully formed career (I’m a forty year old dad of two toddlers) that had consisted of two stints, roughly a decade each, at two prominent nonprofits in the city and with not enough education had managed to become a middle management type through doing what I loved to do, doing it well and trading a certain amount of recognition and upward mobility for a level of independence and freedom. I didn’t love all aspects of it, but it was good and it allowed me to essentially be very part time while still getting the benefits of being full time in the early years with the little ones. It was a hard decision to leave a place where everyone did what I did, namely work to provide opportunities for more full and fully integrated lives for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, to a place where I was the one guy fully in that boat. Where special needs was a dept. and not the entire mission of the entity from the very very top all the way to the 2 hour on weekend bus aid. I’m still a bit of a fish out of water here at the Y.

But it’s all good. Because, at the end of the day I get to pick up the guys! These days its from the small fenced in playground just outside the winter-locked, summer camp doors. At least that’s where I pick up my Charlie, my three year old. Inevitably he is first picked up since the one year old is at the wildcard stage of development and I kinda need to have my hands and feet free to keep him in check. For the entire time I’ve been working there I’ve walked in, teachers or kids have let Charlie know that I was there to get him, and his knees have started bouncing like crazy as he’s high stepped it over to see me, yelling 3 times, daddy daddy daddy. He runs to me. I get down and we hug and smile and hug and smile and eventually I ask how his day was and he eventually says it was good and that he had fun. It’s our moment before we head in and get his little brother, the kid he has called, affectionately, ‘baby’ for most of his life. His name, Teddy, was already taken by Charlie’s bear by the time ‘baby’ arrived. This reaction of Charlie at the end of the day is something I’ve never taken the time to think about, something I’ve taken completely for granted. Until today.

Why, you ask. Well, my boy is growing up. We still had our moment at the pool, and I’m sure he’ll give me a high-five the next time I see him in the halls. But today he didn’t have his ‘daddy daddy daddy’ reaction. The knees didn’t pop up and down above his waist like they always had. His smile was tepid and not beaming. He was happy to see me. It was still wonderful. But it’s slipping. I suspect it’ll be slowly at first. It was a strange day as I came from a different angle than normal. And he saw me from a distance and it was going to be some time til I got there. But ultimately it won’t last forever. I hope I get even one more reaction like this from him. His brother is starting to run smiling and I love that he recognizes me now, and I look forward to his excitement. But I can’t help but feel a touch of the melancholy as Charlie so easily shifts between stages and grows up so fast.

It’s a day later and the halting greeting I received yesterday was once again replaced by the ebullient and buoyant energy I’ve come to rely on, though I didn’t know it until it skipped a day. I’m relieved to know it’s not gone forever. Terribly relieved. But I’m also awakened to how much it has meant to me and I cherish it even more.

I’m told that I should make little movies of these things. Of the times they are so excited by there favorite show coming on that they can’t help but run to the floor to dance. Of the times they choose to be our playmates and they make us 3 years old right beside them as we melt in the glorious glow of their exuberant and uninhibited joy. Surely some of these I have recorded and some I will. But this moment of excitement will have to be remembered here, like this. Watching it after it’s a thing of the past would simply hurt too much.

To Whom It May Concern

To whom it may concern,

I don’t really wanna take any more of your s—-.

You see, I’m a forty year old man of not insignificant talents. I’m aware of my shortcomings as well. I promise that if you were to spend time working with me you’d realize that the talents are evident and ever present. However, they are inevitably disappointing. These talents are such that they can make one think greatness is standing before them, when in fact it is something much more commonplace. I’m certainly sensitive to this and while it may throw me for a loop, it doesn’t ever get far enough past the crust to effect me in any real and lasting way. If it did I might end up more successful, with a higher paying job and a set of bankable attributes such as rigor and determination. Rather, my talents are revealed over the long haul. What I lack in drive and determination I more than make up for with talent and ability. This frustrates lesser minds as they may require more of themselves to be successful. While it may frustrate you to see someone’s potential squandered, I assure you, my middling successes are more than enough for me, so I would appreciate it if you refrained from imposing your values over the choices I make freely and am satisfied with. What you see is not false. The greatness is in me and it will in fact play itself out.

