When Super Dad Isn’t

It’s time to talk about something that makes me really uncomfortable. As you may know, I’ve been teaching the Nurturing Fathers class, which emphasizes the value of men being present–really present–in the lives of their children and their partner. And where we are as a culture right now is a tricky place. Because it is still the case that a disproportionate number of children are parented by unmarried women, the fact is that any involvement, any effort exerted by men in the lives of their family is of great benefit to all. And we have to start somewhere, right?

Let me be clear: I cannot overestimate the importance of this involvement and effort on the part of men. Our society really is changing, and while more women are working, earning degrees, buying property, etc etc all while raising children, more men are taking part in the most important work of childcare. This is a big deal and worthy of celebration. And I particularly want to bow deeply in the direction of any single fathers out there.

But without getting into a whole thing about privilege (honestly, I just googled it to try and find a good article on the topic and what I saw just made me tired, which is itself probably an indicator of my privilege), I can tell you that as a dad I get a lot of recognition for what I do. In fact, I was once told that I’m a fantastic dad simply for the fact that “I stuck around.” As nice as it is to feel supported for my attempts to be an involved, connected father and an equitable partner, I know that I have the crowd on my side. I get noticed, in a way that a typical mother does not. “Aw, isn’t that cute? Look at that that guy with his little girls. He’s such a good daddy.” How often do mothers get recognized that way in public?

I get that male privilege gives me an advantage as a parent. It’s like my superpower is that I just get up and do it every day (following coffee, of course). The bar, in other words, is pretty low.

So how do I explain the literal physical pain I felt when I came across this comic by French cartoonist Emma? The comic describes, in lucid detail, the sociological concept of the “mental burden,” that constant storm of decisions, calculations and consequences that mothers usually take on and that fathers not only don’t share but often aren’t even aware of.

When I first skimmed it, I began to feel increasingly nauseated; I felt as if my bubble of daddy privilege had just been popped. I felt so uncomfortable I couldn’t even finish it. Though the term was unfamiliar, both the argument it laid out and the picture of my marriage that it painted seemed obvious, even inevitable. But it was too much. It was a piece of knowledge about myself that I just didn’t want to accept. I pushed it out of my mind and tried to move on with my life.

Weeks passed. I couldn’t stop thinking about the mental burden that my wife, clearly the person who runs our household, carries with her. I wondered why, for example, it took an internet comic for me to begin to absorb a problem that she has been telling me about for years. Telling words right into my ears.

I can’t say I’ve fully processed it yet, and I certainly haven’t sprung into action to take on some of that burden myself. My casual claims that I do at least a half-share of the housework and the parenting ring pretty hollow now. But here’s something I vow to change right now: may I never utter the phrase “Just let me know if you need help” again.

Anyway, read it. It’s good. No, really.

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All the Feelings

On the one hand, I think we have way too much discourse in our culture about feelings. As in, the importance of going with your feelings, following your feelings, avoiding stepping on the feelings of others. How important are they, really? Should they be the organizing principle of our lives?

On the other hand, feelings happen. They come and go like the weather, and sometimes they take down trees and flood canyons. And whether they come from outside or from deep within (“I’m a person with deep feelings who feels things deeply*”), the fact is that we can’t avoid them and we can’t deny them. As my great-grandpa might have said, “You can ignore the rain all you want until your boots fill up**.”

This is especially tricky for men, as we are generally raised to minimize and control the spectrum of our feelings.

So if our feelings are really powerful and we can’t stop them, what is there to be done?

Well, according to Nurturing Fathers, there are a couple of things to do.

First is simply to recognize the feelings when they come, and to name them. This takes practice, and as we see from our children, emotional literacy is a learned trait. We need feelings to be modeled for us; we need to see examples, and connect them to a context (“____ makes me feel ____;” “When _____ happens, I feel _____”). The therapeutic classrooms at Family Tree are dedicated to this task.

