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.

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 wasn’t being my best self. 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 myself and his mother are his only patients. 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 lead.

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.

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.

The Problem with Potential

Charlie Builds UmiCityMy children are showing signs of potential and I couldn’t be more concerned. It’s a wonderful thing, ability, but let it out from under wraps too early and it can be awfully counterproductive.

My firstborn is not even three and a half and he is pretty consistently told about his brilliance. This isn’t unusual, most people spend their time praising children for rather standard accomplishments. In the case of parents this is natural. Every new thing your child does is earth shaking. Truly. But it’s becoming evident in school that he is getting some distance between himself and the other kids. He has a memory that is remarkable, a vocabulary that is of someone twice his age and in a class where many of the other kids struggle recognizing their own names he not only recognizes and spells his own name, he recognizes and spells everyone’s name. And when he is confronted with new words he can often sound them out since he’s known the sound of each letter and what letter comes after what since he was two and a half. He reads me bedtime stories.

I should start by saying that I’m aware this isn’t some kind of Doogie Howser, MD level of brilliance or anything. He’s a bit advanced, that’s all. But he hears it all the time. He’s also started to hear and notice disappointment in teachers when he misbehaves or struggles to focus. It happens so rarely that it must be noted as it is entirely out of character. But to have simple struggles like these, standard ones really, highlighted at every opportunity is something that his burgeoning emotional development is starting to register. He’s already a kid capable of harsh self-criticism as noted in an earlier piece, Fear and Loathing in Parenthood, about his struggle with potty training.

Furthermore he is stunningly good looking. I’m not going to explain this one away. I may be biased, but that don’t mean I’m wrong. And on top of that, he’s about the average height of a six year old. When he’s around other three year old kids, as he is all day everyday, the combination of his precocious ability and his mature behavior, combined with his stature and handsomeness make grown ups think he is older and more capable then he is. If he’s struggling there’s a reason. He’s three that’s the reason. But lately, I’m starting to feel like that reason is pressure. Pressure to live up to something that others think of him. Again he’s three.

What makes me crazy is how wrong people get the whole ‘gifted and talented’ thing. I want to foster his curiosity and I worry that it can be stifled if he isn’t able to continue to see the joy in learning if he drifts further from the mean and finds less and less that challenges him moving forward. But this is often where people start talking about ‘tracking’ kids. Getting them into a lane that will challenge them intellectually in order to keep them engaged. It’s important. But don’t for a second think this is the most important thing.

Prior to moving out to New Jersey my wife and I lived in Astoria, Queens. It was our first apartment and the neighborhood will always hold a special meaning to us. While she was pregnant with Charlie it became clear to us that we would have to move. She was working in Parsippany, NJ and we lived in a fourth floor walk up without a dishwasher or a washer and dryer. It became very clear that we could double our space and amenities and get what we needed to be comfortable by moving. So once the spot was picked and the date was set we went about planning. This is something we do now on the fly. Life is crazy with kids. But back then it was something we could plan a dinner for. So we went out to a Greek restaurant on Broadway and 30th, sat on the street and talked about our future.

We hashed out logistics. We did calculations and determined that we could get movers!!! (ALWAYS GET MOVERS) We decided our move day and talked about the various possibilities for daycare. We even daydreamed about our new apartment and planned projects that we had no idea that we’d have no time for after a kid.

Then Karen started talking about the need for us to get our kid into a good school district. I have biases against the education system, biases that have altered in detail but remain present and I dismissed the concern. We weren’t buying at that point. We were getting a two bedroom in Morristown. Who’s to say we’d even be there when the kid started school. Besides, I had a close friend and coworker who grew up there and went to the public schools where we were moving who is one of the brightest and most energetic and engaged people you could know, we should stay zenned out and not worry.

This was and is my way of avoiding many things I don’t wish to confront. But she pressed as she should and eventually got me to access and express my true feelings on the matter.

The first part of my feelings are cynical. I don’t think school matters, and it matters less and less the further you go. The people I’ve known, at least the non-scientists and non-social workers who have gone to ‘the right schools’ are living a life I don’t want for me or my kids. They place value in the wrong proportion. There’s no denying the value of money, but there is greatly overstating it and many of these people in my experience do that. Which pulls these efficient minds further and further away from curiosity and pushes them to cold profit analysis. It’s gross and I don’t want my kid surrounded by these people.

The second part was more optimistic. I told her that the kid, assuming standard developmental health, would be bright. We didn’t have to worry about that. We were both smart. The IQ and capacity would take care of itself. What we had to do, what our responsibliity would be was to foster natural curiosity and be mindful in nurturing his emotional development. It’s our job to make sure he is a compassionate and caring person who is respectful of others and appreciative of all that he will be afforded.

While we may have disagreed on the value of an education, my wife could not have been more in agreement with me. It is our job to raise a person in whole and value the right things. Everyone gets to decide what is right for them. For us it was fostering curiosity and compassion and kindness and enthusiasm and love and a sense of appreciation.

I think that in general we’ve lived up to this. It might be hard to see as he is at an age where his curiosity puts him in a lot of situations that could cause an ambulance ride and as a result I’m more often then I’d like employing my scary dad voice. But we are very proud of the little boy he is. He shares, is kind and is loving and joyful. And at this age that is all that counts.

The problem with potential is that it narrows your outcomes and heightens expectation. So if you show early signs that you might be incredible, you are then tracked to be so. And that’s crazy, you’re a kid and no amount of giftedness, other than effort and curiosity should be highlighted. Your interests may turn out to be in a direction that isn’t yet present. Why stifle these.

I have a visceral reaction to this, one that is personal. Emotional immaturity causes you to internalize the disappointment of others. I have a good deal of experience in this area. And in my case, I reacted to this by failing immediately. I’d pre-fail to get it over with. High School would have been easy for me had I tried. But I didn’t. The same is true with college. And I claimed not to care. I swore up and down that I didn’t care what anyone else thought. I didn’t care so much in fact that I drank to blackout every night and gained 80 lbs. immediately on going away to college. Where I immediately failed off the basketball team and never had a gpa above 2.1 in the ten years it took me to get a degree. I made a point and a show of not caring. To this day I still am able to get access through my first impression and to this day, to some degree, I still set out to lower expectations immediately when I sense that there are high hopes.

I labeled myself a failure and went about making myself one. I didn’t care, and it nearly killed me how disappointed I was in myself. It is for another post, but the seeds of my salvation from this awful cycle of self-defeat was when I went to work at a summer camp for adults with special needs. The result of which was finally confronting my issues and embarking on years of struggle with myself and the eventual ability to find and be loved by Karen. She was the payoff, and as such the WHOLE struggle was worth it.

I hope beyond hope that I can avoid a similar fate for my Charlie. I’m frankly terrified that he won’t regress to the mean of toddlers in his world and that the expectations will come at him fast and furious. I am afraid that he’ll start having his potential squashed by the good intentions of those trying to support him. I fear this will make it nearly impossible for him to know what it means for him to be fine. Which is exactly what he is. Absolutely, joyously and beautifully fine.