However, based on the metrics established it has become evident to me, and I’m sure it’s becoming so to you, that I will never fully reach a level that can be considered to be living up to my potential as you define it. What you should know about me however is that I will also never fall far enough short of your goals to justify completely dismissing me. In this way I have the upper hand. As such this is like no other resignation letter you’ve ever read, and I’m sure you’ve read many. I am in fact writing to alert you that you’ll never be rid of me. I’m squatting right here. From time to time you may upset me and get me off balance, but you won’t knock me down. I’m annoying that way. I am resigning from your ability to have a qualitative effect on my stable sense of self, though you are certainly entitled to continue to try!

So allow me to now enumerate the expectations I have moving forward. I’ll thank you to do your best to meet these minimum standards.

1. You shall address me directly and refrain from speaking about me when I am not present unless you are doing so to give examples of my satisfactory if not brilliant performance. As your subordinate you should know that I will not be able to reciprocate this courtesy.

2. You will direct questions regarding my tactics and practices to me directly. Sometimes these questions will reflect some shortcoming on my part and I assure you that once addressed they will be remedied for at least one year. Unless of course they are budgetary in nature, in which case I’m fairly certain they will be recurrent and ongoing.

3. When in the course of day to day events it becomes necessary for you to question me, you will do so in a manner that first acknowledges that this is a relationship of convenience and that as such you are thankful that I’m lending my not inconsiderable, though rarely displayed skills to your endeavor. Once this basic level of respect is paid I will listen to your concerns and decide whether or not they rise to a level that is worthy of my attention. For my part I will promise to give each request my fullest consideration, unless I choose to dismiss it out of hand.

4. From time to time my confidence waivers. As such I will sometimes have incongruent reactions to minor recommendations. When these occur I will thank you to respect my struggle with acceptance of myself and forgive me the truly awful accusations I may make about you to my peers, superiors and subordinates. I will try with good faith to limit these complaints when speaking with subordinates.

5. I cannot stress this enough. You will never expect me to be on time for any engagement prior to 10AM. Likewise, I will gladly show my face at any evening engagements, but will likely leave early. For my part I will try my hardest to leave stealthily.

Thank you for taking the time to commit the above stipulations to memory. While I’ll be available to review them in the case of a breach of protocol, I’d prefer not to.

All the best,

Joe

Spent

Charlie and Daddy, First Night

Becoming a parent requires a loss of self and it is a universal truth for those that make it through the fire. Once through that fire it’s actually a freeing and discovering of self, one that’s ultimately cathartic if you let it be. Not everyone does. Some very successful folks just wait it out, endure the fire, only to emerge as close to unchanged as they can estimate. It’s never that close, but that’s the journey they want and it’s the journey they’ll have. For me transformation is the whole point. Emerging laughably uncool, but wholly self possessed; out of shape but accepting of myself; older but wiser and altogether more estimable is what I’m aiming for.

At first though, it’s like being strung out. Having kids is no joke. Flexing and bending, supporting and worrying, it’s all a wear on your tread and eventually all of us that get through can search for those moments when we were completely threadbare, beaten and bedraggled and remember that feeling that so closely approximates failure and defeat. I suspect the vast majority of us can find these moments, either presently or looking back or in some cases we are stuck in them and are waiting for the lifeline. The good news is that the lifeline is there all the time, and allowing the feelings in that are the ones you fear only make you stronger in the end. You feel beat up with good reason. That’s the point. It used to be for stupid self pitying reasons, but now the ego that was so worn and battered when it resided in me is safe and warm, being tended to with every tear. It’s being cuddled and hugged and played with all day. It’s being picked up when it wakes up terrified. It’s being fed when it’s hungry and soothed when it’s scared. My ego is being taken care of, I’m being taken care of, by the little kids that have so graciously taken on the burden of providing my life with meaning. So it’s a small price to pay, this exhaustion of the body and of the soul. While your body and mind and heart are being taken for this overlong joyride and your stamina is tricking you, you’re essence is in the safest place possible and will rejuvenate you in the long run as long as you stay open to it.