What if you grew up without very many of these models, these examples? Most likely you are aware of what sadness, happiness, fear, etc. look like, because Netflix. You simply may not associate some of these feelings with yourself. Have you ever heard anyone say, “I don’t get angry?” Back away slowly from that person.

In this case, it’s good to do a little inventory. How easy or difficult is it for you to feel: Happy, Sad, Angry, Afraid, Excited, Jealous?

Then, and this is the other thing…how easy or difficult is it for you to express: Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Excitement, Jealousy?

For many of us, there is a disconnect between feeling the feelings and expressing them. So, like, if they don’t come out (which is the definition of “express”), where do they go? Probably, we are stuffing them down. And/or piling food on top. The usual.

Do we have to express all of our feelings? The short answer is yes. Nice if it happens on our own terms, in a safe place, and not in a job interview. All of this takes practice. What constitutes a safe place for you? Who is a safe person? When is a safe time?

Here’s something that comes up in parenting. We see it in our kids, and sometimes in ourselves: should there be a gap between feeling the feeling and expressing it?

Ideally, yes.

How much?

I don’t know, one second? Let’s work on one second, shall we?

Every little bit helps.

 

* Evan Dando, Reality Bites (1994). 

**I actually made it up, but I have no evidence that he didn’t say it too.

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With Teeth, and Without

I’ve been a little distracted lately. I was finally ambushed by twenty years of dental inaction when the crown on one of my front-and-center teeth snapped off. It was exactly as horrifying as it sounds. After scheduling an appointment and working out with my parents a plan to pay for the backlog of dental work that needed to be done all at once, I tried to become accustomed to making it through my work days with a gaping tunnel in my teeth. Turns out I am both too lazy to take care of these things in time and too vain to suffer the consequences with grace.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about my kids, none of which have ever had a cavity. Heck, I don’t even know if the older two even brush their teeth, and whenever I ask about it I learn that they have “lost” their toothbrush at some indeterminate point in the past. I’m sure it’s fine. Anyway, they have been surprisingly accepting of my temporary defacement; which is interesting, considering that when I periodically shave my beard there is crying in their ranks.

Also interesting is that my experience has paralleled that of my six year-old, who is just about to lose her first baby tooth. Right now, thanks to a temporary bridge that feels to me like a slightly modified version of those plastic fangs we used to wear on Halloween, my daughter and I are both contending with a disconcertingly flapping hinge in our gums that could come tumbling out at any moment.

If I have learned anything from this fiasco, other than not to eat anything crunchy ever again, it is to have rediscovered what it is like to be in a place my children know all too well: that changes are happening that are at the edge of our understanding and out of our control. Every time I attempt to chew something in the only intact corner of my mouth, I experience the helpless fear that a morsel will roll itself between my center teeth and pull my silly fake smile right out. That kind of helplessness is part and parcel of childhood, with its routine lack of answers and its sudden, jarring transformations.

To be adult is to live increasingly in a place where, ideally, the incidences of helplessness and uncertainty dwindle if not entirely disappear. It is humbling to be back in that position. I can only hope to handle it as well as my six year-old.

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Kids Hitting Kids

As you know, occasionally I like to delve into an internet search (well, it’s not really delving, per se, since it takes three microns of a second) on a parenting topic. This time it’s something that’s been coming up in my work with families: namely, siblings wailin’ on each other. Parents have been asking me what to do in this situation, and as all parties (including the kids) agreed that it wasn’t a good thing to hit each other, we were at a bit of an impasse.

So here goes. One of the first articles to come up, at least in my info bubble, was kinda preachy and alarmist: the title says it all. Aside from pointing out in no uncertain terms that it is bad for people to hit each other (we’re in! We bought a ticket!), we’d like to know how to get to the bottom of it. How do we help our kids to try something else next time?

This next one was very promising. It focuses on how to talk to siblings about hitting when one is able to express himself in words and the other is not. It was written by an extreme parenting genius with perfect recall of a 15-minute conversation (did the author transcribe it from tape? Does she have a dictation team?), and really it is totally worth reading. She makes sure both of the kids are able to talk, and able to listen to each other. Which is really what they wanted in the first place.

