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.

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.

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.