Whether it’s the secular Saints Kerouac and Ginsberg or the plaintive cries of Bill Wither’s pleading for her to ‘keep on using me until you use me up’ or the fictional Tyler Durden, there’s always been a thread of masculine consciousness that knows the path to secular beatification is one paved with sacrifice and spent capacity. It’s a beautiful thing, really, to be fully spent. I for one couldn’t be more thankful to have taken this path before I missed my chance.

My Perfect Age

I was once asked what age I felt would be my best. That is to say, temperamentally speaking, which age would I be most suited to. The answer I gave was that I’d be perfectly suited for 40-55. Middle age. My ideal.

Well, now I’m here and I’m pretty sure I was right. A delightful discovery! Let’s face it, older than that, well older than 65 or so (I was significantly younger when I came to the number 55 being where you left middle and entered old) is fraught with discomfort and loss. While I think my temperament will endure however long I do, I have little doubt that this time will be incredibly challenging in addition to anything wonderful it may bring.

It was a convenient answer for me. I was hovering around thirty at the time and I was single and the meaning I found in life was real but it was an act of invention as it was me and me alone providing it. I hadn’t yet fallen in love with my wife and learned what it meant to fear more for someone else and their well being than I did for my own. I was empathic in so far as a person can be when they need put nothing before themselves. Beyond that, I was a pretty treacherous sort. Treachery is overstating it, but you know, I was with someone and being unfaithful so to me setting forth my ideal self in the distant future was a way of not having to acknowledge the awful behaviors I was displaying. Nope. I’d be someone I could respect at 40. Turns out I was right.

So now that I’m here I find myself thinking about the end. Death. The final exit. I think about it in a fearful way when i think of my forebears. I think of it in practical and optimal terms, accepting its inevitability when I think of it for myself. And I think of it as the ultimate in accidental tragedy when it enters my mind in regard to my kids. So far everyone in all these scenarios is peacefully and happily healthy and alive. There have been some close calls, but they appear to be in the rear view mirror. They have brought us all closer together and reminded us all to hold on to that ultimate perspective we can lose so easily.

in my younger days, before gaining any perspective on the finite nature of life, I spent years actively ‘hating’ and wondering why my anger didn’t result in the target of my self righteous judgment changing, only to find that the target was me and it had in fact changed me. Not for the better. I heard a person say this week that carrying hate is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. There seems to be a good deal of wisdom in that which could really help me when I lose perspective.

Now, when I’m this busy, surrounded by love in all directions, far enough from the exit to be able to accept it, while close enough to wish it would not come to call for the people that mean the most to me that I’m able to have the strongest hold on perspective. My one and only job is to be happy and make my life one that allows me and those I love to stay happy so that we can go on caring for each other no matter the differences of opinion or frustrations that may creep in to ones thoughts.

The person that this is most difficult with, for obvious and universal reasons, is me. Who, after all, can have perspective on ones self? I try to be easy on me, but those closest know this has always been a struggle. When all this middle life stuff weens and wains, and I’m left without these responsibilities compelling me to move ever onward, what will I do? You see, it seems linear when you’re growing up. You encounter challenges, you learn, you grow, you change and you move on. Right? That’s how it goes? But what will I do when the world that I’ve built, the one that buttresses and supports me, begins to crumble, as it inevitably must. What will I do then? I hope that I will sit and reflect on the joys my life brought and take pride in the joys it continues to sow as my children become the architects of the meaning of life and I enjoy the fruits of my labors. I fear that I will resent no longer being the builder and master of my world and instead find purpose in complaining and seeking to ameliorate my many pains through the methods I did before I reached that perfect-for-me middle age. Whose to say which way it will go.

What matters now, what matters most, is that I sustain myself long enough to provide a base for the kids so they can wonder how life will go from the comfort of their homes with their own loving families waiting for them to come downstairs so their toddlers can finally give them the checkup they themselves have been giving me three times a day lately.