Because, say it with me: “all behavior is an unmet need.”

Which is one of the 31(!) tips featured in this list which turned out to be the winner of the parenting internet this week. Note the first one: “Remember that this is normal,” and note as well that this makes it the complete opposite of what the first article said. Maybe it’s useful to tease out the meaning here. By “normal,” I think we’re saying both that it’s “something that happens” and that “the world does not end when it does.” The children do not explode (unless they are actually attaching explosives to one another, in which case it’s a more serious problem than this post can address), and one presumes that the hitting is not so frequent and vicious as to spill over into something else, which is called abuse, no matter who’s doing it to whom. Again, different blog post.

The fact is, though, when children are siblings (or in the same classroom, or sharing playground equipment, etc etc), sometimes they whack each other. What does it mean? In almost every case, it’s frustration, or tiredness, or hunger, or some combination thereof (“It’s an unmet need.” Everybody, now).

What do we do about it? That’s where it gets tricky, and where the author is smart enough to not give a straight answer. Or at least, a single answer. What I like is that she wants us to mostly look at ourselves. Should we interfere? If we do, are we actually just performing for the other parents in the room? Are we bringing our frustration into it? Are we blaming (this time or every time) one child or the other?

One of the answers is “do nothing.” I love when people give that advice. What if they can work it out? Isn’t that a skill?

Another is “make sure they have their own toys.” If they have things that they don’t have to share, there are no grounds for disagreement. Also, “don’t make toddlers share.” Word.

Also, too, “take them outside.” In my work that sometimes means to literally take them outside (we have swings, and a lovely meadow), but more generally it means that we need to change the environment. Move to a new place, find a new activity, take the energy up or down. Make it different.

Who knew there were so many things we could do about it? Come on kids. Bring it on.

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Climbing Streaked Mountain

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope you enjoy it and, as always, we look forward to future posts by Esther. 

Baldhill kids

I had a bit of a panic attack this summer. I was hiking with relatives in Maine up a steep trail when the path disappeared into a bare expanse of rock, dotted occasionally by shrubs, boulders, pine needles and lichen. It wasn’t clear what was the best route up and it was a long way down. To fully understand my emotional state, you need to know that: 1. I don’t like heights, 2. I have slipped on rocks and hurt myself several times while hiking, 3. My knees were still recovering from my having tripped over a suitcase while entering the airport at the beginning of this trip.

Now the reason I have slipped and tripped numerous times is because I get distracted (I had a full bladder and was looking for the restroom sign in the airport incident). I get distracted by other things as well—sights, sounds, my own thoughts– just about anything. It’s part of my temperament.

Temperament refers to traits that are present in us from birth on. While they may be more pronounced at certain developmental stages, they persist throughout our lives. They aren’t the result of experience or training. They aren’t good or bad. Raising Your Spirited Child author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka renamed “Distractibility” as “Perceptiveness” to emphasize that this trait has positive as well as negative aspects.

Being able to let my mind wander brings me great joy. It’s a source of creativity. Allowing myself to be distracted and perceptive helps me to define and solve problems in my life. I particularly like to let my mind wander when I’m hiking. But up on that mountain I couldn’t do that. (Just so you don’t get the wrong impression– it wasn’t much of a mountain: about half the height of Marys Peak).

Being born with a temperamental trait doesn’t mean I can’t increase my ability to act in a different way. I can’t do that by force of will—anymore than I can increase my arm muscles by saying “my arms are strong!” It also doesn’t help to insult myself “I’m a total space cadet!” Instead, by accepting that this trait is part of my nature, I’ve been able to come up with some strategies that enable me to manage situations when I need to focus. On Streaked Mountain, I had to concentrate on where I put my feet to avoid potentially slippery spots. But just looking down frequently led me to dead ends—places where I couldn’t figure out where would be the best place to go next. (Remember that the path was no longer visible and we were trying to ascend by zigzagging gradually up.) My in-laws were ahead of me, but it wasn’t always apparent which way they had gone. Sometimes they had taken routes I didn’t think I could manage. I had to figure out what would work for me. And I had to keep myself from panicking. So, for a while I progressed like this: breathe, tell myself I can do this, look up and ahead to see where I want to go, look down to locate a stable spot to put my foot, take a step. Repeat.

I had to keep focused on each piece of this process: breathe, tell myself I can do this, look up and ahead to see where I want to go, look down to locate a stable spot to put my foot, take a step. It took time. It took a lot of energy.

The crucial thing to remember about temperamental traits is that when people act differently from their natural inclinations, it takes more energy. A helpful comparison is writing with one’s non-dominant hand: unless you are ambidextrous, writing with your other hand takes more energy and effort than writing with the hand you usually use.  When we use energy for something we may not be able to do it for very long. Using a lot of energy for one thing means we will have less energy available to do other things.

When we ask or encourage anyone (child or adult or ourselves) to do something that is energy-draining it helps to:

  •  Acknowledge that it is hard
  • If needed, point out the advantages (or the necessity) of doing that hard thing
  •  Encourage the person to think of strategies they might use. Remind them of past successes. Offer suggestions tentatively “what would you think about trying ____?”
  •  Be patient. If possible, allow more time or take breaks. Often the time needed is less than we expect.Notice and praise each step along the way
  •  Congratulate successes. It helps to acknowledge again the difficulty, mention the strategies used, and celebrate the accomplishment.
  • Avoid making too many demands at once

It helped me on the hike that my husband was supportive and understanding. He acknowledged that it was hard for me; offered me some suggestions but respected my choices; and congratulated me when I reached the top. I did make it and was able to relax and enjoy the fabulous view. And made it back down!

The next steep rocky climb (different set of relatives, but similar tastes in recreation) was easier. Whew.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

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A Few Words on Empathy

baby_class

If nurturing means watering the plants you want to grow, what is at the root of those plants?

Okay, I’ll tell you. It’s empathy.

In our Nurturing Parenting programs, empathy is the cornerstone, the trigger, the fuel, the baking mix. See? I could have used a lot of different metaphors. But the root sounds good so we’ll go with it.

What is empathy?

It sounds like “sympathy,” but should not be confused with it. Sympathy is the act of feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is the act of feeling what that someone is feeling.

It’s walking in their shoes.

Even if we can’t understand another person’s exact experience (and we probably can’t, most of the time), we can understand the feeling they have. Maybe we have been through something, good, bad or more complicated, that put us in the same state. And the ability to go there with someone else is empathy.

Empathy is learned.

Some things are determined by our genetics and our family history. Things like whether you will cheer for the Beavers or the Ducks. Empathy is a skill that must be learned. It gets stronger with practice, and more powerful with intention.

Which is not to say that we start out with nothing to work with. When a baby sees and hears another baby crying, they will begin to cry too. Is this empathy?

In any case, it can certainly be unlearned. And that’s where Nature passes the ball to Nurture.

So how do we learn it? And how do we teach it?

Like a lot of learned behaviors and skills, we pick it up from the people around us. Or, and this is important, not. As children, we need to see it modeled by other people, particularly adults.

As adults, we can give kids opportunities to act with empathy. We can discuss with them what another person must be feeling. This person can be real or fictional (how does Sleeping Beauty feel when she pricks herself on the spindle? How does Maleficent feel when she is excluded from the birth celebration?).

More importantly, we can approach them empathetically. We do this by helping them to identify their feelings (“Your words sound angry.” “You must be very disappointed.” “That’s scary.”) and to–and I like how the Nurturing Parenting curriculum puts it–to honor those feelings.

When children know that what they are feeling is acceptable, and normal (even if they don’t know why), it helps them to respond empathetically to others.

Telling this to ourselves doesn’t hurt, either.

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