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That’s right. My son is a Dr. and me and his mother are his only patients and we couldn’t be more proud! It’s time for him to listen through the stethoscope and tell me that my heartbeat feels good Time to give me a shot because, and I have no idea what this means, I have a boo boo on my foot because there is a train in it. He tells me to look away when he gives me the shot and to think of ‘rice ream’ (ice cream) so it won’t hurt. And he’s right, it doesn’t hurt if I follow his orders. I never fully appreciated the healing and restorative powers of ice cream until now, my middle, perfect age.

Fear and Loathing in Parenthood

I’m not at all afraid of our kids falling down the stairs, at least not moreso than I must be. I’m not afraid of them being bullied. I’m not afraid of the myriad of external dangers that chase us all through life. These are in fact what life is about and learning to conquer and overcome challenges is the point. It’s what I look forward to helping my little ones navigate as they grow up. I don’t even fear the difficult stuff of puberty and hormones. I think I have a pretty good perspective on how wonderful life is and I look forward to trying to help as they navigate the treacherous beauty of transforming from children to adults capable of loving life so much that they can fear it a little.

To some degree I’ve taken this outlook to mean that I am somehow superior to the folks that would call me daily in my previous life as a camp director to check that their kid is eating and didn’t fall down and get hurt or wasn’t stung by a bee or is making friends. I won’t be that parent. I really won’t. Early on it became evident that I HAVE to be incredibly aware of sesame as one bite and Charlie, if not treated immediately, could stop breathing. But even that, I don’t walk around in fear and I think I have been pretty rational and responsible in assuring his safety while allowing for independence.

Fear found me last night. It wasn’t a blow to the head. It wasn’t a brush with eminent danger. Nope. It was specifically my son’s harsh self criticism that has broken me up with fear and sadness.

We went to a friends house last night. This is not something we do. Both Karen and I work and Teddy is just over a year old and Charlie turned 3 last month. Other than family gatherings we haven’t really socialized much in the last few years, but we’re very lucky that our kids love it when we do. So we were all looking forward to visiting a friend of mine from high school who we had just found out lived in our neighborhood, a remarkable thing as I went to high school in another state about 250 miles away.

We arrived and it was instantly delightful. When you get stuck in this parenting bubble, one that we are particularly bad at ever getting out of, you lose perspective. Whenever you get the chance to pop your head up, be offered a beer, and start messing up a playroom you won’t have to clean up at 10 that night, it’s simply amazing. And both Charlie and Teddy were awesome. Charlie was shouting hello’s and how ya doin’s from the driveway and Teddy gave big smiles to the new adults almost immediately upon entering their home. And that was BEFORE seeing the amazingly appointed play room! All was good. The kids were entertained, loving the toys and the new playmates and the adults were easily sociable and the laughs and good talks ensued immediately. That’s when Charlie started pooping.

Charlie is at the tail end of potty training. Its a skill he was ready to pursue, and did so with gusto at 18 months, but once baby came around and started getting all that diaper attention, he lost interest and we lost the time and patience, so it happened now. Not too late, but not early. So now he can have an opinion on matters. One such opinion is that he will not go poopie on the potty, at least not regularly. But he is still quite proud to have big boy pants with no accidents. We wear pull ups for sleep and car rides longer than that of the one to school (daycare) and we used such a tool for this visit. He was constipated and hadn’t pooped in a couple of days. Part of the process and par for the course. So of course he immediately started to make that face. He turns from the group in the playroom and starts painfully pushing. Tears are coming from his eyes and he doesn’t want to be seen, but not knowing the house he finds himself visible from the parents ‘playroom’ where its noted that he’s pooping. We tell him he’s doing a great job and that we’re so proud of him. And he replies with a serious look, a quiet and intense voice and attempts to hold back his tears and he says to us as we get near him, “I’m not proud of myself.” and repeats it, quietly and through gritted teeth as we try to reassure him of how good a boy he’s being. It makes me well up as I write it. It was such an intense insistence and so sincere.

I felt immediately and intensely saddened and fearful. With Charlie it passed. In a few minutes (it was a tough one to get out, and a few minutes was definitely the time frame of intense effort on his part) he was back to playing and came with me so I could change him, fully recovered from the earlier suffering, Charlie was on to singing the popular song in our house from an Elmo potty training video, ‘Accidents happen and that’s okay’ a delightful refrain that is good advice at any age.

This has triggered the cycle of thinking for me that has brought to the fore what my real fears are. The fears I’ve carried for some portion of the last forty years as I’ve acquired them over a lifetime. And now I fear them for my kids. I am afraid that my kids will have an inner voice that tells them constantly to feel shame and is harshly and intensely self critical. I am afraid that they will inherit the capacity for incredible and copious amounts of self abuse in whatever form it takes for them. I’m afraid that my kids will fall in and out of depression and not feel a sense of self worth. I fear that my kids will engage in increasingly risky and self destructive behavior in attempt to be seen and rescued, and that when people reach out to do just that they will reject them as they do not feel they are worth saving. I fear they will inherit that dark midnight disease that crushes one with loneliness and can and has led to disastrous results in my genetic line. I fear they won’t listen to their better angels until its too late. I fear that they won’t pursue that which makes them fulfilled for fear of failing.

Bumps and bruises, broken bones and intense illnesses will come and go and I pray we avoid the truly disastrous stuff no one can see coming. But when it comes right down to it there is the greatest fear of all, which is that they will be some other, less lucky version of me.

My Punchable Face

When I was in first grade Jeremy F——— told all the kids at our lunch table at our small, community catholic school that he was going to punch me in the face. I said, Okay. Or maybe I said, no you won’t. Jeremy F. stood up from his lunch, walked around the table and I stood up and faced him. I didn’t even raise my arms while he balled his fist, reared back and punched me, dead in the face. I’ve come to understand that some people have faces that other people just need to hit.

Smug bastard. Looks like the type of guy that thinks everyone will be SO fascinated by his personal stories. God. Don't you just wanna hit 'em?
Smug bastard. Looks like the type of guy that thinks everyone will be SO fascinated by his personal stories. God. Don’t you just wanna hit ’em?

My time in Catholic school was just god awful but it was more than balanced out when my parents allowed me to make the leap to public school a year or two earlier than anyone else in my family. For the six years I was there I was punched so often that it started to seem that it was a rite of passage for the other boys. I was the kid whose mom spoke to the teacher about the teasing I was receiving and she was the teacher who then sat us all down and told the whole class what my mother had said and insisted that the other 8 year olds stop picking on me. Any of you that are familiar with 8 year olds may be able to guess this, but it didn’t go well.

I showed up in fifth grade and was instantly seen as cool, cute, smart and funny. I was instantly popular and it stuck to me through high school. At my old school I got a reputation as a kid you beat up, who would cry uncontrollably. In my new school, my first and best friend was Kenny, who was a smart and sensitive little wise ass/bad ass who took me under his wing and never let anyone ef with me. At my old school I was the kid who dropped out of kindergarten the first time around. At my new school I was simply popular, a thing my parents had more to do with then me as it was entirely due to genetics. Fifth grade girls are surprisingly aware of boys and I was deemed handsome.

I simply do not exude humility. I am perceived as confident if not arrogant. A confounding dichotomy as my inner life experience has left me with a penchant for self-loathing. Perhaps this is it! Is it possible that the feelings I have had toward myself, feelings where I wanted to punch me in the face, were evident to the world? Have I simply projected a punch-me-in-the-face vibe?

I have a number of native attributes that might attract people that are predisposed to face punching. I am stand offish and reserved. Except for when I’m ridiculously manic and over the top, which happens less frequently but is certainly more annoying. I’m also judgmental. I’m also annoyingly smart. NOT overly smart, just annoyingly so. The kind of smart that acts like it doesn’t care what you think but also wants you to see it. I’m quick to smirk at ideas that are stupid. This is hardly my fault. I can hardly be blamed for holding the correct opinion. To summarize I am superior, arrogant, dismissive, judgmental and correct. Did I mention ‘stubborn’?

If you are a person that has punched me in the face, or if you’re a person that has simply wished to do so but are not the type of person to follow through on the act, I can certainly understand the inclination. Actually, for a good ten years in my adolescence I myself would get so frustrated with me that I would punch myself in the head.

I am punchable. This has had permanent effect on my personality and it has in many ways shaped me. This brings me to my larger point. ‘Everyone you meet is fighting a battle that no one knows about. Be nice.’ I learned this on Facebook. When I was young I had to learn first to have empathy for myself. It’s the hardest empathy to learn. Being punched early and often actually made it harder. It made me internalize those feelings of disgust I perceived in others and my act of confidence and superiority was only a mask to hide from myself my own loathsomeness and feelings of despair. My lack of understanding and compassion for myself made me stupid. It lead me to make a thousand mistakes that prevented me from growing. It also forced me to confront my negative feelings toward myself before I could ever move on and be who I was meant to be. So what appeared to me and surely to others as stagnation in my development was really just the rapid compiling of negativity to either hasten my demise or hasten my own salvation.

When I emerged from youth into adulthood I was bitter, drunk, sarcastic and unsuccessful. I guess you could say this was my personal style. Make no mistake, I took no real hits. I’m an educated, middle-class American who is both white and male. The world tilts towards me to be sure. Whatever battles I was fighting were ones in which I needed no allies. They were my fights alone and ones that were largely my own making. I never liked school because you could fail, so I never worked at it. I loved basketball until the competition met me and then I gave up. I’ve consistently put myself in positions where my responsibilities fell far short of my capacity. This kept me safe and secure in my feelings of superiority and protected from having to challenge myself to grow. Life has ways of finding you, however.

At some point while we were discussing starting a family it occurred to us that we’d be doing ourselves a huge disservice to not at least make a passive effort at having a kid. It’s impossible to think now about how sincere our thoughts and concerns were. It’s hard to remember what was important to us at that time. It was mostly lifestyle stuff. I shudder now to think how seriously we considered NOT having kids. The idea of not having Charlie and Teddy is vomit inducing! The argument that took the day for us was that we had a brief time left to avail ourselves of one of the truly essential experiences that life has to offer.

So now we are on the wild ride, extreme-sport that is parenting toddlers in your 40’s. It is absurd, delightful, devastating and all-consuming and there’s no way either of us could EVER imagine that our old lives would ever do anymore. By taking this leap we have truly put ourselves in a situation where we cannot avoid failure. We fail our kids, we fail ourselves and we fail each other. All the time.

Our lives mirror the lives our children. Extraordinary highs and crushing lows, all in a bubble, on view to the world. Each day is filled with life altering mistakes and life recovering amendments that fix those mistakes. It’s remarkable that I have any wisdom at all the way I had insulated myself from failure. You see, failing is the most important thing you can do. Each day my kids see me fail and recover and each day I see them fail and recover. In each case, everyone is learning lessons and we’re all reinforcing for each other that failure is never the end.

I used to run summer camps and work with staff that were between seventeen and twenty-four years old or so. I did this for about half of my total life and the entirety of my adult professional life. Twenty years of Helping kids learn how best to work together to accomplish awesome and amazing things. One thought I liked to come out with whenever they ran into a situation that seemed to be hopeless and devastating was that it’s like walking in the dark… all you can do is put your hands out in front of you and keep your feet moving. It certainly feels like your lost in a cave, but if you keep moving forward, you’ll either find the wall or discover it was a tunnel the whole time, and you made it to the other side.

When it feels like you have arrived at failure the most important thing to do is to keep moving. You may never fix the mistakes you made and you may feel entirely deserving of the punches you take. You may even waste years punching yourself. You don’t have to look too hard to see people that stopped right at the moment that life smacked them and refused to move from that moment of disappointment. The decision to stay in that moment can be tragic. But if you keep moving and keep learning you will get further and further from those moments. The further you get from bad decisions and bad behavior and bad judgment and petty arrogance and truly regrettable choices and cruel misfortunes that were not your making the more they start to like the map that guided you to where you were headed. In hindsight these errors and accidents often change and become turning points that led you to this place where you’ve learned to make mistakes often and to learn from them and to put them down once they’ve taught you what they can. Each mistake now is a blessing as its one more chance to teach your kids not to fear failure, but to embrace it as it’s the most effective expedient to learning.

I no longer pity myself for being punched in the face all those times. Turns out having a punchable face is one of the greatest gifts I ever got.